Jesus in the Movies, Part 2 (3/21/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Last week we covered a century of movies in which Jesus was the subject. We talked about the days when it was permissible to show only Jesus’ hand in a film, and how, in 1927, Cecil B. DeMille upset both the world of film and of religion by daring to show Jesus’ face on screen. Despite the uproar, that movie—King of Kings—became a silent film classic.
We went through the seven incarnations of Jesus in 20th Century film: the divine and majestic Jesus; the intellectually idealistic and physically beautiful Jesus; the pacifist Jesus; the politically subversive Jesus; the quiet and mystical Jesus; the joyful and musical Jesus; and finally the very human Jesus.
All of this is setting the stage for a look at Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, one of the most successful and controversial Jesus movies ever made. There are two other movies that we did not discuss last week that I want to mention first. First, there is The Jesus Film Project, based on the Gospel of Luke, which was created in 1979 as an evangelical tool. The Sunday morning Adult Discussion group watched this movie several years ago. We viewed it in 20 or 30 minute segments, and then compared it to the Gospel of Luke.
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I mentioned last week that my preference is for movies like Godspell and The Last Temptation of Christ, that take creative liberties and don’t attempt to directly tell the story from the gospels. Of the movies that claim to be a straightforward depiction of the gospels, the Jesus Film Project is probably my favorite. The makers of this film made it as an evangelical tool. The made it to tell the story of Jesus. And it does a pretty good job. It doesn’t include everything in the Gospel of Luke—it leaves our some details. And it changes the order around—I never could figure out why. It takes the sequence of events from Luke and shuffles the order in which things happen.
But still, it is pretty much the Gospel according to Luke. It doesn’t mix in elements from the other gospels, and that is very important. The four gospels tell four different stories to four different audiences. Filmmakers, like preachers, can twist Jesus around however they desire if they pick and choose elements from each gospel. Hence the Jesus of the movies, who in one film may be portrayed as an intellectual revolutionary, and in another film as an illiterate peasant.
The only real problem I have with The Jesus Film Project is the ending. The film goes to great lengths throughout to keep from mixing in any of the other three gospels… and then, at the very end of the film, they blow it! I was stunned, because it was the only time I had ever seen a filmmaker stick to a single gospel. And the film did not stray away a single inch from the Gospel of Luke until the very last line of the movie, when for some reason they throw in the last line from the Gospel of Matthew. I could have cried! That is the famous line where the Risen Christ says to his disciples, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That’s powerful stuff! And I understand that as an evangelical tool—a way of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ—it is an effective ending. But still, for two hours they keep their feet out of Matthew, Mark and John, and then at the very last minute they do a head-first nose dive into the Gospel of Matthew. Go figure!
The other movie I want to discuss before we move on to the Passion of the Christ is the brand new movie, The Gospel of John. This is a good movie. It really is. It is basically the entire Gospel of John, word for word. I love the way this movie portrays Jesus. He smiles often, as I’m sure the original Jesus did. His love is palpable. His devotion to God is undeniable. And I don’t know quite why, but the movie did absolutely nothing to enrich my relationship with Christ.
I said last week that the gospels are meant to be heard and not seen. That is especially true for the Gospel of John. I love all four gospels, but if I had to pick my favorite, it is probably the Gospel of John. And I am going to thank you in advance for not taking offense at what I say next, and thank God for mysteriously directing me to a pulpit from which I can say such a thing; but a lot of scholars don’t think Jesus said a single word that is attributed to him in the Gospel of John.
So how could it be my favorite? Because I accept it for what it is. It is not, in my opinion, an accurate depiction of Jesus of Nazareth. It is, instead, the writing of one of the most brilliant and devoted men who ever lived, opening himself to the Spirit of the Risen Christ, and re-interpreting the life of Jesus. That’s a mouthful, so let me rephrase it. Many theologians and New Testament scholars do not believe Jesus said things like, “The Father and I are one. If you have seen me, you have seen God. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The Jesus we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke would never say such a thing. But John’s gospel is different. It was never meant to be read as a historical account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It was written by a man who experienced the spiritual power of the Risen Christ, and who then looked back on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and said to himself, “Oh, now I get it! That was the Messiah—the Christ!” And he retold the story of Jesus from that perspective.
