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Jesus Christ in the Movies
By Dr. Ted Baehr
“And the angel said unto her, ‘Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.’
“Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’
“And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’
“For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
− Luke 1:30-35, 37 (KJV)
“All these things are as I have found them − in the Holy Scriptures, the Glorious Koran, the ancient Hebrew Writings, and in the annals of modern discoveries.”
− Cecil B. DeMille
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from a talk that Dr. Ted Baehr gave at the University Of Judaism in Bel Air, California, on Monday, January 25, 1999. The talk was part of a series entitled “Film, Tape and Sacred Scripture: How Hollywood Interprets the Bible,” which was the Second Annual Program in The Bible and Contemporary Culture, presented at the University of Judaism with the support of the Simmons Family Charitable Foundation.
As the entertainment industry enters into the Third Millennium and the 21st Century (either 2000 or 2001 Anno Domini depending on how accurate you want to be) since the birth of Jesus Christ, it is interesting and instructive to note how movies have portrayed Jesus Christ over the last hundred years. That’s right, Jesus has been featured in movies since the earliest days of the medium − for more than a century!
The earliest representations of Jesus on film were straightforward primitive movies (they called them “recordings” in those early days) of various live “passion plays.” (A passion play is a dramatic presentation of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.) These passion plays were some of the longest movies made at the time they were made. They were so successful that they eventually convinced the nickelodeon operators that there was an audience not just for shorts, but also for longer, feature length movies. Thus, in part, the modern movie was birthed out of the overwhelming success of the passion plays!
In 1897, two American theatrical producers, Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, filmed a passion play in Horitz, Bohemia. In 1898, R.G. Hollaman and A.G. Eaves photographed a passion play on the roof of a New York skyscraper. The length of the movie was 2,100 feet or 20 minutes. A narrator took the place of captions. Also in that year, the Oberammergau Passion Play was photographed by a Mr. Hurd, an American representative of the first major French filmmakers, the Lumiere brothers, and a French passion play was filmed for the Musee Eden.
The Augustinian Fathers set up the “Bonne Cinema” in Paris to produce good movies. They used churches as a normal place for projecting films until Pope Pius X decreed at the end of 1912 that “even religious films were not to be projected in churches, in order that the sacred character of the buildings should be safeguarded.” Therefore, showings of the filmed passion plays were banned in the churches (starting with the cathedrals in Paris).
Consequently, movie producers sought other, more humanistic subject matter rather than the life of Jesus Christ. Thus, although the questions which the church authorities raised about the passion plays had some validity, though in hindsight it would have been better if they had worked with the filmmakers rather than expelling them from the churches.
Of course, when reflecting on how Hollywood movies and even television programs have presented Jesus Christ, it is important to keep in mind that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote gospels, not scripts. Their narratives about Jesus Christ inspire and teach through images created by words. The filmmakers who have tackled this sensitive subject have attempted to portray, represent or interpret Jesus through non-verbal images. Regrettably, more often than not, the most important aspect of Jesus Christ’s life, which is His resurrection, has been ignored, though a few movies have presented His resurrection accurately and with reverence.
Each filmmaker has visualized Jesus differently. Some have stuck close to the story of a particular gospel; others have stuck close to the theme of the gospel; and, some have used the figure of Jesus to tell their own personal stories, while others have used gospel stories as a pretext for presenting popular ideologies. Some filmmakers have made movies about Jesus because they wanted to make money. Regrettably, some have done so because they wanted to mock or defame Him, while others have a passion to tell the real story of His life.
In many cases, the personalities and opinions of filmmakers are not reflected in their work. For instance, many Christians are enamored by the powerful movie CHARIOTS OF FIRE and the superb television program JESUS OF NAZARETH. People have claimed that they have come to Christ and that their lives were changed because of this particular movie or because of this television program.
What is interesting, however, is that CHARIOTS OF FIRE and JESUS OF NAZARETH were funded in part by the same wealthy Muslim, the late Dodi Fayed. Furthermore, CHARIOTS OF FIRE was produced by a Jew, written by an atheist and starred a homosexual who later died of AIDS. With regard to the powerful sermon in CHARIOTS OF FIRE, the homosexual star said they couldn’t get the sermon right so he grabbed a Bible from the church where they were shooting the movie and paraphrased it. With regard to JESUS OF NAZARETH, the director was an active bisexual who chased one of his male actors around his villa in Italy. (He later came to Christ after a serious car accident.) Even the star of the popular JESUS film considers himself an agnostic.
