By Billy Corriher
With Mel Gibson's controversial movie, "The Passion of the Christ," opening in theaters today, local religious leaders are encouraging their congregations to see the film. In addition to spending $25 million of his own money on the project, Gibson also produced, directed, and co-wrote the film. Most of the two-hour movie is devoted to the bloody torture and death of Jesus Christ.
Gibson, a conservative Catholic, has said the movie's graphic depiction of the death of Jesus will help Christians understand the enormity of Jesus' sacrifice.
Jim Duggan, pastor of Pointe South Community Church in Riverdale, has seen the movie and agrees with the director's sentiment.
"The visual image of what I had read about all these years? it clearly made (the crucifixion of Christ) all the more important to me," he said. "Sometimes preaching doesn't become the most effective way to communicate."
Duggan said the graphic violence of the movie makes it an even more accurate portrayal of Biblical events.
The claims among critics that the film is anti-Semitic or could encourage anti-Semitism are baseless, Duggan said.
"I think the movie went to great lengths to show the culpability of many groups," he said, adding that from a Biblical perspective, Jesus was crucified on behalf of all mankind.
But Susan Levine, cantorial soloist for the B'nai Israel synagogue in Jonesboro, said she is worried the film could lead to anti-Semitism by some who blame Jews for Jesus' death.
"Most Jews are concerned about anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head," Levine said.
"I'm concerned about how our children will be called to answer these questions," she said, adding that some children in her synagogue had already been asked about the film by their classmates.
Levine said she hasn't studied the New Testament closely, but historically, Jews have had to shoulder too much of the blame for Christ's death.
Pastor Chris Gillem of Eastside Baptist Church in Riverdale, said that placing blame for Christ's death is complicated, because Jewish leaders wanted Jesus killed, but the Romans actually had the authority to execute him.
"Who carried (the execution) out is not as important as why it was carried out," he said. "Jesus offered his life for our sins."
Gillem said his congregation, along with Duggan's, will see the film in an auditorium the church rented for a showing.
"We see this as an opportunity for people to hear the story of Jesus' life," he said.
Gillem said his congregation would leave it to parents to decide if they want to take their children to see the R-rated movie.
Hampton resident Tanya Johnson said she doesn't plan on letting her children see the movie.
Johnson, a Catholic, said that all the controversy surrounding the movie has made her hesitant to watch it herself.
"I'm still apprehensive. It seems a little too controversial," she said.
Riverdale resident Volnerius Rackley said he plans to see the movie this week with a friend.
"I think Mel Gibson did a great job with wanting to provide a visual understanding of Christ's death," he said.
Rackley said that, as a Christian, the movie could help him and other believers understand the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice.
"I think a lot of people take Christ for granted," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.