Aldous Huxley called the Gospel of John a part of the eternal philosophy, which along with writings like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads can call us into the presence of the Eternal. But the Gospel of John is something spiritual. Reading it literally is like looking at a street sign that says New York City 300 miles, and insisting that by looking at the sign you have experienced everything there is to experience about New York City.
And for that reason, the Gospel of John just doesn’t make a very good movie. Or at least, it doesn’t make a very inspiring movie. But again, I give the filmmaker great credit for sticking to the story. And that leads me to an important and troubling point about the two Jesus movies that have been released this year. The Gospel of John can be read as the most anti-Jewish of the four gospels. There is good reason for this. When the Gospel of John was written, a half century had passed since the death of Jesus. John’s community had been excommunicated from the synagogue. These people in John’s community were all Jews, by the way. But the authorities from the Temple and synagogues, in an attempt to hold the Jewish faith together in the face of great persecution from the Roman Empire, tried to cleanse Judaism of all sects, including the sect that proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. When John wrote his story, he villainized the Jewish authorities of that time. For that reason, when it comes to telling about the crucifixion of Jesus, John makes it appear that it was all the fault of the Jews. Pontius Pilate was just a decent man caught up in fervor of the moment.
In this movie—The Gospel of John—it tells the story that way. Now consider Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Gibson does not claim to follow any one of the gospels. His movie covers only the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life, and as we will see, he picks and chooses from among the gospels to give us a new story—the Gospel According to Mel Gibson. Unfortunately, he borrows from the Gospel of John the most anti-Jewish elements of that gospel. In fact he makes Pontius Pilate look like a hapless dupe, forced by the bloodthirsty Jews to kill Jesus.
It is unfortunate that these two movies portray the crucifixion of Jesus in this light. It is true that all four gospels portray the Jews as calling for the death of Jesus, but it was undoubtedly the Jewish authorities who did so. After all, Jesus upset the applecart. Nothing upsets religious authorities more than somebody coming along and reminding them that religion is about love, not power; about forgiveness, not judgment; about mercy, not ritual. That message is just as unpopular in the church today, as it was in the synagogue two thousand years ago.
But let’s be clear. Pontius Pilate was a thug. He was a Saddam Hussein. He ruled with an iron fist. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and caused an uproar at the Temple by knocking over the tables of the money changers, that was all it would have taken for Pilate to kill him. Remember, Jesus was charged with sedition—treason. Only Rome could crucify people, and Rome did not crucify anybody for violating the Jewish rituals. Pilate cared about one thing: order. Every couple of generations the Jews had an uprising against Rome. It happened just before the birth of Jesus; revolt was in the air at the time of Jesus; and about forty years after his death, in the year 70 A.D., the uprising was so bad that Rome destroyed Jerusalem and leveled the Temple!
Jesus was killed during the Passover, when Jews from all over the world descended on Jerusalem. If a revolt was going to break out, this is when it would happen. And Jesus, with lots of rag-tag followers surrounding him, goes into the very center of the Passover celebration—the Temple—and causes a major upheaval. If history tells us anything about Pontius Pilate, it is that he was ruthless and ruled with an iron hand.
The notion that the Jews would have to beg Pilate to kill Jesus is laughable.
And that is the problem many people have with Mel Gibson’s movie. I don’t think anybody believes the movie will turn people into anti-Semites, but if a person goes into that movie with anti-Semitic feelings, he is going to come out of that movie with even more powerful anti-Semitic feelings. And that is troubling.
But even that is not what bothers me most about this movie. What bothers me most is this: it is violent. I don’t care much for violent movies. The Matrix was a great movie with a great message, but I could not watch the sequels because I felt the violence was unnecessary, gratuitous. The Passion of the Christ is absolutely disgusting. Friends, if you have seen it, you know what I mean. If you have not, well, I certainly would not recommend it.
