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.