While "The Passion of the Christ" dramatizes events held sacred by all Christians, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether to see the film which carries an "R" rating has become a point of discussion for some potential audiences in Utah.
Many evangelical Christians eschew R-rated movies as a general rule, as do many Latter-day Saints. Some are taking the advice of their pastor, priest or clergy; others have adopted a personal "standard" for entertainment that takes into account not only the rating but the content.
Top LDS leaders have often asked their members to shun R-rated films without qualification. President Ezra Taft Benson was the church's top officer in 1986 when he told those attending a general priesthood meeting of the church "not to pollute your minds . . . Don't see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive or pornographic."
The statement, and particularly its reference to R-rated movies, has since been used repeatedly by other top leaders to emphasize the importance of caution in choosing entertainment.
Yet a recent publication for LDS teens, called "For the Strength of Youth," contains messages from the church's current First Presidency on a variety of issues, including choices surrounding entertainment and media. It does not mention R-rated movies specifically. It states in part:
"Whatever you read, listen to, or look at has an effect on you. Therefore, choose only entertainment and media that uplift you. Good entertainment will help you to have good thoughts and make righteous choices. . . . Do not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. . . .
"Depictions of violence often glamorize vicious behavior. They offend the Spirit and make you less able to respond to others in a sensitive, caring way. They contradict the Savior's message of love for one another."
A church spokesman told the Deseret Morning News that leaders had no comment on either Mel Gibson's film or church leaders' past statements regarding R-rated movies.
Robert Millet, the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, said he has "strong feelings" about the questioning that will inevitably come up among Latter-day Saints regarding the film because of its rating. "Clearly, this is a case where our ratings system doesn't help us. This is a G- or PG-rated movie that's clearly an 'R' simply because of the violence associated with Christ's crucifixion."
Millet hasn't yet seen the film, but is among dozens of local clergy including Catholics, Protestants, Jewish and some LDS leaders who will attend a prescreening of the film on Tuesday. "I'm very much looking forward to it. I think to some extent we have, by nature, whitewashed what is a gruesome scene in the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. It's one thing to feel great gratitude for his love, but another thing entirely to feel the sense of deep anguish that none of us could understand in the slightest.
"This isn't Freddy Krueger. This is Jesus Christ."Comment on this story
He believes the film is "a sincere effort by people, both Christian and non-Christian, to show there was a tremendous price paid by Christ for our sins." Millet says while he doesn't normally see R-rated films, "one that would help draw me closer to God's son would seem to be one that I should be acquainted with."
As for the argument that declining to see the film would simply be a way to show obedience to God, Millet is not dissuaded.
"It seems to me that a mature approach to this issue would entail thinking through the principles that the leaders of church have taught us concerning what we ought to view and not to view. Through the operation of that principle, I personally have chosen to view the movie because it deals with the central act in human history."I've read this story before. I'm not expecting any sex scenes but certain things that will dramatize something that needs to be dramatized. . . . I don't want to see something that will sensationalize horror or death," but from what he knows of the film, Millet isn't concerned about that. "If evangelicals are right, this will impact the Christian world in a way few things have, so for us to ignore it is a bit of a slap in the face."