The Two Dimensional Jesus Problem

I am glad that The Son of God has been relatively successful. But I don’t plan on seeing it. That might mean that, ultimately, I cannot offer a final critical judgment on this incarnation of the Gospel narratives. But, if what reviews from both believers and non-believers are saying is true, The Son of God emphasizes the radicalism of Jesus’ message but doesn’t do too much new itself. As R. J. Moeller put it:

Son of God offers no unique or refreshing take on a story that the majority of ticket-buyers (i.e. church groups and individual Christians) have seen plenty of times. What new experience is Mark Burnett offering the movie-going public?

This is a problem with most of cinematic portrayals of the gospels. It might not be so bad for people who have never been introduced to the gospels before; the 1979 Jesus biopic is all but unheard of in the United States, but according to the New York Times has had a profound impact on many people around the world. But film adaptations that stay within the Gospel narrative offer little that the text cannot offer better.

Last Supper

However, the problem is not just that these biopics show nothing new; the problem is also that they do not have the courage to portray much of the older narrative. Our Lord is far more complex than the doe-eyed Episcopalian Jesus of even the more evangelical depictions. Where, in the film adaptations, is the Jesus who said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple”; or who said this, or this. We like hearing Jesus utter words like “He who is without sin throw the first stone,” but how many portrayals of the life of Christ show him clearing the temple and overturning the money changers’ tables? Even with the more controversial films of the life of Christ—Mel Gibson’s The Passion or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation—righteous anger is one emotion that the screenwriters would not even touch with the lance of Longinus.

But if contemporary filmmakers trim one dimension off Jesus, they do even worse with the other gospel characters. This is where they demonstrate their most shocking lack of creativity. The gospels were not meant to be about Pilate or Nicodemus–or Judas for that matte. But why couldn’t a movie be about one of them in the same way as Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers–true to the narrative in as far as they overlap, but taking creative liberties where the text does not make explicit?

Judas in particular could be the subject for a great film; and, no, it would not be an Elaine Pagels adaptation. To be fascinating, Judas need be neither misunderstood nor wise, just human. After all, humanity was his downfall: The gospels do not give a detailed account of what he thought but he was likely a man who took his own life upon failing to understand the significance of the figure to whom he had felt devoted–one who he felt could give him elevated social status and whose hand would almost certainly be forced by an arrest. His misconception of the meaning of Christ’s death (he didn’t stay for the resurrection) was probably what drove him to suicide. Judas likely died believing Jesus the protagonist a tragedy of which he—Judas—had been the Iago, though he did not realize that he himself was a minor tragic figure in a Divine Comedy. Could something like this make a successful movie? I don’t know. But I would pay money to see it.

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