The beauty of the Gospels lies in the way they force us to interpret the life of Jesus. The stories look straightforward enough. A deity is born to humble parents. He gradually reveals himself through miracles. He attracts followers. He is unable to convince the appointed authorities of his godhood, his powers fail him at crucial moments, and he is put to death. Triumphantly, he rises from the dead and ascends to eternal life.
What gives the Gospels their power is that they are much more than this simple outline. Their complexity requires interpretive choice. The Jesus we encounter is a man who comes from utter obscurity. He demands that his followers behave in absolutely altruistic, self-sacrificial ways. He sees his life's work as giving comfort to the afflicted. He travels among the poor, the lepers, the prisoners, the prostitutes and the outcasts. He says dangerous and subversive things. He realizes at his Last Supper that he may have pushed things too far. He is so anxious after dinner that when he withdraws to pray, he sweats blood. And, as he writhes in agony on the cross, he has the ultimate moment of self-doubt ("my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?")
We make our Jesus from the ways in which we assemble these elements. After all, that is the nature of great literature -- it forces us to make sense of ambiguity and conflicting layers of meaning. The stories of Jesus have survived over the millennia because they are much more than a simple story of triumph. Unfortunately, producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey fail in their newly-released film The Son of God, because their interpretation of Scripture is simplistic and triumphalist. Where there are choices to be made -- and with the Gospels, the choices abound -- Burnett and Downey have an unerring urge to favor the safe ones.
Consider the ways in which the producers portray the miracle stories. Since the days of St. Augustine, Christian writers have struggled with how to explain these texts. Must they be taken literally or are other explanations possible? St. Augustine himself found this a difficult question and finally concluded that Jesus' miracles, while real, could not have broken the laws of nature, but must have made use of other laws that we did not understand.
Burnett and Downey, on the other hand, give us a Jesus who might be described as a genial, polite, non-threatening superhero. In one of the movie's earliest scenes, we encounter Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He called out to a fisherman we later learn is Peter and convinced this hardened, skeptical man to cast off in search of fish. Suddenly, Peter's boat is swamped with fish. An underwater camera angle shows a smiling Jesus shepherding (if that is the right word) the fish into the incredulous Peter's nets.
And so go the miracle stories. We later see Jesus command a paralytic to rise and walk and find him multiplying loaves and fishes for the multitudes. And when the storm brewed up on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus came walking across the water towards the frail little boat filled with his earthly followers, we see a magnificent 10-foot tall Jesus proudly beckoning over the wind and the waves.
This whole set of scenes leads to what can be called an anti-climax -- Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead. The Gospel of John tells this story with real dramatic feel. Lazarus is a friend of Jesus and the brother of Mary, one of his followers. When he learned that Lazarus had taken ill, Jesus lingered where he was staying rather than hurrying his return to see him. Only after sensing inwardly that Lazarus had died does Jesus finally depart.
Drawing near, he is greeted by Martha and Mary and has it confirmed that Lazarus is dead. Emotions run high. Everybody wept, Jesus along with the women. His feelings ran so deep, even his enemies marveled: "See how he loved him!"
It is this back story that gives depth and humanity to John's account of the miracle, and it is this back story that is missing from the film. Instead, we are given Jesus, the God of easy triumphs, who walks confidently into the tomb where Lazarus has been laid, kisses him, breathes on the back of his head, and beckons him to arise. The scene is drained of the challenging emotional anguish of the Gospel account and becomes cliched and predictable.
In a movie a little more than two hours long, it is impossible to convey a complete account of Jesus' teachings. Indeed, one can exhaust weeks and months on such a project and never finish the task. Still, it is remarkable what is left out of the movie, including one of my own favorite biblical scenes.
This is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, found in John, chapter four. It opens with a tired Jesus seated at a well when a woman walked up, bucket in hand, intending to draw some water. Jesus asked if he might have a drink and the two of them began to talk. Jesus revealed to her the secrets of her life, telling her that she had been married five times and was now living with a man outside of marriage. And then he promised to give her the gift of living water.
For me, this tale signifies the Jesus of the margins. Jesus is in a marginal community (a village in neighboring Samaria), and is speaking with a woman who is on the margins of her own society (given her deeply tangled marital history). And it is to her that he promises salvation. I wish I knew what Burnett and Downey thought of this passage, but they never told us.
Another remarkable omission from the movie is a core feature of Jesus' ministry -- and that is his consciousness of and service to the poor. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels, especially in Luke but also in the other texts, has a keenly honed sense of class awareness.
Just consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) and how it begins: "There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores." By the end of Jesus' parable, it is the rich man who is consigned to hell and Lazarus who is rewarded with eternal life. This is the Jesus who knew and condemned economic sin. This whole side of Jesus' public witness is omitted from the film.
What is left in is the safe stuff: the "Our Father," bits from the Sermon on the Mount, a good deal about forgiveness of sins and the avoidance of hypocrisy. Jesus's teachings on marriage and divorce are left out, as is the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. Those particular omissions puzzled me.
Around half of the film is focused on the events of Palm Sunday, the Last Supper and Jesus's Passion and Resurrection. One gets the sense that Burnett and Downey were stealing continuous backward glances at Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in editing this portion of the movie. The violence in Son of God is carefully calibrated -- not as gross or as unhinged as Gibson's gory spectacle, but an excruciating level of blood and agony all the same.
While on the whole I am critical of the film, I must acknowledge that it does some things well. It injects Mary Magdalene unobtrusively, but insistently into Jesus' mission. A straightforward reading of the Gospels tells us that she was a crucial member of Jesus' company of disciples along with other women, and it is good to see her represented. The politics of Roman Judea are also portrayed with subtlety and sophistication. And, thanks to the decision to film on location in Morocco, the movie has a rich, Middle-Eastern texture to it. At times, you really do feel yourself transported back in time to first-century Judea.
And one finds some real character development. St. Peter, whom I have always understood as symbolic of fallen humanity, is depicted with the complexity that is due him -- he began as a man of uncertainty and doubt, struggled with understanding, experienced a crisis after denying Jesus, but emerged stronger at the end for the testing. Nicodemus, who is one of those mysterious followers of Jesus from within the Sanhedrin, is also endowed with a real flesh-and-blood personality. Still, Caiphas is portrayed as a one-dimensional villain from central casting and Pontius Pilate is not much better. Barabbas comes across as a barely articulate psychopath.
This is a movie, in other words, made for a comfortable, middle-brow, middle-class America. It is the Jesus of white picket fences and Readers' Digest. It is a world that is rapidly vanishing. Jesus will not go away, of course, but the world view that sustains the safe and sanitized superhero Jesus of Son of God is in increasing doubt.