Richard Land was skeptical when he first approached Mel Gibson's controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ." This was, after all, a film made by a traditionalist Catholic who attends Mass in Latin and seems to think salvation is harder -- if not impossible -- for non-Catholics.

"I watched it very carefully for creeping excessive Catholicism," said Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "And I didn't see it."

Land is now one of the film's biggest supporters, along with thousands of evangelical Christians who have embraced Gibson's film about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Gibson has virtually ignored the Catholic hierarchy and instead marketed his film almost exclusively to evangelicals, a well-organized audience of true believers that promises to turn the film into box office gold when it opens Feb. 25.

In the process, he has forged an unorthodox alliance that delicately sidesteps decades of divisions on issues that reach to the very heart of evangelical theology -- how a person attains salvation.

Land said his enthusiasm for Gibson's film should not be interpreted as a blessing on the strict Catholic theology that inspired the $30 million project.

"If he wanted to be a deacon in my church, I wouldn't let him. If he wanted to be a member of my church, I wouldn't let him," Land said. "But then again, he probably wouldn't want to be a member of my church."

In a recent interview with an Australian newspaper, Gibson mused about whether his wife, an Episcopalian, would enter heaven. "There is no salvation for those outside the (Catholic) Church," he told the Herald Sun. "I believe it.

"And it's just not fair if she doesn't make it, she's better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair (papacy). I go with it."

In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer on Feb. 16, Gibson appeared to soften his views, saying he and other Catholics probably have "an easier ride," but said it is "possible" for even non-Christians to get to heaven.

Gibson belongs to a small sect of "traditionalist" Catholics who reject the modern papacy and the 1960s reforms of the Second Vatican Council that modernized the church and tried to heal divisions with Protestants and Jews.

Most Catholics view traditionalists with equal parts curiosity and distrust -- Gibson's father, for one, has questioned the Holocaust and called the 1960s Council a "Masonic plot backed by the Jews."

In a 1965 overture to Jews, the Council said Jews cannot be "charged with the crimes committed during his (Jesus') passion." Since Gibson rejects the Council, some Jewish groups grew nervous that the film blames Jews for the Crucifixion, a charge that has fueled anti-Semitism for centuries.

From all accounts, there is nothing explicitly "Catholic" about the film, although Catholics may notice subtle references to the Stations of the Cross, or the prominent role given to Jesus' mother, Mary.

Indeed, the significance of the film's release date on Ash Wednesday -- a day of penance sacred to Catholics -- could be largely lost on evangelicals whose liturgical calendar consists mostly of Christmas, Easter and maybe Good Friday.

Gibson has said he drew on the mystical writings of a 19th century German nun, Anne Emmerich, for inspiration, a source that would be automatically suspect with evangelicals who rely solely on the Bible.

More than a few evangelicals, who have been suspicious of Catholicism for decades, might also wonder if Gibson's salvation is in peril as a member of the Catholic Church. The film's supporters say, despite their views, they are content to leave Gibson's salvation between him and God.

"We have Christians who are going to heaven who are Catholics, and Christians who are going to heaven who are Protestants," said the Rev. Jerry Johnston, pastor of First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan., which bought 4,000 tickets to the film.

"This isn't a two-hour story about the conversion of Mel Gibson. It's about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Dan Southern, president of the American Tract Society and a veteran of Billy Graham crusades, agreed.

"Sometimes we're so fixated on people's labels that we forget that God looks on the heart, and he alone knows if a person has had a personal transaction with him on faith," he said.

The differences on salvation are subtle, yet substantial. Evangelicals generally believe salvation begins with a decision to accept Jesus as savior based on faith alone, while Catholics lean more to a lifelong conversion that is evidenced by good works.

Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said the two sides share more than a "marriage of convenience" on Gibson's film.

"Traditional Catholic spirituality sort of bathes in the blood and involves an intense identification with Jesus and his suffering," Silk said. "This intense, over-the-top emphasis on the suffering Jesus is something that also works quite well for evangelicals."

The relationship has been nurtured over the years by a united front in the culture wars against abortion and gay rights. Fifteen years ago, they rallied together against another film, "The Last Temptation of Christ," which both sides denounced as heresy.

Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, said the film has captured a "traditional understanding of Christianity" that is increasingly rare in pop culture.

"What you're seeing is ... a venting of pent-up frustration from years of having artistic depictions of Christianity coming exclusively from those who try to make it some object of criticism," he said.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad