“Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” Thus goes the chorus of the title song of Jesus Christ, Superstar. Who indeed is Jesus? For many, both inside and outside the church, Jesus is known by name, but his identity is still under dispute. Spoken or unspoken theological assumptions are made about Jesus’ identity. It is the unspoken ones that are more difficult to address in pastoral situations.
One of the best resources for opening up a discussion about the historical Jesus with both Christians and non-Christians has been provided by, of all things, the motion picture industry. For over one hundred years cinematic depictions of the life of Jesus have graced the silver screen and, for the last thirty years or so, have also appeared in the homes of millions through the ever pervasive icon of North American culture – the television. These films, most available now on video and DVD, present a range of Christological understandings that can generate a multiplicity of discussions.
The film industry has its roots in Jesus-films, with at least sixteen films in the silent era (1897-1919) based on Jesus’ passion. Although the 1920s saw the rise of some significant Jesus films that carried a social apologetic, in the thirties and forties Jesus appeared less often as a subject, primarily due to the fear of censorship for any seeming heterodoxy. The fifties began the era of the great epics, shot in cinemascope and technicolor. The wider screen and vivid colors allowed for much more creativity of style, although the portrayals of Jesus remain quite wooden. The exception is the black and white The Gospel According to St. Matthew, by the Italian communist Pablo Passolini (1966).
Jesus films from the seventies reflect the diversity of cultures in the western hemisphere, from the hippie-style musicals of the age of Aquarius to the more staid and pious “bathrobe clad” presentations directed by Zeffirelli and Sykes. The Monty Python troupe shocked audiences with Life of Brian as did Martin Scorsese a decade later with The Last Temptation of Christ. Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal was somewhat less controversial, despite taking greater artistic license with the story, and to my mind remains one of the better Jesus films.
The turn of the millennium was a catalyst for a number of new renditions of the old, old story. Some reflect the piety (and bathrobes!) of the earlier biblical epics, although The Miracle Maker uses clay figure action and contemporary archaeological and biblical scholarship to present a captivating portrait of Jesus through realistic dialogue and an interesting storyline.
What is clear about all of these Jesus films is that they are all different and they all have merits and faults. In each case, they reflect the peculiarities of their directors, their principal actors, and their cultural contexts. Nevertheless, in many ways so do the four canonical gospels, which all tell the same story, but do so from different perspectives. It is this diversity that I find so inviting as a means to engage others in a discussion about Jesus’ identity.
One of the most effective means to initiate discussion of Jesus films (and even of the gospel texts themselves) is to have participants break into small groups and, form a list of the major events and speeches in Jesus’ life, pick the 6-10 that they would include in a (small budget) film about Jesus. This not only helps focus on the storyline itself but allows people to understand the kinds of choices that directors must make in composing their film. One can also discuss who would star as Jesus – does one cast a big-name star or an unknown?
A short introduction to the art of film making can be followed by a more detailed film analysis. There are a number of lenses through which to analyze Jesus films. The following represents a synthetic summary of some of the recent approaches discussed in detail by Tatum (1997), Telford (1997) and Stern, Jefford, and DeBona (1999).
(1) The first lens is that of narrative – what is the plot, characterization, point of view? This generally gets participants started in discussing details of the film.
(2) This segues nicely into the artistic lens in which aspects of film composition are examined (e.g., mise-en-scène, framing, lighting).
(3) The historical lens examines the portrayal of the life and times for accuracy in light of recent archaeological and biblical studies, and usually blends with the inter-textual lens, since the most obvious literary sources for many (not all) of the films are the gospels themselves. In the latter lens, interest can be focused on what sources were chosen and how they are used.
(4) The move to the modern world begins with the cultural analysis which observes how the film intersects with the context(s) in which it was first made and whether our own times and cultures reflect that same ethos.
(5) The ideological lens pushes deeper to examine the depiction of gender, race, sexuality, religion, and the like.
(6) However, the most interesting discussions arise with the final lens, theological, with a probing into such things as the film’s Christology or soteriology.
Clearly not all of the lenses will be used in a single discussion, although it is helpful to probe each of them a bit in preparing to lead a discussion (or after watching a Jesus film for oneself for that matter).
Not everyone will equally enjoy every film made about Jesus. In fact, some may be offended for any one of a number of reasons (e.g., the doubts Jesus expresses, the sexual tension between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the overt religious message of the film). One must choose a film well to fit with the intended discussion partners. This means, above all, a basic familiarity with some of the major films.
A good place to start is with the resources at the end of this volume, or you can consult the “Jesus: Real to Reel” resource web page at http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/realreel.htm.
Major Jesus Films
| Title Director Year “Jesus”
Passion Play of Oberammergau Henry C. Vincent 1898 Frank Russell
From the Manger to the Cross Sidney Olcott 1912 R. Hederson-Bland
Intolerance D.W. Griffith 1916 Howard Gaye
The King of Kings Cecil B. DeMille 1927 H. B. Warner
King of Kings Nicholas Ray 1961 Jeffery Hunter
Greatest Story Ever Told George Stevens 1965 Max von Sydow
Gospel According to St. Matthew Pier Pasolini 1966 Enrique Irazoqui.
Godspell David Greene 1973 Victor Garber
Jesus Christ, Superstar Norman Jewison 1973 Ted Neely
Jesus of Nazareth Franco Zeffirelli 1977 Robert Powell.
Jesus Peter Sykes 1979 Brian Deacon
Monty Python’s Life of Brian Terry Jones 1979 Ken Colley
Last Temptation of Christ Martin Scorese 1988 Willem Defoe
Jesus of Montreal Denys Arcand 1989 Lothaire Bluteau
Matthew (The Visual Bible) R. van den Bergh 1996 Bruce Marchiano
Mary, Mother of Jesus Kevin Connor 1999 Christian Bale
Jesus Robert Young 1999 Jeremy Sisto
The Miracle Maker Hayes & Sokolov 2000 Ralph Fiennes