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How some of country's top stars helped Mel Gibson's controversial movie about the death of Jesus become a hit

When the lights went down Dec. 8 at the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, just north of Nashville, no one knew what to expect. Ricky Skaggs was hosting a screening of The Passion of the Christ, two months before the hotly anticipated film's formal release, for an invited group of about 300.

Sara Evans, Wynonna Judd, Keith Urban, Josh Turner and The Whites were all on hand - and so was Mel Gibson, the Hollywood megastar who'd risked his enormous popularity to write, direct and finance this extremely personal vision of Jesus' last 12 hours.

Controversy over the film had already been building, fueled by rumors that it was anti-Jewish and graphically violent. By showing it to select, friendly audiences - Gibson also allowed Nashville Christian singer Michael W. Smith to host a screening last August - Mel was looking for good word-of-mouth. He got it.

"I have never been so moved by a movie," declares Sara. "I cried so hard! I was watching something terrible that happened to someone I love. It's extremely hard to watch, and extremely necessary to watch."

Just before the movie opened, Sara and Ricky took on the role of unofficial spokespeople by responding to listener e-mails on's "Live and Interactive" audio show. By then, excitement over The Passion was at a fever pitch. Some feared the movie would cast blame for Jesus' death on Jews, citing in part the notoriously anti-Jewish views of Mel's father.

"For years and years, the church has done so many atrocities against Jews - the Inquisition and all that crazy stuff, so I understand why Jews would be timid about this," acknowledged Ricky, who dismissed any such worries. "You're not going to hate somebody at the end of this film. It's really a film about love."

"There's nothing in the film that would suggest that Jews are terrible," seconded Sara. "You really need to see the film before you make any kind of a judgment like that."

On the other hand, pre-release hype about The Passion's relentless violence turned out to be very true. There are numerous scenes of Jesus being whipped, beaten and taunted by gleeful Roman soldiers. In his four-star review, famed movie critic Roger Ebert declared it "the most violent film I have ever seen."

"It was very, very tough," admitted Sara. "I just kept praying for courage. I was scared before I went, and I was scared all through the movie, but I had to watch it. I kept thinking, 'Lord, you went through it, so the least I could do is be brave enough to watch it.' "

Some saw the violence as a sorely needed dose of reality for modern Christians. "I think we all like to have a deeper sense of what it was like," states Joe Diffie. "We heard about it in church and Sunday school - and though I haven't yet seen the movie, I've seen the trailers and it's obviously very graphic. I think it will give us all a deeper appreciation of what really went on."

Ricky suggested that parents should discuss the story with children before bringing them to the movie, to put the brutality in context: "If they explain it that way, I think the children can receive it a whole lot better."

The violence has done nothing to slow the movie's amazing success - by the end of its first weekend in theaters, The Passion had piled up over $117 million and inspired a companion album, set for release in April. Among the performers will be Ricky, singing an a cappella version of the Louvin Brothers' "Are You Afraid to Die."

But the movie's popularity also prompted a nationwide discussion about religion. That, in itself, was considered a very good thing by devout believers like Jimmy Wayne, whose religious-themed "I Love You This Much" sat in the Top 10 as The Passion perched on top at the box office.

"I believe that everything happens at a certain time for a reason," Jimmy declares. "If the movie makes people react in a positive way towards the message of my song, it's a great thing. I feel that it's a message that people need to hear."

-- Chris Neal