A Tale of the Christ in Cinema

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With the opening of Ben-Hur last weekend, the Christian world is once again abuzz with discussion. Some have hailed the film as a powerful and worthy successor to the 1959 Charlton Heston classic. Some have called it doctrinally weak. Others have simply shrugged it off as an uninspired, not-quite-there attempt of a biblical blockbuster.

But one thing about the new film that everyone can agree on is the expanded role of Jesus. Whereas the 1959 version only ever showed the back of His head and never had Him speak, the 2016 update features plenty of close-ups and conversations to go around. More of Jesus, that’s a good thing! Right?

I admit I haven’t seen it yet so I’ll refrain from voicing an opinion either way. But I’d like to lend my voice to the discussion on a broader perspective and propose caution. Not against the film in particular, but toward any production that attempts to portray the incarnate Son of God.

Hear me out.

There’s nothing wrong with visually portraying Christ per se. But films about Him deserve to be tread carefully because the task of accurately portraying the King of Kings seems, to me, an order too tall for even the finest actor to fill. The problem is not with showing Jesus. It’s hoping that a mortal man could somehow play Him.

I’ve yet to see any actor walk across the stage or screen, and feel the magnitude of the Person they’re supposed to be. I don’t think it’s possible for any human to really capture the essence of the Lion and the Lamb, the First and the Last, the Sovereign Lord and the Suffering Servant, the God and the man. Our every attempt at the scope of Christ’s incarnate character will always come up short.

The Gospels give us a man unparalleled to any in history. A man who had thousands marveling at the authority of His words (Lk. 4:32), a man whose presence made demons shriek (Mk. 1:24), and a man whose command to “Follow me” caused many to forsake their lives in an instant (Mt. 4:19-20). The Gospels give us a man who was God; or rather, God who became man.

I don’t care which actor or director is calling the shots. That’s not something we can ever capture or duplicate.

In fact, most of the movies and plays about Jesus come terribly short. They usually fall under one of these five misrepresentations.

1. The holy zen Jesus: He floats across the screen like a ghost, murmuring vague, pithy spiritual riddles. His eyes are always half-open, as though adapted from a Roman Catholic stained-glass window. He’s more phantom than man, and you can almost see the halo above His head in every scene.

2. The feminine Jesus: He looks like a European model who’s got a whole salon of product in His hair. He’s gentle and fair and is constantly holding children like teddy bears. He giggles too much, touches people too much, and seems to skip everywhere. His relationship with the disciples can be borderline creepy.

3. The hippie Jesus: His long hair and beard look more earthy than Jewish, and the only words in His vocabulary are “peace”, “love” and “harmony.” He never gets upset, He never talks about sin, and more than anything else He just wants everyone to get along.

4. The best buddy Jesus: He’s obnoxiously likable and has that “Aw, shucks,” twinkle in His eye. He’s got a winning smile, He’s a great motivational speaker, and everyone treats Him like the popular kid at school. He runs through the crowd giving high-fives and noogies.

5. The boring Jesus: This results when the filmmakers try to avoid any of the above misrepresentations by playing it safe and not giving Him a personality at all. He never blinks, never makes any sudden movements, and says everything with the most dry, sleep-inducing tone possible. Imagine putting a fake beard on Ben Stein and asking him to read the Sermon on the Mount.

Call me cynical if you want. But I can’t help but think such shortcomings are inevitable.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. Personally, I loved The Passion of the Christ. I thought Jim Caviezel brought a brilliant blend of sorrow and agony to the role, capturing the essence of our Lord’s mortal and spiritual suffering. He never seems helpless–He always knows the story will end in triumph–and yet He is still overwhelmed by heartbreak. It was magnificent.

But to this day my favorite representation of Christ is still the 1959 Ben-Hur, precisely because we never see His face or hear His voice. Jesus is there. His person is seen. His presence is felt. The magnitude of His power is what saves Ben-Hur and defines the story. In fact, the original book was entitled, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, making Him the center of the story itself.

But by refraining from showing too much Jesus the filmmakers don’t subject us to their interpretation nor do they risk an actor missing the mark. If we know the Gospels, we’re able to fill in the blanks just fine.

Granted, this could be a problem for someone who has never read the Gospels. If Christ is a blank slate, an unbeliever may not understand who He is. But I would contest you run into an even bigger problem with most screen adaptions: you get a wrong portrayal. For that reason I would recommend caution before taking an unbeliever to see a movie about Jesus.

Why? Because as neat as they may be, they’re not a substitute for the Gospel: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The true, pure person of Jesus Christ can only be found in Scripture. Anything else is just a creative yet fallible reimagining. A movie is an artist’s point of view, but the four Gospels are the pure Word of God.

