THOMASVILLE -- Today is the day. Come all ye faithful and let the firestorm of debate begin.

Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ" opens in theaters nationwide today. It is quite possibly the most talked-about movie since "E.T." Gateway Cinema will have two showings today, the first at 4 p.m. and a sold-out show at 7 p.m.

Written for the screen by Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald (the Internet movie database www.imdb.com also lists "God" under the writing credits), "The Passion of the Christ" follows the last 12 hours of Jesus of Nazareth's life. After he is betrayed by Judas Iscariot, Jesus is arrested and accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death by crucifixion for his charges. The Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an "R" rating for "sequences of graphic violence," but Christians like the Rev. Dan Spencer of First Baptist Church say that is a part of the deal.

"Jesus' death on the cross and what was done to him as he gave himself as a sacrifice was R-rated. I mean it was brutal," said Spencer, who admitted that "The Passion" will be the first R-rated movie he has seen in years. "They didn't try to spare anyone what Mel Gibson has said over and over again -- 'the enormity of His sacrifice.'"

What is fact and what is fiction in the film has been mulled over for months. According to the Associated Press, Gibson said he did "an immense amount of reading" to fill in the gaps for what the four Gospels did not provide. Though Gibson says he consulted theologians, scholars and figures within the religious community while researching for the film, some academics are saying that Gibson went too far in assuming that Jesus was nailed to the cross -- one nail in each palm and one nail in both feet. They say that there is no evidence confirming nails were used in crucifixions. At best, they say, his hands were tied and his shinbones were nailed.

Though he asserts he is not a biblical scholar, Dr. Leo Sandon, Distinguished Teaching Professor emeritus of religion and American studies at Florida State University, believes the crucifixion debate is a moot point.

"There was no fastidious technique of crucifixion," Sandon said, citing that both nails and knots were probably used in crucifixions.

The Rev. I.L. Mullins of First Missionary Baptist Church says that he is not surprised by the criticism, but said Gibson had no choice but to improvise as he walked into uncharted territory.

"Those of us who are in religion who have studied various parts of religion know there will be criticism," Mullins said. "And no doubt, some parts of it could be fictitious. Parts of it will not be a true picture. You have to add something to it to attract the minds and attention of people. But those who believe in the word of God can accept it as reality."

"The Passion" has also outraged clerics within the Jewish community who say the film unduly depicts Jews as the killers of Christ, which may lead to an increase in anti-Semitism -- a hatred that Europe continues to be privy to in recent years. Sandon says that this reaction from Jews is natural with every widely publicized "Passion play."

"In any case, Jews in general have a little bit of anxiety (with the release of the film)," Sandon said. "(For Jews) I think anytime a Passion play comes along, it's like 'Here we go again' in terms of the past two millennia."

In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's "Primetime," Gibson denied any overtones of blame in the film.

"To be anti-Semitic is a sin," Gibson said. "It's been condemned by one Papal Council after another. To be anti-Semitic is to be un-Christian, and I'm not."

Sandon, who also has a weekly column in the Tallahassee Democrat's Religion section, doesn't fully buy into Gibson's vision.

"I think there are really two stories (in the film)," Sandon said. "The Passion of Christ and the passion of Mel Gibson."

Sandon, however, understands what Gibson is aiming at in the film. Gibson, says Sandon, is into "traditional Catholicism," accepting the Bible text in a very literal form without exception. Scholars "just assume that the Gospel were not written by eye witnesses," Sandon said.

Church's within Thomasville and throughout Thomas County have scooped up block seats in the days leading up to today's debut. According to William Collins, minister of music at First United Methodist Church in Thomasville, 150 members of the congregation will sit together at Gateway Cinema in Thomasville to see "The Passion" Saturday, while more than 90 will travel south to Tallahassee Sunday night. Starting March 8, the church will begin a six-week discussion group based on the new book by Garry Poole and Lee Strobel, "Experiencing the Passion of Jesus," studying Jesus' death and the questions surrounding it. One of the requirements? You must have seen the movie.

Collins plans on it but says that watching "The Passion" will be a tough task.

"It is going to be a very difficult movie to watch," Collins said. "We read about the life of Christ. We read about his suffering and we experience it through the Bible. But it will be difficult to see it portrayed so vividly."

The Rev. Julian Pipkins' congregation at Barnetts Creek Baptist Church agreed Sunday that it will see it as a group on March 7. Pipkin said Monday that it will be "a very good thing for people to see."

"I think that the film is going to be an excellent presentation of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross," Pipkin said.

Spencer reckons that "The Passion" just might be the thing the country needs as new moral and ethical debates will certainly arise after the film's expected mass consumption.

"I think it is going to be a movie to remember for a long time," Spencer said. "Jesus dying on the cross is so powerful...no other movie about someone's death has caused this kind of discussion before. It's powerful."



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