Are you the Expected One, or should we look for someone else? (Matthew 11:3)
Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:29)
I’m teaching a course this month on “Jesus and the Movies” at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. We are examining nineteen feature films on Jesus, made between 1912 and 2014, through the lenses of biblical criticism, Christology, film theory, and cultural contexts.
But we are also considering our own personal perspectives on the protagonist of “the greatest story ever told.” What influences have shaped our own image(s) of Jesus? How do we picture Jesus? What do we expect him to do? How do we expect him to be? How is our understanding of Jesus enlarged, challenged, confirmed, contradicted or disappointed by what we see on the screen?
Robert Powell, whose portrayal of Jesus in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was generally well received by the public, said some years later that “No one can play Jesus. Not really.” And many critics have agreed. The casting of boyish teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter (who was actually 33 when he played the part) elicited sneers of “I Was a Teenage Jesus.” Max von Sydow, praised by some for restoring virility to the role, was ripped by others for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Jesus Christ Superstar’s Ted Neely was dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair, followed by nondescript young people without any particular place to go.” And Willem Dafoe’s troubled and uncertain Jesus caused NPR’s Tom Shales to say that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who — who wrote the book of love?”
My take on the subject is that no actor has to be the Jesus, and that no single film needs to be definitive. They only need to show us the “old, old story” in some fresh way, to reveal some dimension we might otherwise have missed. But any claim to have finally gotten it “right” would be idolatry. As Rowan Williams has noted:
If you think representation is copying or reproducing, quite clearly, there is no way you can do this as a religious believer. Not even if you think you are reproducing what Jesus looked like when he was on earth. If on the other hand you think ‘I need to find some kind of vehicle which will put me in touch with the action that underlies and sustains these events’, then of course you won’t necessarily look for a realistic picture… No, you don’t want to represent just the human facts, nor do you want to take refuge in abstract representations … you are put in touch with something, but you mustn’t think it’s a copy.[i]
So the actors and filmmakers are freed of the burden of factual replication. They merely have to put us in touch with that certain something contained in the Jesus story. And in provoking our own responses, both positive and negative, they make us reexamine the nature and history of our own images and ideas for Jesus.
That being said, here are ten preliminary questions to consider when Jesus asks the big one: “Who do you say that I am?”
- Where did your first images of Jesus come from? Have any of those become obsolete?
- What later images, experiences, and understandings caused those first images to grow, develop, change?
- What are your criteria for authenticity? Scripture, theological presuppositions, historical probability, psychological plausibility, inner experience, worship, moral resonance, etc.?
- Then vs. Now: Is Jesus only in the past, or can we encounter him in the present? Can faith communities receive information about Jesus that adds to the picture (as in the Fourth Gospel or the Book of Revelation)? Can individuals, such as Julian of Norwich in her visions of the Passion, be shown “new” things about the Jesus story? Can a painter, or a filmmaker, show us something new about Jesus? How can such new insights. assertions, or revelations be tested?
- Is historical investigation enough to reach the “real” Jesus? Is faith enough? Or do they shape and influence each other?
- What is the role of art, including film, in showing us Jesus? Can different images/actors/styles add to our understanding and experience of Jesus? What are the criteria that affect our receptivity?
- If a particular movie Jesus or scene doesn’t fit our own ideas. images, or understandings, do we reject it entirely, or do we engage with it, let its difference be a way to explore and test our presuppositions? Do we say, “That’s not Jesus,” and move on? Or do we wrestle till dawn with that stranger to see whether it might bless us?
- All language is difference: this is not that. Can even the not-Jesuses help define who Jesus is?
- Ontological Christology vs. functional Christology (being vs. doing): Do the identity of Jesus, and the authenticity of his representations, lie in who he is: a person in whom both human and divine are perfectly integrated (and then manifested in personality, charisma, appearance, and the way he feels to us)? Or does it lie in what he does, what he says, and how the story goes, regardless of our affective responses to his manner of being?
- If a particular representation of Jesus makes you uncomfortable, can that be a good thing?
My 10 Favorite Jesus Movie Moments
[i] “Faith and Image,” a conversation between Rowan Williams and Neil MacGregor, Art and Christianity 75 (Autumn 2013), 3
When I was a kid, the Warner Sallman portrait of Jesus, Head of Christ, hung in our Methodist church and that image has always been what Jesus looks like to me, even after I realized how European, how romanticized, and how prettified it is. Since then my understanding of Jesus has changed radically, but the image stays in my head. Can’t seem to shake it.
When my father made one of the Jesus films, “Day of Triumph” (1954), he had a portrait painted of the film’s Jesus, Robert Wilson, and it hung in our living room as I was growing up. It looked very Sallmanesque. But after years of living with the different movie Jesuses, along with my ongoing interest in religious art, my internal images are many and varied, depending partly on where I am in the story through the year, and partly on which icon is on display in the oratory. As Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places … lovely in eyes not his … through the features of [human] faces.”
What a great idea for a class!
I fell in love with Jesus by watching Victor Garber’s portrayal of him in Godspell (1973.) Yes, the afro and clown makeup threw me off a bit at first, but the living spirit of love really seemed to flow from Garber’s heart as he sang and danced and taught his disciples. I was completely moved by his embodied performance of Matthew’s Jesus.
I still find Garber very affecting. And for me the clown motif was a plus. One of my seminary professors was Harvey Cox, who wrote “Feast of Fools” on the theology of play and the motif of the clown as Christ figure: infinitely vulnerable, but always rising up at the end of every ordeal.
I just looked back at your post on the Ten Best Jesus movies, and saw the Pasolini film in there. That one is definitely my favorite, though it’s an image of Jesus I didn’t see until the 1980s. I love the urgency of that portrayal, the intensity. It was a wonderful contrast with the old Jesus Christ Superstar hippy Jesus (which I must admit, I liked, too, back in those days.) When I was a kid, we had a flowery picture of a blondish Jesus in a garden surrounded by little kids dressed like we dressed in the 50s. And like Bill Fulton above, that’s the image that stays with me, though “my understanding has changed radically.”
“Urgency” and “intensity” are exactly right. Pasolini described his character as “a revolutionary wind blowing through Palestine.” And who did Gethsemane better than Ted Neely? As for 1950s kids gathered around Jesus, there are many precedents, such as Duccio’s Healing of the Blind Man, where Jesus and disciples are in 1st century clothing, while the blind man is dressed like Duccio’s 14th century contemporaries.
Pingback: The light we may not see: Thoughts on dust and transfiguration | The religious imagineer
Buechner wrote a book many years ago on the faces of Jesus. Always worth a read! Of the “traditional” Jesus movies, I think Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is tops . . . but it’s not a strong list in my view! I had high hopes for “Last Temptation,” but thought it a clunker, and Dafoe’s blue eyes irritating in every scene. John Sayles’ low-budget, funky, has-aged-poorly, but energetic “Brother From Another Planet” is a worthy contender for Christ-like stories.
Thanks for your interesting comments. I love that Buechner book. I have included many of its images in a survey of paintings and sculptures of Jesus which I include in my movie course. As you say, most of the Jesus films are not on anyone’s top ten list of truly great films (it is a genre fraught with hazards, and no single film will strike all the right notes – though the South African “Son of Man” works for me from start to finish), but all of them have certain wonderful moments and fresh perspectives which I greatly admire. Even the parts which don’t work are interesting in making me think about why that is. Some of my favorite scenes may be found here: https://jimfriedrich.com/2015/01/13/my-10-favorite-jesus-movie-moments/