The following was my final paper (slightly edited here) for a college class called “Christianity in Film”. The assignment was to watch and then compare-contrast four Jesus films (these are also review-like in nature). Understand that I wrote the things I did based on my own convictions and beliefs. I mention Roman Catholic influences a couple times in a negative light, not to bash on them, but because I believe that there are some elements of that following that do not accord with Scripture.
The Greatest Story Ever Told begins at Jesus’ birth, focuses on His life and ministry, and ends with His crucifixion and resurrection. The emphasis was placed on His teachings, which were mixed together to fit into less settings for the sake of the film. For the most part, these teachings stayed true to their original intent; there were a couple places in which it went off. In its portrayal of the crucifixion, the film rightly points to taking away the sin of the world as the reason for it. The resurrection was rightly made important, but the disciples understood it too quickly, contrasting oddly with the angel’s words, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
Faith is a running theme through the film and is greatly emphasized, though perhaps too much in the healing department. The woman who touched His garment – or, in the film, planted her hands on His chest – was the only one in an ailing crowd cured. Jesus’ words imply that she was healed because of her faith and the others weren’t because they lacked it. He said to the lame man, who doubles as Nathaniel, that he cannot walk because “his faith is weaker than his legs”. He touched the blind man’s eyes, but he didn’t see until Lazarus’ resurrection. Faith, not Christ, seems to be the healer.
The film drove too heavilly at the politics of the times. Herod imprisoned John the Baptist for preaching against Rome and then was angry with him for confronting him about Herodias. He also had plans to kill John before his daughter danced for him. The Jews’ accusations against Jesus were just as heavy on sedition as they were on religion.
Jesus here is portrayed with a heavy concentration of deity and the film “emphasized the more pietistic spiritual transformation of individuals through the preaching of Jesus”.1 He and His disciples were extremely placid, which we know from Scripture wasn’t true of the disciples at least. Judas was not shown to be greedy and wicked man; here, he was merely upset enough to take the Jews to Jesus, but on the condition that no harm come to Him.
In summation, Greatest Story gives us a good look at the ministry of Christ, especially of His teachings, and of His deity. However, it’s not always correct and bears at least some Roman Catholic influence.
The Passion of the Christ was very straightforward in its approach to the sufferings of Christ. The illegal arrest, the brutality, the whole works. It had some great flashbacks and nods to other parts of Scripture running through, including the bit in Gethsemane when He crushed the serpent’s head. Another plus was seeing His forgiveness in the midst of everything. (And from a movie-making standpoint, the deflating effect on the burial wraps was pretty cool.)
However, it seems that the movie’s intent was not on Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin, but on His actual suffering. I didn’t catch anything on why He must die. Instead, we get excruciating details of His death as envisioned by the filmmakers. (Um, tossing Jesus off a bridge to be dangled by a chain for a couple minutes? And forty lashes to the back was enough to kill a lot of men… forget the lashing to the front, which, knowing Roman whips, would probably do some serious damage if not kill very, very quickly. Not to mention that the Romans delighted in long, drawn out, excruciating, suffering death on a cross, so the front-side whipping (and it’s effects on the insides) would assuredly speed up the death process. That’s just on the logical side, never mind the Scriptural and historical side.) I felt a lack of the actual point of His death since it didn’t appear to me to have even come across in whatever subtext there might have been on the matter. His resurrection was a mere cameo in the grand scheme of the movie even though it truly is an important and founding element of the Christian faith. Peter Boyer pointed out in his article “The Jesus War”, that “Gibson had once said that he wasn’t interested in making a religious movie, and in ‘The Passion’ he hadn’t. He was making a war movie…. It is not an accident that Gibson set the terms of ‘The Passion’ the way he did, from the first scene, where Jesus stomps a snake to death, to the last, where the risen warrior is called to battle.” Well and good; it was indeed a battle for the souls of men. So now I have to ask, “Why not tell us what this war was really all about?”2
So far as I can tell, Jesus was portrayed as a weak victim rather than the all-powerful but submissive Saviour that He is. On top of that, the film was more than generous in its showing of blood, be it pressed to a cloth, seeping from His wounds to stain anything it touched, or raining from His pierced side. The violence was overly emphasized in general. As James Moore, put it, “Cinematically, Gibson has a serious problem with this choice since he has to produce an image which surpasses all other possible forms of suffering. This effort leads Gibson into an absurdly violent telling of the passion narrative in which the scenes become increasingly violent and ultimately cartoon-like.”3
In addition to what I considered relatively mediocre-at-best characterization of Christ, there was a good deal of extra interaction in there. Satan’s presence I didn’t quite understand since he seemed to be like a little cartoon devil on one shoulder more than anything else and the portrayal of his defeat was void of context, again, because the why of Christ’s death wasn’t mentioned. I mean, if you’re going to show the creepy stalker-dude suddenly wailing his head off (not literally) in the middle of the desert when Jesus dies, you’d better tell us why. The grotesque demons that cropped up also puzzled me.
Mary was a huge player in the film and it frankly drove me nuts. Some of her actions and some of the responses to her seemed reasonable in light of her maternal nature, but it seemed like she was there every time Jesus fell or was experiencing a very particular pain, as though she was somehow strengthening Him. I also wondered at Peter’s self-proclaimed unworthiness to be so much as touched by Mary when he confessed his denials: was it merely because she was Christ’s mother or was it because of the Catholic touches in the film? She also seemed to be like a little angel on His shoulder to counteract the Devil on the other side, particularly in the scenes in which they both watched the proceedings.
