Ten years ago, I got caught up in The Passion of the Christ film hype. Now with Son of God debuting in theaters at a mild no. 2, I find myself not so passionate about seeing another version of Jesus Christ in a movie.

Really, I don’t want to be a disillusioned evangelical. I was there, albeit dutifully, for the openings of Christian films such as Fireproof and Courageous. In my DVD collection are solid films such as Luther (2003) and Amazing Grace (2006). But I’m afraid I’ve soured on the idea of stirring up all evangelicals to pack out theaters (again) and help change our culture (again), thanks to an (additional) adaptation of the life of Christ.

What’s wrong with me? If I can enjoy films about Christians, or about non-Christian heroes who serve as Christ figures, why wouldn’t I also enjoy a faithful reenactment of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself?

I need to take this question seriously. Otherwise, I might slip into a sin of loving stories about other heroes — Christian and otherwise — more than I love the story of Christ.

At least I can rule out one possible reason: I’m not objecting to the film based on the “no graven images” prohibition in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 4–6). From what I can tell, it is much easier to apply this command against making images of God the Father or anything else — such as animals — for the purpose of worshiping them. But for some Christians, any picture of Jesus can only be wicked. One blogger quoted J.I. Packer and referenced Son of God support from megachurch leaders including the infamous Joel Osteen, and felt that was enough to shun the movie. Besides, won’t some people be tempted to worship movie-Jesus? “Some risks aren’t worth taking,” he concluded.

That seems over-cautious. No creative art is without risk. (Remember, God forbade worship of creature and plant images, yet he ordered them to be made for tabernacle decorations to use in worship.) But I may even wish that images of Jesus in films would tempt me to worship them. At least that would be an emotional reaction. Instead, onscreen Jesus-pictures just don’t affect me.

If I watch a movie version of Jesus, I am not tempted to bow. I’m thinking in terms of behind-the-scenes DVD features. Was that robe itchy? How did they decide to change the story that way because of the official plurality-denomination script advisory board? Where was this filmed? Does Israel ever let Gospel films shoot on location, or must crews always go to Italy and other places? Did the costume department staffers pass notes about how they’re effectively making a million-dollar Sunday school pageant? What would it be like to portray the Man with the highest name recognition on Earth?

I find it hard to fathom how other Christians could sin using an onscreen Jesus-picture. Rather than receiving the makers’ shared story, more of us feel we’re in on the production. We’ve seen the script and marked it up, made the costumes, acted as miniature executive producers of a product, and thus find little actual joy in viewing the results.

Jesus portrayals in movies also touch on propaganda stigmas wrought by The Passion of the Christ and later films. Yes, I saw The Passion in 2004, and I even did what all the excited ministries told me and brought an Unsaved Friend I knew from school — a grizzled chap who was active in the college’s opposite-party political group. It did nothing for him at the time, and I knew the whole program was a bust. This was a process, a rally, an obligation for evangelicals to vote for this year’s family-values film candidate rather than organically support something they already love. Such a program isn’t about good pragmatism — do all things for joy in God — but the wrong sort of pragmatism: Do this because we need more X in Hollywood.

Since then, most Christian movies carry this stigma. Surely this is unfair to many Christian filmmakers who truly want to honor their Creator in visual storytelling. But again, I’m drawn to wander behind the scenes. Do the filmmakers want at first to break out of the new evangelical movie-mint machine and build organic support for the film? Are they drawn at some point to “faith-based” studio divisions with replicant marketing strategies and promises to pack out theaters with busloads of congregants?

Space doesn’t permit a complete list of suggested solutions to possible stigmas. For my part, anyway, Christian movies would appeal to me more if they broke out of two favored genres: biblical reenactments, and inspirational stories with attractive but modestly clad young heroes who find Jesus as the key to all their dreams. That alone would slip past my own “watchful dragons” of suspicion that few Christian films will be good so long as they attempt the same “all good Christians must see this” program.

