Especially for Pastors :: April 2014

Yet Another Jesus Movie…
by David Housholder

The new “Jesus Movie” is out. The theaters were full this weekend. Your church members are going to it and talking about it.

If you’ve been a believer for any length of time, you’ve seen lots of Jesus movies come and go. Some have been gory. Some have been cheesy. Some have tried to be faithful to the text. Some have been hopelessly Hollywood-ized. Some have been, ironically, anti-Christian.

It’s a daunting task to make a Jesus movie. The singular and unique gravitas of the content tends to overwhelm the medium of cameras, actors, sets, and scripts. After all, this is by far the most influential man who ever walked the face of the Earth. If you are not his equal, how do you bring him forth for people? For whatever reason, the cast seems to speak, in most of these films, with British accents.

My wife, SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed) dragged me to the newest Jesus movie, “Son of God.” Being entertainment-media challenged, I didn’t even know there was such a movie out. I am never able to get the “Show Tunes” category questions on Jeopardy. It had been a long (but good) morning at Robinwood Church, and I was ready for my well-earned Sunday afternoon nap.

I also resent the idea that I need to “do my Christian duty” by going to every movie with religious content so we can all “send Hollywood a message” that we want more such films. True confession: “The Passion of the Christ” was so gory as to be downright disturbing, at least for me. I spent much of the film with my face on my knees to avoid watching. (Although to a Bible nerd like myself, hearing conversational Aramaic was almost intoxicating).

So, back to that nap…

Nothing doing. SWMBO reminded me that it was time to set a good example and go to the movie (she had organized the outing, after all) with a dozen or so members from our church.

So I did. I went with very low expectations, hoping the movie was sold out so I could donate my ticket to some church member who needed one.

Here is what I didn’t like:

Although the casting was pretty good, Jesus (Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado) was once again, like most actors who portray Christ, a little too hot/handsome/friendly for my taste. Just a touch of “Andy Gibb” in him. But Morgado played the part strongly and was able to dial it in especially well during the scenes with the most emotional and interpersonal gravitas. I liked his youthful feel. Jesus was 30-33 years old, after all.

Hey listen, you have to give him credit. Who on earth could ever live up to playing the part of Jesus? And I have to wonder how he mastered the English language lines so well

Maybe it’s just fantasy, but I see Jesus as a more enigmatic, discordant figure. I’m pretty convinced that the real Jesus of Nazareth would surprise most people who think they are experts on him. Truth is, he would mess with us pretty good.

Have you ever done that? Closed your eyes and tried to imagine what the real Jesus was like? What if he looked more like Yasir Arafat than Andy Gibb? What if he made everyone uncomfortable? What if he made most of the people at your church really mad whenever he showed up…Like, really mad.

Albert Schweitzer nailed it when he admitted that most of us project a “super-version-of-me” onto Jesus. “You and me” without the downside. And of course, he would do us a favor and re-enforce all of our opinions. He would be the ultimate affirmer of what we knew all along.

But I see no such Jesus in the Bible. He didn’t answer the questions people brought him. Instead, he literally re-framed the questions. And he was drop-dead difficult, tending to lead with his chin. Obviously he was not a graduate of a Dale Carnegie course.

Yup. I think Jesus would mess with us.

Here is what I did like about the movie:

It sounds odd, but I like how they were creative with the storyline. The four gospels are impossible to harmonize anyway, but they did a surprisingly clever job at fitting the Jesus story together.

Why? Because they are screenwriters. I’ve done some work in Hollywood, and everything is collaborative. If you don’t play well with others, you won’t last long in that environment.

Individuals and crowds tend to be stupid. Teams are smart.

The brilliant scripting team of Christopher Spencer, Richard Bedser, Colin Swash, and Nic Young understands how a storyline goes, certainly better than most Bible scholars do. They operated on the interpretational assumption that Jesus’ real earthly story had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They shuffled the cards and put them in the most likely realistic story-order.

This may sound artificial, but it’s actually a pretty good hermeneutical tool. What would be most emotionally valid? Where does this teaching best “feel” in the story? And we all know that Jesus (an itinerant teacher) rotated his lessons so there is some flex as to where the teachings fit in the narrative.

And they did it with emotional intelligence, not just “dead-language and history” smarts. Most of us Bible scholars (yes, I did doctoral work in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship) get all technocratic-nerdy with the text and miss the point of the story (often its spiritual-emotional impact). And it’s a fact that our lives follow an actual timeline.

Solid, emotionally-present screenwriting was the strongest part of the film. If you are a strong “T” on the Myers-Briggs scale, this creative license may have bugged you. But if you are an “F” (like me), you most likely loved it.

I literally surprised (shocked?) myself by bursting into tears a couple of times—once when Jesus halted the stoning of the adulterous woman, and a second time when the thief on the cross sent his lines right into my gut. I can’t find in any of the movie’s online literature who that actor was. Let me know if you know who that was.

I was surprised and delighted to see how powerful their extra-biblical content was. But doesn’t “adding something to Scripture” bring a curse?

Truth is, there has to be some “linking” dialog to help the story flow from scene to scene. My fave of such lines were these:

  • John on Patmos: “And I was his follower. After what I had seen, how could I not be?”
  • Pilate: “They’ll forget all about this Jesus in about a week.” (The audience in the theater burst out in laughter at this remark.)

Screenwriters “get” the fact that lives have emotional content. The story of our lives is best told by stringing incidents together in a way that is psychologically valid and actually real-time, historically plausible.

Sure, some of it was cheesy, like Mary cradling the dead Jesus just like Michelangelo’s pieta “told her to. But hey, it’s a movie.

Another thing the screenwriters did well was to bring out the emotional colors of those who shared their lives with Jesus (his family and disciples).

Usually, disciples-in-bathrobes are like “the life of Brian Monty Python characters,” but these writers helped you feel their gut-wrenching humanity, fallibility, and loyalty to Jesus and to each other. This was the most imperfect but noble presentation of the disciples that I have seen. For once, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute (a groundless Roman Catholic legend), but rather, a student of Jesus. Why else would she greet Jesus in the garden with the term, “Teacher!”?

So what is to be made of this?

  • Take your youth group to see it and make time for discussion afterwards. Let them talk. How did it make them feel? What do they think about what they just saw?
  • Give up the “battle against media.” This movie will be available on the phones of your church members in just a few months. We live in a multi-media world and it is not dumbing us down, it is opening us up. Screens are not evil, and they are not going away.
  • Be honest about what you like and don’t like in the movie. Be balanced.
  • Listen to why your members are excited about seeing it. What does it say about what they need and “where they are at?”
  • Resist the temptation to be the crabby critic who knows better than your church members and the people who make Christian movies. You and I both know that we can torpedo any hymn or praise song, let alone any movie, with all kinds of technicalities about “unbiblicalness.”
  • When “Son of God” comes out on DVD, get a copy and put a several-week study together where people can discuss the movie in segments. You may also be able to find studies online.

Movies spark the imagination. Disney said that imagination is the key to everything. Let this film spark your spiritual imagination. Whether or not you “like” the movie, let it be the start of more thinking and pondering about Jesus. How much of how you picture him is really just a product of your upbringing or an unconscious projection of your “best self?”

Can you open yourself, as I struggle to do, to the one and only Jesus, who was, and is, and is to come?

Not just worth seeing. It’s worth going to see.

David Housholder is the creator of The Blackberry Bush Course, which is designed to grow your small church. He is also the lead pastor at Robinwood Church (ARC) in Huntington Beach, CA.