Mel GibsonsThe Passion of The Christdoesnt open nationwide until Wednesday, Feb. 25, but already the film is sparking debate.

Aaron Gale, assistant professor of religious studies at West Virginia University, urges moviegoers to do their homework before seeing the movie and to keep in mind the film is a creative work, not a documentary. Most importantly, he says, dont allow a movie to undo the greater understanding among the faiths that has developed in recent years.

Dr. Gale offers the following comments:

First, let us not overreact to all of the hype that we are seeing on the news channels. In other words, we should avoid any predetermined biases when viewing the movie. Over and over again weve seen rabbis and ministers arguing over the movies content and message. Dont fall prey to the reactions of other people. Read the gospel accounts before you see the movie, then formulate your own opinions based upon an honest, objective critique of the film. And most importantly, if you are not sure about something you have viewed in the movie, be sure to seek the answers from someone properly trained in the field of religious studies.

Second, keep in mind that we are viewing a movie. Hence, we should not automatically assume that the film is perfectly accurate and authoritative. For instance, was the blockbuster movie �€~Titanicperfectly accurate? Many of the details of the ships sinking were in fact historically correct. But of course the main characters (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) were invented by the Hollywood writers. The �€~Passion of The Christmay turn out to be historically on-the-mark, or it may not.

Finally, even if the film does contain some unsettling images of the Jews or the Jewish religion, I would like viewers of the movie to keep two things in mind: First, was it the moviemakersintent to denigrate an entire faith, or were they merely trying to portray the last events of Jesuslife as they saw fit? As a religious scholar, I can say with confidence that there were indeed many Jews who considered Jesus to be a false Messiah. But I can also say with an equal measure of confidence that crucifixion is a purely Roman punishment. Secondly, does even a negative portrayal regarding the actions of some Jews 2,000 years ago necessitate the condemnation of all Jews today? Of course it doesnt. But the fear is that perception will continue.

Jews and Christians (and Muslims) have worked very hard in recent years to undo the attitudes of the past and cultivate an open, honest, caring dialogue. This has led to a greater understanding among the faiths (despite current world events). And as Ive said before, understanding is the precursor to peace.

Why let a movie undo all of this wonderful work? In sum, I urge restraint before leaping to emotional responses following the release of the film. Remember, Jews, Christians and Muslims are all brothers and sisters; they are the sons and daughters of one patriarch: Abraham.

Gale’s research focuses on the development of ancient Christianity and its relationship to formative Judaism. Among the classes he teaches at WVU in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences are Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Evil in the Ancient and Modern World, the History of Christianity and Introduction to World Religions.