I told you that this was not the Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but rather the Gospel According to Mel Gibson. The central element of the movie is the scourging of Jesus—the whipping of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, as Pontius Pilate attempts to satisfy the bloodthirsty Jews. In the movie, Pilate says he will not crucify Jesus, but will instead have him whipped. Forty lashes was considered a death sentence in those days—the assumption being that nobody could survive being struck forty times. That’s why there is a tradition—not in the Bible—that Jesus received 39 lashes.
But that’s not enough for this movie—not nearly enough. This beating goes on for twenty minutes. It is the ugliest, most brutal thing I have ever seen. In this flogging scene, giant muscular Roman guards take great please in beating Jesus to a pulp with canes. It seems to go on forever. And after about ten minutes of that, they take cruder instruments of torture, and continue to beat him mercilessly. It is brutal. It is sickening. Nobody could survive such an attack.
This is portrayed with remarkable realism. I will spare you the details. It caused me a couple of sleepless nights. And when they are finished with this twenty minutes of hellish torture, as the enormous guards stand winded and sweaty from such a vigorous workout, Jesus is forced to stand. He looks, quite literally, like a mass of raw hamburger with a head. It is sickening. But Mel Gibson seems intent on showing that Jesus was a man’s man—he could take whatever they dished out, and defiantly stand up and look them in the eye. He could even carry what would have been about a 350 pound cross, immediately after having been beat to death about fifty times.
Okay, we all know that being whipped would be a terrible thing, and surely the filmmaker is on solid biblical ground here, right? After all, this is the centerpiece of the whole film. Let’s listen to what the gospels actually have to say about this horrific scene—about the scourging, or whipping of Jesus.
First, the Gospel of Matthew: “Pilate released Barabbas, and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” That’s it! Matthew does not give the flogging even a full sentence.
How about Mark: “After flogging Jesus, Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.” End of flogging scene in Mark!
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t even get flogged. Pilate says he is going to have Jesus flogged, but then decides to have him crucified.
And then there’s John’s version of the flogging story, quote: “Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.” End of flogging story.
Now, I have to ask myself, why is it that Mel Gibson took what was a single sentence or less in each of the gospels and made it the longest, most violent episode in movie history? And if I question why this horrific, gory, bloody scene was necessary, does that make me less of a Christian? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John knew all about beatings. They understood how horrible it was. But they chose not to center their gospel stories on the flogging of Jesus.
By the way, I like Mel Gibson. And this movie—it is beautifully made. The opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is gorgeous. The musical score is amazing. The cinematography, the scenery, the special effects—it is a masterful piece of movie making. But it is unnecessarily violent. Not only does it not follow any one of the gospels, it doesn’t even pick and choose from among the four. It just makes stuff up: the details of the beatings; the wife of Pilate running out to comfort Jesus’ mother; the Romans even whip Simon of Cyrene (si-REEN-uh) as he helps carry the cross, which is not a part of any gospel account. There is one scene where one of the thieves hanging on the cross beside Jesus has his eye graphically plucked out by an angry bird. What is that all about? After Jesus is nailed to the cross, they pick up the cross and throw it to the ground with the crucified Jesus underneath it. It’s brutal. It’s horrible. It’s sickening. But it’s not a part of the gospels. Gibson just makes all up all that repulsive violence.
Well, enough! And you know what bothers me about all of this? I’m a death and resurrection guy! I’ve bought into the whole gospel story. And I don’t think it is proper for a person to advance to Easter without Going through Good Friday. The Passion of Christ—the flogging, the crucifixion, the suffering—that is an important part of the Christian faith. But it is only a part of the Christian faith. We are Easter people. We don’t live with the judgment of God upon us; we live in the joy of God’s forgiveness. We have walked through the shadow of the cross, but that is not where we reside; we reside in the light of God’s mercy. We acknowledge the corrupt political and religious powers, and we know those very powers that nailed Jesus to the cross are still alive in the world today; but like Jesus, we stand against them, and like Jesus we know that God’s power overcomes the evils of this world.
We are not Good Friday people. We are Easter people. And for all the great movies that have ever been made about the one we call Lord, every earthly depiction of Jesus falls far short of the glory of the Jesus who lives in our hearts—the one in whose name we pray, in whose presence we gather, and in whose spirit we live, and move, and have our being.