Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 13, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Son of God
Most films that touch on the life of Christ these days take one of two paths.
Either they're by unbelievers who are trying to put a "new spin" on the
"Christian myth," or they're by believers who think that as long as they're
pious, their job is done.
The first category -- the unbeliever films -- range from "comic" parodies like
Monty Python's Life of Brian to solemn debunkery like Martin Scorcese's The
Last Temptation of Christ.
The second category -- the believer films -- used to be a vibrant category. But
that was back in the old days, when most Americans were openly Christian
and we hadn't been beaten into silence by lawsuits by atheists.
In those days, Hollywood used to celebrate the majority culture for the simple
reason that that's where the money was. Cecil B. DeMille's "sex and
scriptures" formula worked very well for a long time -- huge box office, and
Christians (and, with the Old Testament, Jews as well) responded emotionally
to stories that spoke to their core beliefs.
Thus DeMille's original silent King of Kings -- which remains one of the best, if
not the best, of the believer films -- was so careful that it never actually showed
the face of Christ. Instead, it only showed the faces of those looking at and
responding to him.
But it had to have its provocative interlude with a scantily clad woman showing
how wicked she was before Jesus changed her life.
The usual pattern, though, was not to make a film about the life of Christ.
Rather the film would be based on a novel that focused on someone else
whose life was changed by an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Thus
Ben-Hur, The Robe, The Silver Chalice.
But those films dated from the era when pious Christian historical novels
dominated the bestseller lists. Lloyd Douglas (The Robe, Magnificent Obsession)
once ruled those lists the way Stephen King and John Grisham have done in
recent decades -- but nowadays almost no one even remembers who he was.
By the time Taylor Caldwell's biblical historicals appeared -- most notably Dear
and Glorious Physician, about the life of Luke, author of the third gospel --
Hollywood had lost its interest in making such movies. The novel was a
bestseller -- but there was no movie.
And now "Christian novels" aren't usually placed in the fiction section -- they
stick them off in "religious books" where you have to be deliberately seeking
Dana Gioa, noted poet and former head of the National Endowment for the
Arts, wrote about this at some length in an essay called "The Catholic
Writer Today," first published in First Things magazine.
While he was writing particularly about the disappearance of openly Catholic
writing in American literature, most of what he says applies to Christian and
even Judeo-Christian writing in general. It's well worth reading:
My own conclusion is that believing Christians and Jews have been cowed by
the constant demand by militant atheism and secularism, so that we mostly
keep our heads down.
If we try to celebrate our religious holidays openly, we get sued, as if ours were
the one aspect of American culture that has no right to exist. If we dare to
insist that we don't want to take part in activities that we regard as sinful, we
get sued. If we try to rally believers in supporting legislation that affirms our
values, we are shouted down for daring to suggest that our faith is a decent
grounds for deciding our votes.
Anybody else can demand that their faith be respected -- but not us. Call
yourself a Christian, and you have removed yourself from any chance of
being taken seriously.
Even though Christians long since lost majority status, we are still treated as if
any attempt to preserve, defend, or propound our beliefs and values was
somehow coercive and evil -- though everybody else is perfectly free to do
It's hardly a surprise, then, that in our literature, film, and television,
Christianity has virtually disappeared. Writers are gunshy about putting their
beliefs into the open, at least in front of the wider audience.
Fiction writers still have the avenue of publishing within the Christian
community. That isolated "religious fiction" ghetto hidden away in the
bookstores keeps us from attracting the negative attention of anti-Christians.
The trouble is that within that ghetto, piety is usually the only virtue such
writing has. That is, those who write within it are either unable or unwilling
to publish fiction for the general public. So the writers tend to write as if
expressing their faith was the point of the story rather than simply a part of a
much larger art. The result is that the standards of writing are very low,
though there are a few luminous exceptions.
In film, though, making a movie is so expensive that everyone in Hollywood
assumes that making films for the Christian "niche" makes no commercial
But the audience has not gone away. We saw that in 2004, when Mel Gibson's
The Passion of the Christ had an $85 million opening weekend and grossed
more than half a billion dollars worldwide.
Why didn't Hollywood leap on the bandwagon? I think the reason is simple
and perfectly innocent. Hollywood has ignored the Christian audience for so
long that there are no executives -- network or studio -- that feel remotely
qualified to judge whether a given script or project is any good.
In a way, that shows respect for the Christian audience. The executives are
aware that while believers can show up in huge numbers for a seriously devout
film, it must also be a first-rate, professional-quality production.
