SATURDAY, APRIL 5, 1997
Many Americans' impressions
of Jesus come from film
rather than Bible
By Michael J. Paquette
RELIGIOUS NEWS SERVICE
TV Guide recently reported that Americans not only watch TV religiously, they want more religion in what they watch.
And in many ways, the movies people see on TV as videos or reruns have overtaken scripture as the major force shaping their ideas about Jesus and the Bible.
Some film scholars believe four films"Jesus of Nazareth," "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and "the Last Temptation of Christ"have played instrumental roles in developing America's perceptions about Jesus.
"The image of Jesus and his story will not let go of our culture nor will our culture get rid of it," says Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
For three years, Humphries-Brooks has taught a course called "The Celluloid Savior," which explores the history , trends and cultural significance of films about Jesus. He contends a majority of his studentsas well as most other Americansget their ideas about Jesus from Hollywood rather than from the Bible.
"Students come into my class with a preset interpretation of Jesus . . . much of which does not appear to be from the church but from the media, especially film," he said.
"Jesus of Nazareth," the 1977 NBC miniseries by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, "is the current cultural definer of who Jesus is," said Humphries-Brooks. That's because Americans feel comfortable with its traditional portrayal of Jesus, he said. Read against the Gospels and popular mainstream piety, this is a canonical film.
Terry Lindvall, who taught film courses at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., for 15 years before becoming the school's president, agrees that the TV room has overtaken the church pew in many ways.
"We have become people of the image rather than people of the word," he said. Consequently, "Jesus of Nazareth" continues to have the greatest impact on impressions about Jesus, he said, agreeing with Humphries-Brooks.
"It is both reverential and entertaining, it captures the drama and the passion of the Gospels," Lindvall said. "It's still great entertainment."
But Lindvall isn't completely taken with the high-polished aesthetics of "Jesus of Nazareth."
"If there is any fault with Zeffirelli's film, it's that he shows more of his own artistry, so you are left with other impressions than what is . . . the gospel," he said. "It becomes a museum piece."
In stark contrast to Zeffirelli's reverent, smooth portrayal of Jesus stands the gritty "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," directed by another Italian, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in 1966. Unlike most other biblical films, Pasolini produced a low budget film using a nonprofessional cast to capture the ruggedness of life in first-century Palestine. Viewers come away from this film with an altogether different view of Jesus.
"There's not a camouflaging in Pasolini's film," said Lindvall, who claims "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" as his favorite Jesus film. "It is a literal, almost materialistic, Marxist approach. It shows the subversive elements of Jesus . . . . Jesus is more of an angry young revolutionist who supports the poor and the oppressed."
A subversive Jesus also is felony in "Jesus Christ, Superstar," the 1973 rock opera that was a huge success as both a stage production and a film. Humphries-Brooks said "Superstar" is another primary source of his students' sensibilities about Jesus, because many grew-up in homes where baby-boomer parents frequently played the soundtrack.
"The Jesus of 'Superstar' is a counterculture, semi-revolutionary figure not sure of his relationship to God," Humphries-Brooks said. "To my students, he looks like a young hippie . . . . It is a dramatic reinterpretation (of the Gospels) and it offended when it came out."
Lindvall isn't offended by "Jesus Christ, Superstar," only by its unsuper Jesus, Ted Neely, who Lindvall said has an "irritating and limp screen presence. . . . Who would want to follow him?"
Not so with the hip Jesus of "Godspell," another 1973 film based on a Broadway smash that presented Jesus neither as reverent nor revolutionary, but as a modern-day New York City clown, whose parables reveal the secrets of life.
"'Godspell' had a fresh effect on me," said Lindvall. "It was a celebration of the gospel . . . . It portrayed a hippie Christ you wanted to be around to see what he was going to do next . . . . It was one of the freshest treatments."
And what sort of impressions do viewers come away with after seeing Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," arguably the most controversial film on the life of the Nazarene?
"In a certain sense, it is exceptionally orthodox," Humphries-Brooks said of the 1988 film that caused a furor among religious conservatives who called the film blasphemous because it depicts Jesus in sexual situations.
"One of the major (orthodox) theological problems is how can Jesus be totally human and at the same time totally divine," he said.
In "The Last Temptation," this ancient belief is illustrated in "modern form" by Jesus being "torn between the flesh wanting to be a home owner and settling down with Mary (Magdalene) and choosing the divine path," Humphries-Brooks said.
Lindvall believes all films about Jesus, especially those like Scorcese's, are public disclosures of the director's values and beliefs.
"Each filmmaker dealing with these Jesus films is saying as much about themselves as they do the Gospels," he said. "You see the politics and the faith of each person coming to grips with who this is . . . . It's a public testimony."
Because each biblical film embodies the director's personal faith, viewers who rely solely on movies to learn about the life of Jesus miss the benefits that come from reading the Gospels directly, Lindvall said.
It's the written word, he said, that makes the greater impact.
© 1997 by Religious News Service, Washington, D.C. Posted by permission.
For a full treatment on films about Christ in this century, see Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen, by Roy Kinndard & Tim Davis, Citadel Press, 1992.
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