Monday, March 24, 2014

A Pastor at the Movies - Reflections of the current crop of (so-called) "Christian" movies.

I don’t often go to the movies, but when “Son of God” was announced I decided that I should see it, just out of curiosity.  So my afternoon at the movies began, as is usually the case with a set of 5 trailers for movies that would be in the theaters soon.  These trailers were obviously carefully chosen to appeal to the kind of audience that the distributor (or theater) thought would be at “Son of God.”  I found these trailers to be almost as interesting as the feature film itself and feel compelled to share some thoughts.  Please bear in mind that I have not seen these entire films – these comments are based only on the trailers.
1.Heaven Is For Real.  This is a film version of the book that has been very popular.  I have not read the book but I know many who have and they have enjoyed it. Since I have not read the book I have no way of knowing how closely the movie follows the book, but I hope that the movie has branched off from the book for I found the trailer to be very melodramatic and emotionally manipulative.  The plot following the boys recovery seems to me to be a typical formula used in countless films: some unexpected person (the child in this case) has discovered a great truth and everyone then conspires to keep that truth from being shared, except for a few brave souls who are defend the child at all costs until in the end the “truth” is victorious.  Theologically my concern is the over-emphasis on heaven, as if getting to heaven is the only thing that Christianity is concerned about.  It is not.  Jesus in Gospels is quite clear in proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God) is come into our midst NOW in Jesus.  It is not off in the future – it is NOW.  Also, the disciples discover in Acts 1 that there is work to be done NOW – the work of the kingdom.  In fact, it is a grave theological error to focus exclusively on heaven at the expense of being responsible disciples now.  One of the characters in the trailer actually raises this point – something to the effect “what about living life now.”  They cut off the response, but in my view that is a good question – and a question that really stands at the heart of the Gospel.

2.Noah.  I am not going to say much about this.  The trailer made it look like a kind of fun action movie, which bears little to no relation to the story in the bible except for some of the character names.  Which I think is fine.  How else can you have a feature length movie based on this story, there really is not a whole lot of detail to the narrative.  All of the hand wringing and complaining by certain elements of Evangelical Christianity I think are downright silly.  From the trailer my one theological concern with this film is this: In the biblical story the focus is on God’s promise, as symbolized by the rainbow at the conclusion of the story.  But the film seems to spend a lot of time on the destruction and death of those who are “left behind.”  This misses the point. 

3.God’s Not Dead.  OK – I have saved the most obnoxious and most offensive film for last (the remaining two trailers  out of the 5 were for cartoon films which were pretty inoffensive).   The plot of this film was pretty clear – a faithful Evangelical Christian boy (of course) goes off to college where he is not only challenged but also victimized by his atheist/agnostic philosophy professor.  But eventually the boy, of course, wins the day.  Where do I start!
Even Christianity Today, a relatively conservative Christian mainstream magazine, stated that this film is “Evangelical Pornography.”  I could not agree more.  At the root of this film is a belief that a particular group of Christians are being attacked and persecuted for their beliefs by godless unbelievers.  This film is designed, I suppose, to encourage and give this this group a sense of victory and encouragement.  Along with the film churches can get all kinds of materials to help in their campaign against the godless.
Well, I am a Christian and I am a Pastor, and I have a deep sense of spirituality and this film not only does NOT speak for me – I am personally thoroughly and completely offended by it.  Why?
A.     First of all, since when do Christians of any kind think they deserve to get special treatment?  The history of Christianity is a story of Christians flourishing in the midst of official indifference and even persecution. That would be an interesting story to tell – but that is not the story that is told here.

B.     However, there is NO persecution going on in the USA in the 21st century of Christians.  There is persecution – real persecution in other places in the world and the fake persecution that these Evangelicals and Fox News have dreamed up do a profound disservice to those who are suffering from real persecution.  This fake persecution is related to the idiocy that we have to endure each year in December – the so-called “War on Christmas” – which is simply manufactured.  The fact is that Christianity enjoys a unique and privileged status in our country.  Note, for example the tax exemptions that churches enjoy. Since when do those who are persecuted get to enjoy a tax exemption? Instead of the whining and complaining I think it is time for Christians to start behaving with a little humility and respect for others.

C.     The idea that any questioning of the faith is always hostile is really sad, and really misguided.  It seems to me that we should celebrate any opportunity we have to learn and to grow.  When I have my faith challenged it is an opportunity for me to grow and learn – not a threat.  If such a challenge upsets my weak and un-examined faith – then so be it.  Weak and unexamined faith will never grow into a mature faith unless it is challenged and debated.  This challenge I believe is a gift from God to help us grow in our faith.