Mel Gibson, whatever else you may think of him, is a brilliant filmmaker --
both in front of and behind the camera. He knows how to create a powerful
emotional arc. He understands story and he understands every facet of the
techniques of filmmaking. The audience knew that and trusted him.
Trusted him so much, in fact, that we showed up in large numbers even
though we knew that The Passion of the Christ reflected Gibson's allegiance to a
narrow branch of Catholicism with an obsessive attention to the physical pain
Jesus suffered on the way to his death.
Most of the time, though, Christians don't show up for films or television shows
or DVDs about the life of Jesus, because we expect any such film to be either
(a) by unbelievers, and therefore deliberately or ignorantly offensive to us, or
(b) by pious believers who have no idea how to make a good movie, so that
watching it would be somewhere between embarrassing and excruciating.
Which brings me -- at last -- to Son of God, a film about the life of Christ that
is in theaters right now.
I am happy to say that, while it is far from perfect, Son of God is a film by
believers, with first-rate production values.
It does not have the coherence and majesty of The Passion of the Christ. But
that is largely owing to the way the project evolved.
The producers of Son of God were deeply involved in creating the History
Channel series The Bible. The budgets for that project were decent and, while
the filmmakers were biblical literalists, it was a pleasure to see well-produced,
well-acted depictions of Bible stories.
Producers Richard Bedser, Mark Burnett, and Roma Downey were writers
for The Bible, and Roma Downey (of Touched by an Angel) also plays Mary the
mother of Jesus in Son of God. This is not a coincidence.
It seems that they looked at what they had created for The Bible and said, "All
we need to do is shoot a few more scenes and we can do a feature film about
the life of Jesus."
Well, yes and no. It's a feature film, but it's not a bio-pic. It begins with a
recap of Jesus' role as creator (based on the "Word" discourse at the beginning
of the gospel of John), which allowed them to use brief vignettes from the Old
Then it gives us a glimpse of the nativity. I was pleased to see that they
showed Joseph as a young man. I was not as pleased that instead of following
the gospels, they used the traditional add-ons -- "wise men from the east"
become kings from every direction, for instance. But that falls into the "missed
opportunity" category, and it passes quickly.
Then we skip over everything until Jesus first calls Peter to be an apostle.
That was a bit startling, but again, probably a wise choice. With every moment
of screen time costing half a million bucks, you go straight to the face of Diogo
Morgado, the actor you've chosen to represent Jesus Christ.
The problem, for me, is that even though the filmmakers were sometimes
highly literalist, they also took weirdly extravagant liberties with the story.
For instance, they conflated the story of Jesus calling the apostles with the
separate story of him helping some of them with their fishing.
This has the inadvertent effect of diminishing both the apostles and Jesus. In
the film, Peter follows Jesus because he could do miracles with fish; but in the
gospels, he follows Jesus because of the message he brings.
In fact, that is the single largest weakness of Son of God. We get plenty of
miracles, but no message.
We get lots of vignettes, but no clear story.
If you don't already know the story of the life of Jesus Christ when you come
into the theater, you certainly won't have any clear idea of that story coming
The fact that they cobbled most of the film together from existing scenes leads
to a kind of choppiness and incoherence that is quite unfortunate. This film
will not convert anybody. But then, it probably isn't meant to -- it's meant, I
think, to be an expression of faith among the faithful.
But each one of those bits and pieces is very well done. Well acted, clearly
scripted, and filmed to professional standards. There are no moments when
you cringe because of bad filmmaking.
So my conclusion is that the pious goals of the filmmakers were achieved.
Though this film has little to offer unbelievers, it wasn't made for them. There
are many moments that, to believers, are quite moving.
Now, having said that, I must also point out that the script is probably the
weakest part of the production. Since this is true of most movies, it's hardly a
surprise. And because they were frugally making use of existing footage, there
wasn't a lot of room for clear, coherent screenwriting.
If I had been entrusted with this budget, I would have made some very different
choices. On the one hand, I would have augmented the account in the gospels
with serious research to place those stories in their historical context.
Instead, the writers got everything wrong. Roman culture, government, and
military life are well-documented and easily available. But these writers paid
far more attention to the idiotic ideas they learned in film school (or from
others who learned them there) than to either the gospels or the historical
Romans could be brutal, but they weren't often needlessly brutal. They were
perfectly happy to let the locals govern themselves, stepping in only to deal
with open rebellion.
There are facts that the film simply ignored. Jews were forbidden, under
Roman law, to execute anybody. If they stoned someone to death, that was an
act of rebellion against Rome.
That's part of the subtext of the story of the woman taken in adultery -- it's a
trap in which Jesus must either reject Jewish law by refusing to take part in
the lawful stoning of the woman, or must flout Roman law by ignoring the
prohibition of executions by anyone other than the Roman government.
