Whether you saw "The Lord of the Rings," "The Passion of the Christ," or skipped them both, it's unlikely you've been able to escape some kind of discussion regarding your feelings about them unless you've spent several weeks outside the United States.

And though they didn't have any hand in orchestrating the avalanche of discussion regarding the films, or people's reaction to them, faculty at the Salt Lake Theological Seminary couldn't be happier about it. In fact, they hope to capitalize on what many see as an unprecedented public discussion of Christianity, and its attendant debates regarding good and evil, in a series of lectures beginning this week.

David Pasco, marketing director for the seminary, says "The Passion of the Christ" in particular helped spawn a four-part lecture series titled "Moving Beyond the Movie," that kicked off Friday at Westminster College. (See accompanying box.) The seminary also sponsored a discussion of "Lord of the Rings" on Thursday night.

"When we realized it was going to be more than simply a niche movie in an art theater — which is what I thought ("The Passion") was going to be — that it would actually have broad appeal and was being seen as an evangelistic tool," faculty realized it "would likely raise a whole lot of questions around the story of his suffering and death that weren't answered in the movie," Pasco said.

Some may want to know whether the film is historically accurate, whether the church itself has changed the scriptures through the ages to make Christ divine, why he had to suffer such a bloody and brutal death and what "Atonement" means, Pasco said.

Others may wonder how the Jesus of celluloid relates to the Jesus of scripture, or modern society's reluctance to contemplate suffering, he said. "That's the last thing we want to do. Our culture is all about avoiding suffering and pain, anesthetizing ourselves and turning a blind eye. In some ways the events of 9/11 have become a watershed. We can't turn our eyes away because it's happening in our own backyard."

Scholars want to help viewers "build a platform underneath people's feet of logic scholarship and thought to help ground the emotional impact most people are likely to have," when they see the film, he said.

Faculty member Ron Huggins addresses "The Resurrection of the Historical Jesus" on Friday, taking participants through a detailed overview of "The Passion" by addressing specific scenes, imagery, symbolism and metaphor depicted in the film. He has gone back and watched some of the older Jesus films regarding their depiction of Pilate or Caiaphas, and believes the "violence is really probably closest to historically accurate depiction that I've ever seen."

He told the Deseret Morning News one of the film's biggest thought-provoking moments was watching Jesus ask God to forgive his torturers after all they had done to him. He said many will likely be asking themselves "if what's happening here is God's solution to the human problem, how terrible must the problem be" and what did the suffering have to do with it.

"The Bible does not include instructions on how to translate its message over to stage or film," he said. Many have criticized filmmaker Mel Gibson's interpretation of the New Testament gospels and the writings of a 19th century Catholic visionary in creating the script, but Huggins maintains such a depiction requires "imagination and, to some extent at least, poetic license."

He said he was not troubled to find the devil tempting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, "despite the fact that the only historically credible accounts of Jesus' final hours," the canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, make no reference to it. "The fact is, the devil may well have been there in any case."

He discussed the androgenous character Gibson cast as Satan, and the imagery surrounding a scene where Christ is being mercilessly scourged by Roman guards. Satan is portrayed watching from the sidelines, holding a hairy, childish demon. Huggins said he has heard many interpret that as a mockery of the Madonna and child. He said it's "hard not to view Satan as a kind of anti-Mary figure, especially during the scene where each of them is walking down the street looking at each other on either side of Jesus as he carries his cross."

His commentary on the film doesn't address what for many was one of its greatest strengths — Gibson's ability to let the audience see Jesus through his mother's eyes.

"For me, it was one of the most emotionally powerful elements of the movie, and I didn't include it because I thought I'd have a hard time discussing it publicly." Gibson's interpretation of Mary "does differ from mine. Her role is developed quite a bit, and she is certainly more prominent than she is in the gospels. We don't even know that she was there in many of those scenes." Yet the depiction didn't focus too heavily on Mary, whom Catholics revere with nearly the same adoration as they do Jesus.

In fact, his reliance on a 19th century Catholic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, and her visions of the Passion as recorded in the 1833 book "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," actually enhanced the imagery and symbolism in the film that is missing in the gospels, Huggins said. Before the film was released, many speculated that Gibson's reliance on Emmerich's accounts and his Traditionalist Catholic approach would be too heavy-handed for Protestant and other audiences not used to a severe focus on the suffering and crucifixion.

Huggins said Emmerich's book provided the background for several "extrabiblical" scenes, including: Jesus being tempted by Satan in the Garden Gethsemane, including what Satan says to him; Judas being driven out into the wilderness by demons and hanging himself at a "dreary, desolate spot filled with rubbish and putrid remains"; the two Marys wiping up the blood of Jesus from around the scourging post with the cloths supplied by Pilate's wife; and several details on Calvary, including the pre-prepared holes in the cross; earthquake damage in the temple following Jesus' death.

He said if "Christians are able in a fresh way to wonder at the vault of the Sistine Chapel, if they can humbly return to their churches to participate in the spoken and sacramentally enacted Word, then Gibson's "Passion" will have proven to be something even better than what it certainly is — the best movie ever made about Jesus Christ."

Dave Heikkila, a visiting adjunct faculty member from Mount Vernon, Mo., said he was asked by seminary faculty to lecture on "The Lord of the Rings" after teaching a mini-course in January 2003 on "Middle Earth Haunted By Heaven."

J.R. Tolkien's enduring mythological tales appeal to people of all ages, he said, noting the recent films mark the third generation of readers — and now viewers — impacted by his work.

"It touches the awe in us and that's why even though 'The Hobbit' was supposed to be children's story, it became children's and adult story."

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The attraction of Tolkien's myths is their resolution of the ongoing struggle between good and evil and a sense of recovery of what was once lost. "Want to get back in our lives what is missing there, to a paradise lost" that yearns to be recovered.

"Tolkien took that and added to it linear time perspective of his Christianity to say — we're looking ahead to a future paradise" and "the consolation that there is a happy ending . . . even if it's not the ultimate happy ending."

Tolkien created myth as a way to talk about his deep Christian beliefs in a world that was not receptive to an overt discussion of them. Despite the brutal portrayal of Christ's suffering in "The Passion," Heikkila said, "the Christian story is the great happy ending — the convergence point of all these other stories. It completes them."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com

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