Since movies shape how many people see or learn about Jesus Christ, it is important to look at how different movies have represented Jesus to help set the record straight and to develop media wisdom. Many Christians see themselves as besieged by a Hollywood mass media culture which doesn’t understand the concerns of most Christians and doesn’t understand that no one is born a Christian and that Christianity is therefore only one generation deep. God has no grandchildren. Each Christian has to make his or her own commitment of faith in Jesus Christ, and that commitment of faith whereby each person enters into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is a gift of God. Thus, Christianity survives only through the miracle of God’s Grace manifest in a personal faith, and that personal faith comes though hearing the word of God.
** Why the Resurrection Is Important
Although the gospel starts with Genesis and goes through Revelation, the pivotal point is the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because: it is through His death that He paid the penalty for each and every man and woman’s transgressions; and, it is through His resurrection that He signed, sealed and demonstrated the victory over sin and death once and for all time.
Prior to His resurrection, the disciples were ready to run away and abandon Him. After His resurrection, they, and many others throughout the centuries, were willing to be martyred for him. Therefore, how filmmakers treat the resurrection of Jesus Christ is extremely important.
As Paul notes in his first epistle to the Corinthians:
“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”
− 1 Corinthians 15:12-23 (NIV).
Christians believe, like the Jews before them: that we live in a real world (not an imaginary world as the Hindus and many others believe); that we have a real God; and, that we face real suffering. Christians also believe that Jesus really died and was really resurrected. The various movies about Jesus reflect different attitudes about who Jesus was mainly by the way they portrayed His resurrection.
One of the most renowned early movies which featured part of the life of Jesus Christ was D.W. Griffith’s movie INTOLERANCE (1916), which studiously avoided the Resurrection. In contrast, DeMille’s classic, THE KING OF KINGS, has a real resurrection and shows Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ hand saying, “My Lord and my God.”
Many of the movies about Jesus that followed DeMille’s classic had severe theological problems, such as THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR and GODSPELL. THE GREATEST STORY EVERY TOLD, for instance, appears to have a Gnostic resurrection wherein an ethereal Jesus appears to the disciples − not the physically real Jesus of the Gospels. Also, the language used, of course, is not the biblical language. Then, there follows several more faithful attempts, including the television program JESUS OF NAZARETH and the movie JESUS.
It should be noted that the German school of higher criticism, starting in the late 19th Century, wanted to divorce Christianity from its Jewish roots and make it more ethereal and ephemeral, as Jesus is later depicted in GODSPELL and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, but that is not what Christians actually believe. Christians believe that the Resurrection is where our hope resides, and the Good News is that Jesus did die for each and every man and woman’s failures, weaknesses and sins, so that on the Judgment Day they will receive eternal life with Him in Heaven.
It is important here to recall the words of Rabbi Gamaliel in the Book of Acts, who advised the leaders of the Sanhedrin in their attempt to keep the apostles of Jesus Christ from preaching the Good News:
“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For, if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
− Acts 5:38-39 (NIV)
In this regard, the church needs to remember that the Good News is that a faith grounded in the victory that Jesus won on the cross is not fearful of others and is willing to be an ambassador of the Good News of God’s Grace rather than a righteously angry defender of the faith. In this way, Christianity overcame the Roman Empire — not by might, but by the testimony of the faithful, often as they were sent to their deaths by the egocentric, capricious rulers of the state. In this way, by the time of Constantine, Rome became Christianized.
** How to Portray Jesus Christ
Aside from the resurrection, filmmakers have always been faced with the question of how to portray Jesus of Nazareth. In a complementary article, Matt Kinne discusses the fact that movies and television have rarely, if ever, used a Jewish person to play Jesus. In fact, in many of the Jesus films that come out of Hollywood, Jesus is a blue-eyed Caucasian blond from England, while all the bad guys look like they come from a swarthy strain, and clearly there is a message of sorts in that.
However, the historical Jesus is Jewish… and the Good News is that when God came and gave His one and only begotten son for us, He came in the context of God’s chosen people. Furthermore, Jesus came to deliver His people from their sins, which is none other than falling short of God’s Law − that Law which is the liberating heart of Judaism.
Even so, what Jesus looked like is open to debate. Did he have long hair? Well, Jews at the time of his birth wore their hair both long and short. Did he have a beard? The wealthy, religious Jews of His time often wore beards, but the beards that orthodox Jews wear today date back to several centuries after the time of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the poor, in Jesus’ day, rarely wore beards, and Jesus came from a poor family.
