Who Is the Real Jesus?

One of the earliest images of a bearded Jesus (Roman catacomb of Comodilla, late 4th century)

I looked for him and did not find him.
I will get up and walk round the city.
and will look for him whom I love with all my soul.

–– Song of Songs 3:1-2

 

When I teach my seminar on “Jesus and the movies,” I show 20 different actors who have played the gospels’ leading man on screen during cinema’s first century. Every actor has his moments, and some of the cinematic Jesuses are very compelling. But something about the role itself invites the critical knives.

Jeffrey Hunter was 33 when he played Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961).

The casting of teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961) caused some to call the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus”. But “to his credit,”one reviewer said, Hunter “plays the Son of God with embarrassment.” In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the Swedish Max von Sydow, whose art-film resume set him apart from the “Hollywood Jesus” stereotype, was nevertheless slammed for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Another critic added that von Sydow “hardly varies his expression, which is mild suffering, as if he had a pebble in his sandal.”

Ted Neely’s hippie Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstarwas dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair,” while Godspell’s playful Jesus was savaged by Time Magazine as “a teeny-bopper stoned on himself.” Robert Powell’s eyes in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) were just too blue to suit the historical realists. And Willem Dafoe’s uncertain and anxious Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) caused the NPR critic to complain that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who––who wrote the book of love?”

Even positive reviews were tinged with doubt about the viability of portraying the Son of God. Writing about Robert Wilson, who played Jesus in my father’s 1954 film, Day of TriumphNewsweek said that while he doesn’t make Jesus seem “pale or namby-pamby … neither does he make him the red-blooded he-man.”

Interpretive representations of Jesus­—–in theology, painting, and film–– have been the subject of debate from the beginning. Even when he was present in the flesh, people gave very different answers to the question he posed: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s only natural. We humans are a mystery, even to ourselves. Add divinity to the mix, and the interpretive task becomes an endless play of perspectives.

The original “screen version” of Jesus (Hans Memling, St. Veronica, 1475)

I once did a video interview with a young Palestinian woman whose idiomatic phrasing expressed this perfectly. “Jesus is a very big word,” she told me. “You can never get to the end of it.”

When a critic, or one of my students, looks at the screen and thinks, “That’s not Jesus,” it implies that they themselves would recognize Jesus if they saw him. And that guy on the screen just isn’t him!

But if there is no definitive way to play a role so inherently mysterious, then no actor has to be the Jesus. He only has to make us see some things that we may have missed in previous tellings. Painters and preachers will tell you the same thing.

A youthful Christ evoked Resurrection (St. Costanza, Rome, c. 5th century)

Over the centuries, we’ve had Jesus meek and mild, and Jesus the Pantocrator––emperor of the universe. We’ve had the loving Jesus and the angry Jesus. We’ve had the Prince of Peace and the troublemaker, the Man for others and the social revolutionary. We’ve had the Good Shepherd, the Cosmic Victor, the healer, the teacher, the prophet, the mystic, the ascetic, the party animal, the Suffering Servant, the Savior, and the Man of Sorrows.

In 14th-century England, Julian of Norwich pictured Jesus as our nurturing mother. Other cultures have added their own distinct perspectives, seeing Jesus as shaman, medicine man, and exorcist. And what we know these days about Jesus is that he was a feminist, radical, egalitarian, postmodern critic of consumer society.

Revolutionary Jesus (Russia, 20th century)

Martin Scorcese, who directed The Last Temptation of Christ, was savagely criticized for taking liberties with the gospel story. His response?

“You have the choice between my wrong version
and your wrong version
and somebody else’s wrong version.”

Every narrative is fictional, a version from a particular perspective, with some things emphasized and some things left out. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted story, or an uninterpreted Jesus. And that’s okay. The Incarnation means that God is fond of particularity, choosing to dwell in a particular human body in a particular way. And to say that “Jesus lives” means that the particularity of incarnation continues to go on. Jesus keeps turning up in many guises, seen through many eyes.

