Jesus in the Movies, Part 1

March 14, 2004



Jesus in the Movies, Part 1 (3/14/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

I have never heard as much talk about a movie before it even opened as I heard about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Many of you have seen that film, and opinions regarding the movie’s merit are all over the place. It’s been hailed as everything from great filmmaking and the most brilliant evangelical tool of all time, to a needlessly brutal and gratuitously violent twisting of the final hours of Jesus’ life.

Most you know some of my thoughts on the film, having either read them in the newspaper or in our church newsletter. Still, I have never had so many people ask me to deliver a sermon on a particular topic as I have for this movie. But this movie didn’t just fall out of the sky. Jesus has been depicted in film since the early days of filmmaking. As I did the background work for crafting the sermon, it soon became evident there was too much material to fit into a single sermon, and so, we’re going to take two weeks, and walk through the history of Jesus in the movies.

This is a favorite subject of mine. In seminary, I actually took a class called “Theology in Film.” We studied the hidden theologies of movies that are not considered religious, at least on the surface—films such as Groundhog Day, Terminator, and the Matrix. But we also spent a great deal of time studying the way Jesus has been portrayed in films, and I decided the subject is interesting enough that you might want to learn more.

Jesus has been portrayed in countless ways, as we will see. And the problem begins with the four gospels. Those are four different versions of who Jesus was and what he did. And filmmakers, like preachers, can pick and choose from the various gospels to create the type of Jesus they want. For example, let’s say I want to preach a sermon, or make a movie, that shows Jesus is above it all—barely human—absolutely godlike. One of the places I could turn to would be the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus tells his followers, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” After the Apostle Philip presses Jesus, asking Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus says, “Have you been with me all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

On the other hand, if a preacher or filmmaker chose to portray Jesus as a relatively ordinary man, who is a great teacher, but hardly one with God, he might turn to the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. It is there that a man approaches Jesus and calls him “good teacher.” Jesus rebukes him, saying. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

And this leads to one of my pet peeves regarding the portrayal of Jesus in the movies. I resent it when directors piece together parts of the gospel stories, creating a message that says whatever they want it to say. I find it preferable to either tell the story from just one of the four gospels, or to create a symbolic story that is far, far from the original gospels—something like Godspell, Jesus of Montreal, or Jesus Christ Superstar. So, with that background, and my prejudices stated up front, let’s go back in time and see how filmmakers have done over the years.
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In the early years of the 20th Century, as the movie industry was in its infancy, it was considered a very lowbrow form of entertainment. Respectable people did not go to the movies. Admitting you had visited the movie theater the previous evening was similar, in today’s world, to saying you had spent the night watching Bubba Hunk and Killer Clyde tangle at a match of the World Wrestling Federation.

One of the reasons some entrepreneurial people chose to start making movies about Jesus was to give the movie industry credibility. And there were almost forty movies made about Jesus—all silent films, of course—prior to 1927. In those early years, it was considered sacrilegious to show the face or the body of Jesus on film. There were a few rare exceptions, but typically, you would know Jesus had entered the scene by the fact a person who was looking off camera—supposedly at Jesus—would have their face suddenly light up. Some filmmakers were bold enough to show Jesus’ hand. You might see a blind person sitting by the road, and the hand of Jesus would appear from behind the camera to miraculously restore the blind man’s sight.

Cecil B. DeMille changed all that in 1927, and it caused a storm of controversy. DeMille was determined to show a flesh and blood Jesus—the entire man—in his epic silent movie, The King of Kings. Still, he made every effort to silence the critics who accused him of blasphemy. A Catholic priest was on the set at all times. The actor who portrayed Jesus was chauffeured to and from the studio every day. When he arrived at the studio, he was whisked off to a private room. He took his meals alone. He was not permitted to speak with any person involved in the making of the film while he was in costume. And the movie’s crew and actors were not permitted to treat him with anything other than absolute reverence.