I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t see Ben-Hur (personally, I’m looking forward to seeing it). Nor am I saying Jesus movies have no value. Nor am I saying it’s wrong for an actor to play Jesus. But since every attempt will inevitably fall short–and will certainly never be a replacement for the Gospel itself–let’s be cautious.

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This Momentary Goodbye

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Last week one of my co-workers retired. The day was bittersweet, with both excitement for them and yet sadness for the end of our time together. When the hour finally came to say goodbye, the office dialogue featured the typical “Stay in touch” and “I’ll still come visit” lingo I’ve heard countless times between departing neighbors, friends and church members.

Isn’t it funny how we say things like that? When I talk with an old friend on the phone the conversation never ends with, “It was nice talking to you, bye!” but usually something along the lines of, “This was great, we’ll have to talk again soon,” or “Let me know next time you’re in town and we’ll grab coffee.” We can’t just say goodbye. There must be the hope of something else to come. Our farewells are laced with the anticipation of future reunion. And when tragedy strikes–when we lose someone we love–not seeing them feels like the most unnatural emptiness in the world. We know that such a void is surely not the way things are meant to be.

But that isn’t limited to our interaction with people. We hope our favorite movie will get a sequel so the story we care about will go on. When our favorite sports team’s season ends we say, “Just wait until next year!” If someone bakes a delicious dish we ask for the recipe so we can make it again later.

We don’t believe that good things in life should come to an end. There must always be some flicker of hope that somehow, in some way, we will encounter them again. That they must continue. When good things come to a close we don’t use terms of absolute finality, only terms of postponement. To think that such things can really and truly end is too heartbreaking.

But perhaps there’s more going on than just the materialistic hope of re-experiencing pleasure. Perhaps this tendency reflects a deep spiritual truth embedded in the soul of every man. When we use this kind of language we’re expressing an innate (yet dimmed) awareness of what heaven already knows: what is good is meant to last.

God is good. Not “good” in the sense that He adheres to some higher standard of goodness outside of Himself, but that goodness is the overflow of His very nature. Goodness is not what He does, it’s who He is. God is also eternal, without beginning and without end. God has always been, and God has always been good. Which means that goodness has always been, and goodness will always be. Since goodness is wrapped up in the person of God, goodness itself is unending.

It’s no surprise, then, that Scripture identifies countless goods that will never end such as beauty, grandeur, joy, love, and life itself.

Heaven is a place of inexpressible beauty and grandeur (2 Cor. 12:3-4) where the water never dries, the fruit never sours, and the light never goes out (Rev. 22:1-5). Its untold depths will never cease to awe us or fill us with newly discovered wonder. I think about fiery sunsets, colossal mountaintops, or mighty oceans, and I think about how they’ve taken my breath away. These feelings are not fleeting–they’re a taste of the eternal wonder we’ll have in the presence of God.

Love, also, will last long after the mountains are dust (1 Cor. 13:8). My most cherished memories are filled with the faces of those I care about and our times of laughter and fellowship together. I would contend that most people, regardless of culture or worldview, agree on the significance that loved ones play in our life. We all care about someone, and we all know how important that is. Yet Scripture tells us that such fellowship is not meant to end in death but is the very fabric of paradise, where we’ll enjoy unbroken fellowship with God and one other (1 Thess. 4:17).

Life itself, which we may think of as only a small window of biological functionality, is meant to be forever. It is not simply the duration of our heartbeat, but a wondrous and continual state of existence. Resurrected believers will be more alive than they could ever have imagined on earth. Life as we see it now is but a fragment of the true, full life that awaits believers in the presence of Christ (1 Cor. 15:51-57). As Gandalf put it, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here.”

As a final example, consider how many billions of people find fulfillment in the worship of God, a god, or at least some cause or campaign they deem to be of the utmost significance. Many of them are (sadly and damnably) misguided in their worship, but the point is that faith in some higher good is the pinnacle of human hope. It swells our hearts with purpose and gives us something to live for. That feeling is not a religious invention to suppress our mortality, but it tickles at the passion, celebration and fulfillment that God’s people are meant to continually experience as they worship in His presence. In the new heavens and the new earth, the full and glorious presence of God will be the dominant reality, filling His people with the utmost satisfaction (Rev. 21:22-23; 22:3-5). This true joy, this thrill of the soul, is what the Psalmist had in mind when he wrote, “In Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).

All these good things, which we experience in fragments here on earth, are not meant to end. And I think everyone knows that must be so. Deep inside, we all want to believe that goodness will endure. We need to believe that–we need to believe that these things, which we intrinsically know to be important, have real value beyond the here and now.

