A Tale of the Christ in Cinema

ben-hur-jesus-head

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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