- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Matthew Stoehr, an evangelical pastor in California, said he allowed his 14-year-old daughter to see the film “The Passion of the Christ,” but not his two younger children, who are 8 and 10.

Like Mr. Stoehr, many parents nationwide who treasure the Christian message in Mel Gibson’s film and want to share it with their children wonder whether their youngsters are mature enough to withstand the graphic scenes of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion and to absorb its meaning.

The movie, which depicts the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, has been described as violent, bloody, gory and brutal but also as a spiritually potent story of love, suffering and redemption. Many Christians have discussed how old a child should be to see the movie.

“My 14-year-old daughter saw it and was greatly moved,” said Mr. Stoehr, pastor of the West Coast Christian Center in Vista, Calif. “She has a real understanding of the Gospel and the suffering of Christ. But 8- and 10-year-olds are not ready to see it, even with their parents.”

But another evangelical minister, the Rev. Stephen A. Macchia, director of the Pierce Center for Disciple-Building at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary of South Hamilton, Mass., said he thinks his 14-year-old daughter “would not fare well seeing the movie.”

“My daughter remembers the visual very vividly. This film was rated R for a reason,” Mr. Macchia said. Under the voluntary movie-rating system, R means “restricted” to those 17 and older, unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

The Massachusetts minister said his 18-year-old son saw “The Passion” with some friends.

“He did well. He thought it was a powerful film,” Mr. Macchia said.

He advises parents: “Don’t just send kids on a bus [to see ‘The Passion’]. Go with them.”

Clergymen and others who have seen the movie generally agree that children younger than 12 or 13 should not see “The Passion of the Christ.” They say children have to be at least that old to get beyond the blood and gore and think in abstract concepts.

Alan Nierob, publicist for Mr. Gibson, said Mr. Gibson has indicated in interviews that the movie “may not be appropriate for kids under 13.”

But there are differences of opinion as to whether young adolescents should see it.

“Young children should not be within 10 miles of this film,” said Gordon Berry, a professor emeritus and educational psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, who specializes in how media affect children.

When he saw the movie last week, Mr. Berry said, two children, about 5 and 7, were seated near him with their mother and grandmother.

“The mother and grandmother were crying, and there was crying throughout the theater. The children started crying, and they climbed into their grandmother’s lap for protection,” he said.

“I don’t believe any child younger than 14 or 15 should see the film. … In fact, no child 14, 15 or 16 should go alone to that movie or with a buddy. They should go only with a family that’s prepared,” Mr. Berry said. “Parents should understand how important it is to pre-screen the film” and to caution teens about its violence. “This is not just violence. It’s violence to the nth degree. … Teenagers can be disturbed by this film.”

In one scene, Jesus is whipped with metal hooks that rip out flesh on his back.

“The whipping shows tearing and peeling away of the skin,” the psychologist said.

The Rev. Lee Fangmeyer of the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church near Rockville, whose parish saw the movie together, said the youngest who attended were high-schoolers.

“They were greatly impressed. … We’re advising parents to see it first. … It’s very, very graphic,” he said.

Mr. Fangmeyer added that he heard a group of fifth-graders, whose parents had seen “The Passion,” discussing the violence. They specifically talked about how a “crow poked out the eye” of one of the thieves who hung on a cross next to Jesus.

“For young kids, the rest of the story may be lost,” he said.

Eugene Williams, a former professor of education at Howard University, says “The Passion” is “almost a horror film” and is shocked when parents have told him that they have allowed children younger than 13 to see it.

“These are the same people who talk all the time about violence on television. … This movie is going to frighten young kids,” said Mr. Williams, the author of a book on understanding the Bible.

He said some parents argue that they want their children to experience the movie, saying it “would help to evangelize.” He disagrees that the film would have this effect.

Mr. Berry said he is worried that “a lot of parents have been so taken by the religious message of the film, they won’t think about” the impact the violence could have on children and young people. He is afraid it could have a “lingering effect.”

Joanne Cantor, a child psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees. She said the “promos and visual images” she has seen have made it clear that “The Passion” is “super violent … very visibly gory and grotesque … and not for children.”

“Independent of what the story is about, viewing it is apt to cause nightmares and lingering chills of anxiety for a long time,” said Ms. Cantor, who has written books on how films and television can affect children.

She said the effects in “The Passion” could be magnified for Christian children because “it’s Jesus, someone they love and care about,” who is being tormented.

Ms. Cantor said the “supposed message of the film is love and redemption, but 95 percent of it involves hate and violence.”

She declines to suggest an appropriate age to see the movie.

“It should be very disturbing to people of every age. … Even adults are saying it’s one of the most violent, sadistic films ever produced,” Ms. Cantor said in a telephone interview.

If parents allow adolescent children to see the “The Passion,” she said, “They should be prepared to talk about it. They need to talk about it to make sure their children came away with the intended purpose.”

The United Methodist Youth Organization, which works with people ages 12 to 18, offers a “Viewing Guide for ‘The Passion of the Christ’ for Those Who Work with Youth” at its Web site (www.GBOD.org).

Youth leaders should be aware that some might not be able to stay put and watch the movie because of emotions, said Ronna Seibert, executive director of the organization. The group gives tips on how to prepare teens for the movie and for post-viewing discussions. Suggested questions include: “What was the message of this movie?” and “How have you encountered the reality of Jesus’ death through this movie?”

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