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'Son of God' and Jesus in cinema

'Son of God' movie poster

With the opening of Son of God this weekend, the Christian world is once again abuzz with discussion. Some have hailed the film as powerful, others have denounced it as borderline blasphemous, while others have simply shrugged it off as a not-quite-there attempted biblical blockbuster.

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 this 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 Creator 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, a God who became man.

I don't care how good of an actor you are. That's not something we can ever capture or duplicate.

In fact, most of the movies and plays I've seen about Jesus come terribly short. They usually fall under one of these four 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 like a phantom than anything, 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 always holding children like they were 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 best buddy Jesus: He's obnoxiously likeable, with 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.

4. 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. That's what this Jesus is like.

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 was the 1959 Charlton Heston film, Ben-Hur. Why? 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 His face or having Him speak, 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.

When my wife and I directed an Easter play last year centered around four women whose lives Christ touched (the adulteress woman, Mary Magdalene, Martha, and the Samaritan woman), we applied this same idea and it worked wonderfully. Jesus was on stage. His actions were obvious. He shaped the story. But we refrained from showing His face whenever possible, and He didn't have one line of dialogue.

We felt this was the best way to keep our hands clean of misrepresenting Him. Rather than putting our fallible spin on His character, we used the silence of the actor to let the Gospels do the talking.

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. That is, you get a wrong portrayal.

For that reason, I wouldn't recommend taking an unbeliever to see a movie about Jesus. Some have called films like Son of God a great evangelistic tool. I might have to disagree. It may be a fine movie, but please, think carefully before taking your unsaved friends to see it. Or any other movie about Jesus, for that matter.

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 Son of God (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 just be cautious.

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