Christian film

McPassion pinches a nerve

People are supposed to meditate in church, but the epiphany that rocked

filmmaker Rik Swartzwelder two years ago was different.

It started when he visited several churches in Charlotte, N.C., while

visiting family. In service after service he heard preachers telling

people it was their "Christian duty" to rush out and buy a ticket for "The

Passion of the Christ." There were brochures for Mel Gibson's bloody epic

in the bulletins, posters in sanctuary lobbies and preview clips for the


Swartzwelder began thinking about the biblical drama in which, as St. Mark

said, "Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold

and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers,

and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man

should carry any vessel through the temple."

So he pounded out a sarcastic -- some would say bitter or blasphemous --

script entitled "The McPassion," a feverish vision of what would happen if

Hollywood and the fast-food industry teamed up to sell Holy Week. The

script sat on a shelf until Swartzwelder decided that Tinseltown's love

affair with born-again marketing was growing instead of fading.

The results have been posted at, a 4-minute blast

that opens with chipper children scarfing down their McPassion meals,

complete with a crown of thorns and round fries that the announcer notes

are "shaped just like the Eucharist." Then there's the McLast Supper from

Burger King of Kings or the McLoaves and Fish Sticks dinner (all you can

eat, while supplies last). The meals come with toys, like the pretend

stigmata tattoos, a simulated leather cat of nine tails, Shroud of Turin

towelettes, a kid-sized crucifix and the "cool McPassion hammer."

The pitch ends with this call to commerce: "Buy one today! Make Jesus

happy! ... Alleluia, God's lovin' it!"

None of this is terribly subtle.

"I want people to wince," said Swartzwelder. "I wince when the girl says

that dipping the body of Christ in ketchup is fun. I wince when the boy

hits the girl's palm with the toy hammer and you hear that clink, clink


The goal was to inspire heated discussions and Swartzwelder and director

Benjamin Hershleder were more than willing to infuriate many Christian

viewers in order to get their point across. The result was an online

firestorm that has been both painful and gratifying.

"I keep reminding people that I am a Christian and that, if they really

want to know, I am a big fan of what I thought was a courageous movie by

Mel Gibson," said Swartzwelder, a freelance filmmaker in Burbank, Calif.

He is best known as the creator of "The Least of These," a short film

released in 2002 that won 27 awards and played at mainstream and religious

film festivals around the world.

The Emmy Award-winner stressed that he is glad that "The Passion" rang up

$370 million at the U.S. box office, opening doors for more artists to

make more films -- From "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" to "The End of the

Spear" -- that can tap into a faith-friendly marketplace out in Middle

America. As an admirer of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, he is glad that

the "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is

rising toward $290 million in U.S. ticket sales.

Swartzwelder is even pleased that many evangelicals, after decades of

merely throwing stones at Hollywood, are now seeking positive ways to

engage the world of entertainment.

The problem, he said, is that some religious leaders have allowed movie

publicity campaigns to bleed out of the marketplace and into the church

sanctuaries that are supposed to be safe havens for vulnerable souls.

"At some point we have to ask: What is the purpose of worship? What is the

purpose of the pulpit?", asked Swartzwelder, who also has led filmmaking

workshops at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"Even with the best of intentions, using the pulpit to push movies -- even

good ones -- is dangerous. And what happens when we start seeing more

people making more movies for this audience? How do we decide which movies

to plug? There could be, no there will be, abuses and that's going to lead

us into murky waters."