By contrast, notice how we discuss unpleasant experiences: “I’ll never do that again!” “I never want to hear that song again!” “I’ll never step foot in there again!” Whenever we see, hear or encounter something “bad” we have no problem dismissing it to the category of total annihilation. This, I think, reflects an equally strong belief that bad things can and should come to an end. While good things must somehow go on, bad things must surely cease.

This resonates with Scripture’s teaching that all wickedness will meet its eternal end in the fires of judgment. Immoral men will be cast out forever (Rev. 21:8). Sickness, pain and sorrow will be banished once and for all (Rev. 21:4). Even death itself will die (Rev. 20:14). Just as good things are meant to endure, evil things are meant for destruction. As Digory told Uncle Andrew in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew: “You’re simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the stories. Well, I’ve never read a story in which people of that sort weren’t paid out in the end, and I bet you will be.” If we didn’t believe this were true, justice would seem a hopeless cause.

Goodness is not meant to end. The common grace we now experience is but a foretaste of what believers will continually experience in Christ’s kingdom. Evil, meanwhile, will be cast out from His presence, never to be duplicated or relived. Even if we don’t realize it, we profess our faith in these truths in ways as simple and ordinary as telling a friend, “I’ll see you later.” We feel the need to do so. And no wonder, for those desires are created by the eternally good God Himself.

The Jesus Who Preached Sin Because He Loved Sinners

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“The world…hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.” (John 7:7)

Those profound words are shockingly different than many of the depictions of Jesus we’re used to seeing. In our culture Christ is often miscast as an inoffensive, all-accepting love guru. He never talked about sin or judgment, only peace and harmony.

But according to Jesus Himself, that wasn’t entirely the case. According to Jesus, the world hated Him precisely because He highlighted the reality of sin.

The Gospel of John earlier told us that “the world did not know Him…and His own people did not receive Him” (1:10, 11). Why was this? Because “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (3:19). The world, and even Christ’s own people, hated Him because His blazing torch of holiness exposed the darkness of their sins. The creatures of darkness howled and shivered with rage as the pure light of righteousness intruded into their unrighteous kingdom.

Jesus wasn’t hated because He talked about love. He was hated because He talked about sin.

But wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus come to show the world the love of God? Didn’t the Gospel of John also earlier say, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (3:17)? If Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to save, why would He talk about sin, a topic guaranteed to draw the irk, ire and offense of so many people? If Jesus was so loving, why would He publicly declare to the world “that its works are evil”?

It was precisely because of love, and His mission to bring salvation, that Jesus confronted the world. Before anyone embraces the Savior, they must realize they need saving. They must realize the immensity of their sin before a most holy God and plead for the mercy that is freely given only through the atonement of the cross. In order to be saved, men need to turn from their sin.

That’s why the first words of Christ’s ministry were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt. 4:17) That’s why He told His listeners, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32), and “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:5). That’s why “He began to denounce the cities where most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent” (Mt. 11:20).

Jesus told the world that their deeds were evil before God and that the only hope for restoration was through His sacrifice. He loved them enough to warn them of their evil. And the world responded in two ways. The first group fell to their knees in repentance, putting all their trust in the work and person of Christ, and they were met with these words: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5). They were recipients of the love and salvation of Jesus. But the second group drew back in revolt and offense, refusing to relinquish their sin, hiding in the darkness and remaining beneath the storm clouds of judgment. According to Christ’s own words, they “hated” Him.

To which group to do we belong, the light or the dark? And if we belong to the light, what sort of Jesus are we preaching to the darkness? An inoffensive Jesus who winks at sin? Or the Lord and King who “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30)?

Jesus was hated because He talked about sin. But Jesus talked about sin precisely because He was loving.

The Curse and Children (NOT the curse OF children)

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My wife and I had our first child this weekend. Wow. It’s incredible that something experienced by so many people can still be so thrilling and unreal when it comes your turn in line. The fact that billions of people have done this billions of time since the beginning of history doesn’t take away from its awe-inspiring magnificence.

Yet prior to the delight of holding our new son there was, of course, the agony of labor. I’ve never seen my wife undergo such torture. Tears filled my eyes on multiple occasions as I saw the pain and exhaustion in her own. I kept thinking about Genesis 3:16, where pain in childbearing is pronounced as a part of the curse on a fallen world. With each new cry or wail, I wished I could do something about it–interfere, make it stop, or, if possible, take that burden upon myself. Perhaps that was a taste of how Christ felt on behalf of His Bride when He “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).

It got me thinking about the curse, children, and how our generation gets their correlation wrong.

First, consider that the majority of the curse’s effects are not bad things but rather good things gone wrong. The curse did not simply introduce newly created terrors–it negatively altered what was already created. That which God had originally declared “good” was now distorted.

