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'Passion' rekindles debate over meaning of the crucifixion

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If Mel Gibson succeeds in his religious mission, then those who watch the brutal scourging of Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ" will come away with a deeper love and appreciation for the man he depicts dying for their sins.

But as the controversial film opens on Ash Wednesday, which for millions ushers in the penitential 40-day season of Lent, there are signs that it may do something else as well: rekindle debate about the meaning of that ultimate sacrifice.

No event is so central to Christians as the crucifixion and resurrection of their Savior. And no film in recent years has been so centered on that event and so publicized.

"You've never seen anyone in a movie suffer so much," says John Dominic Crossan, a leading Jesus scholar. "This raises something about the heart of Christianity in a way that no other movie ever has."

Church groups, which thronged to highly publicized screenings of the movie before Wednesday's official opening, have in many cases found its portrayal inspiring as well as stomach-churning. But other believers are concerned that amid its blood and brutality, the movie may veer from the true meaning of that decisive moment and its implications for Christian life today.

For one thing, some say that the movie's narrow focus pushes into the background his earlier ministry and later resurrection, which provide context - theological or historical - for why he died and what that death accomplished.

The gospels "did not linger over the details of his suffering," Frederica Mathewes-Green, a Christian scholar, writes as part of an online "Passion" debate on the religious-news website Beliefnet. "It would be as odd as welcoming home a wounded soldier, and instead of focusing on the victory he won, dwelling on the exact moment the bayonet pierced his stomach...."

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