Mel Gibson's controversial new movie The Passion of the Christ has created a debate between those who see the depiction of Jesus' final hours as a religious lesson and those who view it as graphic violence that will only scare children.
Some church leaders believe the depiction of Christ's final 12 hours and crucifixion will help give children a fuller understanding of Jesus and the Gospel. In anticipation of the movie's Feb. 25 opening, churches have booked hundreds of theaters, with plans to bus in church youth groups to see the film. Some parents are pledging to take even very young children.
But critics of those plans say the R-rated film's unrelenting violence is too disturbing for children to see. Some of the more graphic parts of the film include a scene in which Roman guards strike Jesus with cat-o'-nine-tails, ripping the flesh from his back, and another in which a Roman soldier pierces Jesus' side with a lance to see if he is dead, prompting blood to shower down on the guard.
In an exclusive interview with ABCNEWS' Diane Sawyer, director Gibson said he had no issue with the film's "R" rating, which means children under 17 will not be admitted without an adult.
"It deserves an R rating," Gibson said. "It's absolutely, you know, it's hard to watch."
Gibson said he would let his 13-year-old son see it, but he would tell him it was graphic and difficult.
"He knows the story," Gibson said. "He understands."
‘A Wonderful Teaching Tool’
Jerry Johnston, a pastor of the First Family Church in Kansas City, Kan., has been vocal about encouraging children to see the film and his church has arranged youth screenings for middle and high school students. Pastors will be present at the screenings to speak to children about what they have seen.
"I think this movie is a wonderful teaching tool for children," Johnston said. Young people need to be "spiritually arrested" by the life of Christ, and the violence in the movie is purposeful violence that will help children gain faith and feel more secure, he said. He believes parents can bring children as young as 7 to see the movie, depending on the child. Parents and clergymen should speak to children afterward, and open up a dialogue about what they have seen, he said.
Expert: Too Brutal for Kids
Dr. Kyle Pruett, director of medical studies at the Yale Child Study Center, disagrees. He believes the film will traumatize children.
"I don't think any child under 13 should see this movie," said Pruett, who grew up as the son of a Baptist minister. "Kids in their teens are old enough to sort out the sheer brutality of this movie and understand the context of the violence. Children any younger will be confused."
Younger children will wonder why the other adults in the movie do not stop the horrible things from happening to Jesus, and they will be frightened, he said.
"Children are not sophisticated enough, either morally or religiously, to make sense of the brutal images they'll see," Pruett said. The movie's visual images will go to the front of a child's imagination and define their image of Jesus. Because Jesus is brutalized in the movie, they will see him as a victim and they themselves will not feel confident, he said.
Violence With Context
But Johnston contends that even young children will see that the movie begins with Jesus praying and contemplating, and will understand that he is in a struggle between good and evil.
"The violence is set in a very specific context," Johnston said. "It is the last hours of Jesus. This is not senseless, random violence. And the violence builds. And with each new layer, there is another layer of meaning provided so the violence is understood."
Most children watching the film will be from religious families and will already know the story, he said. But one child psychology expert said scenes where Jesus is whipped and crucified may be too disturbing for children under 8, even if they are familiar with the biblical accounts.
"The level of disturbance may be exacerbated by the fact that this is Jesus being tortured — younger children being raised in Christian households may easily become distraught about vivid images of a 'good guy' being beaten and flayed," said Jay Reeve, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University School of Medicine.
Adding a Theological Context
If parents do bring children over 10, they should be prepared to talk to children about the movie, before and afterward, Reeve said. It would help if they put the violence into a theological context that the child can understand, such as "God let Jesus suffer to make up for our sins" or "Jesus suffered to teach people how to be gentle under attack."
Reeve said he would advise against bringing children who have histories of physical abuse or anxiety disorders.
Another child psychology expert pointed out that watching violent programming, even if it is the crucifixion of Christ, is harmful for very young children
"Preschoolers and early school-age children [up to age 10] would not have the cognitive context and maturity within which to understand and interpret this act," said Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, an associate dean for research and professor at the University of Rochester School of Nursing. Children would be distressed by the brutality of what they see on the screen, she said.
Johnston said even though the brutality is hard to watch, knowing the details will help reinforce children's faith. The Gospels already fully detail the suffering and the pain that Jesus endured when he was crucified. "That detail is the foundation of our faith," Johnston said. "That Jesus died for our sins is why I am a Christian. Sometimes that reality is brutal, but we can't shy away from it."