‘The Passion’ — and its controversy — lives on

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is still getting a lot of attention. It’s breaking box office records at home and abroad, still sparking controversy, and some folks say it’s even triggering a few miracles.

This week, it barged ahead of Jurassic Park with a gross of $361.5 million, making it the seventh-highest-grossing movie in U.S. history. It’s just now reaching some foreign movie houses but has already raked in $187 million overseas.

When I was in London in early April, the lead story on television was the large crowds flocking to see The Passion. It was then the top-grossing movie in the United Kingdom. The movie also broke weekend box office records in Croatia, and Australian church leaders said Gibson’s movie helped bring in the highest attendance on Easter Sunday in years.

But The Passion remains a source of much controversy.

Rabbi Ned Soltz, leader of Congregation Beth-Shalom in Arlington, says the film hasn’t caused more anti-Semitism in this country. But he says people in Arab nations now seeing the film are exploiting it for any kind of anti-Jewish sentiment it contains.

The Miami Herald reports that pirated copies of the movie are selling well in Arab nations and even Israel. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has praised the film, and one of his aides compared Jesus’ suffering to that of Palestinians under Israel.

Soltz said he’s concerned that evangelical fervor over the film will heighten proselytizing of Jews.

“I don’t think American Christians hate Jews, but I think they are still trying to convert us,” he said. “And I find that offensive.”

Conservative evangelicals also are in a furor over events they say have occurred as a result of seeing the film. They cite:

• A 21-year-old Texan, Danny Leach of Rosenberg, near Houston, who confessed to killing his pregnant girlfriend, Ashley Wilson, 19, after seeing the movie and talking with a spiritual adviser. Leach told officers he killed Wilson and made it look like a suicide by hanging.

• The confession of neo-Nazi Johnny Olsen, 41, of Oslo, Norway, to planting bombs in that city 10 years ago. He said he felt guilty after viewing the movie.

Those reports, as well as an account of an atheist who was converted and a child brought back from drowning after his parents prayed and remembered scenes from the film, are being featured on Changed Lives: Miracles of the Passion, a special being aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

“God can choose a lot of ways to produce a miracle,” said Jody Eldred of Los Angeles, producer of the program.

Southern Baptist moderate Robert Parham, director of Nashville’s Baptist Center for Ethics, said people should be very cautious in believing that a film so flawed could produce miracles. He contends the movie strays from the Bible in many ways, including its use of exaggerated violence.

The film also is being used as an evangelism tool. Experiencing the Passion of Jesus (Zondervan, $7.99), authored by Garry Poole, director of evangelism at the 18,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., and Lee Strobel, is one of several study guides on the market.

The Rev. Freddie Gage, a Euless evangelist who has long decried the lack of evangelical fervor in churches, applauds such efforts.

“I think Mel Gibson’s movie could be one of the greatest tools of evangelism in the last 25 years,” he said.

While some criticize the movie’s bloodletting and brutality, Gage said it reflects the reality of Jesus’ Crucifixion.

“Mel Gibson brought back what I used to preach,” he said. “We used to sing about, ‘What can wash away our sins; nothing but the blood of Jesus.’ “

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