Velma Dority managed to tune out the chatter on religious radio stations calling on all Christians to see “The Passion of the Christ.” She ignored her virtuous friends who bragged about seeing the film countless times.
But when Dority’s five sisters told her she must see “The Passion” — that watching Jesus suffer would make her a better Christian — she took action. She called her doctor and obtained a written excuse saying the movie would be harmful to her health.
“Once I told my family the doctor said not to see it, they said OK, don’t see it,” said Dority, 64, of Chicago, who suffers from a variety of ailments, including asthma. “I felt much better after I got the doctor’s approval because I didn’t feel bad about not seeing the movie.”
With Mel Gibson’s blockbuster earning more than $355 million Sunday at the box office and energizing evangelicals and conservative Catholics across the United States, some devout Christians have found themselves facing a dilemma.
They prefer not to view the film, because of its violent and gory nature or its traditionalist orientation, but feel pressure from pastors and other Christians to go. Some even say they are made to feel anti-Christian for not joining in the “buzz” surrounding the film at their Sunday services.
Since the debut of “The Passion” on Feb. 27, churches of many denominations have virtually made viewing it an act of religious faith. Some have rented cinemas and bused members to showings. Special study groups have been organized to discuss the film and Jesus Christ’s life and crucifixion, while “Passion” Web sites and chat rooms flourish.
But for some Christians the violence in the film, which depicts in gruesome detail Christ being beaten with nail-studded whips until his skin is caked in blood, is too much to tolerate. Many fear the visceral images could leave them more traumatized than spiritually transformed.
Consider Colleen Hayes, 47, a faithful Catholic who wants no part of the film’s brutality. She says she has experienced peer pressure and discomfort from all directions, including family gatherings and her classes at Loyola University Chicago.
At Easter her niece, who teaches 2nd grade in a Catholic school, lobbied her. “She went on and on about how it was really good, awesome,” Hayes said. “I just said, `No, I’m not going,’ and she replied, `Oh, are you kidding?’”
Hayes, an assistant alumni relations director at Loyola University Medical Center’s Stritch School of Medicine, said she also felt pressure from her marketing professor at Loyola and many classmates who talked up the film.
“It makes me feel not in touch with the people who have seen it,” said Hayes, who is completing a marketing and communications degree.
“It tends to be a conversation in so many circles and it makes me feel out of it — but not far enough out it to want to go see it.”
Calls to conform and see the film are especially common among evangelical Christians. Overall, they have been among Gibson’s staunchest backers, and the holy heat they have generated has made some pastors who are lukewarm to the film feel pressure to encourage their parishioners to see it.
Power in numbers
“We were approached by a sister church in our neighborhood that is also Baptist about buying a large number of tickets together,” said Keith Herron, senior pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. “If we did that, we would have clout with the [theater] manager and essentially, could do anything we would want to do.”
The idea was clear, Herron said — the theater could be turned into a stage for saving lost souls. But Herron recoiled at the notion of using “The Passion” for instant conversions to Christianity.
“We just thought that was manipulative and the wrong approach to sharing the love of Christ,” he said. “To pull on people in a moment of weakness like that is just wrong.”
Herron said a number of evangelical churches are “absolutely” compelling worshippers, families and in some cases young children to see the film.
“There’s incredible pressure to go see it,” Herron said.
“Half our staff has not seen it, and many have chosen not to see it because of the violence. We honored that; we told people that if you don’t want to see it, don’t go. But not every evangelical church wants to offer people choices on issues like this. I’m so surprised at so many churches pushing their people to see this.”
Some pastors acknowledged that their congregations feel pressured to see the film. Ron Zappia, a pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Glen Ellyn, with about 1,000 members, said one of his staff members tried to resist “The Passion.”
“My pastor of adult ministries didn’t want to go to see it, and yet he felt like he had to,” Zappia said. “So many people were talking about it and he wanted to be part of those discussions.”
Scholars and religious leaders said the public’s overwhelming enthusiasm for “The Passion” has called into question the piety of those Christians who have stayed away from the cinema. But they also say the trend toward determining who is a good Christian will endure even after the “Passion” craze has faded.
“This phenomenon . . . of people putting pressure on other believers to participate in what they define as holy is not a passing phase,” said Amanda Quantz, a professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “This kind of fanaticism — you are a good Christian or you are a bad Christian — has much more fuel than the movie. The movie is just a tool for this type of thought.”
Mary Hornschemeier, another Loyola student, said the film gave her a unique double dose of Catholic guilt. Like Hayes, the 21-year-old senior is a weekly churchgoer and lifelong Catholic.
‘Almost like a penance’
“Originally, I felt like it was so violent, it would be almost like a penance: Go watch this movie and feel guilty [about Christ's death] for a while,” Hornschemeier said. “Or maybe feel guilty about not going to see the film, since I’m avoiding facing the truth.”
A seminarian friend, she said, had encouraged her to attend the opening: “He was dragging me to go and my guilty conscience was really tugging at me.”
But she couldn’t land a ticket; shows for the next several days had sold out too. What Hornschemeier then heard at church during the Lenten season sounded more to her like sales pitches than sermons.
“I was being preached at about it from the pulpit three weeks in a row — three different places, three different priests — and I was really getting annoyed with it, especially since Jesus was the one who ran and kicked all the moneychangers out of the marketplace,” she recalled. “I was going on my day of rest and was being sold this movie. I was just sick of it.”
David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, a publication with a large evangelical readership, said pastors have a responsibility to help alleviate pressure among believers.
“Your reaction to this movie is not a measure of your reaction to Jesus Christ,” Neff said. “At the same time, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get into discussions about Jesus Christ. But I think that needs, in every congregation, to come from the top leadership.”
Such discussions about Christ and religion are relatively new to American discourse, experts note. Once a taboo subject in day-to-day conversation, religion is now a hot topic at bookstores, cafes and radio talk shows.
“There is cultural pressure because the film has become a water-cooler topic in homes around the country,” said William Hanawalt, executive pastor at the Vineyard Christian Church of Evanston.
“For the first time, people are discussing Jesus’ death in non-religious settings, at the barber shop or bookstore,” Hanawalt said.
“If you have not seen the film and you have religious beliefs, you feel left out.”