Jesus Goes to the Movies (Part 1)

July 13th, 2011

I've been teaching a class recently on Jesus figures and Christ figures in film. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but bear with me. 

First, the term Jesus figure refers to a portrayal in film (or literature or theatre) of the actual, historical person of Jesus. Since pretty close to the dawn of the movies, film makers have been trying to depict the life of Christ; a short series of French films showing scenes from the gospels were made in 1902-1905, for example. Dozens of these cinematic portraits of Jesus exist, but over the years a few have stood out. Cecil D. DeMille’s last silent picture was King of Kings, in which the director brought his love of big-budget excess to the story of Jesus’ life (this film is not to be confused with the 1961 movie of the same title, sometimes known as “I Was a Teenage Jesus.”) 1965′s The Greatest Story Ever Told starred Max von Sydow as a calm, perhaps even slightly boring, Jesus. And in 2004 Mel Gibson wanted to make certain we all really understood the concept of blood atonement in his movie The Passion of the Christ.

The term Christ figure is a little harder to define. Christ figures are not intended to dramatize the actual life of Christ, as Jesus figures are. Instead Christ figures are characters within a movie (or novel or play) whose lives reflect in some way the life and character of Christ. Usually, Christ figures are not overtly religious, nor are the films in which they appear.  The best Christ figures are flawed and fallen creatures like you and me, and hence don’t represent Christ’s fully loving life. Yet something about their story–often the way they die–mirrors Jesus self-emptying, self-giving love, and this is what makes them Christ figures.

To start with Jesus figures in film, we ask this question: what do these cinematic portraits of Jesus tell us about him? How are they helpful to someone who seeks to follow Jesus? How are they not helpful?

While film makers produce Jesus movies for a lot of reasons, their principal motivation, it seems to me, is to reveal something about the life of Jesus we hadn’t properly understood before, to arrive somehow at the “real Jesus.” This desire is hardly surprising, as it seems to be true for any movie about a historical person. Yet obviously more is at stake in a movie about Jesus. Consider the following:

  1. Jesus is the most important figure in the lives of millions of people
  2. The gospels leave out way more information about Jesus’ personality and inner life than they reveal.
  3. The movies are our culture’s preferred way to explore the life of an individual.

These facts combine to mean that movies about Jesus are practically begging to be made. What better way to deal with the ultimate “larger than life” figure than this, our most outsized medium?

So why are the ones that have been made so bad?

Oh, they’re not all terrible (although some some are). Most of them are largely unobjectionable. As a whole they’re reverent, responding to their particular subject matter with dignity and decorum. They try really hard to account for Jesus’ humanity, while remembering his status as Son of God. At least the mainstream films try to remain faithful to the biblical picture of Jesus, while striving to shed new light on him as a person.

But as movies, they stink. In spite of their subject matter and inherent interest to the audience, they plod along, never managing to capture the drama, tension, or, well, weirdness of the gospels. The more mainstream (read: inoffensive to Christian sensibilities) they are, the more boring they become (King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told embody this problem). Paradoxically, the more they try to strike out and explore new facets of the Jesus story, the more arbitrary they feel, invoking difference for its own sake (think The Last Temptation of Christ here). I’ve made a search of several of the "top 100" (or more) movie lists, and not one of the Jesus movies appears on any of them. O.k, Ben Hur is on the IMDB top 250 list, but while Jesus appears in that movie, it’s not actually a movie about him.

So, the question becomes this: is it just that we’re still waiting for the really good Jesus movie to be made, or is it that a really good one can’t be made? I've got three thoughts on this subject.

First, there is tremendous pressure for Jesus movies to stick closely to the actual words of the gospels, due to all the experts out there in the theaters just waiting for the film makers to add or subtract something from the mouth of Jesus (and hence denounce the film). But doing so renders the film artificial and (frankly) boring because the words of the gospels were never intended to form a screenplay. Drama, tension, conflict; these all show up in the four gospels, but most of the time they are accompanied by long stretches (in the Gospel of John, very long stretches) of dialogue or monologue. This suits the gospels’ intended purpose well, but sadly, makes for a slow-paced movie.

This fact means that, second, if a good Jesus movie is to be made it will have to depart from the letter of the gospels, and seek instead to capture their spirit. We all know successful and unsuccessful attempts to turn well-known works of literature into movies. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings suceeded because the director remained faithful to the spirit and the tone of the book, while feeling free to shift around and even remove characters and story lines. The 2006 film adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men failed because, in spite of its terrific cast, it couldn’t find a shred of the original characters’ emotions and motivations.

I chose those two examples because a high degree of agreement exists on the books’ essential qualities, as well as on the movies’ success or failure in capturing those qualities. And here’s where the problem comes with Jesus movies. No such agreement presents itself about the message that lies at the heart of the gospels. Ask ten lifelong Christians what the the gospels are really about, and you’ll get fifteen answers. Toss in all the other folks who have heard this and that about Jesus over the years (which means just about everybody), and (once again) you’ve got an audience of experts, each with his or her opinion on what lies at the heart of the gospel story. No one could ever agree that a particular interpretation of the story of Jesus got it right, because when it comes to this story there is so little agreement about what “right” is.

Third, I don’t think a really excellent Jesus movie is possible because the source material defeats the movie’s purpose. As I mentioned earlier, the reason to make a movie about a historical figure ( as opposed to a fictional character) is to say something about that person’s identity and personality we’ve not known before, to shed new light on her or him, to show us the “real” Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I or Malcolm X. To do so, the movie has to access information that allows us to see that historical person in a new way. All we have to rely on regarding the historical Jesus is the gospels, and I don’t think they’re going to reveal any new information about him of the kind Hollywood is looking for.

More importantly, though, is the fact that in the end the gospels aren’t about Jesus in the way that a standard biography is about its subject. The point of the gospels isn’t to provide us in-depth information about Jesus; the early Christians already had all the information they needed. Following Peter’s confession they knew that he is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The point of the gospels–what they’re “about”–is to confront us, the readers, with what we’re going to do with this Jesus. A movie that faithfully captured the gospels’ true purpose would, in essence, be an evangelistic tool. And which of us pays money to see a movie we know is going to try to convert us?

So no, I don’t think movies about Jesus are such a good idea. Now when it comes to movies about Christ figures, that’s another story altogether. Read "Jesus Goes to the Movies (Part 2)."


What is the best--or worst--Jesus movie you've seen?

Bob Ratcliff is an editor and teacher living in Franklin, Tennessee. He blogs about theology, the Bible, and other curious stuff at
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