Mel Gibson has certainly pulled off a phenomenon with his film “The Passion of The Christ.”

From a purely business standpoint the actor’s investment of about $30 million dollars has more than paid off and it should add at least $100 million to his personal fortune. A synergistically driven merchandising campaign of souvenirs, books and CDs will perhaps net Mel a few million more.

“Passion” now ranks eighth on the top ten list of domestic blockbusters with more than a $350 million gross. It took in $17 million just on Easter weekend reported Coming Soon.net.

But besides its now established status as a box office bonanza, the controversial film released to coincide with Lent and Easter, has become both a media and cultural event.

Gibson made this all possible, first by his fame and name recognition and second through the scrutiny his project received as a work that allegedly contains an “anti-Semitic” message.

However, the savvy star hired a Manhattan PR firm for spin control and got out in front of his critics by mounting something of a crusade amongst evangelical Christians.

It was ultimately those religious connections and not Hollywood that put his film over.

This community of conservative Protestants, despite their historic animus towards Catholics, embraced Mel Gibson like one of their own.

They heaped effusive praise on their “Braveheart” seemingly seeing his movie as somehow a part of God’s plan for redemption.

The actor himself appears to agree. “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film,” he has said. And Many of those connected to the project appear to think their work fulfilled some divine purpose.

But buying a ticket to Mel’s “Passion” only allows admission to the theater; the film’s director seems to think his Protestant supporters are going to Hell.

In an interview with the Herald Sun in Australia when asked specifically if Protestants are denied eternal salvation the star said, “There is no salvation for those outside the Church.”

He then elaborated, “Put it this way. My wife is a…Episcopalian…She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff…she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair” reported MSNBC.

And what that “chair” pronounces, for this Oscar winning director, means what God says as defined by the so-called “Traditional Catholic movement,” which Gibson was raised within and still steadfastly supports.

“The Passion is nothing short of a party political broadcast for this movement,” reported The Scotsman.

Roman Catholics are not immune from Mel’s stern judgement.

“I go to an all-pre-Vatican II Latin Mass,” he told USA Today. “There was a lot of talk, particularly in the Sixties, of ‘wow, we’ve got to change with the times’. But the Creator instituted something very specific, and we can’t just go change it.”

Despite the kind words the Pope had for Gibson’s movie the director/producer may not think that His Holiness is Catholic enough to get into heaven either.

In fact, the only people that may be doing “something very specific” enough to get into heaven are the small flock of less than 100 believers that attend a church Mel built in Malibu. Though some 50,000 or so “Traditional Catholics” might have a shot too.

Is the whole phenomenon of “Passion” then simply an exercise in mutually cynical exploitation?

Gibson selling his movement’s message, not to mention tickets and evangelical Christians using his film as a vehicle to fire up the faithful and make some sort of social statement?

If the director were driven only by faith would he have pursued such a savvy marketing strategy, manipulating both the Jewish and Protestant communities conversely to promote his project?

And what about the fervent Protestant pastors that bought blocks of tickets, what were they thinking? Was it really just Jesus that motivated them or a self-serving media blitz?

It looks like they saw Gibson’s film as a means of demonstrating their clout, in something that can be seen as a social statement measured by ticket sales.

Hallelujah?

According to the New Testament Jesus once said that many would come in his name, but he would not know them.

He also said that it would be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

This may mean that Mel might have been better off in the hereafter, if he hadn’t made so much money off his Jesus movie.

Postscript: A year ago I wrote, “It seems destined for a very small audience. It certainly won’t be another ‘Braveheart.’” What a difference a year makes, given a slick marketing strategy and the resulting religious fervor at the box office, but don’t expect another Oscar Mel.

Some say new “sects” or “religious movements” are arising from within the Roman Catholic Church, but a prominent priest connected to a new study told Vatican Radio this is not true, reports Zenit News.

They are instead “religious organizations” that have “a direct line with the leadership of the Church,” said Father Gibellini.

The priest directed a study titled “Movements in the Church,” which was recently released.

Included amongst the groups studied were the Focolarini, Neocatechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, Emmanuel Community, Regnum Christi, the Community of Sant’Egidio, and charismatic renewal groups.

Regnum Christi, also called the Legionaries of Christ has a deeply troubled history that includes allegations of sexual abuse concerning its founder Fr. Marcial Marcial Degollado.

What also appears to have plagued groups like Regnum Christi and the controversial organization Opus Dei are complaints of excessive authoritarian control.

The “charismatic renewal” within Roman Catholicism has also had its own set of problems.

