Renewed passion

Gibson film credited with filling churches this Easter

For Easter services today, the Rev. Rick Burwick is predicting his church will be full. And some credit for that goes to Mel Gibson.

"In my opinion, 'The Passion of the Christ' movie prepared a lot of people's hearts to know Christ as their savior," said Burwick, pastor of Clinton Parkway Assembly of God, 3200 Clinton Parkway. "You can't watch the movie without knowing Christ loved you."

Today's attendance may be boosted by a guest speaker, Burwick said, but the movie produced and directed by Gibson already has been responsible for better attendance at his church.

His church is not the only one.

As Christian churches celebrate Easter today, pastors in Lawrence and around the nation are preparing for packed congregations with images of the movie on their mind.

Beyond drawing people to worship, Burwick said the film also was leading people to be more committed to spirituality. Many church members who usually worship only on Easter Sunday or at Christmas have been attending on a regular basis.

"People come up to me to ask if I've seen 'the movie,'" Burwick said. "They don't have to say which movie."

The Rev. Randy Beeman, senior pastor of First Christian Church, 1000 Ky., said he probably would mention the movie today in his Easter sermon.

"It's what's on people's minds," he said. "The church should be relevant; that is why we mention it. The movie has created a lot of discussion."

For Marcie Harness, the movie made this Holy Week one she'll never forget.

Harness, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, 1245 N.H., and her daughter saw "The Passion" a week ago, on Palm Sunday. Harness said it was the perfect way to set up her spiritual journey for Easter.

"I didn't plan on seeing it on Palm Sunday," she said. "But it worked out that way, and as the stories were read this week, I was envisioning the scenes from the movie.

"I know the story so well, but the movie made it real to me."

Harness recently joined her church, and said seeing the movie and being with her new congregation throughout the week had re-ignited her spiritual passion.


Passion of The Christ **


Mel Gibson's controversial effort about Christ's final days and crucifixion plays like a blend of a political-theology lesson and a snuff film. While the filmmaker obviously invests a lot of conviction into recreating the authenticity of the era, his spiritual message is obscured by an unrelenting torrent of bloodshed.

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A search for meaning

Several area churches have been having a series of sermons that relate to the movie, which follows the hours leading to Christ's crucifixion. Most of the sermons have asked, and answered, true or false questions about Jesus. Burwick has used PowerPoint slides containing scenes from the movie in his sermons.

When the movie first came out a little more than a month ago, the Rev. Peter Luckey of Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt., took a group to watch the film. The reactions of his parishioners varied. Some thought watching the movie was close to going through a religious experience. Others were offended by the movie's violence.

"It sure provoked a lot of emotion and thought," Luckey said. "I'm thankful for the film because it has stimulated a lot of great conversation."

That conversation has continued as Luckey uses references to the movie in many of his sermons. A week ago, he pretended he had won a $30 million lottery prize and produced his own version of the film.

"As moving as the movie was, I think by just focusing on only the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, we miss the full story," Luckey said. "The full story is the story of God whose love has been revealed to us in Jesus. I would show more scenes of Jesus' love."

More religious movies?

Gibson's movie has been an undeniable box office hit. By last weekend it had earned $335 million in North America, enough to push it past "Forrest Gump" to gain the title of 10th highest-grossing film of all-time.

Luckey sees the popularity of the film as possibly leading to a change in Hollywood. As an independent film with English subtitles, nobody expected the movie to be a hit.

"I think that it really has moved thousands and thousands of people that would normally never darken the door of going to see a religious film," Luckey said. "I think what it shows is that there is a huge hunger in the population for serious films dealing with religious subjects."

Paul Mirecki, chairman of the Kansas University department of religious studies, does not think the success of "The Passion" correlates to people becoming more religious. He pointed to the fact that the movie "Dawn of the Dead" knocked "The Passion" from its No. 1 position at the box office as proof.

"People who are going to the movie are not going for personal religious reasons," Mirecki said. "They're going to see what the hubbub is about."

He also is skeptical that the movie has led to a great religious awakening.

"I think if we would have taken a head count of average people attending church in January and take a head count attending in April, it would be about the same," Mirecki said.

Several area pastors are warning their congregants against taking the movie too literally.

"The movie is still Hollywood," Beeman said. "I've told them to look first and foremost at what is in the Bible and then see the movie."

A greater commitment

The Rev. Leo Barbee Jr., pastor of Victory Bible Church, 1942 Mass., said he had not seen an overflow of new people attending his church because of the movie. But he doesn't rule out that the movie could bring in more people in the future.

"I think it will take time to settle in," Barbee said. "I think over time we will see people coming in as a result of the movie, but as of right now there's not an overflow of new members."

But Barbee has seen a rededication by the current members of his congregation after seeing the film. Many of them have come to ask him questions about the movie and tell him how watching it changed their lives.

"I think they've become more serious about their walk with the Lord," Barbee said.

Barbee said he did not think the movie would fade into movie oblivion.

"The impact of the movie, I think, will be lasting because it has to do with eternal things," Barbee said.

But it's not just the movie making people more spiritually aware. Paul Gray, pastor of Heartland Community Church, 619 Vt., said people had become more interested in religion because of both the movie and the current world situation.

"There is a lot of soul searching going on," Gray said.

For Harness, this Easter will mean a lot more than it has in the past because of the movie.

"It's a new perspective on the story," she said. "It was so powerful to see him die for me, and for everyone I know and love."

-- KU journalism students Jennifer Byrd and D.J. Whetter can be reached at 832-7154.

-- KU journalism students Carlos Centeno and Amy Potter contributed to this story.


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