Co-authored by Paul Harvey
Americans have long been obsessed with the body of Jesus. Ten years ago, The Passion of the Christ raked in more than $300 million at the box office as Americans watched his skin whipped, his brow pierced with thorns, and his body broken on the cross. Now with the Son of God, Twitter and news media outlets have been buzzing about #hotjesus. Attention to leading man Diogo Morgado has led some to wonder if he is "too sexy" to play Jesus. What is striking about the film is not simply Morgado's great smile and rugged good looks. It is how he is set in intimate relationships not with women, but with men.
While Passion of the Christ followed conventions from genre of horror films, the Son of God takes its cinematic cues from romance pictures. The wind breezes through Morgado's hair as he preaches. Birds sing sometimes. Background characters and objects move in slow motion. This cinematic Christ is cast as the central love interest. The producers, in fact, have called it a "love story."
Several scenes look as if they were directly pulled from previous romantic films. When Jesus walks on water and invites Peter to join him, the pouring rain covers them. Jesus extends his arm and hand and they move toward each other in ways that resemble the iconic moment of The Notebook where the lovers get drenched as they move to embrace. That scene has recently been parodied in advertisements for Progressive Insurance.
Another moment suggesting masculine intimacy is when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. After entering the tomb, Jesus caresses the deceased Lazarus who lays on his back. Jesus stands behind his head and kisses it. At that point Larazus's eyes pop open and Christ's enlarge. The climax looks, well, climatic.
Christ's intimacy with his male followers is sweet and sincere. On multiple occasions, he places his hands on their faces and shows little intent of taking them off. Even before Judas leaves to betray him, Jesus strokes his face gently. His followers typically follow suit. They hold hands and walk arm in arm.
Even the crucifixion road is market by male closeness. As Jesus falls under the weight of the cross, Simon the Cyrene is compelled to help. They gaze into one another's eyes several times and before they part, Jesus lays his hand over Simon's in affection. It is not too much of a stretch to wonder if this moment borrows from the end of Titanic where Rose ultimately cannot hang on to Jack.
The romantic framing of Jesus in the Son of God is not only notable for what it emphasizes, but also for what it neglects. At no point is Mary Magdalene explicitly sexualized. She is not conflated with the almost-stoned adulterous woman, as she often is erroneously in other films. She does not wash Christ's feet with scented perfume, a scene that is remarkably sensuous in films like Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, Mary Magdalene is basically one of the disciples. Jesus regards her no differently than the others, except he does not touch her with any sign of intimacy.
We are not trying to suggest that the Son of God portrays Jesus as gay or that homo-social behavior is the same as sexual activity. But in its effort to portray Jesus as human at some level, the Son of God struggles with the same issues that theologians, Sunday School teachers, and other filmmakers have for years. Religious studies scholar Anthony Pinn has claimed that it is not enough simply to assert that "Jesus had a penis" as evidence of his humanity. The more penetrating questions are "what he did with it? Was it erect? Did it serve as an outlet of personal pleasure, or pleasure for either men or women, or both?" Like it or not, these are the types of questions Americans are asking (and have been asking).
The sexuality of Jesus and how his followers have interacted with him intimately have long played a role in Christian life in America. During the colonial period of American history, Moravians and their African American and Native American converts obsessed over the bloody "side hole" of the crucified Christ. Their music and prayers characterized the side hole as similar to a vagina, flowing with life-giving blood.
Then during the 19th and 20th centuries, American artists crafted images of Jesus that they hoped would reveal his human and heavenly nature. Since "religion" was often coded "female," though, this led to pictures of Jesus that looked awfully feminine to viewers. Hair length became a constant concern. Even Warner Sallman's Head of Christ, the most widespread work of American art, had one pastor concerned that it was "too much of a come-on for the homos in the parish and in the community."
Recently, concerns about sex and Jesus have entered mainstream comedy routines. Comedian Samantha Bee began her autobiography by discussing her preteen love affair with Jesus. She imagined what her name would be when they married: "Samantha Christ. Mrs. Jesus Christ, Lamb of God. Mrs. Samantha H. Christ." She fantasized about his body: "He wore a fleshly pressed robe all the time, but you knew He had a great ass and could have pulled off a pair of jeans and worn-out cowboy boots, even if you weren't sure why you would want that." The film Hamlet 2 features the song and performance of "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." In blue jeans and a tight T-shirt, Jesus gyrates and dances as if Elvis Presley was somehow cast in Grease.
The Son of God is not trying to be silly. It's trying to be serious, but even it cannot avoid the dilemmas of portraying the life of Jesus apart from issues of intimacy and sexuality. Most who watch the film probably care deeply about marriage and sexuality. These viewers believe in Jesus, and they look to him for guidance. Yet when it comes to Jesus, there is anything but certainty about issues of intimacy and sexuality. For a faith obsessed with marriage, he never married (at least it's not mentioned in the canonical gospels). For a faith concerned with same-sex intimacy, Jesus had a male disciple whom he "loved." Those looking for certainty will not find it in the teaching and stories of Jesus. What they will find in films like the Son of God is a story of male bonding that led to a religious revolution.