The Sanhedrin could pass sentences of death all day long -- but they had no
power to carry out such a sentence without bringing the wrath of Rome down
on their heads. So, having determined that Jesus must die under Jewish law,
they had to accuse him of a completely different set of crimes to make him
eligible for Roman crucifixion.
The film completely ignores this and instead invents out of nothing a weird,
unhistorical set of motives for the Roman procurator Pilate and for the
high priest Caiaphas.
Likewise, in the gospels Judas clearly tries to conceal his role as betrayer of
Jesus (hence the way he marks Jesus for arrest by greeting him with a kiss).
But in the film, he is unbelievably public about it, and his motives are a jumble
For me the biggest flaw is that they spend way, way too much time on the
details of Jesus' punishment and execution, and nowhere near enough time on
his actual teachings.
Part of this is the branch of Christianity these filmmakers come from. Where
Mel Gibson came from a fringe Catholic group, Son of God reflects the "only say
you believe" branch of Christianity.
The problem is that the film gives us no idea of what they're supposed to
believe in. Jesus taught a very specific set of behaviors, rules of life. He
didn't repudiate the Jewish commandments, he only repudiated the minute
"fence around the law" that the rabbis had built up over the years. At core, he
was actually a more stringent law-giver than Moses.
When Jesus said "I am the Way" he did not leave it at that -- but the film does.
It gives no idea how a person's life would change because of his belief in
Peter's "denial of Christ" is a minor irony in the gospels. Here it becomes a
disproportionately major plot point; it feels like we get more about Peter's fib
than about the resurrection of Christ.
To save time (I assume) the post-resurrection events are absurdly compressed.
Mary meets Jesus right there in the tomb. Jesus comes right to the apostles
and Thomas is present, so that the story makes no sense. He sees Jesus, so ...
what room is there for doubt?
The weirdest decision involved the marks of the nails in Jesus' resurrected
hands. It's as if someone used a metal punch to make an inch-wide hole
in his hands, through which we can see daylight.
But nothing in the gospels suggests anything of the kind. Punching a nail
through somebody's hand doesn't make a hole, because all the skin, muscle,
bones, and ligaments are only pushed aside. Remove the nail and even though
the body is dead and will not heal, the displaced parts still close over the gap.
So the image was not only disturbing, it was unbiblical and false. Who decided
that? Why didn't somebody veto the idea on the grounds that it would distract
the audience from the important aspects of the story?
Do you get the idea that I found much to disagree with in the filmmakers'
treatment of doctrine, history, scripture, and aesthetics? Yes, I think that's
I still urge Christians to support this movie, not merely because money will
help encourage more such films to be made, but also because even with all its
flaws and weaknesses, Son of God delivers some powerful moments that are
far better than anything in most previous attempts.
Maybe I responded so strongly to the healing of the palsied man and the
raising of Lazarus in part because of stories from my own family.
But when the resurrected Jesus touches Peter's head, it moved me greatly.
Son of God is a fulfilling experience for Christians. It is an affirmation: Yes,
this is what it might have been like.
Part of what works is the excellent casting, especially Diogo Morgado as Jesus.
Instead of playing him as a dreamy mystic or a somber icon, Morgado gives
him life and personality.
This included a George-Clooneyish smirk -- in fact, he reminded me and my
wife of Josh Holloway (Sawyer in Lost and Gabriel in Intelligence). But the hint
of a smile completely worked for the role of Jesus. You got a sense of his joy
in what he did, of his genuine liking for the people around him.
This is an accessible Jesus; you can believe that people might have been drawn
to him long enough to hear his message and come to believe in his words.
When you see Son of God in a theater full of believers, you get the sweet relief
of knowing that you are not alone, that there are many who, despite wide
differences in doctrine and practice, are nevertheless united in our faith in
and love for Jesus Christ as Redeemer of the world.
I hope better movies will be made later. But as proof of concept, Son of God is
a worthy beginning to a revival of Christian filmmaking as a genre.
Grossing $41 million so far on a budget of $22 million, with more to be earned
from foreign and DVD and download sales, this film proves that the audience
is there, and profits can be made from creating films that affirm Christian faith
But $22 million is not a trivial budget. Most independent films are made for
far, far less money ... and it shows. In this case, the History Channel fronted
most of the budget. Other filmmakers won't have that advantage.
Still: We know the audience is there, and even without the star power of Mel
Gibson's name attached, they show up. We show up. There are enough of us
that it makes sense to invest in first-rate Christian filmmaking.