D.    Why are we even debating the issue of God’s existence?  I believe God exists, but I also believe God is far beyond my own ability to completely comprehend.  My experience of God, my experience of Jesus is beyond my ability to even describe it.  And my experience is not going to be the same as anyone else’s.  It is the height of arrogance to suggest otherwise. Those who feel that they need to fight this fight seem to me to have a very narrow and immature view of God – which, curiously enough, is a view of God that is often shared by those who have rejected God.  God does not need to be defended by any of us.

E.     I had the opportunity to teach history on the university level as an adjunct professor for 17 years and I can tell you that the character of the philosophy professor is someone who does not exist.  In this film he is a sipher, a product of someone’s stereotype that has no roots in reality.  Any university teacher who behaves like this guy would find his teaching career shortened substantially.  Let’s see – from the trailer – he uses his class to promote his own agenda to the exclusion of the curriculum; he doesn’t even seem to understand the philosophical foundation of the “God is Dead” philosophical strain which appears in Nietsche and Hegel and runs through the 20th century reappearing especially in the 60’s – it is worth, by the way, exploring this strain of philosophy, but he doesn’t do that; he gets so agitated by being challenged that he physically accosts the student (there is instantaneous dismissal right there).

F.     Negative racial stereotyping of the Muslim characters – this is really disgusting and indefensible.

G.     I have heard this nonsense before.  Last summer I had the distinct displeasure of having to sit through a sermon by a preacher who told not one, not 2, but 3 of these stupid stories about the clever Christian student besting his unbelieving teacher. Does this kind of thing make you feel good?  Great!  Well, it offends me – because it tells me you are afraid of knowledge and learning and the only way you have to shore up your weak and unexamined faith is to belittle those who value knowledge and learning.  And I happen to believe that all knowledge and learning come from God.  So, this whole approach is all about you – it is not about God.  It is about you and your insecurity.

