FIRST-PERSON: 2 films of tremendous value

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)--By now you have heard about Mel Gibson's new film, "The Passion," depicting the last 12 hours before the crucifixion. Although not scheduled to be released until next spring, it already has prompted a great deal of support and perhaps even greater criticism from Hollywood and other interest groups. The Anti-Defamation League issued a press release criticizing the film for having an anti-Semitic message; the film could "turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations," according to the ADL.

I had the privilege of attending a private screening of the film here in Orlando. Invited were about 50 members of the Christian community. Gibson personally introduced the film, told us it was a work still in progress (apologizing for the unfinished look and sound of it), and viewed the entire film with us. Afterwards, we were asked for input and suggestions, and we had an interesting exchange with Gibson for about 45 minutes.

We were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement with respect to the film's content and our subsequent discussions, but my basic analysis of the film is that it is indeed a biblically accurate and powerful portrayal of the Gospel accounts of Christ's death, with reasonable artistic liberties taken. It is also my observation that the claims of anti-Semitism are unfounded, and the representation of the role of the Jewish leadership in Christ's crucifixion is neither discriminatory nor accusatory. As was the case in reality, the film depicts Jews and Romans who supported Jesus and those who opposed Him and called for His death. I believe the film's undertones sufficiently convey that Christ's death was part of God's divine plan for the redemption of mankind.

As one of the few pastors at the screening, I was asked to voice a prayer for Gibson and for the film, which I was certainly honored to do. I also shared some personal feedback with Mel about the film, as did many others who were present. He seemed very sincere in his desire for the film's accuracy and the messages conveyed in it.

I'm sure there will be much more about this film in the media as it gets closer to its release. Assuming the final version of the film remains unadulterated between the pre-screening and the release, let's be prepared to provide it the best support that we are able to give.

Another biblical film being released nationally over the next three months, "The Gospel of John," is the first in a series of films for the big screen transferred there word-for-word from the American Bible Society's Good News translation. It is produced by a faith-based media company, The Visual Bible International, and plans are to continue with more film dramatizations of other books of the Bible.

I had the opportunity to screen this film as well, in Toronto, as one of about 30 individuals from various churches and Christian media organizations in North America. I highly recommend this film as well and suggest that we support it.

Unlike Gibson's The Passion, The Gospel of John takes no screenwriting liberties whatsoever as it is narrated and acted out word-for-word. Further, this film eliminates the "cheese factor," a malady of numerous low-budget Christian films by making the necessary investment in quality producers, director, actors, sets, costumes and technical artistry to rival any Hollywood-produced movie. Of course, the direct quotes written in John's gospel are performed as dialogue, but the larger narrative portion of the film is skillfully presented by Christopher Plummer, best know for his role in "The Sound of Music."

The majority of our discussion at this screening focused on the producers' intentions for the film. Biblical and historical integrity were a major goal. An advisory board of theologians was assembled to follow the film from inception to completion. The evangelistic impact is certainly a factor for the producers, but suggestions from the gathering of evangelicals in Toronto to add some sort of challenge to the audience at the end of the film was met with hesitation. The presenters chose instead to maintain the film's commitment to the exclusive use of words from Scripture, with the exception of a brief opening legend, which gives a few sentences of background on the writing of the Gospel of John.

While it is difficult to refrain from comparing these two films, it is safe to say that, while they both depict Christ's life on earth, they are two completely different vehicles for telling their respective stories. As a result, they must stand separately on their own merits. As far as I'm concerned, they both have tremendous value for telling very important parts of the greatest story ever written. Our prayer should be that the mainstream release of both of these films will result in attention and awareness of the reality of Christ that might otherwise be ignored by our secular society.


Steve Smith is media pastor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.

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