This past weekend, Jesus came to the movies. Again. No, this is not Passion of the Christ 2 but a new take on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Produced by Mark Burnett (of Survivor fame) and wife Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), this film is a continuation of The Bible TV series that graced The History Channel last year. Using extra footage shot during production of the miniseries, Burnett and Co. attempt to tell the story of Jesus for a new generation, but ultimately provide a diluted gospel, possibly confusing audiences in the process.
The movie is set as a frame story with the apostle John in exile on Patmos. He opens with the words of John 1, and moves on to recount how God was present with the patriarchs (He was with Noah, he was with Abraham, etc.). This opening was intriguing. It could have been a great way to introduce redemptive history and even biblical typology, unveiling Jesus as the “truer and greater” One to whom these revered “heroes” ultimately pointed (shout out to the current Hebrews series!). Unfortunately, it ends up being nothing more than a highlight reel of The Bible miniseries. After this, the movie presents an uneven sampling of Jesus’ various miracles that are oddly paced and incoherent at times. Events are not presented chronologically, possibly confusing even the Pharisees in the audience. Most of the acting is sub-par (especially Jesus, more on that in a minute) and wooden, as if the actors are trying too hard to be “spiritual” or “epic.” The only exception here is the disciple “doubting” Thomas, who also produced great work in the BBC mystery drama Broadchurch (review coming soon). Lastly, Judas’ betrayal was unclear, switching from a sympathetic take at first (he didn’t really know he was doing it!) to a “What’s in it for me?” style of villainy.
Unfortunately, the titular role of the Son of God himself, Jesus, played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, left something to be desired. First, he’s too pretty, too white, and too tall to resemble an accurate representation of Jesus. Isn’t Jesus supposed to have “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2b)? Then why does this Jesus look like he stepped out of J.Crew catalogue? Second, Jesus is played with an esoteric attitude that comes off as despondent, like he’s in on a secret that we can’t comprehend. This leads to a two-dimensional “spiritual, but not religious” type with feathered hair and a perfectly trimmed beard. However, this isn’t the most glaring problem with the Jesus of this movie. Regrettably, this Jesus comes off as weirdly optimistic and unfeeling, particularly highlighted by the scene with Lazarus. Look, I get it: playing Jesus in a movie would be a tall order. How do you portray the God-man? However, part of the beauty of the Gospels is that they give us glimpses at Christ’s essential humanity. In the Gospels, when Jesus hears about his friend Lazarus’ death, he weeps. God actually cries. This raw emotion given by the Messiah is fundamental because it shows that God can sympathize with us in the midst of pain. He’s been there. He’s lost someone, too. Conversely, in Son of God, Jesus doesn’t really blink an eye when he hears of the death of Lazarus, but finds him in his tomb, kisses him on the head, Lazarus wakes up, and on to the next miracle.
The above critiques may seem petty or a purely subjective matter of taste, and perhaps they are. However, the most egregious error is the lack of the gospel in a movie about the gospel. As I watched the movie, I tried to imagine how a nonbeliever would respond to this movie. I came away with the feeling that they would have been confused. The movie never even hints at why Jesus had to die. What is he saving us from? How does one become “saved”? There is almost no mention of sin, and when it does appear, it is in the sense of a singular moral error, not the inherited condition of humanity. The makers of this film have surely known their target audience well (Christians), but have made too many assumptions in the process which unfortunately will end up alienating seekers and nonbelievers. This is an especially pertinent idea to be aware of in our increasingly secular, post-Christian nation. We need to understand that a movie like this is strange to most people in our country. We are not a “Christian” nation (and never really were, but that’s a conversation for another article). A film like this cannot assume that the majority of people will just “get it” and fill in the blanks. Sadly, Son of God makes too many assumptions to effectively stir the hearts of its viewers.
To sum up, it is an arduous task to make a “Jesus film” that is also a good film. Part of that is due to the nature of the Gospel. It is literally The Word. I think God chose that medium for a reason. The written word has a unique power within it: the power of imagination. In it, we are not forced to settle with a Hollywood Jesus or poorly acted parable. We encounter the living God of the universe as He presents himself. We get to participate in that truth with our God-given imaginations. We also get to rely on faith. This aspect should not be minimized. In one of the final scenes of the movie, a resurrected Jesus appears before the disciples. Naturally, “doubting” Thomas begins to doubt. Jesus ironically (given that I’m seeing Him on screen) responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Maybe we should apply these words of Jesus and question whether “Jesus movies” serve to open the eyes of faith or obscure their vision.