As for the issue of Jesus-pictures, I wonder if that effort is flawed artistically. No image of Jesus comes close to showing the biblical Hero. The best way to image Jesus in reality is to repent and become more and more like him. Perhaps the best way to image him in story is to come up with less-expected images: a great wild lion, a humble servant hero, even a wise wizard or a brave superhero. A bearded actor in a robe is just that. But try other visuals, even crazy ones, and you’re getting closer.


4 Comments

  1. Going slightly off tangent here – I have to say I am in agreement about the vast majority of Jesus movies…. But I absolutely love “The Gospel According to Matthew” done by the Visual Bible, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus. Bruce also wrote a really great book about the making of the movie, and how God worked in his life and the lives of the rest of the filmmakers making the movie… Maybe it’s the fact that as far as I know it really wasn’t released in theatres, maybe it was my age at first watching it (shortly after being forced to watch Jesus of Nazareth at school, which I forever will call “the movie where Jesus looks stoned”), but there’s an honesty to the production that I just don’t feel from a lot of other productions. Is it possible to “do justice” to the story of Jesus on film? Of course not. And I think people would probably be better off giving up – but that doesn’t mean they’re all useless either. (And in this case, there were people in the cast and where they filmed who were greatly influenced by the making of the movie – so even if the movie never brings another person to Christ, it had already succeeded by the completion of the movie…)

    1. Yes! The Jesus in “The Gospel According to Matthew” is big, loud, and emotive. He’s a real live human, not some emaciated emo dude blinking like Gollum in the sunlight and moving slowly to maximize ethereality. He laughs, shouts, and gesticulates. He fills the screen, dominates it. He’s a physical presence. His movements carry weight, gravitas. His twinkling eyes are founts of joy. You actually believe he could attract crowds of thousands. You don’t have to turn off your brain to swallow his temple-cleansing violence.

      *That’s* a Jesus I’d go to the theater for: one who not only knows what he’s come to earth to do, but WHY he’s doing it in the first place.

  2. First off great article. This issue/topic is something I’ve thought about a lot recently. I’ve always felt a bit off about films where Christ is the main character or has large amounts of screen time and until recently I didn’t understand why. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Chronicle of Narnia series I finally understood more about why I was feeling uncomfortable with these portrayals of Christ.

    Throughout Lewis’s books each time Aslan, a Christ/God figure, would be mentioned or appear I would feel this overwhelming sense of joy and excitement. The way he’s talked about in the books only makes his on page presence that much stronger. However, if you notice he has a very small role in the entire series, but plays an important part. The majority of the books center around our main characters, who are always flawed humans in need of help.

    The books work towards creating a need for Aslan and when he finally arrives the reader can’t help but feel like they are in the presence of greatness, of someone important. Now imagine how different our impressions and those books would be if Aslan were the main character or showing up constantly. If we saw every little thing he did and said. He would lose some of his power and we would lose that feeling of excitement.

    I think that centering these movies (films during the time of Christ) around sinful humans, people we can connect with, would prove to be a much more powerful and effective. I’m sure it’s exciting to face the challenge of presenting Christ on the big screen, but I think less screen time for Him will make his presence that much more impactful.

    Obviously, we can’t forget that exceptional writing, great directing, good acting, and beautiful cinematography all play roles in making memorable films too.

    1. Ben, I know it’s cliche to compare other Christian stories to C.S. Lewis’s master works, but I also couldn’t help but consider Lewis’s powerful-yet-minimalist approach to Aslan, the supposal of Christ, by contrast. I also considered the Biblical-historical fiction work Ben-Hur, in which Jesus is similarly absent most of the time, yet His presence so affects the story and the lives of Lew Wallace’s fictional characters that I almost found the story (well, the Radio Theatre version anyway) more affecting than a straight-up visual dramatization of the Gospels.

      Conversely, the same is true of Christ’s enemy. I see many Christian novels that attempt to explore the origins of Lucifer, the heavenly rebellion, what the newly minted Devil did on Earth to try to stop the promised line of Adam and Even, etc. But I remain convinced we do our best work exposing the Devil in a minimalist, non-main-character fashion. (After all, this is fairly similar to the Devil’s own strategy …)

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