Star of 2000
where millennial journeys begin
home forum book faq speakers link to us advertise contact

SEARCH this site 
Gift Shop



Subscribe Un-Subscribe
Sign up to receive updates & news from this site.
One Call One Life One Birth One Star: One Man One Icon One World


Celluloid Savior

Many Americans' impressions
of Jesus come from film
rather than Bible

Robert Powell as Jesus By Michael J. Paquette


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.

Jesus on Film

Following is a partial list of some of the more important or popular films about the life and times of Jesus:

"Intolerance" (1916), with Howard Gaye as Jesus; directed by D.W. Griffith. Landmark epic that interweaves four stories--including one set in ancient Judea--of prejudice and inhumanity. Though Gaye's scenes are brief, his portrayal of Jesus still ranks as one of the most successful.

"The King of Kings" (1927), with H.B. Warner as Jesus; directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Lavish silent film with the resurrection sequence shot in two-color Technicolor.

"Ben-Hur" (1959), with Claude Heater as Jesus; directed by William Wyler. This widescreen spectacle follows the relationship between a nationalistic Jew and a gentile with a blind allegiance to Rome during the time of Christ. Includes scenes depicting the nativity, the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion.

"King of Kings" (1961), with Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, directed by Nicholas Ray. Teen idol Hunter is cast in the lead in this attempt to draw younger audiences to the age-old story.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), with Max Von Sydow as Jesus; directed by George Stevens. Despite an all star cast, this film is criticized as being one of the least faithful to the Gospels.

"The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1966), with Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus; directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. This low-budget film, using a nonprofessional cast and gritty location shots, offers a realistic sense of first-century Palestine.

"Godspell" (1973), with Victor Garber as Jesus; directed by David Green. Based on the Broadway musical, this film depicts Jesus as a hip clown in modern-day New York City.

"Jesus Christ, Superstar" (1973), with Ted Neely as Jesus; directed by Norman Jewison. Based on the Broadway rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, this film is perhaps most memorable because of its musical score.

"Jesus of Nazareth" (1977), with Robert Powell as Jesus; directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The blockbuster NBC miniseries of the life of Jesus that many consider the most faithful to the Gospels.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), with Willem Defoe as Jesus; directed by Martin Scorcese. Controversial depiction of a sexually aware Jesus consumed with self-doubt.

Source: Religion News Service

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.

One Call One Life One Birth One Star: One Man One Icon One World
In Honor of Jesus at 2000

quotes Why has civilization been so captivated by Jesus of Nazareth these past 2,000 years? Beyond millennium celebrations, how should we mark Christ's 2,000th anniversary? Click here to share your views on "Jesus at 2000" in our Forum.

Magi Jesus 2000 Links Travel Gift Shop Seminars

Star of 2000 where millennial journeys begin
Your comments are welcome:
Copyright © 1999 by Bimillennial Press. All rights reserved.

If you find this site helpful, please spread the word by linking to us.
Revised: June 1, 1999