H.    Finally, I hate to point this out since it really should be obvious – but we Christians believe that God is crucified in Jesus.  And there on the cross God enters into death.  This is one of the most profound proclamations of the Gospel.  And then Jesus is raised, resurrected (not resuscitated) on the 3rd day.  God died in Jesus – so that we might have life – so that we might do the work that God has called us to do – which is reaching out and caring for others by feeding and clothing and visiting and loving.  We are thus freed from the prison of insecurity and uncertainty and fear that a little vibration of challenge will send our house of faith cards tumbling down.  Because in Jesus our faith is not rooted in our own opinions, but rather in action – the action of Christ, and the actions that Christ calls us to – which are about caring for others.
In conclusion (of part 1) – Feel free to go see an enjoy Heaven Is For Real and Noah.  But do not waste your time or money on the last film, which in my view is a reprehensible film ultimately designed to undermine Christianity.
Another take on this film "God's Not Dead" can be found here:
Part II – The Feature Film – “Son of God”
In the beginning days of cinema there had been a few attempts at telling the story of Jesus on the silver screen but they had not been very successful.  The silent film, “King of Kings,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille, was released in 1927 and in 1961 another film with the same title was released with a narration provided by Orson Welles.  Neither of them were terribly successful. But this changed in 1965 when the movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was issued. The film with its all-star cast, featuring cameos by everyone’s favorite film actors (including Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and John Wayne as the Centurion) was the first really successful blockbuster film about Jesus to hit the market.  From then on, the story of Jesus could be counted on to attract a large audience and make lots of money.  Since then there has been a steady stream of such films.  “Jesus of Nazareth” directed by Franco Zeferielli also featured all of the popular leading actors of the time such as Rod Steiger, James Earl Jones, Ian Holm, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Sir Peter Ustinov (to name a few).  (Of all the Jesus films, this is my favorite.)  Others that followed include “The Last Temptation of Christ” which is based on a novel by the great writer Nico Kazantzakis and starred Willem Dafoe as Jesus; “The Passion of The Christ” the terribly violent and theologically troubled version of the Passion directed by Mel Gibson.  And now this year we have added yet another film – “Son of God.” 
We assume of course that all of these films use the Gospels as the source for the storyline.  But it is not as easy as that.  The Gospels we find in the Bible are all beautifully crafted narratives that are all designed to proclaim the Good News of God come into the world through Jesus. Each Gospel tells the story in its own unique way and sometimes the Gospels differ markedly in their narratives.  For example, take the birth stories – there are no birth narratives in Mark or John, Luke focuses on Mary and has all of the Christmas elements we expect except for the 3 Magi who only appear in Matthew whose birth narrative is quite different from Luke’s.  So, what is usually done is to mix the stories together: adding the 3 Magi to Luke’s version and ignoring Matthew’s focus on Joseph.  This is easy enough to do with the Christmas narrative, but not so easy with other parts of the story.  And not only that, but in “harmonizing” the Gospels like this we end up loosing the distinct voices and proclamations of the individual Gospel writers.
But of course when we come to creating a screenplay based on the Gospels the only way to have a detailed narrative (that would include everyone’s favorite stories) is to create this kind of condensation of the four Gospels.  And all of the films do this to some degree or another, sometimes adding additional characters and episodes to fill the story out.  A film like “Jesus of Nazareth” went out of its way to include as much of the Gospel narrative, but even so the character of the politically manipulative scribe Zerah (played by Ian Holm) was added to add drama to the passion narrative.  Mel Gibson’s film not only uses the four Gospels, but adds into the mix non-biblical stories and some obscure Catholic devotional materials – the result being probably the worst and most unfaithful version of the story available (not to mention the gratuitous violence).   “The Last Temptation of Christ” on the other hand does not rely on the Gospels at all but simply rewrites the story completely rooting itself in the novel.
This brings us to “Son of God.”  This film is actually a condensation of the made for TV mini-series called “The Bible.” This film also pulls stories from all four Gospels and mixes them together. I expected this, but unlike “Jesus of Nazareth” which uses  as many of the different stories as it could, “Son of God” uses a very small selection of stories for the narrative of Jesus’ ministry.  The result is a kind of haphazard jumping from story to story in no particular sequence or order with key characters missing (there is a Martha but no Mary, for example).  Consequently, it is impossible to discern any kind of theology or proclamation since the narrative itself is so disjointed.  But, on the other hand the episodes themselves are sometimes very beautifully told.  For example, the episode of Jesus teaching and being interrupted by a Pharisee and then by the paralytic who is dropped through the ceiling is very well done.  Because of this haphazard approach various episodes appear in odd places in the narrative.  The story of Jesus reading in the Synagogue and then having the townsmen all turn on him is the first event of his ministry in Luke, but here it is one of the last events that happens to Jesus before the passion in the film and seems peculiarly out of place.  Some of the miracles are just silly in the way they are depicted, while others are pretty well done (the Paralytic and the feeding of the 5000).
One really curious part of the film was Jesus on the Way to the Cross – the Via Dolorosa.  If you know your Stations of the Cross, Jesus follows them exactly, stumbling exactly 3 times and even Veronica makes an appearance (Who? Right she is not in the bible! She is a part of Catholic traditional piety). Also on the Via Jesus’ mother Mary manages to break through the line of Roman soldiers in order to comfort her son (again part of traditional Catholic piety – no from the Gospels), which from a historical perspective is utter nonsense.  And while the two thieves are carrying the cross beams to the place of crucifixion (which is historically accurate) Jesus himself is given a completely formed cross, which is historically completely inaccurate.
The acting for the most part is pretty good.  I really liked the actors playing Pilate, the High Priest, Malchus (yes the one who looses his ear is here the captain of the Temple Guard) and Peter.  The calling of Matthew was very moving and beautifully done.  Thomas on the other hand is a cipher, completely predictable and is very annoying.  But something to celebrate in this film is that Mary Magdalene for a change is NOT depicted as a reformed prostitute (which is accurate from the Gospels). The film spends a fair amount of its precious time on setting the atmosphere of brutality and oppression.  We first encounter Pilate as he arrives in Palestine and has his soldiers murder a child because the child is inconveniently in the way (this would never have happened – the Romans were brutal but they weren’t stupid).  Then from Josephus there is the brutal putting down of a group of protesters that in the film Pilate directs himself.  This event provides the motivation of the High Priest who surveys the carnage and then everything he does following seems designed to prevent another event like that from happening.  But the High Priest would not have done all of that, he certainly would not have entered into the Pilate’s chamber during Passover and he would not have taken such a direct part in orchestrating the execution of Jesus.  In fact, all of this political wrangling around Jesus by the High Priest himself made no sense from both the view of the Gospels themselves and from a purely historical point of view.  And after painting Pilate as such a cruel tyrant with no sense of humanity it rings very hallow indeed that he is suddenly struck with uncertainty and remorse over the execution of a peasant from Galilee.
        In the end, I give this film a C+ mostly because it is so episodic and hard to follow and then when we do get into the passion narrative it is so illogical and makes no attempt at all to maintain any kind of historical and cultural grounding.  But the acting and cinematography are good, and there are moments that are quite powerful.  Alas these are too few and far between.  The important thing to remember with all these films is this: ultimately they are just films.  In other words, they are retellings of the Gospel stories and they are not the Gospel.  They can help us if we approach them as a spiritual aid, but it is important that we remember that they do not really give us the whole story.  And the whole story is the story of a God who loves the world so much that this God sends the Son to be born, to live, to reach out in God’s love to all humanity and then to die on a Cross and to be raised on the 3rd day! It is this Gospel that we celebrate this month during Holy Week and Easter!

No comments:

Post a Comment