DALLAS -- Mel Gibson's representation of the sufferings of Jesus Christ in the upcoming movie "The Passion" surpasses all earlier efforts by cinematographers, according to Southern Baptists who were invited to view a rough cut of the film in Dallas.
"For the next two hours plus, I sat with a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat," stated Jim Richards, executive director of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
"It is certainly the most graphic and dramatic portrayal I've ever seen," said another guest at the screening, Gary Hearon, executive director of Dallas Baptist Association. Referring to the film's depiction of how the crucifixion occurred, he added, "I didn't see anything I've not read in Scripture, but I saw it in a more graphic way because it was portrayed before our very eyes. You see the flesh and blood flying as a result of the scourge." It conforms to all he has read about crucifixion, Hearon said. "It's very true to life."
Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church, said, "The movie is biblical, powerful and potentially life-changing." He predicted millions of people would see The Passion when it opens on Ash Wednesday next spring.
"The thing that I'm most excited about," Graham said, "is the opportunity it's going to give those of us who preach the cross to explain the meaning of the cross and message of the cross to untold millions of people who are going to be asking questions about the cross and why Jesus died."
Graham said he was particularly impressed with the quality of the film, the accuracy of content and overall emotional impact. "There's no question it is the most hard-hitting display and demonstration of the crucifixion."
Richards also spoke of the scourging and crucifixion as graphic in detail, adding, "I have preached the cross for 33 years. The movie is everything I could ever convey with words and more." He spoke of being deeply moved by the scenes of the physical, emotional and spiritual sufferings of Jesus Christ.
"Graphic is the most accurate word to express what we saw," stated Janet Denison of Dallas whose husband, Jim, pastors Park Cities Baptist Church. She expects the final version will be even more graphic since the sound has not been fully mixed. "I would not use the word entertaining with this movie at all. It was very difficult. At one point I wanted it to be over," she said.
And yet Denison intends to take her two sons, ages 15 and 17, to see movie when it is released. "I have thought about it a lot. I would prepare them, see it with me with them, and talk about it afterward." She said she believes the R rating will actually cause more parents to see the movie with their children instead of seeing it separately were it rated PG-13. She recalled several members of the screening audience pressing Gibson over their concern with the rating. "He said it will stay R-rated," Denison recounted, "but added that the Bible is R-rated" in some of its content.
Graham said parents would have to make a decision as to whether their children are mature enough to handle the film. "It is extremely violent because the cross was violent," he stated. While many Christians do not see R-rated movies of any kind, he believes the exceptional quality of The Passion makes the movie an exception to that rule.
Richards agreed that many scenes make the movie inappropriate for young children, adding that entertainment in general and movies in particular have been a challenge for him in recent years. "Attending movies has almost become a forbidden fruit," he reflected. "Where can you go without seeing salacious sex or hearing blue streak obscenities?"
He added that non-Christians are unimpressed with "cheesy second-rate movies that try to evangelize or teach a biblical perspective," while high-quality films produced by Christians rarely receive wide distribution. In contrast, Richards described the acting, casting, sound, special effects and music in The Passion as superb.
While Hearon does not promote R-rated films, he understands why The Passion will earn the rating. "Twenty-five years ago we never would have seen anything like this," he said, noting that society has become numb to the violence in most movies. He said he is hopeful that the rating will not prevent some people from seeing it who ought to go. "The evangelism will come later," he said.
That's the way it should be, Denison said. "I think he is concerned that people deal with it," describing Gibson's desire "to simply put it in front of them and make them need to choose." She added, "That's where he is going to stop it and I think that's decent evangelism. When it comes down to it, it's an individual choice. You cannot leave that movie and not think about what you just saw, asking did it really happen and why."
Ed Young Jr. of the Dallas-area Fellowship Church in Grapevine, said he has no doubt that the movie will be one of the greatest evangelistic tools in modern day history. "I think people will go to it and then flood into the churches seeking to know the deeper implications of the movie. That's where we have a chance to capitalize."