Jesus is a very big Word. So every version will be “wrong” in the sense of being incomplete. That is why diversity of interpretation is a blessing. The reception of revelation is a collective act performed over time. The four lives of Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John establish this principle of interpretive diversity at the very beginning of Christianity. Each gospel offers a distinctive perspective, a different Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus is a rebel who challenges the oppressive powers: the clergy, the demons, and the empire. His revolution is a mystery that most fail to see or understand, except a few followers to whom “the secret of the Kingdom has been given.” The revolution seems to fail in the end, but then there is the empty tomb and those strange angelic words:

“He is not here.
He goes before you into Galilee.
You will see him there.”

And where is Galilee? It’s where the story began, so there is in Mark this circular motion which takes you back to the beginning to look again at the story in the light of the Resurrection, and this time maybe you start to see what’s really happening, you start to see who––and where–– Jesus really is.

Matthew’s Jesus is the rabbi, the divine teacher who conveys to us the mind of God in the Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom parables, and the representative suffering that seems to fulfill and redeem Israel’s destiny. His gospel starts with Emmanuel, the newborn child who is God-with-us, and it ends on a mountain top meant to recall the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, with Christ’s promise that “I am with you always.” As in Mark, Jesus is a story that never ends.

Luke gives us the compassionate companion who embraces the poor and the outcast. Only Luke’s Jesus speaks of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Unlike Mark’s gospel, which keeps circling us back to the original story of the historical Jesus, Luke’s version propels us forward into the future of the risen Jesus, who continues among us as the Spirit-filled church, manifesting divine presence in the breaking of the bread and the healing of the world.

Supper, George Tooker (1963)

John’s Jesus is the most variant of them all. The divinity of his Jesus is clearly visible from the start: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Fourth Gospel resounds with the divine name first revealed to Moses: “I am.”

I am the light of the world.
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the true vine.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the door.
Before Abraham was, I am.

Some people worry about whether Jesus actually said any of these things during his earthly life, as if they could only be true if spoken by the first century Galilean Jesus. But if Jesus is risen and living and with us always, then to have these words spoken through the voice of the inspired community, the Body of Christ on earth, expands rather than violates the norm of authenticity. Read the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17) as if they are spoken by the risen Christ, and John’s Jesus feels more like revelation than invention.

Whatever the historicity of John’s Jesus, he is the one many of us have met––as the bread of life, the deep well of living water, and the door between the worlds by whom we make our own safe passage through death into life.

The foundational narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were only the beginning of the process. Now it’s our turn to add to the story of Jesus, from the particularity of our own experience. How, exactly, do we tell the gospel according to us?

 

Hans Memling, Christ Blessing (1478)

 

Related posts:

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

Ten Questions to Ask About Your Own Picture of Jesus

Dancing with Time: An Advent Prelude

Time is our choice of How to love and Why.

–– W. H. Auden[i]

 

Every December, as we approach the border between the years, I think a lot about time. Where did the last twelve months go? How will this year be remembered? What will the New Year bring? How will I ever find time––or make time––to breathe during the holiday rush?

Then there are the big questions. What am I meant to do with the gift of time? How much of it is left? Does time have any purpose or meaning? Is it going anywhere?

The season of Advent, beginning this Sunday, is all about time.

  • We recall the past, pondering the Scriptural history of humanity’s deepest longing and desire, and celebrate the coming of the One in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years” converge at last.
  • We look to the future, when Creation will one day correspond to the purposes of God: the broken mended, wounds made whole, tears wiped from every eye––and everyone gathered into Love’s eternal dance.
  • And we attend to the present, alert for the signs of God’s self-revealing in every moment. The world is saturated with divine appearance, and the practice of Advent is to keep watch and stay awake.

But time is tricky, elusive and complex. It takes many forms. In The Myths of Time, London priest Hugh Rayment-Pickard posits four distinct modes of time.

CATASTROPHIC TIME is devoid of redemption or meaning. It is going nowhere fast. The world feels dark, empty, terrifying. There is neither purpose nor hope nor beauty. It’s a state of utter depression: time has no goal, and everything is sinking into the abyss of nonbeing.

