WASHINGTON (ABP) — Moderate Baptists are known for being more sensitive about interfaith relations than some of their conservative brethren. But with a film controversial for its depiction of Jews becoming a cultural phenomenon, some moderate churches have decided to engage the issue head-on.
Many evangelical and conservative congregations across the country have used group screenings of Mel Gibson's epic “The Passion of the Christ” as tools for evangelistic outreach. But several moderate Baptist churches are taking it one step farther — using the film to open dialogues both with non-believers and within their own congregations on the suffering of Christ, proper Protestant theology and relating to Jews.
Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., is one of the largest evangelical congregations in the Washington area. Like many other churches, Columbia is encouraging its members and their unchurched friends to attend a group screening at a local theater Feb. 28.
However, on March 3 the church is holding a follow-up event — a panel discussion with several experts on topics the film touches — to “contextualize” the movie, according to pastor Jim Baucom.
Baucom said the film does contain some scenes that arise more from Catholic legend than from the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. But, he added, his church's decision to encourage viewing “The Passion” wasn't an endorsement as much as a jumping-off point for discussion.
“Our sense was that people are going to see the film — it speaks the language of our culture,” Baucom noted. “We think the value's in the discussion, not necessarily in the movie itself.”
The panel will include Baucom, who will provide a Christian theological perspective on the film; a physician, who will discuss the physical nature of the torture depicted and death by crucifixion; a film critic; and a Jewish convert to Christianity, who will discuss how Jews may react to the film.
Although some Jewish leaders and others have charged “The Passion” with fostering anti-Semitic or anti-Judaic attitudes, Baucom said he sensed no anti-Semitism when he viewed it. But, he said, the film and its attendant controversy do provide “an open door for us to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism, because I don't think that there's anything more dangerous than bigotry hidden beneath the surface.”
Sensitive to those concerns, First Baptist Church of Memphis, Tenn., hosted a discussion of “The Passion” facilitated by the rabbi of the city's most prominent Reform Jewish synagogue. According to pastor Ken Corr, the church invited Micah Greenstein of Memphis' Temple Israel to “Share why [the film] is a concern to the Jewish community and how we, as Christians, can be good neighbors to them.”
Much like Columbia, Corr's church facilitated a group screening. However, Corr said, he viewed the screening as mostly “an educational experience — those who see it are going to see it regardless, so at least we can add some perspective to their viewing.”
Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, meanwhile, has undertaken a highly publicized effort to use the film as a teaching tool for believers and non-believers alike. The church rented out a 750-seat local theater, encouraged members to buy tickets to the Feb. 28 screening and gave away free tickets to non-members. Wilshire bought space in the Dallas Morning News to advertise the event to the community.
Much like Columbia, Wilshire is following the screening with a panel discussion. The church will also have counselors available in the theater lobby for those who want to discuss the film one on one.
Associate pastor Mark Wingfield said the church's purpose in hosting the event was “two-pronged” — both as a form of Lenten spiritual formation for its members and as “a wonderful opportunity to bring a friend to see this story told in film who probably will not come to a regular worship service.”
“Ironically enough,” Wingfield continued, “it's probably less threatening.”
Wingfield said the anti-Semitism controversy should not cause Baptists to shy away from encouraging viewing of the film. “There's a concern [in our culture] that if your story makes my story uncomfortable, you shouldn't be able to tell your story. And moderate Baptists, I think, are tempted to fall into that trap, which is why we haven't always been that good at evangelism.”
Baucom said the fact that the film has captured the nation's attention and discussion is indicative of the ways in which conveying truth have changed over the years. “This is a postmodern phenomenon,” he said. “I think the broad mass of Christians are unifying around a work of art” rather than a doctrine or a political cause.
Baucom said the fact that we have moved from a culture that uses words to convey truth to using images instead means that a film such as “The Passion” can convey much of the gospel story — despite the theological problems it presents for Protestants.
“We don't expect the movie itself to be truth without any mixture of error,” he said, speaking of himself and other postmoderns who will view the film. “We expect the movie to depict part of the absolute truth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”