Many local churches here, like others nationwide, are holding special screenings of Mel Gibson's new movie, "The Passion of the Christ." Because of its content and the way it's presented, it's sparking controversy and, perhaps even more importantly, is generating serious discussions of a religious nature.
"We hope the movie will help people with their questions about Jesus," said the Rev. Brett Andrews, senior minister of New Life Christian Church, with campuses in Chantilly (Westfield High) and Ashburn. "Hopefully, many people who might never enter a church building will check out the movie and discover Jesus in a fresh way."
Toward that end, New life will show the movie, this Sunday, Feb. 29, at 9:30 a.m., at the Regal Cinemas in Sterling (directly across from the Dulles Towne Center). The church purchased 1,000 tickets and is giving them away free to the community. They're available to people, 17 and over, limit two per household; call 703-266-0118. New Life also plans a special showing in the Centreville/Chantilly area, but specifics have not yet been finalized.
IN ADDITION, Centreville United Methodist Church purchased 300 tickets from the Centreville Multiplex Cinemas for its own showing of the movie, Sunday, March 7, at 4 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at the church; call 703-830-2684.
Church member Lisa Ray, organizing the showing, says more than half have already been sold. But CUMC plans more than just a screening. "Afterward, there's a discussion at the church," said Ray. "You need not be a church member [to participate], but we recommend that people go to the discussion afterward — it's a whole event."
Set to premiere nationally, Wednesday, Feb. 25, "The Passion of the Christ" chronicles in great detail the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. And, hoping that its parishioners will also see it, Centreville Community Church — which meets at Bull Run Elementary — has planned particular programs around it.
The church will offer two message series exploring the movie. "On the Road with Jesus" and "Experience the Passion" will be presented over seven Sundays, beginning Feb. 29 at 10:30 a.m.; call 703-580-5226.
Meanwhile, Clifton Presbyterian Church is giving high-school students an opportunity to see the movie, as well, provided they obtain permission from their parents — who are also welcome to attend. Centreville Presbyterian and Centreville Baptist are doing likewise with their teen-agers.
"In terms of outreach, there are few opportunities like this that come along where there's already a national, public dialogue about a film," explained the Rev. Todd Wilson, executive minister at New Life. "So this is an opportunity to take advantage of it locally."
New Life's Ron Furgerson, who helps churches work cooperatively with local communities, noted that, for more than 2,000 years, people have debated and often criticized the teachings of Jesus. "For many, Jesus' claim to be both man and God and Savior of the world is a tough pill to swallow," he said. "The 'Passion' movie will inspire those who already believe, into deeper commitment, and will help those struggling with the whole Jesus thing to better understand who he is."
Wilson said the entire New Testament is about the hope that people find in Christ, but previous movies about his life have lacked this important element. "Many movies highlight the power and the nature of God," he said. "But the 'Passion' movie specifically focuses on Jesus and his resurrection."
"PART OF what's powerful about it — and what sparks the debate — is that it tells the story of how God reached out his hand to the world and how much God loved the world," he continued. "It's a story that, on one hand, is foolishness for people — [the notion] that God would become man and suffer and die for man. But on the other hand, there just seems to be an internal longing to understand it."
Wilson believes that people having difficulty accepting this "story" will now be able to "see it for themselves, on the big screen, firsthand," via Gibson's movie. He hasn't yet seen it, himself, but said many who have, have called it "incredibly powerful and moving, but also very graphic and not advisable for people under 17."
He also contends that much of the controversy about the movie's supposed anti-semitism "has been improperly directed at what people did to Jesus and who was to blame — as opposed to the Gospel message of what he did for people and the sacrifice he made through his death."
The movie is two hours and 10 minutes long, and is spoken in Latin with subtitles. However, Wilson believes it adds to the film's authenticity. He said music and imagery — more so than dialogue — are largely responsible for setting the movie's tone: "It's the power of the story and what's happening on the screen."
