The movie may be stirring controversy elsewhere, but members of an evangelical congregation from Timonium who saw it yesterday called Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ a moving experience -- one that provides a rare opportunity to introduce millions to the teachings and message of Jesus.
In a sober, hourlong discussion after a screening at the Senator Theatre, about a dozen staffers from Grace Fellowship Church said the film had lifted their spirits and given them a new appreciation for the sacrifice of their lord and savior.
"For the first time, I felt I had a magnificent glimpse of the reality of what he suffered," said Ruth Trail, 59, an administrative assistant in the church's preschool.
The reaction of Grace Fellowship members contrasted sharply with the response two nights earlier at the same theater, when a group of 600 Christians and Jews largely criticized the film at an interfaith forum. Many called it numbingly violent and some said it was biased against Jews.
The conflicting assessments suggest that Gibson's film, which opened in more than 3,000 theaters this week, is becoming a religious Rorschach test, dividing not only Christians and Jews, but Christians and other Christians. The movie, which focuses on the final 12 hours of Jesus' life, has drawn criticism from some Jewish organizations, who say it portrays Jews in a negative light and could reinforce the age-old charge that Jews killed Christ. Many Christian leaders have also criticized its tone and theological underpinnings.
Riding the crest of that publicity, The Passion opened to a box office gross of $23.6 million, plus another $3 million in preview showings, mostly for religious groups, according to the Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks ticket sales.
It was the fifth-highest gross ever for a Wednesday film, the company said.
The group of 60 from Grace Fellowship had read critical reviews of the movie emphasizing its gore. But instead of being repelled by the violence -- an angry mob beats Jesus every step of the way to his crucifixion -- church staffers said they found it instructive.
Ben Abell, 44, the congregation's senior leadership pastor, said that before he saw the film, he was unable to imagine Christ's suffering and relied on the spare description in the New Testament Gospels.
"I'll never be able to read the Gospels the same way again," Abell said. "It will be more real. I just feel like I'll be able to relate to and be more in touch with Jesus' pain and sacrifice, what he did for me and all mankind."
For Rick Leineweber, 50, another church staff member, the final moment of resurrection transcended the violence that preceded it. "I wanted to cheer: `He's alive! He rose from the dead!'" he declared. "I wish the movie had continued."
Dick Holden, a retired securities trader who volunteers in Grace Fellowship's missions department, acknowledged the film's violence, but said the message of Jesus' forgiveness in the face of extraordinary cruelty came through loud and clear.
"It was graphic, but seeing all of that suffering and then for him to say, `Father, forgive them, they know not what they do ...,'" Holden said as he choked back tears. "It's just so powerful, so much more than just words on the page."
An estimated 85 million Americans describe themselves as evangelical Christians, according to the Barna Group, a California-based survey research company. Most share a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of spreading the word of God.
Evangelicals like those at Grace, which draws 4,000 parishioners on a Sunday, are among The Passion's strongest supporters. Many evangelical leaders see the film and publicity as an opportunity to save souls.
Some commentators have urged parents not to take children to The Passion because of the violence that earned the film an "R" rating. Youth leaders at Grace, however, plan to take a group of 400 teen-agers to the movie Sunday -- with a discussion over dinner afterward.
"I want to be wise and prayerful about this particular event," said J.P. Kahnert, director of the church's high school ministry.
Kahnert is thrilled with the publicity the movie is getting. "When the message we have given our lives to is highlighted by a superstar, the world has to sit up and take notice," he said.
Wire services contributed to this article.