Catastrophic time extinguishes every impulse to rise up and live anew. It is hell’s “darkling plain,” where there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”[ii] Most of us have experienced this temporal condition––even Christ in his cry of abandonment––but it’s not a place you can stay for long.

APOCALYPTIC TIME shares with the catastrophic a deep disillusionment with the projects of human history. The apocalyptic view knows the mess we’re in: “genocide, ravenous capitalism, grotesque inequalities, world-destroying technologies and competing fundamentalisms.”[iii]

And it looks to God alone for deliverance, as in this lyric by Leonard Cohen:

If it be your will, let your mercy spill
on all these burning hearts in hell,
if it be your will to make us well…
and end this night,
if it be your will.[iv]  

Yes, the world is broken and wounded in ways that seem beyond human remedy. Still, we hope: God is coming to save us. We don’t know how, we don’t know when, we don’t even know what. But we believe, trust and hope that in the end God will “end this night” and “make us well.”

PROPHETIC TIME shares the apocalyptic sense of crisis and judgment, but it doesn’t leave all the work to an outside, transcendent agency. We ourselves are invited and encouraged to become the hands and feet of God, the visible embodiment of divine intention. The prophets don’t just wait for God’s future to arrive like a package from Amazon Prime (expedited shipping available!). They point to the Now as the place where “every heart prepares him room,” where we all can join the work of repairing the world as well as our own broken and unfinished selves.

The prophetic sense, like the apocalyptic, longs for a better world; but it insists on our own participation in the process of revolutionary transformation. We don’t just sit still until the Kingdom comes; we go out to meet it.

The source of so much positive social change, the prophetic understanding of historical time as an unfolding of divine purpose may at times overestimate human potential and underestimate human sin. It can leave us disillusioned when our efforts go awry or the world fails to improve in a timely manner.

KAIRIC TIME differs sharply from both the apocalyptic and the prophetic. Instead of looking to the future end of time and the completion of salvation history, it devotes all its attention to the profound depths of the present moment, to what the Greeks called kairos: the epiphanic Now, charged with meaning in its own right, whatever its connection to a larger ongoing story.

Kairic time is the domain of the poet, the artist and the mystic, who know how to find what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” But in fact it is available to us all. We only need the discipline to wait until it shows itself, and the attentiveness to be fully present and receptive when it comes.

As the 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing recommends:

“Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. God gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v]

The Incarnation is in one sense a validation of kairos, because it shifts the crucial moment of history from the end of time to the middle: God comes into the midst of world and time, giving the divine presence fully, holding nothing back. Therefore we can find “God-with-us” in every moment, if we pay attention and stay awake.

But kairic time, like the other modes, has its liabilities and limitations. We can be so swept away by the beauty of the moment that we become insensible of the suffering all around us. We may grow so enamored of our own experience that the demands and tasks of a shared public life fade into insignificance––the world out there is “not our problem.” Living in the moment can be enlightenment. It can also be escape.

Does any single mode take precedence over the others?
Or do they all have gifts for us?
The fact is, we live and move and have our being
in all the temporal modes––sometimes simultaneously.
And each of them calls us to respond in a particular way:[vi]

Apocalyptic: Renounce and resist the things that bind us to the ways of violence, greed and death, and wait upon the surprises of God with faith and hope.

Prophetic: Prepare ourselves to make room for God’s coming, offering our energies and our choices as visible signs of the dawning Kingdom.

 Kairic:  Stay awake for the revelation in every moment.

“My times are in your hand,” says the Psalmist.[vii]
What would happen if we could realize this in every moment?
This Advent, may your own dance with time be full of grace.

 

 

Related posts:

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto)

 

[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.

[ii] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach.”

[iii] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 99.

[iv] Leonard Cohen, “If It Be Your Will,” on Various Positions (1984)

[v] The Cloud of Unknowing, q. in Hugh Rayment-Pickard, 92.

[vi] Even catastrophic time may contain a gift. Good Friday is the prelude to Resurrection.

[vii] Psalm 31:15