Thus, portraying Jesus is more difficult than it seems.
Jesus can be portrayed not only as an indigenous Jew, but also in the abstract. Not only that, but there are Christ figures as well as Jesus figures. A Jesus figure is any representation of Jesus himself. Such a figure can be realistic or stylized. A Christ figure, however, is a character who portrays or symbolizes an important aspect of Christ’s nature or His life and ministry.
When the representation of a Jesus figure is realistic, then it is Jesus as He was thought to be. To do so means looking at Jesus from the perspective of His time, not from our perspective. Many critics contend that Franco Zeffirelli has come the closest (so far) to portraying a realistic Jesus in the television special, JESUS OF NAZARETH.
Most film representations of Jesus figures, however, tend to rely on well-known visual portraits of Jesus from the European Renaissance. These portraits often soften Jesus (though THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW leans heavily on Renaissance church paintings and yet presents an earthy, real Jesus). These stylized representations present Jesus in non-historical settings, just as Italian Medieval and Renaissance art presented Jesus in Italian settings. They also can tend toward fantasy, as in JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR, where Jesus sings, and GODSPELL, which portrays Christ as part of a singing troupe of street clowns and mimes.
In contrast to Jesus figures, Christ figures are often either redeemers or saviors. The redeemer figure represents Jesus taking on human burdens and sinfulness in suffering and even death. John Coffey in the GREEN MILE is both a ‘holy fool’ and a Christ figure who bears the sins of others to his own death. The savior figure portrays Jesus Christ’s saving mission, sometimes even to triumph and a symbolic or an actual resurrection. Captain Miller in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is a Christ figure who is willing to lay down his life to save someone whom he doesn’t even know and may not like.
Other Christ figures are:
The martyr figure whose suffering and death witnesses to values and convictions.
A Job-like figure where the innocent suffers and is persecuted.
A popular savior such as the legendary knights or contemporary pop-heroes.
A clown figure who highlights the fact that God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom.
The reconciler figure who brings enemies together.
The offbeat figure such as the WATERSHIP DOWN rabbits and J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT.
Movies may also portray Jesus Christ Himself as teacher, wonder worker, all-powerful Creator, monk, human, or Risen Lord.
All of this is acceptable if the Christology is orthodox (which merely means right doctrine). An orthodox Christology requires at least:
A real ontology (which means that reality is real, not just a great thought or something else)
A real epistemology (which means that a person can really know that reality is real)
A real soteriology (which means that Jesus really saved us)
A real resurrection
A real divinity (Jesus Christ is “very God of very God,” which is how the Council of Nicea resolved the Homoousian conflict that Jesus was of the same essence, or substance, as God the Father, and so there is only one God)
A real incarnational theology (Jesus Christ was “fully God and fully Man,” which resolves the Gnostic and Arian heresies that Jesus was only one or the other)
A real history (Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection were actual events in history; thus, they are more than historical, but not less than historical)
A real morality (Jesus died once for the sins of all)
A real victory (Jesus Christ’s death was not a defeat but a triumph)
Finally, different kinds of movies that focus on Jesus Christ or other religious themes, including non-Christian ones, also embrace the following types: passion plays; spectacles; epics; experimental or avant-garde movies; drama; supernatural movies; apocalyptic movies; picaresque movies; and, clerical movies.
** Concluding Thoughts
Whether you accept all of the essential teachings of Christianity or not, Jesus Christ is too important an historical figure and His impact on society has been too great to treat His life and ministry in a cavalier fashion. Nor should we distort the historical and theological record of those who knew Him and His teachings best, the apostles and their closest associates. These men and women (almost all of whom were religious Jews) diligently reported and recorded the teachings of Jesus and the historical facts about His life, ministry, death, and resurrection. They, and the divine but human savior they followed, deserve the admiration and respect of everyone, not just the movers, shakers and wannabes in the filmmaking community. To deny them that admiration and respect, to distort or mock their story, is to commit a grave injustice. An injustice that can be forgiven, if repentance is made, but an injustice nevertheless.
Having said all that, however, let us remember and celebrate those movies that do indeed honor Jesus Christ and His gospel.
May God help us to nurture and protect them, and to make more of them. Praise God in all things. Amen.
(c) Baehr, 2003.