Hearon added, "It's a very clear Gospel presentation of the last 11 or 12 hours of Christ's life." He observed some things in the movie that are not in Scripture, per se, but found no problem with its veracity.
"As Protestants, we may think there's a little bit greater emphasis on Mary," Denison said, referring to settings in the movie, such as the scourging of Jesus, in which Mary is depicted as being present when Scripture does not confirm her participation. But Denison said it did not raise an overarching concern about the film.
Richards, making a similar observation, noted that nothing was included that violated Scripture in the limited number of extra-biblical scenes.
Prior to the screening, Richards said he had been skeptical of Gibson's assertion that glorying God was his purpose in making the film. After hearing from the producer in person, Richards was ready to recommend the movie. "It will touch your heart and hopefully touch the hearts of those who have never experienced forgiveness through the blood of Christ."
As for critics who claim the film is anti-Semitic, Richards responded, "They should consider that many who embrace The Passion worship a God who came in the form of a Jewish man."
Hearon disagreed with the criticism of an Anti-Defamation League spokesman who objected to the movie's portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the crucifixion. "All you have to do is read the Gospels. The Romans crucified Jesus, but the Jewish leadership delivered him up to be crucified. The Gospel is clear in that."
Denison added, "You're arguing with the script which he took from the Scripture." She said critics ought to take the matter up with the Bible as opposed to the person presenting the message of the Bible.
"Anyone with an open mind knows this is a story of faith, hope, forgiveness and sacrifice willingly given," Graham said. "No one is placing the blame on anyone. We all share the blame for the death of Christ in that we have all shared in sin. The issue is not who killed Jesus," he insisted. "The issue for everyone is who will respond to this great love of God."
"The bottom line is that our sin nailed Christ to the cross," Young said. "The movie crosses all barriers to black, white, Jew, gentile, white collar, pink collar, blue collar. The whole message is one of love and forgiveness and grace."
Putting the focus on the portrayal of Jews misses the point, Hearon observed. "Of the 250,000 people who were crucified, only one came back to life," he reminded. Furthermore, Hearon said, "The Jews didn't take Jesus' life. The Romans didn't take His life. He laid it down voluntarily," an emphasis that he found clearly presented in the movie. "Jesus gave His life for the salvation of the world, Jews and Romans included. They didn't take His life."
Graham found the scene focusing on Jesus giving up His life as the most moving theme of the entire film. "The movie clearly portrays Christ as laying down his life voluntarily. Jesus was laying down His life in love for the sins of the world," Graham reminded, quoting John 10:18, "'No man takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.'"
After Jesus underwent a bludgeoning beating, the scene moved to the road as Jesus carried the cross, then collapsed at the place called Calvary. "Gibson portrayed Jesus as crawling, laying Himself down on the cross," Graham said. "It was an incredible demonstration of the love of God and the heart of Jesus to give Himself as a sacrifice."
During the question-and-answer session, one member of the audience questioned whether the film would be a commercial success. Richards recalled Gibson's assertion that he didn't care whether he made money on the film, reiterating his desire to bring glory to God.
Denison agreed that Gibson had made a movie that "is not particularly commercially viable," recalling his explanation that he "wanted people to come and leave differently." She said she believes Gibson succeeded in that goal, adding, "Palm Sunday will be very difficult because I saw that movie."
Graham added, "Mr. Gibson's sole intent really is to share simply, but profoundly, his faith, and not only his faith, but the faith of millions of Christians who believe in Christ. I was comfortable with his desire and motivation to get this message out."
Hearon was impressed with Gibson's determination to fund the entire project in order to achieve his purpose. "He wants the whole world to know the price Jesus paid for our salvation."
Young said he believes Mel Gibson has "the legitimacy, track record and authority to carry a project through" as well as a personal relationship with Jesus that motivates him in producing this movie.
"I admire him for his stance, for taking all the arrows," Young said of Gibson. "It's a bold and gutsy move on his part, but when you've been touched by Jesus like he has been, then that's the response. He simply wants to share this message out in the world."