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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 them out.

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: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today

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 exactly that.

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 sense.

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 Testament videos.

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 out.

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 record.

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 of contradictions.

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 Christ.

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 clear.

And yet.

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 and values.

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.

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