The Rev. Andrews hopes it stimulates conversations. "I expect people will come away with more questions," he said. "We're telling them to go to the movie with a friend and talk about [it] afterward."
He said most people's childhood understanding of Christ is that he was wise, kind and gentle, a good teacher and someone who loved children and outcasts. "And on the other hand, they killed him," said Andrews. "But there was a reason that some people hated him — and sometimes this is lost in that almost-caricature of him."
"He stood for caring, justice and speaking his mind, but those things also provoked certain people to anger," continued Andrews. "That which attracted some people to him was the very thing that [gained him enemies]."
NEW LIFE will soon begin a sermon series about messages that can be gleaned from recent movies. "The Passion of the Christ" and its message will be covered on Easter Sunday. Meanwhile, like Wilson, the Rev. Don Carlton of Centreville United Methodist Church also noted the "tremendous amount" of publicity the movie's received in the secular press.
"In order for that dialogue to be the most helpful for our community and our ecumenical relationships, we wanted [our members] to see the movie and talk about their feelings, emotions and faith," he said. Carlton also wants them to see "how [it] squares with what we've come to believe as the traditional story of Christ's passion."
He said the movie's release at Lenten time further enhances conversation. Since it's the season when the church is already focusing on Christ's identity, he said, it's a particularly opportune time. "I think there needs to be some church response to something that's gaining national attention," said Carlton. "I think we would be remiss if we were quiet about it."
As for the teen-age viewers, Clifton Presbyterian's screening will be Sunday, Feb. 29, at Regal Cinemas in Manassas. Centreville Presbyterian plans a Sunday-evening showing at the Centreville Multiplex Cinemas, while Centreville Baptist was set to see it there on Wednesday, Feb. 25.
"I wanted to use it as a springboard for a discussion on the last hours of Christ's life,' explained the Rev. Julie Hodges of Clifton Presbyterian. "And I wanted our teen-agers to have a forum where they could discuss the movie with their pastor, as opposed to just hearing what the media is saying about it."
SHE HOPES it'll spur spiritual growth and the understanding of Christ's sacrifice for mankind. She's also alerted the teens and their parents about the film's graphic nature. "I really thought seriously about it for a long time," she said. "I figured a lot of them would see it anyway, so I decided, why don't we do it in the context of the church? This gives them a safe place to process the information."
Hodges then plans to have the teens look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and see what the Gospel says. "What does this mean spiritually?" she asked. "And how does this affect these teen-agers as people following Jesus as their Lord and Savior?"
So far, about 15 teens and four or five adults from her church plan to see the movie. "I hope it will inspire the next generation," said Hodges. "That's why I do what I do."
At Centreville Baptist, Student-Ministry Pastor Bill Hatcher planned to take some 50 students and 20 adult church leaders to the movies. "All seven of our high-school small groups that meet weekly are going," he said. "Most of them are believers and know that Christ died because of his great love for us. But I think the extent of his love will become real for them when they see what he went through."
Because Wednesday was a school night, Hatcher's teens weren't going to have much time for a discussion afterward. "We'll do some debriefing," he said. "But they'll mainly discuss it next week in their small groups."
Sharon Hoover, youth director at Centreville Presbyterian, said about 100 parishioners — 75 percent of them teen-agers — have already signed up for Sunday's movie presentation, and they'll discuss it afterward.
"I SAW the movie [Monday] night," she said. "It's very intense — the R rating is appropriate. While it was difficult and disturbing to see, it helps remind me that every month, when we take Communion, it symbolizes Jesus' blood that was shed and his body that was broken."
Hoover believes that people have grown too "comfortable" with the story of the cross when, in actuality, "it's a horrific way to die." She said the film's images were still with her, Tuesday night, and "tenderized" her heart, even more, to what Christ did for her.
"And that's my hope for the kids and parents — that it will touch their hearts the same way and make people want to live their lives in accordance with his teachings," she said. "If people truly loved their neighbors, helped the poor, cared for the sick and shared God's message of love and worshipping Him, it would be an amazing thing. I think it would profoundly change our community."