Vox, Verba, and Victor Garber – Jesus & Movies

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.

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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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.”

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Half Truths in Student Ministry: I’d Be Loved if I Were Better

“I wish I was better looking”

“I wish I was smarter”

“If only I could do…”

“If only I hadn’t done…”

“Why couldn’t I be…?”

“I guess I’m not good enough/smart enough”

“I need to get my life right before I can…”

One of the hardest parts of student ministry is to hear the despair in students. They are broken over things like past sins, current struggles, regrets, but most of all they are broken and distraught over the performance mentality that so dominates their life. It consumes them, because the smartest get the scholarships, the best athletes get the attention, the most active get the class superlative, and everywhere they look there’s someone prettier, someone stronger, someone faster, someone who’s more serious about their faith, someone who can do or know something they cannot. And in the performance culture, this quickly escalates to hopelessness.

Spiritually though, this can be more than disappointing, it can be devastating. When students buy into the myth that their performance leads to their acceptance or value before God, the result is a constant pursuit of “do better, try harder, be gooder.” Because performance is so tied to value, the system that dictates class rank, playing time, and community attention is carried over to their faith. Rather than seeing themselves rooted and grounded in the work of Christ, students substitute that for a Deceiver who whispers to them “you’re not good enough to be a Christian, you need to do better to be accepted by God, you know if you don’t do everything the way you’re supposed to then you’re nothing but a fraud.”

I love the book of Ephesians. I spent a semester teaching through it, and would love to dedicate longer to it in the future. I continually come back to Ephesians 1 as a tremendously valuable passage of Scripture in helping students see who they are in Christ. At the core of this myth is an identity problem. Students who buy into the performance mentality believe that their identity is connected to what they do (or, what they don’t do). As we walk through what Ephesians 1, in particular v. 3-14, says to us, let’s remember first and foremost that our identity, our value, and our acceptance is based on Christ and our being found in Him.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Chosen (v. 3) – God has chosen to have a relationship with you, yes you. The God of the universe, in grace and love, wanted to have a relationship with you and pursued you with the love of Christ. You are valuable to God in Christ. You don’t have to be a blue chip recruit or an All-American to be ‘drafted’ by God. He chooses you to be a friend and does so in His kindness through Christ. In verse 11 Paul uses the term “predestined” to describe us. Basically, that means that God, in wisdom and love, has decided to pursue you and draw you to Himself for His glory and for the blessing of others.

Holy & Blameless (v. 4) – In Christ, we’re no longer seen in our stains, guilt, and shame. Instead, God sees us as He does Jesus – in all His righteousness. You are made right with God. Romans 8:1 declares that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ. You are not the mistakes you’ve made, nor the things you’re able to do or not able to, you are in Christ and therefore you are holy.

Adopted (v. 5) – Don’t ever fail to be amazed by this. God not only calls us friends in Christ, not only does He forgive us and give us a new hope, but He adopts us. You, as a Christian, have God as your Father. He has brought you near to Him. No matter if you had a great family or if your family belongs on Jerry Springer, in Christ you are given a whole new identity and you have the God of the Universe as your Father. You are loved and valued and accepted by God because He has decided to adopt you and make you His child.

Blessed (v. 6) – We find our blessing in the Beloved (aka Jesus), in whom we have everything we need. Regardless of whether you grew up rich or poor, in a single-parent home or stable family, if you have new shoes or have to buy from consignment, if you go to a great school or to one that rewards you for not getting arrested/pregnant, you have everything you need in Jesus. When our needs/wants are shifted from what we think we must have to what God does, it changes our perspective. Psalm 37:4 says this “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” When our primary place of delight, joy, and satisfaction is in God, everything else falls into place.

Redeemed/Forgiven (v. 7) – If you are in Christ, you’re forgiven for everything you’ve done, and everything you’re going to do! Remember, this isn’t freedom to do whatever you want and take advantage of God’s grace. That’s like slacking off and banking on the smart kid to do all the work for your group project. The beauty of this is that God knows everything about you – your heart, your faults, your sin, and your shame – and in Christ He takes all of those things and erases them. Josh Harris has a great demonstration of this. In Christ, you are forgiven. The Bible uses this idea of redeemed to talk about who we are in Christ. Redeemed basically means that you have been set free by someone paying a ransom for you. A movie I loved in college was Proof of Life with Russell Crowe. In it he plays a kidnapping expert who works with a lady whose husband is being held captive. If they pay up the money, he’ll be set free. The cost is steep, and so it is with our sin. Romans tells us that the wages (what we have earned) of our sin is death. Hebrews reminds us that without blood there is no forgiveness. The problem is that the only way to pay for our sin is by blood shed. Jesus satisfies this because He dies for us, and with His blood our redemption is purchased.

