If you grew up cradled in the nest of the Christian faith, as I did, then you have inevitably struggled at one time or another with the puzzle that Jesus Christ was both God and man. This is not thought to be a theory. It is also not a new idea; the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD was the first to recognize and affirm that Jesus’ hypostatic union – the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully divine – was dead solid fact. From that moment on, this has been an idea that every Christian has had to ponder.
It is also a comforting idea to some of us that Jesus could bear the divinity of God while at the same time pulling together the doubting qualities of a human being – the paramount attribute of God is that he is flawless while the paramount attribute of man is that his anything but.
For me, I am comforted by the fact that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, that he made himself human in an effort to have a sense of empathy with the human race. That comfort comes to me from one small passage in the book of Mark. On the night just before Jesus is to be arrested by the Romans and later crucified, he is hiding out in the garden of Gethsemani. There he falls to his knees and begins to pray: “Father, with you all things are possible, take this cup away from me.” What this says to me is that there was a large measure of humanity existing within this man whom history has taken for a divine being. I am comforted by the fact that if Jesus experiences doubts and fears; if he could struggle with his humanity then maybe it is not so frightening for me to struggle with my own.
The picture of Jesus as a perfect being is of course an adamant of history given to us, not through Jesus Christ himself, but by the testimonies of those who knew him – this is the construct of the Bible’s vision of Jesus, everything we get is basically second-hand and was discovered hundreds of years after he died. Jesus wrote nothing down and our vision of Christ is built first by “The Gospel According to . . .” and second by the historical vision of the most famous man in human history.
If you disagree with me, I completely understand. Look around you, no two human beings on the face of the Earth have a picture of Jesus Christ that is exactly the same. We don’t know what he looked like; We don’t know what he sounded like. If we saw him, we might not even recognize him – the picture in your mind is probably born of the Pre-Raphaelite watercolors of the Renaissance created some 1500 years after Jesus walked the Earth. Our vision of him remains within ourselves.
Which brings me to the movies.
I have made it known on the blog that I believe that what is written in The Bible should never be taken as a nailed-down version of history – The Bible is a record of historical events but it is not a history book. The Bible should challenge you to look at your own life, listen to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and find a path of peace and harmony within the word of God. Every vision of Jesus and his life and the meanings of what he stood for reside within the individual. Debates about who he was and what he meant to the world will be debated until the day that mankind ceases to exist.
The artistic world has had its own version of Jesus ever since the moment that it realized who and what he was meant to stand for. From paintings to statues to the moving image, mankind has always found a fascination with this man. The movies, my beloved institution, have given lip service to what it thinks about Jesus and what he had to say. The lesser films about Jesus’ life do him no credit. They are exercises in hagiography that sap his humanity.
In most cases I am troubled by Jesus’ portrayal on the screen. In the lesser films about his life, The Robe, Son of God,The 1999 miniseries Jesus; the stop-motion film The Miracle Maker; The Greatest Story Ever Told; the 1979 feature Jesus. These films feature Jesus as a watercolor dream, as a beatific figure going through the motions as if the filmmakers are afraid of offending the audience.
In these films he is often seen as a remote figure, a distant figure who is so perfect and so beautiful that he loses the ability to be relateable. The worst movies about Jesus find neither passion nor purpose, they shy away from challenging the audience by giving them only the Sunday School version that turns Jesus’ life into a series red letter moments: He heals the sick, raises the dead, feeds the multitudes, walks on water, gives inspiring sermons and he cheeses off the Romans until they crucify him. What is missing are the spaces in between. What was it like for Jesus on an average Tuesday? What must have been rolling around in his mind while he had a clear vision of what his purpose on this Earth was to be? It is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ dual personality must have caused him great emotional and mental distress, especially in knowing this information. Christ in these films remains remote and distant, an icon without substance or conflict. He’s more a bland picture postcard. Think about how dynamic a man like this must have been.
In my lifetime I have only seen three films that ever come close to the humanity that we know resided within him. First was Jesus of Nazareth, an epic, glorious 1977 production starring British actor Robert Powell in the title role and surrounded by . . . well . . . every single living actor at the time who had a free afternoon. I like the film but I have only seen it once because at 382 minutes, I just can’t find a weekend free to devote to it.
I was also impressed by The Passion of the Christ which I am alarmed to find makes many people’s worst list of films about Jesus. This is, indeed, a passionate film, a film that came from Mel Gibson’s heart and makes me sorry that he gave up directing. It is straight-forward about the last days of Jesus and gives us a front-row seat to his ultimate suffering and death at Calvary. Roger Ebert called this one of the most violent films ever made, and that may be true, this is an EXTREMELY violent film. But the point is to get us to understand the suffering. If we are to believe that he died for our sins, then we must understand what he went through to get there.
And then there’s the most uncomfortable (and best) of the three, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which cause rage and fire before it was released in 1988 mostly at the hands of so-called believers who reviled and pilloried the film without even seeing it (imagine that). Based, not on the scriptures, but on the equally controversial 1952 book by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the film has the nerve to focus less on the divine qualities of Jesus but on the torments of his flesh. Was he tempted? How human was he? Was he tempted by Satan to accept a normal life instead of dying on the cross? Did he have doubts? Did he question his calling? These are questions that all of the above films don’t want to deal with. They don’t want to question what Jesus was thinking on his way to the cross or on his way to his resurrection.
Played in a beautiful performance by Willem DeFoe, Jesus is seen here for his human qualities. He’s frustrated, he’s angry, he’s doubtful, he’s afraid. In other words, he’s all of those qualities that I have found in myself and attached to my vision of Jesus from The Book of Mark in which he asks God to “take his cup away from me.” The movie will not make many people happy. It questions the mission of Jesus, it questions his purpose, it sees in him the doubting human qualities that we as human beings share. It’s a glorious film in that way, because it purposes the idea that if he can overcome temptation then maybe it is easy for us mortals to do that same.
Of course, that’s my pathway to salvation. I find solace in the word of God in more places than just the movies. Movies are a way of bringing things close enough for us to understand them. The Bible is and should be an instruction guide to life, not a weapon to heap upon those who see things differently. That’s my long-winded exaltation on the King of Kings. Happy Easter everyone, and my God bless.