The Ash Wednesday release two years ago of “The Passion of the Christ” didn’t turn out to be the evangelistic bonanza hoped for by many evangelicals, but it succeeded in turning director Mel Gibson into the world’s richest actor, with a fortune nearing $1 billion.
“‘The Passion’ failed to stir the great spiritual awakening that so many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals predicted,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Instead, Parham said, the massive marketing campaign aimed at people of faith left “honest Christians embarrassed that once again they had brought a ticket of promise that ended up providing private gain for an individual and little evidence of public good,”
Billed as “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years,” the film opened in 3,000 theaters Feb. 25, 2004, earning $26 million its first day and drawing praise from evangelicals.
A group of Southern Baptist Convention leaders invited to an advance screening encouraged everyone to see “The Passion.”
Morris Chapman, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, compared it to the “JESUS” film, a docudrama about the life of Jesus that has been used as an evangelistic tool viewed by 6 billion people worldwide since 1979 and resulting in a reported 200 million professions of faith.
“In my opinion, God may well transform this film into a mighty witnessing tool for reaching people in America who may never have been reached in any other way,” Chapman said, according to Baptist Press. “All Christians should be praying for the movie to be a huge commercial success, because it will be difficult for a person to see it and walk away unaffected by what has been seen and heard.”
Hundreds of churches rented theaters, purchasing blocks of tickets before ever seeing the film, viewing it as a witnessing opportunity.
One Southern Baptist seminary devoted a two-day workshop to explore “unprecedented opportunities to reach the world for Christ” brought about by the movie.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas spent $50,000 to purchase theater ads linked to “The Passion.”
Despite an “intense” initial reaction, evangelical pollster George Barna reported about a year after the movie’s release, “The Passion” appeared to have little lasting spiritual impact.
Barna said fewer than one person in a thousand viewing the movie accepted Christ as a result of seeing it. Just 6 percent said they had seen any movie–including “The Passion”–in the previous two years that led them to change something they believed about the Christian faith.
Most surprising, Barna said, was the finding that less than one-half of 1 percent of people seeing the movie said it motivated them to become more active in sharing their faith.
“We would do well to admit publicly that we were hoodwinked and swept away with a lot of hype,” Parham said.
Gibson, who recently turned 50, gambled $25 million of his own money to make the controversial film. It earned about $600 million, making it the most successful independent film ever.
Hollywood has tried to replicate its success ever since, most recently in religiously targeted marketing of a film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.”
Added to his $200 million fortune before “The Passion,” the Australian actor is well on his way to becoming a billionaire.
Gibson recently had an eight-lane bowling alley shipped to his private island in Fiji, which he purchased for $20 million in 2004.
Gibson gave $5 million of his “Passion” profits to expand a religious compound near Malibu, Calif., for an ultraconservative branch of Catholicism that rejects liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. A recent report says Gibson is bankrolling a similar church near his father’s home in West Virginia.
Both Gibson and his father belong to a small movement of Catholics opposed to Vatican II, which, among other things, stated that Jews are not responsible for the death of Christ.
Much criticism of Gibson’s movie was that it used medieval imagery implying that Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries were more complicit in his crucifixion than the Roman rulers.
The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee both criticized the movie. The National Council of Churches produced a study guide to foster constructive Christian-Jewish dialogue amid concerns about heightened anti-Semitism.
The movie was popular in the Middle East, apparently fueled by the perception that its message was critical of Judaism. The ADL received hate mail in response to Jewish concerns about the film.
Under pressure, Gibson agreed to remove a “blood curse”–an English subtitle for the script written in Latin and Aramaic translating Matthew 27:25, “His blood be on us an on our children”–which some interpret as Jews assuming eternal guilt for Jesus’ death upon themselves. But he refused to add a disclaimer saying that Jews are not responsible for killing Christ, saying to do so would send a message there is something wrong with the film.
Gibson’s next movie, like “The Passion,” is not written in English. Titled “Apocalypto,” it is set in 15th century Central America prior to Columbus’ voyage and the subsequent Spanish conquest. The movie stars unknown Mexican actors and is written in the ancient Mayan language.
The film is reportedly not religious, despite its title, which carries strong religious connotations. “Apocalypso” is a Greek word that means “unveiling.” It is used in the Book of Revelation, which is also called “The Apocalypse of John.” The term apocalyptic is applied to a class of biblical literature that deals with themes of calamity and the End Times.
Meanwhile, Showtime is planning to air “The Passion” on Easter Sunday. It will be the first cable broadcast since the film ran on pay-per-view 16 months ago, and is expected to go head-to-head with ABC’s annual broadcast of the Cecil B. DeMille classic, “The Ten Commandments.”
Parham said there are “two biblical truths” to be learned from “The Passion.”
“First, be wary of those who over-promise spiritual fruits,” he said, “whether it is ‘The Passion,’ The Purpose Drive Life, The Prayer of Jabez or any other product that leads to private gain.”
“Second, hear what the Hebrew prophets said that God wants from his people. The prophets warn us that God rejects shallow, self-affirming, self-centered nationalistic and materialistic-centered acts of worship. God wants justice, care for the poor, health care for the ill and what makes for peace. We need the practice of discernment and the passion for a social reformation that travels hand-in-hand with spiritual revival.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicDaily.com.