A charismatic evangelist casts film’s Next Big Thing: Jesus

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Evangelist offering a new episode in drama of Jesus Christ, movie star

Is America ready for another R-rated Jesus flick?

Bishop T.D. Jakes, an evangelist who is frequently mentioned as a leading contender to replace Billy Graham as America’s preacher, is betting on it in a new film that includes intense scenes of child rape, drug use, domestic violence and murder.

Seeking to take a page from the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ,” Jakes was in Cleveland on Friday promoting “Woman, Thou Art Loosed: The Movie” in a private showing for pastors in advance of its planned nationwide release in October. The movie, starring Kimberly Elise from 2004’s “The Manchurian Candi date,” tells the story of a young woman searching for hope in prison after a lifetime of sexual abuse, poverty and addiction.

Like Gibson, Jakes is hoping pastors will rent out theaters for a gritty, modern screen adaptation of Jesus overcoming suffering. Jakes’ pitch: “The Passion” told how Jesus was crucified. “Woman, Thou Art Loosed” tells why Jesus was crucified: to offer hope to people suffering today.

TD Jakes

There is no denying that T. D. Jakes has many fine leadership qualities, and the social outreaches of his Potterís House church appear quite commendable. But, while sound doctrine is not the only criterion for leadership among Christians (1 Tim. 3:1Ė13), it is certainly a necessary criterion (Tit. 1:9Ė11). Do we really want a non-Trinitarian to be the spiritual leader of our country? If the answer to this question is anything but an unequivocal no, the future looks dark indeed for the American church.
Concerns About The Teachings Of T.D. Jakes

Also like Gibson, he is counting on church folk to see the film’s likely R rating as a way to reach contemporary audiences. If Gibson expanded Hollywood’s concept of Jesus films with scenes of intense violence, Jakes is pushing the envelope even further by asking church folk not to turn away from child sexual abuse, prostitution and a violent drug culture.

“Mel Gibson proves to us perhaps the next frontier of evangelism may be the movie theater. We have to start thinking outside the box,” Jakes said in promoting the film to about 60 church leaders who attended the screening at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“I want you to own it. I want you to embrace it as people of faith,” Jakes said.

Millions have embraced Jakes, whose Dallas-based Potter’s House church has a congregation of more than 25,000. He has national shows on Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television. And he has written 27 books, including the best-selling “Woman, Thou Art Loosed.”

Hollywood was stunned by the success of Gibson’s film, which has taken in more than $600 million in theaters worldwide since its release this spring. That is nearly $600 million more than many experts thought the director would make with a subtitled film on the Crucifixion.

But Gibson did not wait for churchgoers to flock in. In an intense marketing campaign, he showed the film to groups of pastors ahead of time to build interest.

Jakes’ stop in Cleveland was the fourth of about a dozen planned showings around the country, a spokeswoman said. Jakes said he hopes to open the film in 500 theaters in October. Jakes and other investors financed the film, but he did not disclose the cost.

Several local pastors praised the film.

“Powerful. One word: powerful,” Bishop J. Delano Ellis II of the Pentecostal Church of Christ in Cleveland said aloud as he got up from his seat after the movie. “If he’d bring it to my church, I’d show it on Sunday morning,” he said later.

The Rev. R.A. Vernon of The Word Church in Maple Heights said he may make seeing the film mandatory for his congregation.

“The church has to find a way to make the Gospel relevant to the common man,” he said.

In addition to Elise, who also starred opposite Denzel Washington in “John Q,” several noted actors appear in the film, including Loretta Devine of “I Am Sam” and “Waiting to Exhale” and Clifton Powell of “Friday After Next,” “Rush Hour” and an upcoming movie about Ray Charles, in addition to Jakes as himself.

Beginning and ending on death row, the film follows the life story of a woman who was abused by her mother’s boyfriend as a child and her attempt as an adult to reclaim her life after falling into an abyss of prison, prostitution and drug addiction.

In an attempt to depict the suffering of abuse victims, and the moral compromises made by people inside and outside the church, the movie includes graphic and powerful adult content, language and violence.

In an interview, Jakes said Gibson’s attempt to portray the suffering of Christ on the cross helped people in the pews realize that the Christian message needs to go beyond the sugar-coated version Hollywood and the church have given them for decades.

“The Passion” “helps to broaden the church’s scope and mentality that much of life cannot be censored,” he said. “The things that drive us to Christ and the Christ who died for us cannot be censored.”

Jakes’ film is starting to win some notice. It won prizes at both the Santa Barbara Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival in Miami.

But observers say Jakes may have a much harder road than Gibson. While Jakes may be a megastar on the evangelical circuit he drew 130,000 people to a four-day rally in Atlanta in June he does not create the same secular buzz as Mel Gibson.

In the case of “The Passion,” what appealed to evangelical moviegoers is that a Hollywood superstar like Gibson would take up their cause, said William Blizek, editor of the Journal of Religion and Film at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

“Billy Graham is one of them. Jakes is one of them. The thing that made Mel Gibson so attractive is that it was an outsider standing up for them,” he said.

And while questions of anti-Semitism fueled public attention for Gibson’s movie, no such controversy has attached itself to “Woman, Thou Art Loosed.”

If Jakes had people attacking him, and Christian moviegoers could take up his film as a cause, “he could do a lot better than trying to sell this on the basis this is important stuff,” Blizek said.

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The Plain Dealer, USA
Aug. 1, 2004
David Briggs, Plain Dealer Religion Reporter
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