Return of the Passion story: Hey, it was a movie

Relax. I don't think this wave of "Passion" coverage is going to be anywhere near the size of the last one. Just a few ripples. Nevertheless, the upcoming release of the DVD of Mel Gibson's bloody epic -- gosh, it brings back memories to type those words again -- seems to be inspiring some second looks at the issues raised during that media storm. There are few conclusions, but Roy Rivenburg of the Los Angeles Times recently rounded up some of the usual suspects for a much-needed post-Passion feature called "The Furor, the Fizzle." The Dallas Morning News also did a short story on this topic.

And here's the news. Very few people made professions of faith in Jesus at their local theaters. The nation's synagogues appear to be surviving. Oh, and future evangelical churches may have crosses on top of their steeples as well as plasma screens in the front of their sanctuaries (make that "worship spaces").

Out on the left coast, some Hollywood insiders think it may be a good thing to make a few more movies that sell tickets to millions of believers. And there may even be a few more highly artistic movies that are drenched in traditional Christian imagery -- if Gibson uses some of his windfall to make them. And one more thing. Rivenburg noted that: "Actor Caviezel, who starred as Jesus, encountered another kind of audience reaction. ... During a recent trip to Mexico, villagers asked him to perform miracles."

However, some critics still believe that there may be trouble ahead -- which means more press coverage. But did the film have any negative impact? The numbers appear to be mixed or vague or even pro-Gibson.

A poll taken after the film's release indicated the movie had spurred an uptick in anti-Jewish attitudes. The Pew Trusts survey found that 26% of Americans believed Jews were responsible for Christ's death, up from 19% in a 1997 ABC News poll.

However, an ADL poll done just before the movie's debut reported the same numbers. And other post-movie surveys suggest a decrease in anti-Semitic beliefs.

But Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman is worried about the impact of that DVD.

"Ask me a year down the road," Foxman says, noting that the movie will be out on DVD Aug. 31 and will be used by churches on youth retreats. "People who saw it in theaters saw the movie in an atmosphere of national debate and discussion" that diluted the film's anti-Semitic impact, he says. With the DVD, that calming influence will be gone, he adds.

Meanwhile, conservative Christians who expected viewers to be slain in the spirit by spiritual magic bullets are also having to admit that some of their lofty evangelistic predictions may have been premature. But wait! Perhaps the DVD format is better for showing the film to lost friends in private and then quietly discussing it over a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws?

Then again, perhaps it is hard for one mass-media signal to change the lives of many people who keep getting baptized -- daily, multiple times -- in other forms of mass media. One of the top researchers in the Protestant world suggested that, hey, this was just one movie. Maybe it takes lots of movies to shape worldviews.

According to a nationwide poll released last week by the Barna Group, a Ventura firm that researches faith trends, less than one-tenth of 1% of those who saw the film accepted Jesus as their savior because of it.

"It is rare that a single media event will radically transform how someone thinks and reacts to the world," poll director George Barna says. " 'The Passion' was well-received and stopped many people long enough to cause them to rethink some of their basic assumptions about life. But within hours, those same individuals were exposed to competing messages that began to diminish the effect of what they had seen."

As for me, I think the biggest story that could come out of the Passion is a business story -- a massive growth of Gibson's Icon company into a full-blown studio. It should be noted that Gibson has, after the blitz of PR work he did to sell the film, returned to silent mode.

When he breaks that silence, then there will be a story to cover. Perhaps even a big story. I am sure that his critics will agree.

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