When I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I saw the movie “Jesus,” also known as the Jesus film, at Moody Bible Church in Chicago. I remember Jesus’ face, his kind voice and not much else (also that it was Martin Luther’s birthday and that we sang a hymn of his before the movie).
Ten years ago I attended another Jesus film that would leave a much greater impression. I found myself with my mom, sister and uncle in a shabby strip-mall theater. My dad had died rather suddenly that fall, and my mom’s brother had been unable to make the funeral. Now he had flown in from Sweden to pay his respects, and one evening, my mom, a fundamentalist Protestant, said we were going go see “The Passion of the Christ.” The head of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission had screened the film, by Mel Gibson, for “creeping, excessive Catholicism,” and found none, which cleared the way for evangelicals to see it.
My uncle—a one-time missionary turned agnostic truck driver—was unenthusiastic. But he was a guest and she a recent widow, so he shrugged and went. The movie, a two-hour blood bath, was tough sledding. Afterward, between sniffles, my mom and sister pronounced the film great. I asked my uncle what he thought. He cringed. “Heavy. Violent.” This from a man whom I have seen disembowel a deer in the middle of a forest.
Though the two films could not be more different, both have enjoyed wide success. Despite its dubious cinematic quality, “Jesus,” which is really an evangelization tool from Campus Crusade for Christ, has been viewed by approximately—get this—six billion people since 1979 and has led approximately 200 million people to make some sort of faith commitment. “The Passion of the Christ” earned over $600 million, 20 times the amount it cost to make the film. This latter figure likely was lurking when the producers behind the History Channel’s hugely popular, 10-hour mini-series “The Bible,” Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, decided to recut part of the series footage and release it as Son of God.
The movie opens with an action-packed montage of Old Testament scenes narrated by a weirdly spry-looking John, sitting alone at Patmos. Then Jesus is born, and the movie fast forwards to him recruiting Peter with the unlikely phrase, “We’re going to change the world!” From there, the film is a greatest-hits reel of Jesus’ miracles, followed by the Passion. The pacing is rushed, and much is sacrificed, notably the wedding at Cana, and John the Baptist gets all of a four second flashback. But it feels long.
The cable-broadcast roots of “Son of God” were often apparent: low-grade computer-generated imagery and grainy film in dark scenes were distracting. The film is also rife with clichés, whose purpose is to identify the setting. Romans eating grapes on daybeds suggest sin and power. British accents tell us this movie is serious, foreign, ancient. I longed for the Latin and Aramaic of “The Passion,” not to mention its rougher realism.
Most of the main characters in “Son of God” are too easy on the eyes. Jesus, played by the Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, looks vaguely like Brad Pitt, with beautiful hair and teeth that my toothpaste tube describes as “optic white.” Similarly, I found Roma Downey (of “Touched by an Angel”) an uncomfortably attractive Mary.
Insofar as the film has merit, it is to be found in its strong focus on the Roman occupation of Israel, dramatizing the tension between Pilate and Caiaphas and highlighting Barabas’s role as an agitator—context which is often lost. The film is at times entertaining, which is the goal of most Hollywood epics, so in that sense it is effective. But if entertainment is the goal, one could do far better.
Perhaps I am just being a snob. There were many wet eyes in the theater as Jesus was hanging from the cross. And when the credits rolled, just after Jesus appears to John on Patmos, the light streaming through the whole in his hand as he declares “There will be no death, ever!” the audience applauded.
After the film, a man in a suit encouraged us to pray about the opening and called our attention to opportunities to host screenings or purchase bulk tickets for churches or schools. “This isn’t about Mark and Roma making money. Believe me. They have plenty. This is about sharing the story of Jesus,” he said.
The costs of “Son of God” have probably been recouped several times over, thanks to the success of “The Bible,” which garnered 100 million viewers worldwide and, when released on DVD, quickly became the top-selling mini-series of all time. Given this fact, perhaps the film—the stated aim of which is to share the Gospel story with as many people as possible—could have been made available free on the Internet.
“Jesus,” by contrast, has been translated into over 1,000 languages by a nonprofit ministry and shown in every country of the world. It was recently announced that the film will be remastered and re-released in select theaters. For those who would champion movies as an evangelistic tool—and as “Jesus” shows, they can be quite effective—I would ask what it means for us to put our evangelistic efforts in the hands of commercial companies, whose goals are not our goals. The message of the Gospel, after all, is not always in tune with the desires of the market. One of the only pre-Passion moments in “Son of God” where Jesus drops his million-dollar smile is when he drives out the money-changers from the Temple.
The “Son of God” will probably enjoy box-office success. But does that justify portraying the Son of God as a blockbuster movie hero? If commercial film is largely an entertainment medium, what does it mean to encounter Jesus in that medium while shoveling popcorn into your mouth? To watch the crucifixion with a Hans Zimmer sound track, as though you were watching “Man of Steel”? What is lost and what, if anything, is gained? As the poet W. H. Auden noted, “Christianity draws a distinction between what is frivolous and what is serious, but allows the former its place. What it condemns is not frivolity but idolatry, that is to say, taking the frivolous seriously.”
The day after I saw “Son of God,” I wrote my mom to ask if the “The Passion” had had any long-term spiritual effects or if it was just a temporary, emotional experience for her. “To be honest, I think it was more of a momentary thing. But you can’t judge! Some people might come to the Lord through these films.” Perhaps they will. When I saw “The Passion of the Christ,” I was on my way out of the evangelical church and, I thought, out of the Christian faith. What I wanted, and what the film could not deliver, was a portrayal of the greater suffering: Christ’s momentary separation from the Father, a separation that I felt from both my father and God. Nor could the gruesome depiction of physical suffering of the crucifixion communicate Christ’s physicality, his humanity, his presence with us. For that, I needed the Eucharist.