Lavished (v. 8) – The description of God’s grace given to us isn’t one of a dripping faucet or even a glass of water. The idea Paul gives for us to understand God’s grace in our life is a fire house from Niagara Falls! God gives us so much grace in Christ that it covers us and swamps us and overwhelms us. John Mark McMillan describes it like this “if grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.”  We cannot fully understand God’s grace in our lives because of how overwhelming it is. And this is grace that God gives to you. Yes, you. You who were once an alien, stranger, and enemy of God. You who struggles with unknown sins to anyone else. You who has doubts, who struggles with performance expectations, and who wishes to just disappear at times. God gives you grace. Grace to live daily. Grace to persevere when things get hard. Grace to love and trust Jesus more. Grace to depend on Him for everything.

Purpose (v. 9) – Nothing happens by accident. One of the biggest lies that we’re told is that “stuff happens.” It’s simply not true. God is sovereign. Part of God’s sovereignty means that everything that happens is part of a purpose, a plan. History, your life, your friend’s life, your unborn children’s life, is going somewhere. There is a point to everything that happens in your life. You are part of God’s redemptive story, the unfolding drama of God’s activity here on earth. We entertain ourselves to death, living through social media which has redefined ‘friend’ to make it a verb, as in when you friend someone. We entertain ourselves to death by observing everything that happens around us rather than participating. God invites us to be a part of His work, not tweet about it. You were created for a purpose, for a task, for a reason. Three books that speak highly to this are Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper, Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung, and Radical by David Platt. Read them, be challenged by them, and do something.

Inheritance (v. 11) – When my grandfather died he had a provision in his will for my sisters and me to receive a sum of money. It was a great blessing because that money helped us buy our first home and provided the finances for me to begin my PhD. But in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t that much money. Another relative died and I got to pick out a sweater of theirs I liked. At times like that I wish my last name was Gates, but oh well. Can you imagine what kind of inheritance the God of the Universe is able to give? Do you think there’s any way to get your head around the amount? But that is what you are promised by God in Christ. We stand to receive an inheritance from the King – and Heaven, with all its promised beauty and splendor,  is only a glimpse of that.

Hope (v. 12) – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people chase after a hope that fails them. Whether it’s a scholarship, a leadership position, a spot on the roster, or even their driver’s license, so many times those hopes fail us. The reality is, everything we place our hope in apart from Christ will at some point let us down. But the good news is that Jesus is the hope that never disappoints, always delivers, and gives us far more than a scholarship or roster spot ever could. Hope gives us the motivation to go on. People who get lost in the wilderness cling to the hope of rescue. There are stories from disasters like wars that talk about how those with hope are able to endure the hardship and make it out – while those without hope often fulfill their own doom and gloom. You don’t have to worry or freak out over the scholarships, the performance, the need to be perfect on the field, or the need to be someone you’re not. Jesus has done all that for you. Your hope is in Him.

Sealed (v. 13) – Lastly, this passage talks about how we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. There’s a hymn with the line “no power of Hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand,” and that demonstrates the power of God to keep us. We buy into the performance lie whenever we tell ourselves that we must do something in order to keep someone or be accepted. That’s why so many teens become sexually active, because they’ve bought into the lie that sex = love. That’s why so many become addicted to drugs like Xanax or Adderol, because they’ve bought into the lie that performance or happiness = success. When we replace God with some other substitute, we realize how slippery a grip we have on that substitute. Do you remember the rope climb in gym class? I hated it. I never could get a good grip on the rope and so I could never make it very high. My hands would keep slipping. So many of us are in the same boat when it comes to our life. But the promise of God is this: in Christ, there is no way to break the bond between us and God (want proof? Read Romans 8:31-39). The Holy Spirit seals us with a stronger grip than we can ever break.

Child of God, my prayer for you is this: that you would find your satisfaction, your hope, your joy, your peace, your fulfillment, your acceptance, and your value in Christ alone. My prayer is that you would ignore the voices around you that tell you to substitute Jesus for something else that over-promises and under-delivers. My prayer for you, dear Christian, is to not base your life on a lie of performance but to take deep roots in the grace of Christ. My prayer, beloved, is to live a holy life but to recognize that there is nothing you can do to cause God to no longer love you. My prayer, brother and sister, is to see who you are through the lens of Christ, not the person next to you.

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