In that classic movie—the King of Kings—Jesus is portrayed as a divine, passionless, emotionless person. No trace of happiness or joy ever comes across Jesus’ face. The lighting throughout the entire movie was designed so that Jesus always has a heavenly glow around his face. Even with all these precautions, Cecil B. DeMille was widely criticized for daring to show the face of Jesus on film. It should be noted that today, this particular movie is best remembered for having been a triumph of special effects. The crucifixion scene, complete with earthquakes, is considered a masterpiece of the film arts for that era.

There was a Victorian piety in those years that objected to viewing Jesus as anything other than divine. And even though many thought DeMille had crossed the line by showing the face of Jesus on screen, it was that face—the face of DeMille’s Jesus—that became the standard for American cinema. Jesus had been defined in the eyes of the movies as a white robed, blue eyed, blond haired man of European descent.

The next landmark movie about Jesus appeared in 1935. It was a French film, and was called Golgotha, which of course is the hill on which Jesus was crucified. The movie covered only the final week of Jesus’ life, and it didn’t really cause all that much of a stir, because DeMille had already broken all the rules by showing Jesus’ face a decade earlier. Further, it was French, so it did not receive a wide viewing in America. The film is considered landmark because it was the first “talkie” made about Jesus.

No important Jesus movies came out for a quarter century, largely out of a fear of censorship. The Hays office was first established to censor films, and after that the McCarthy era was not conducive to creative thinking, either politically, or with regard to the arts. But the movie that appeared in 1961 set the stage for what was to come—movie after movie in which the filmmaker portrayed his own particular version of Jesus. The 1961 movie was supposed to be a remake of King of Kings. But it bore little resemblance to the original silent film classic. This Jesus was a political figure. The Catholic Legion of Decency angrily labeled the film, “theologically, historically, and scripturally inaccurate.” And they were right. Most modern scholars agree that Jesus was indeed a political figure, at least to some degree. But he almost certainly was not the man portrayed in the movie—a pawn in a revolutionary game being played by Judas and Barabbas. Oh, it’s an interesting idea—it just has nothing to do with the Jesus we find in the pages of the Bible.

At least things were getting interesting! And in the mid-sixties a couple of important films were made. In 1964, the Marxist European director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a film entitled The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, which had absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel of Matthew. The following year, American director George Stevens made what at the time was the most expensive movie ever made, and called it The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Even though there was much less censorship than in previous decades, Americans took great offense at Pasolini’s movie. In fact, it was widely viewed as being nothing more than communist propaganda. And it wasn’t America alone who thought this movie crossed over the line. In Spain, where censorship laws had not been liberalized as they had in the United States, the actor who played Jesus in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew had his passport cancelled, his university career suspended, and was sentenced to 15 months of hard labor in the National Service.

On the other hand, The Greatest Story Ever Told was by some standards a perfect film. William Telfor, a New Testament professor from the University of New Castle, described it as “perfectionism in pursuit of perfection.” It had it all—a big budget; an all-star cast; ingeniously filmed scenes of key moments from the gospels; and it was a complete flop at the box office. It signaled, for decades, the death knell of the straightforward telling of the gospel story in film.

And then came the seventies. In 1973, Norman Jewison made a movie of the extremely popular rock opera created by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber: Jesus Christ, Superstar. David Greene’s musical, Godspell, came out the same year. One has to wonder how those prim and proper people of the twenties, who tried to destroy Cecil B. DeMille’s career for having dared to show the angelic face of Jesus, would have reacted to seeing Jesus portrayed as a dancing clown in Godspell!

But I want to make a point here, and it is one we will delve into more deeply next week. I really like both of these movies—Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. I believe they convey the gospel message much better than do more realistic movies like this year’s The Gospel of John and The Passion of the Christ. I’m not sure why that is. It has something to do with the high regard I have for the four gospel stories we find in the Bible. I believe they are meant to be heard and not seen. The hearing, or reading of the gospels does something to a person that is diminished when it is portrayed on film.

