IMDB lists 394 movies have been made that featured or involved Jesus as a key character in the storyline. Ranker offers their 28 top Jesus-based films, which range from the inspirational (Passion of the Christ, Gospel of John) to the unusual (Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter, even better it’s a musical and involves Mexican luchadores). Hipster Monk gives his list of Jesus films called “the Good, the Bad, and the Blasphemous.” Vintage 21 Church released its Jesus movie spoof several years ago as a response to how non-Christians often view Christians.
With the release of the Mark Burnett and Roma Downey movie Son of God, there has been a renewed interest in the film portrayals of the Messiah and the response of both the faithful and the skeptical to them. Much of the film is based on the History Channel miniseries The Bible, which I have to admit was really well-done and very creative in how it brought the stories to life. The recent controversy over some aspects of the Son of God movie, namely the artistic license taken at times in the narrative, requires a critique and help for the Church to work through the process of discernment.
A brief theological discourse is necessary on the Latin words in the title, vox and verba. When we understand the revelation of Scripture, we have to ask ourselves this question “Are we getting the exact words of Christ (verba), or the exact voice (vox)?” In other words, are there times that the Gospel writers summarized Jesus or are they giving every indication that they are writing down the verbatim words of Jesus’ sermons? I would say that the answer is yes, to both, depending on the circumstances and the context. There are times where it is clear we have the voice, rather than verbatim, during Jesus’ lengthy discourses. Even if you read the Sermon on the Mount in Greek (which you should try, it’s a delightful exercise), it takes roughly 20 minutes. Jesus would have likely spoken much longer as an accomplished teacher, so while there are likely direct quotations in Matthew’s account, we have to recognize that there are times where he, and the other Gospel writers, are giving us a highlight reel of Jesus’ teaching. Both provide you the essence, content, and thrust of the teaching without every detail, just like how Sportscenter can recap an entire game in a 2 minute clip. In other places we can recognize that we are getting the verbatim words of Jesus, such as the Seven Sayings on the Cross, the institution of the Supper, or the interaction with Lazarus (which would have included Jewish understandings of cleanness as well). It doesn’t mean that one is “more inspired” than the other or that we should use a darker shade of red for the lettering.
This does not undermine the understanding in most evangelical churches of “plenary verbal inspiration” for two reasons: 1) The Holy Spirit is the author as much in the case of vox as He is verba, because what we have recorded in the Four Gospels is as much canon as any other book and is thus under the same standard of inspiration as Romans, Jonah, or Genesis; 2) Vox does not undermine the teaching of Christ because of the apostolic authorship of the Gospels. Darrell Bock says this about the debate in the book Jesus Under Fire: “One can present history accurately whether one quotes or summarizes teaching or even mixes the two together. To have accurate summaries of Jesus’ teaching is just as historical as to have his actual words; they are just two different perspectives to give us the same thing. All that is required is that the summaries be trustworthy.”
So what are we to do with Jesus movies as a thoughtful, careful, discerning people? Let me offer 4 suggestions:
- Recognize that every movie will fall short of the glory of the Incarnation – Even the Gospels themselves do not bear full witness to every detail of Jesus’ life. John makes that allusion in the last verse of his Gospel (cf. John 21:25), so a movie buttressed by a 2 hour time limit is only going to scratch the surface of the full story. Typically most movies are only able to fully pursue one plot aspect, and leave the rest either untreated or woefully under treated. The best example from the Jesus corpus of this is the Passion of the Christ, which focused exclusively on the sufferings of Christ in a roughly 24 hour period. Missing from the movie were the 33 years of perfect obedience that is as essential to the work of Christ as the cross, and the full implications of the Resurrection which validated and vindicated the work of Christ. Perhaps the wisdom I got from a middle school teacher is helpful, “The movie is never as good as the book.”
- Don’t act surprised when Hollywood doesn’t produce Sunday School material – At this I want to introduce two particular films about Jesus: The Last Temptation of Christ, and Godspell. In one, Jesus wrestles with inner conflict about his own lust, comes off the cross and marries 3 women with lots of kids who only as an old man dies for redemption, and in the other Jesus is a beatnik in Greenwich Village in NYC in the 1970s who paints murals and plants gardens with the Disciples. Neither one of these reflect the lessons from the Jesus Storybook Bible, and we shouldn’t expect them to. In 1 John, there are clear distinctions from the Church & the World, and we cannot expect the world to favor or embrace the radical nature of the Gospel. So when Hollywood produces blockbuster movies aimed at attacking historic orthodoxy (see da Vinci Code), welcome to the club, it’s been happening for 2000 years.
- Watch every Jesus movie with a grain of salt – There are some really good (and some really bad/cheesy) Jesus films out there. But all of them, even the most reliable, need to be taken with a grain of salt. Some go so far as to fulfill Chesterton’s words about Jesus not wanting to show us his mirth. So they make Jesus out to be an emo guy who looks sad with way too much hair product. Some go so far the other way to make Jesus giggle like a tween at a Bieber concert, and remove the hard edge from Jesus’ teaching & ministry. Others take liberty with the textual witness for dramatic effect because God becoming Man and dying for sin wasn’t dramatic enough. Take in the film, enjoy the story, and always check things against Scripture. There’s a reason why the Book of Concord (1580) describes the Bible as the “norming norm,” only it has the authority and place to rightly determine our thinking, our worldview, and our understanding of redemptive history. Rich Mullins nailed it when talking about Christians and entertainment “If you really want spiritual nourishment, you should go to church…you should read the Scriptures.”
- Fall in love with the sufficiency of Scripture – We believe that the Bible is enough to explain the major acts of history: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Glory. Because of that, we can rest in the security that comes from having a clear witness to things of utmost importance, and cling to it for the most crucial answers. No movie ever can be in the same time zone for the Bible’s storyline, emphasis, and goal. Be free from expecting film to do what it was never intended for. Most Jesus movies majorly lack a key theological/historical element, and that shouldn’t drive us to blogs and social media rants, it should drive us to the glorious text which shows us a drama far greater than anything Hollywood could do.
- Buy the bottomless popcorn option – Enjoy the movie, get sucked into the drama unfolding, laugh when Jesus laughs (He did), weep when Jesus weeps (He did), and be angry at the treachery that befalls Jesus at the hands of Judas. Plus, movie theater popcorn is incredibly tasty and addicting!
We need to be thankful for the work of Burnett & Downey, if nothing else that they’re moving us away from the legacy of cheese that has long tainted Christian film-making. We need to be thankful for those who are willing to try to figure out how to tell the Greatest Story Ever in such a way that it captures the essence of the Nazarene before an audience that may only be interested in being entertained. We need to be thankful that Jesus is not limited to the King James dialogue that made many Jesus movies so wooden in the past, but that He was a man with a personality, sense of humor, passion, and love that goes beyond how He has often been played on film.
But we also need to be careful. We need to be careful that we do not assume too much in Jesus movies. We mustn’t put them in a place we should only reserve for Scripture. We need to be careful not to be overly critical or cranky about these, and miss how even movies like Ultrachrist (where Jesus is a superhero who fights Dracula & Hitler) can be avenues for bridging the Gospel.
The great news there is that it’s so easy to do – the Gospels tell a far more captivating story than any blockbuster could ever do, as the Jesus Storybook Bible says, “It’s like an adventure story about a young Hero who came from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne, everything to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that have come true in real life.”