The Baptist General Convention of Texas has produced a cinema advertisement to coincide with the release of Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
The BGCT’s ad itself became a source of controversy when one theater chain—AMC—initially refused to carry the ad, despite the fact that it apparently complied with the chain’s guidelines for advertisements. AMC has since announced tentative acceptance of the ad, with modification.
About one month ago, the BGCT began discussing the possibility of using Gibson’s film about Jesus’ Passion as a springboard to get non-Christians to visit a church, according to Becky Bridges, BGCT’s communications director.
When the BGCT decided to proceed, it acted quickly, hoping to execute the idea before others did. It produced a 30-second video spot—in three days—using a single actor, words flashed on screen, and an epic-sounding score. (See the ad here.)
“You want to see the most scandalous story ever?” the actor says. “It’s full of Betrayal,” he continues, as “Betrayal” flashes on screen, followed by these other words: “Sin. Adultery. Greed. Envy. Weakness. Poverty. Torture. Murder.”
The shot snaps back to the actor, who finally says, “Redemption.”
The ad then cuts to a final screen reading, “Now playing at a Baptist church near you,” with the BGCT’s Web site address underneath.
Regal Entertainment Group, a theater chain based in Knoxville, Tenn., accepted the ad up front, according to a Feb. 3 Associated Press article. Kansas City, Mo.-based AMC Entertainment, however, refused it, saying it was “too dark.”
“Screen advertising is a pretty sensitive area and we have a pretty tight set of guidelines for what we will place on our screens and what we won’t,” Rich King, AMC’s spokesman, said in the AP article.
“In general terms, we don’t allow any kind of negativity,” he said, adding that the ad’s tone might not be suitable for all audiences—children as well as adults. When AMC agrees to place an ad in one of its theaters, the ad shows on all of its screens.
AMC declined to give further details about the rejection—a move BGCT did not understand because it believed it had complied with the chain’s advertisement guidelines forbidding the usage of Jesus, the Bible and other religious symbols and icons.
A day after the AP story broke, however, Bridges indicated in an e-mail that talks with AMC had continued and that both parties had reached a tentative agreement on changes to the ad that would allow its presentation on AMC screens.
Those changes, according to a Feb. 4 news story from BGCT’s communications center, involve changing the words adultery, torture and murder to deceit, anger and fear.
If AMC approves the amended version of the ad, it will run the spot on 133 of its screens in the Dallas-Forth worth area, according to the BGCT story. Regal has already committed to showing the original version on 190 screens in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
In theaters unequipped for video advertisements, both chains will run a BGCT-supplied slide that reads: “What’s the most scandalous story ever told? Find out at a Baptist church near you.” The BGCT Web address appears beneath. (See the slide here.)
The BGCT ad will begin showing in theaters Feb. 20, the Friday before the movie’s release on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.
“The ad doesn’t tie directly to ‘The Passion,'” Bridges told EthicsDaily.com. “This keeps the material flexible enough to use in other places and with other media. We have considered making it available to associations or groups of churches that want to put it on cable or show it at their local theater.”
The BGCT spent about $50,000 buying the media time from the theater chains, Bridges said. “As far as efficiency, it’s just a great method” to reach people, she added.
“This was not funded through the Cooperative Program, but through endowment and special gifts,” Bridges said. “It is important to reserve CP for direct BGCT ministries like church starting and partnership missions.”
Bridges also said the ad does not endorse “The Passion of the Christ.”
“That’s outside our mission,” she said. “And personally, I can’t endorse what I haven’t seen. What I have seen gives me the impression that it is a courageous movie.”
Obviously, not everyone agrees.
“The Passion of the Christ,” which Mel Gibson directed, produced, co-wrote and personally financed at a reported $25 million, depicts Jesus Christ’s 12 hours before crucifixion. It has drawn criticism and concern from various groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, which fear that the film’s depiction of Jewish culpability in Christ’s death may stir anti-Semitism and harm Christian-Jewish relations.
Bridges said BGCT and the production team worked hard to be sensitive to concerns. She said the ad’s director was Jewish, and that they relied heavily on him to produce a spot that wouldn’t offend.
The inclusion of “redemption” was non-negotiable for Bridges as she worked to get AMC on board.
“The message is about redemption and grace and hope, and the world at large needs to hear that,” she said. “And they need to hear it from Baptists for a change.”
However, John E. Roberts, associate scholar at the ICJS and pastor emeritus of Baltimore’s Woodbrook Baptist Church, was not swayed by the redemption card.
“The way Redemption is brought in at the end calls to mind titillating movies that exploit sin for all its worth until the last reel when the sinner is punished or redeemed,” Roberts said in an e-mail. “Does Gibson’s R-rated movie honor Jesus or exploit Jesus?”
“If there is no such thing as bad publicity, then they are making a good move,” Roberts said of BGCT’s ad, “but at the end of the day the BGCT has identified itself with the controversy swirling around the film.”
“It’s just engaging in the conversation,” Bridges said. “I really felt strongly that this could be a positive message from Baptists. You don’t get a lot of positive messages from Baptists, frankly.”
“We really went out of our way and took responsible steps,” she continued. “People are going to criticize you no matter what you do. This was an opportunity for us to talk about the Christian faith and not avoid it.”
But Roberts, who spent Thursday at an ICJS seminar on Passion narratives in the Gospels, remains disturbed.
“[The last thing] we need is more Baptist identification with controversy,” he said.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.