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Church leaders share views of Gibson's 'Passion'

March 01, 2004|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Critics have praised and panned Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ," but when was the last time people gathered in churches to talk about the spiritual and historical pros and cons of a film?

"It was a first for me," the Rev. Robert Cook said after a discussion of the controversial film Sunday night at St. Paul United Methodist Church.

In its first five days, "The Passion" took in $117.5 million, second only to last year's third installment of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, according to the Associated Press. In many cases, those who have seen the film since it opened Ash Wednesday went with church groups and have participated in group discussions.


"One of the things we always have to remember in dealing with movies is the Bible is not a movie," said the Rev. William Harter, pastor of Falling Spring Presbyterian Church. "You're not getting something in Scripture that is visually rounded out ... The Gospels are not a movies script," he told a group of about 50 people at St. Paul.

Like the artists who have filled that visual void on canvas, film or other media over the past two millennia, Gibson was able to interpret the Gospels with some license, drawing on what Harter called "extra-Biblical materials."

"That's a movie maker's privilege," said Harter, who argued he has no problem with some embellishments of Scripture "to get the point across."

"I have a little bit of a problem that Satan is presented as primarily female," Harter said.

He took greater issue with the film's portrayal of Pontius Pilate as a somewhat ambivalent figure in the crucifixion because, historically, Pilate's rule was so ruthless that "he was sent into exile by the emperor because of his excessive cruelties."

Harter said he felt the film de-emphasized the Romans' role in Jesus' death and overemphasized the power of Jewish high priests. "Jesus posed a tremendous threat to law and order" that the Romans were eager to squelch.

"The film as experience, that's explosive," said Cook, who pastors St. Paul with the Rev. Pamela Kinter. He recalled coming out of the film and watching other people waiting to see the next show, their arms loaded with snacks.

"This is not a Raisinets and popcorn movie," Cook said.

"My concern about it being an evangelical tool is that it does not become an evangelical weapon," he said.

"What troubled me was there was such an emphasis on the beatings and the flagellations," Kinter said. Gibson spent little time depicting Christ's ministry, miracles and healings, she said.

"The context seems to be largely missing," she said. Still, she called the film, "intensely personal on many levels."

One woman said she found herself talking with someone at a store about Christ through the shared experience of the movie. Others said they benefited from the communal experience of watching together.

"Some people said to me they want to watch it in the privacy of their own home," said Carol Shaffer. Going with a group from St. Paul and then discussing it afterward was more rewarding, she felt.

"For me, it enhanced my personal walk with Jesus," said Natalie Coleman, another member of the St. Paul congregation. She said the violence of the film was disturbing, "but I closed my eyes when it came to the point I thought I'd seen enough."

"I really didn't want to go," she said. "I felt I had to go."

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