Renewed Passion for Faith

By Janet Kornblum
USA Today
Downloaded March 25, 2004

Michele Mohan was raised Catholic and has always considered herself religious. But in the past few years she stopped going to church.

At first it was personal. She started drifting away after her mother died and painful family disputes ensued. "I couldn't figure out why God would let this happen to me," says Mohan, 41, a homemaker and mother of two teenage sons in Canton, Mich.

Then came the church's child sexual abuse scandal. "That was the turning point, where I said, 'I'm right in not going I'm done.' "

But seeing Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ changed all that.

Mohan says the movie, which focuses on the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, gave her a sense of forgiveness and patience that she didn't have before. It gave her a view of the bigger picture and a reason to start attending church again.

In just four weeks, The Passion has become a box office sensation, making $295.5 million and becoming the top-grossing R-rated film of all time. It's the 18th-highest-grossing film ever.

Many people say seeing it makes the story of the Crucifixion seem more real; others say the violence is too much or that they find the movie anti-Semitic.

But some, like Mohan, say it has changed their lives inside and out.

Media's powerful influence

It's not unusual for movies to affect people deeply. The media convert us all the time but not necessarily in the way most people think of conversion.

TV commercials, for example, can "convert and motivate people to go out and buy products," says Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide, a Christian movie magazine and accompanying Web site ( Movies and TV, he says, also "can convert people from one set of belief systems to another."

For Mohan, the movie's influence was all in the details.

Though many moviegoers say they were profoundly moved by the graphic scenes of Jesus' torture and crucifixion, for Mohan it was the seemingly small moments in the movie seeing Jesus with his mother, seeing him forgive Mary Magdalene, the brief resurrection scene at the end that added up to a big change.

When she emerged from the theater, something in her was shifting.

She realized that her anger over the sexual abuse scandal was directed at "a small group of men, the bishops and some of the priests and not really the whole Catholic Church. Because that's really the people."

She also realized she was holding onto hurts that didn't seem to matter in the bigger picture. The discomfort she felt with relatives after her mother's death was keeping her away from the only place where she truly felt spiritually comfortable.

"I realized that worshiping God is the important thing. I opened myself up to God again."

Mohan also says she is changed in other ways.

"I find myself being nicer to people. Just smiling more. Not yelling at people in the car. Letting people just go ahead and turn in front of me."

Kim Carlisle, 40, of Alexandria, Va., also says that since seeing the movie, she has become a "kinder, more sympathetic, empathetic individual in general."

She says she doesn't swear as much, and she's much more patient when she drives. "I look at the checker in the supermarket a different way. I look at each person and think (Jesus) died for all of us."

Carlisle was a religious Christian before going to see The Passion; she says the movie didn't really change her basic beliefs. But it helped her understand her religion in a new way.

Watching Jesus' last journey and crucifixion "was like an epiphany," she says. "It allowed me to release my doubt that I was, in fact, forgiven.

"There's no doubt in my mind after seeing this movie that the slate is wiped clean for me and that there's a place for me in eternity," Carlisle says.

Whether moviegoers' fervent feelings last remains to be seen.

For most people, true religious change takes time, says Benson Fraser, associate professor and director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Regent University in Virginia Beach. "Decisionmaking that integrates your whole life usually has many starts and stops.

"The Passion of the Christ might be an important moment, but I don't ever want to characterize it as the whole moment."

What viewers believe

It's impossible to know exactly how people reacted to the movie. But in one online survey conducted by professor and research fellow William Brown of Regent University, many people said they were moved spiritually and religiously.

Of the 1,640 self-selected participants, 92% said the movie made them think about their relationship with God; 90% said the movie gave them "a better understanding of God's love toward mankind"; and 89% said it gave them "a better understanding" of God's love. But 96% of those taking the survey already considered themselves followers of Jesus.

Whether this particular movie or any movie, for that matter actually changes someone has as much to do with the viewer as it does with the message.

"The most powerful messages tell people what they want to believe, rather than trying to change their attitudes," says Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "And most people feel down deep that they need some kind of salvation because they can't be saints on their own.

"Popular media events tend to polarize people according to their pre-existing beliefs," says Schultze, author of several Christian books, including Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age.

"It makes sense that some people would see the film as more or less anti-Semitic, others would see it as confirming or maybe even deepening their existing Catholic spirituality and some people would see it as a tool for conversion," he says. "There's just this whole range of responses that people have brought to this."

Ready for change

In other words, change usually comes only to those who are ready for it, Schultze says.

Fran Bowen of Wise, Va., was definitely ready.

Bowen was once a devout churchgoer. Raised a Free Will Baptist, she now sends her four children to a Pentecostal church. Even though she has always felt faithful, Bowen, 35, also stopped attending church, about 10 years ago.

"I thought I didn't deserve God's love," she says.

But when her 14-year-old daughter asked her to escort her to a church-sponsored showing of The Passion, Bowen grudgingly agreed, because her daughter didn't have anyone else to take her.

Bowen now sees that fateful trip to the theater as "God's way of bringing me back. It has just completely turned my life around."

She is attending church again and has vowed "to live the lifestyle of a Christian." That includes refraining from drinking or even being around people who drink.

Even though her circumstances remain the same, she feels much less stress in her life "since I gave myself back to God. It's a wonderful feeling. Just relief."

"I read the Bible all my life, but seeing (the story on the big screen) was just so heart-wrenching," Bowen says. "To know what he gave up and how he suffered for our sins it almost makes me want to cry now.

"Now every time I sin, I feel that he's dying again. And I don't want that to happen," she says.

"It's really changed my whole entire way of thinking."