Largely based upon personal spiritual experiences such as “speaking-in-tongues,” participants at times seem to have more in common with Pentecostal Protestants than Catholics.

The Church at times has banned some charismatic groups.

It seems that the frequently subjective nature of the charismatic experience can at times lead to confusion and invest power in someone who claims “special gifts” and/or discernment within a group.

This was the history of “His Community” led by David Mulligan, which is now known as Christ Covenant Ministries/Community in Vermont and no longer in “direct line with the leadership of the Church.”

The Catholic Church has had problems policing such organizations and people have been hurt.

One theologian opined, “I think that these movements revitalize the Christian community fabric.”

This may be true much of the time, but there have been apparent and/or notable exceptions.

For the sake and safety of that same “community fabric,” which seems to have been torn more than once by such groups, some caution might also be exercised.

Who should determine the parameters and/or identity for a religious denomination?

Most people would answer that the historically established leadership of a religion and/or denomination has this exclusive and traditional right and role.

But some disgruntled former members and/or splinter groups seem to think otherwise.

Movie star Mel Gibson belongs to just such a group composed largely of former Roman Catholics. The actor was raised from childhood within such a religious environment.

Gibson and his fellow religionists consider themselves “traditional Catholics.”

But ironically such so-called “Catholics” have abandoned perhaps the most established tradition of Roman Catholicism, which is the teaching of one church under the direction and ecclesiastical authority of the Pope.

“We just want to be good Catholics,” says one “priest” from a schismatic group quoted by Knight Ridder Newspapers.

However, a “priest” like this has no standing in the Roman Catholic Church and is very often an excommunicate.

But some media reports persist in calling such groups “traditionalist Catholics,” whatever that means.

There is an old axiom, “If you want to be a member of the club you must abide by its rules.” But somehow this doesn’t seem to apply to “traditional Catholics.”

Instead they apparently want to have it both ways. That is, to have the status of being in the club generally, but make up their own rules.

Isn’t that non-traditional?

Catholic authorities seem to regard such splinter groups largely as a nuisance and there are only about 20,000 members in the US. An insignificant number, given the size of Roman Catholicism worldwide.

The present Pope excommunicated a renegade French priest, Cardinal Marcel Lefebvre, once a key figure in the so-called “traditionalist” movement.

Lefebvre has since died, but his faithful followers soldier on. The largest single group is the Society of St. Pius X; perhaps named after the last Pope they really liked.

The Roman Catholic Church has endured an assortment of schismatic “kooks,” “crazies” and “cult leaders,” who claim to speak for Mary, God and/or the Holy Spirit.

This burgeoning list of former Catholics includes Caritas of Birmingham, William Kamm known as the “Little Pebble,” the Army of Mary, His Community/Christ Covenant Ministries, Four Winds Commune, Friends of the Eucharist and the Magnificat Meal Movement.

The most destructive and tragic group of former Catholics was the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, responsible for the mass murder/suicide of hundreds in Uganda.

Not unlike the problems posed by pseudo-Catholics the Mormon Church also has its share of troublesome splinter groups.

Polygamist groups that are often called “fundamentalist Mormons” practice their faith largely in Arizona, Utah and parts of Canada. They are an embarrassment to the Mormon Church, which abandoned the practice of polygamy more than a century ago.

Yet some media reports confuse the public with the label “fundamentalist Mormons” to describe these disparate sects, frequently run by absolute leaders much like “cults.”

Recently, an author apparently striving for better book sales said, “Mormon authorities treat the fundamentalists as they would a crazy uncle — they try to keep the ‘polygs’ hidden in the attic.”

His book titled Under the Banner of Heaven, places grizzly murders within the context of so-called “Mormon Fundamentalism” reported Associated Press.

An official church spokesman made it clear that such groups have nothing whatsoever to do with the Mormon Church and that those Mormons. And when Mormons do become involved with them they are excommunicated, much like former Catholics in schismatic groups.

Recently since the 1960s Jews have also endured apostates setting up their own so-called “Jewish” groups.

Interestingly, these groups, which are composed of converts to fundamentalist Christianity such as “Jews for Jesus” and so-called “Messianic Jews,” are closely aligned and supported by Protestant denominations within the “born-again” movement.

These “Jews” like the polygamists and former Catholics have no standing in the organized Jewish community.

Israel’s “Law of Return” does not recognize them as Jews and recently a Canadian court rejected one such group’s attempt to use historical Jewish symbols for self-promotion reported Canadian Jewish News.