Overall, I’d say that Passion focuses too keenly on the human perspective. Jesus’ deity isn’t brought out at all and His portrayed sacrifice appeals more to human sympathy than it does to spiritual need. I also think the film was putting the emphasis of salvation on the physical sufferings and not on the spirituality of bearing the sins of the world and being forsaken by the Father. Of course, the physical aspect could arouse awareness of what He did for us spiritually. I think the danger lies in believing this to be a true depiction of what really happened – which, to a point, it might be – and accepting it as fact, but the over-the-top constancy of it fell flat for me.
Jesus Christ Superstar, in summation, is a horribly twisted “look” at Jesus’ life as performed by hippies in a desert with no honest musical talent or any real understanding of Who Jesus is. Jesus was reduced to a self-centered, wimpy half-wit. Judas was portrayed as a man with honest intentions victimized by God’s unstoppable plans (this is on the issue of free will and predestination; the film’s take on it absolves Judas of all responsibility). Most of what comes out of Jesus’ mouth in this film is horrifically twisted out of the meaning in the Biblical texts. He is described several times as just a man and so it was; He called God “Father” a couple times, but other than that, there wasn’t anything on His deity. He was little more than a cool dude. His death was that of a victimized celebrity. “One of the principal themes is the fame of Jesus and its costs.”4 Not a word was spoken of His atonement for sin. And there was absolutely nothing on His resurrection (I think they even left that particular hippie hung on the cross in the desert… I didn’t see him in the ending scene where the actors piled back into their van to leave). He seemed to need physical comfort from his female followers, particularly that of implied lover Mary Magdalene, to ease His weariness. When the lepers surrounded Him, He tried to heal them all but was overwhelmed. “Jesus is portrayed as young, antimaterialist, and revolutionary, appealing both to Christian evangelicals and humanistic ‘60’s-generation young people.”5 In Gethsemane, I got the impression that He wasn’t at all willing to go with God’s plan, but just rolled with it anyway (again with the free will / predestination thing). As Herod put it in his song, “I’m dying to be shown that You’re not just any man.” (Awkward as that scene – and indeed the whole production – was, this was the one line I agreed with whole-heartedly.)
I don’t know what the intent of the production was. If it was meant to be a satirical wake-up call, then it at least got the satire down pat and then some. If it was meant to be taken seriously, I dread to think of what people thought of Christ. Superstar was released in the ‘70’s in the midst of the Jesus Movement, which could account for the varied and twisted views of Christ as well as the rock-opera medium of the whole production.
My thoughts on Jesus of Nazareth are based on the second half of the whole as that was what was assigned to me. This production remained truer to the Scriptures and gave details the others didn’t (easier to accomplish in six hour-long episodes than in a single two-hour movie), such as the sending out of the disciples in pairs. While three of the four assigned films show Peter’s denial, this is the only one to show Peter’s repentance afterward. The death and resurrection of Christ are important in the feature, taking up a whole hour of the six-hour entirety. This film makes it crystal-clear that He died to take away the sins of the world and stressed the importance of His rising, taking almost as much time to cover the resurrection as it took to portray the crucifixion.
Despite the above thumbs-ups, there are still some problems. Though Jesus’ words remained mostly intact, some parts are off on the interpretation. This cinematic Jesus has qualities of both God and man – with a higher concentration of His deity –, but is at times condescending and seemingly moved more by pity than by grace. Some details were added that are not in the Scriptures (perhaps there’s a claim of creative license here?), such as the blind man having accepted the fact that he was blind and not wanting to be healed. There were multiple instances here of people believing Jesus was the political saviour that weren’t quite balanced out by those who embraced Him as teacher and prophet. One of His lines was spoken here by Mary, who was given especial attention by one of the disciples when he recognized her as Jesus’ mother. The Pharisees started out with something of a respectful interest in Jesus before He threw out the money-changers and began preaching in the temple. Events are mixed around so much that some of the things that happened early in Jesus’ ministry happen during Passion Week. Judas is, again, shown as a well-meaning man, a political zealot disappointed by Christ when He goes against the zealots’ ideals. He’s deceived into betraying Jesus here by a member of the Sanhedrin and doesn’t know he’s been used until after the trial has begun.
Despite these flaws, Jesus of Nazereth is hands-down the best of the assigned four films.
With the exception of Superstar, these films took Jesus Christ seriously one way or another. Passion did its homework on the physical sufferings of Christ, though wound up grossly exaggerating them. Greatest Story and Jesus of Nazareth did a decent job of covering Christ’s work and pointing out His atonement for sin and His resurrection.
No film about Jesus Christ is ever going to be perfect. There is always room for imagination and everyone will interpret the Scriptures according to their beliefs and understanding. And especially in the movie industry, the story of Christ will be taken from Scripture and translated over into an art form, which would bring about even more changes in order to build a story. But at the very least, any part of Scripture – and especially that which pertains to Jesus – would be treated with respect, careful study, and a commendable effort toward accuracy.
- Godawa, Brian. Hollywood Worldviews. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL. 2002. Page 178.
- Boyer, Peter J. “THE JESUS WAR.” http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA107801310&v=2.1&u=mast12569&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w The New Yorker 15 Sept. 2003: 058. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.
- Moore, James F. “Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: a Protestant perspective.” http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA133623673&v=2.1&u=mast12569&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w Shofar3 (2005): 101+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.
- Fox, Richard W. “Jesus as a celebrity.” Journal of American and Canadian Studies 24 (2006): 3+. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA186435999&v=2.1&u=mast12569&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w Literature Resource Center. 3 Apr. 2013.
- Gilmour, Peter. Text and Context: The Passion of the Christ and Other Jesus Films. http://search.proquest.com/docview/199375879?accountid=12305. Taylor & Francis Ltd.. Decatur, United Kingdom. 2005. April 3, 2013