Filming the Perfect Jesus
Son of God (2014). 20th Century Fox. Christopher Spencer, Director. 138 minutes. Reviewed by Robin Jarrell
The most recent attempt at telling the Christian story through mainstream film has created a maelstrom of criticism and nay-saying by those critics who perceive that (once again) the producers who would market Jesus to the world are racist, misogynist, historically inaccurate, and downright misleading.
I am not here to respond to the film’s artistic critics. Because, let’s face it, as far as the Son of God is concerned, it’s doubtful that Jesus was a tall Brazilian, that Mary Magdalen was the waitress to the Apostles, or that the Blessed Mother underwent plastic surgery. What interests me more is that the many of the critics of these films feel compelled to discount them without having even viewed the films.
The offense comes from both sides: in the case of The Last Temptation of Christ, the film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1953 novel of the same name, the “faithful” were aghast that Jesus should be portrayed as being romantically involved with Mary Magdalene. And while I am convinced that at several points The Passion of the Christ was undeniably anti-Semitic, it was loosely based on the visions of Roman Catholic mystics and earned a score of artistic awards. Unashamedly violent, it raised the ire of the intellectual community, whose members complained that it was not biblically or historically accurate.
In the case of Son of God, which is loosely based on John’s Gospel, Roman Catholic detractors (who also admit to not seeing the whole movie) argue that the film is “too protestant,” while atheist critics see the film as a marketing device to keep “faithful” Christians mesmerized and intellectually weak. I think Son of God hedges its bets along the Catholic/Protestant divide: Mary Magdalene is presented as a sort of den mother to the rest of the male apostles, but is noticeably absent during the last supper’s distribution of bread and wine, thus allowing that only male apostles should preside over the meals where the faithful “do this in remembrance of me.”
It seems that many religious folk cannot watch an artistic depiction of Jesus for fear of committing some sort of blasphemy, or possibly tainting their faith, whereas other non-religious folk don’t see the point of watching any sort of film about Jesus, no matter how artistically justified, because it is not intellectually rigorous, or because it is so much dangerous religious propaganda.
In the end, I think it is the evangelical Christians who have largely taken the more fruitful approach: come and see. I have seen all three films (the last two with my congregations), and I have found that cinematic depictions of Jesus remarkable ways to conversations about faith, the historical Jesus, the Gospels, biblical hermeneutics—in short, practically anything that concerns us as Christians. At the same time they compel us to understand the views of seekers after Christianity, or even the views of non-Christians and anyone who is trying to understand what it means to be human.