But some media reports continue to confuse readers with a mixed bag of historically incoherent labels and/or oxymorons, such as “traditionalist Catholics,” “fundamentalist Mormons” and “Jews for Jesus,” that are self-referentially incoherent.

Even if such a group has a celebrity sponsor like Mel Gibson, it’s unlikely to be a meaningful substitute for the Pope’s blessings.

And there is a historic right of denominational leaders to determine the parameters of their own faith’s identity, which should be recognized by responsible and objective journalists, rather than misleading the public.

Catherine Wessinger, a religious studies professor that has been called a “cult apologist,” offers her analysis of another so-called “new religious movement.”

This time it’s David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.

It seems Wessinger can be depended upon for an apology no matter how bizarre and/or destructive the cult.

Today in the Waco Tribune-Herald’s second installment of its nine part series about the Branch Davidians she once again offers her unique spin on a cult’s demise.

What does Wessinger make out of the Davidian cult tragedy?

Well, she says it was largely about “the militarization of law enforcement and the problems … and abuse that arise from such militarization.”

Right.

Apparently this college professor doesn’t wish to acknowledge the implications of a purported “psychopath” leading a cult group.

Wessinger admits, “I’m not trained in psychology so I don’t articulate those opinions…I’m sure he [Koresh] had some psychological issues.”

What an understatement.

Wessinger offers her usual apologetic spin. She has previously attempted to explain away cult tragedies such as Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown.

Wessinger once said, “If Jones and his community had succeeded in creating their Promised Land, they would still be here. But due to the attacks and investigations they endured, they opted for the Gnostic view that devalued this world.”

Again, no meaningful blame is placed upon the deeply disturbed cult leader and the inherent destructive dynamics of his control over the group.

Apparently almost any cult and/or cult leader’s behavior may be largely excused according to Wessinger’s reasoning under the general heading of “persecution.”

The professor’s new book is titled “Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: Historical Cases (Religion and Politics).”

Wessinger’s conclusions about the Branch Davidians within this context come as no surprise.

The supposed scholar says, “Koresh would have emerged from the compound peacefully, as promised, once he completed his work inside interpreting the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation. To have come out earlier, she says, “might have compromised Koresh’s need to conform to strict biblical prophecy.”

Obviously such a conclusion strains credulity and ignores the facts.

Koresh broke the law, failed to comply with a warrant, murdered federal officers and then refused to surrender for 51 days, despite the repeated pleas and guarantees of law enforcement. In the end he chose instead to kill himself and all his followers within the compound.

The cult leader’s behavior had little if anything to do with “biblical prophecy” and his “work” was really more about criminal violations of gun laws and sexual abuse than the “Book of Revelation.”

However, “apologists” like Wessinger apparently ignore such facts in favor of speculation based upon specious, but supposedly “politically correct” views, instead of reality.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh also called “Osho” by his devotees was thrown out of the United States in 1985 after spending time in jail and paying a $400,000 fine for immigration fraud. He then wandered around the world trying to find some country that would allow him entry. Finally, after repeated rejections he returned to his native India where he died in 1990.

Rajneesh became infamous for his personal excesses and villainy in the United States. He collected 90 Rolls Royces and numerous women devoted to his sexual pleasure. Thousands of followers joined him in an effort to create a supposed spiritual utopia amidst 64,000 acres in Oregon called “Rancho Rajneesh.”

Eventually, Rajneesh tried to impose his rule over the nearby town of Antelope. His effort ultimately led to criminal acts and then later the convictions and imprisonment of many devoted followers. More than 20 cult members were indicted on criminal charges including a plot to murder a prosecutor.

But back in Pune India the old “guru” is fondly remembered by his remaining followers called “sanyasin.” The old ashram he founded is still standing and is now being renovated, reports the Times of India.

Memories associated with the dead cult leader are so sacred to some sanyasin that an effort to replace his old crumbling meeting hall was met with opposition. One devotee said, “The podium and the floor should not be allowed to be demolished at any cost.” And insisted, “Something must be done to protect it.”

It seems the place where Rajneesh once held court still holds some mystical or sacred significance to those who choose to call him a “enlightened self-realized soul,” rather than a destructive cult leader.

However, back in Antelope, Oregon where Rajneesh tried to poison people with salmonella and sickened about 750 residents, the only remaining residue of his rule that still remains is a small plaque at the base of the post-office flagpole. It says, “Dedicated to those of this community who through the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-85 remained, resisted and remembered.”

This is the only fitting epitaph or legacy that the cult leader really deserves.