- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

The movie ended, and the audience sat in stunned silence.

When the credits rolled after the conclusion of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” the first area residents to see it were in agreement on one thing — there was no walking away unmoved.

“I have so many emotions inside me right now. It is very overwhelming, and it has just helped me understand what Jesus endured for me,” said Chris Kerins, 33, an elder at Rock Church in La Plata, Md.

Mr. Kerins attended an advance screening at Ballston Common Mall Theater in Arlington that was sponsored by McLean Bible Church, an 8,500-member Fairfax County congregation. It was the first of two nights of advance screenings held by the church in several Northern Virginia theaters that they reserved weeks ago.

After nearly a year of pre-release hype and controversy over purported anti-Semitic elements in the film, those who finally got to see it last night said the emotional power of the movie merited a strong response.

“It brings home for me how serious and awful sin is, that that price had to be paid. We take sin lightly, we take evil lightly, but God sees it as so serious that that is the price that had to be paid,” said the Rev. Larry Swindell, 59, pastor of Rock Church.

Movie watchers said the graphic depictions of Jesus’ torture and Crucifixion at the hands of Roman soldiers were hard to watch. However, many Christians said watching the film was moving.

“It was deeply emotional. I couldn’t escape two emotions. One was a deep sense of gratitude that he would do that for me, and the other was a deep sense of personal responsibility, that he was there because of me,” said Denny Harris, director of ministry operations at McLean.

“The Passion” will open in 2,800 theaters nationwide tomorrow, but McLean was able to reserve 10 theaters for 40 shows over four days. They sold tickets at their Sunday services, and McLean members snatched up more than 11,000 tickets.

Mr. Gibson’s movie has been the focus of attention in many Christian congregations as the release date approached.

Churches across the nation, most of them evangelical, have canceled or scaled back services so their congregations could see the R-rated film.

Many churches leaders are preaching sermons or series of sermons about the film. And pastors have encouraged their congregations to invite non-Christian friends to see the movie, then use the opportunity to share their faith.

“Pastors have awakened to the fact that this is a major cultural phenomenon that will present many opportunities to share the Gospel,” said Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Mr. Harris called the event “the most significant outreach we have ever done.”

Church leaders hope to turn the cinematic experience into teaching moments by handing out books containing the Gospel of St. Luke to attendees at each show. One of the McLean church’s nine pastors will be at each screening to discuss the film and answer questions, and church officials also plan follow-up workshops.

The film, criticized by some Jewish leaders for its graphic depiction of the Crucifixion, which they say could spark an anti-Semitic backlash, has been staunchly defended by its creator, Academy Award-winning director Mr. Gibson.

Mr. Gibson, a member of a conservative branch of the Roman Catholic Church, has said he wanted the film to be difficult to watch to dramatize the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice.

He also created enormous interest in Christian communities nationwide by crisscrossing the country in past weeks, screening the film for select audiences of religious leaders and film buffs.

Rabbi Jack Moline of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria said members of his congregation have been asking him “what to think” so he talked to them before the movie’s release.

“There’s been so much written and said about it that I want to at least frame the issues for them so we could look at this intelligently and not just viscerally,” he said.

He bought a ticket online and will see the movie with a Christian friend before hosting another discussion Friday.

Mr. Moline criticized Jewish leaders who have charged that the film is anti-Semitic.

“I really object to the way motives have been imputed to Gibson by Jews and non-Jews alike,” he said. “This is a spiritual quest for Gibson, and I think it’s been of ultimate importance for him. Clearly, this is his expression of his own conversionary experience.”

“It really was a magnificent movie,” said Connie Swindell, 52. “It causes you to examine what Jesus means to you.”

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