For example, the curse created a conflict in marital roles (Gen. 3:16). Although feminists claim such roles were a result of the Fall and not a part of God’s original design, Genesis 2 clearly shows Adam as the head (vs. 15, 19) and Eve as his helpmeet (vs. 18) even before the Fall. Complementarianism is the design of God’s perfect creation, rooted in the Trinity itself (1 Cor. 11:3), and not a consequence of sin. What the Fall did produce is a perversion of these roles where on one spectrum a husband might abuse his authority, or on the other spectrum a wife might nag and manipulate her husband.

Another example is God’s curse upon the ground. The thorny soil would make work difficult for Adam, and simple necessities would now have to be earned through blood, sweat and tears (Gen. 3:17-19). This might make us think of work as something unfortunate in and of itself, as though the original ideal for Eden was kicking back under a shady tree and eating easy food all day long. Again, wrong. Work was God’s original responsibility for man (Gen. 2:15). What the Fall did produce was difficulty in work, which would either produce frustration for the hard worker or laziness in someone who wasn’t up for the challenge.

Neither of these consisted of inherently bad things, but rather the perversion of good things. When we experience the curse in our daily lives we experience what happens when God’s good design gets skewed.

Now, what does all this have to do with babies? Because just as we might be tempted to see marital roles and work in and of themselves as negative, we live in a culture that thinks about kids the same way. It’s not just the process of having children that’s considered cursed–it’s the children themselves.

Many of my fellow millennials don’t like the idea of having kids for a variety of reasons, such as not wanting to financially support another person, not wanting the responsibility of caring for another person, and not wanting a hindrance to their career or lifestyle. One author even proudly called themselves “selfish” because of how highly they value their personal “freedom.” Translation: kids get in the way of enjoying life. You know, kind of like a curse.

If you’re unlucky enough to catch a strain of this crippling virus, well, fear not, because the curse can be reversed at a local doctor’s office. Children are a sickness, easily remedied with an abortive antidote. They’re so much of an inconvenience that tearing apart their little limbs is totally justified. No big deal.

That’s why abortionists at the University of North Georgia threw a rally earlier this year where baby-shaped cookies were ripped apart while participants laughed and wrote notes such as, “My vagina is too pretty to let a fetus crawl out.” Then there’s the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overrule Texas’s abortion regulations because it was an “undue burden” on women who wanted an abortion. A burden? You mean, kind of like a curse? Apparently abortion is the blessed messiah come to free women from the bane of children.

And, of course there’s Barack Obama’s infamous statement back in 2008 that if his daughters “make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.” So babies are a punishment. You mean, like a curse? Perhaps that’s why Obama also said abortion provides women the opportunity to “fulfill their dreams.” Children are the great hindrance that prevent meaningful lives. If you could just get that cursed obstacle out of the way then countless women could enter their own private Eden.

I get it. A baby is a game-changer. And some of the results are less than pleasant. I admit, throughout my wife’s labor I wrestled with some rough questions: Was it fair that she had to suffer so much? Could I ever stand to watch her undergo this agony a second or third or fourth time? Now, two days later, I still see the birth taking its physical and emotional toll on her. I get how the curse could overshadow the value of the blessing.

It’s easy to look at the difficulties involved and think the item (or, in this case, the person) in question must be the problem. It’s easy to see domestic abuse and think male headship is the problem. It’s easy to see thorns and think work is the problem. It’s easy to see painful labor, stretch marks, extra expenses, the loss of personal freedom, or anything else you can name, and think children are the problem. But they’re not.

Quite to the contrary, Scripture calls them a gift from God (Gen. 1:28; 33:5; Ps. 127:3-5; Mk. 10:13-16). I can already testify to that truth. The curse of Genesis 3 reveals that much of God’s good design is still there, it just takes some extra work. A good marriage requires a lot of sacrifice, but it’s worth it. Working for a living can be exhausting, but it’s worth it. Children can take a physical and emotional toll, but they’re worth it. As Christ said, even though the agonies of childbirth as miserable, they result in great joy (Jn. 16:21-22). We must not confuse the curse with the results of the curse.

Finally, isn’t it incredible that our ultimate Deliverer from the curse would be born of a woman (Gen. 3:15; Gal. 4:4); that He came by means of the cursed “birth pains and…agony of giving birth” (Rev. 12:2)? Even though all “creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22), the day will come when the labor will be over, the glory of Christ’s full kingdom will have arrived, and it will all be worth it.

The birth of a child can certainly remind us that all is not right with the world. But it can also remind us of the Seed of the Woman who came into the world, who bore the curse on our behalf, and who will someday return to make all things new. As we await that day, let us patiently bear the temporary effects of this fallen world and rejoice in the blessings God has given. Especially children.