Again, we’ll wrestle with why that is next week. But when it comes to movies about Jesus, I like them to be symbolic, and entertaining, and radically different from the gospels. All any of us can do is interpret the gospels. If I’m going to see somebody else’s interpretation, I want it to be wild enough that it is clearly an interpretation, and not an attempt to define the actual story for me. That story is already written on my heart, and my faith is not strengthened by seeing it visually depicted by a filmmaker.

Having said that, let me mention that I am enough of a purist that I don’t like to see the gospels taken too lightly. The comedy troupe Monte Python is one of my guilty pleasures, and I laughed along with everybody else at their satirical send-up of Jesus in the movie Life of Brian. Still, mine was a guilty laughter, and the film is tasteless. We can watch the musical Godspell, even as Jesus is dressed up like a clown, and see the gospel shining through in the uplifting story and the joyous music. We cannot say the same about Life of Brian.

It may have been in protest to the tasteless portrayal of early Christianity in Life of Brian that many well-intentioned people became enraged when, in 1988, Martin Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ. Churches had their parishioners boycott movie theaters that dared to show the film, and movie stores were forced to either not stock the film, or keep it under the counter, as if it were a filthy work of pornography.

None of these people actually saw the film. It was forbidden by their respected church leaders. And that is too bad, because The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most serious, theologically intelligent, and spiritual movies ever made. In the opening frames of the movie it is explained that the film is not about the historic life of Jesus, and it is not based on the gospel stories. It is a movie about the battle between the flesh and the spirit.

In the movie, as Jesus suffers on the cross, Satan gives him one final temptation. Jesus is offered the chance to make all the pain go away. He is given the chance to leave the cross, to literally go back in time and live a normal, happy life—a life with a loving wife and lots of children. He is given a vision of that life, of how wonderful it would be, and is forced to choose between that life and his present suffering. This is the “last temptation.” He chooses crucifixion. He goes through with the suffering, redeeming humanity and proving he is the Messiah. It is a great movie—along with Godspell, my favorite of the Jesus movies, even though neither of them attempt to accurately depict the gospels.

One more movie to consider for today, and that is a French-Canadian film made in 1989; Jesus of Montreal. I assume most of you are not familiar with this movie. You can find it in the foreign section of the movie stores, and if you don’t mind subtitles, and if you’re not offended by a little nudity and some occasional bad language, it is worth seeing. It is about a group of actors who are in a passion play—a play about the last week of Jesus’ life. Their real-life stories become entwined with the roles they play in the theater. It’s a creative idea, and it’s a well-made and award-winning movie.

We covered a lot of ground today! We watched Jesus go through a lot of changes over the decades. William Telford says Jesus went through seven incarnations in film over the course of the 20th Century: First, the divine and majestic Jesus; second, the intellectually idealistic and physically beautiful Jesus; third, the pacifist Jesus; fourth, the politically subversive Jesus; fifth, the quiet and mystical Jesus; sixth, the joyful and musical Jesus; and seventh, the very human Jesus.

Next week we will look at three movies, each of which claims to be an accurate portrayal of the actual gospel story. First, there is The Jesus Film Project, based on the Gospel of Luke, which was created in 1979 as an evangelical tool. Get this—it has been translated into 847 languages, and according to the filmmakers, has been viewed five-billion times. We watched it in the adult discussion group a few years ago. We will also consider a recent release called The Gospel of John, which claims to be a word-for-word depiction of John’s gospel. And then we will turn to the most recent film—the movie that started all of this talk about Jesus in the movies: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Between now and then, I hope everybody takes the time to actually read one of the four gospels. Any one of them can be read in about an hour. And I haven’t figured out why, but the Jesus we find in those pages just can’t be duplicated anywhere else. I don’t think it was an accident that God sent Jesus to us not in the age of mass communication, but in the first century, when stories were heard and not seen. Maybe its because our hearts are a little closer to our ears than to our eyes, but the Jesus we hear about in the gospels is infinitely more powerful than the one we find on the silver screen.