Using the ‘Jesus Movies’ in a Church

On Sunday we held our first Youth Service at St James since Rev Richard arrived, complete with Freedom, the band from St Michaels in Sandhurst providing the music, and the Gospel from the Gospel of John DVD. After the service, through a discussion with the youth worker from Sandhurst, Rev Richard mentioned that he had got permission to show The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday. I think I rather surprised him by saying that I thought it was a bad idea just to show it. We then had a discussion about what I thought of the film, why I thought it was blasphemous in some ways, and various issues around it that I have blogged about before.

As a result of the conversation, I ordered a copy of one of the books that has been on my wish list at Amazon for a while, Jesus and Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, The Film, The Gospels and the Claims of History. The book is a collection of essays on various aspects of the film by a selection of biblical scholars from around the world. It is worth saying that the book is intended to reflect the broad range of opinions that the film has produced amongst scholars. So whilst there are essays exploring the negative aspects, there is also counter argument that despite the flaws, the film, as with a number of other controversial ‘Jesus films’ such as The Last Temptation Of Christ has a place in allowing us to explore our faith through our reaction to the film.

That leads on to a discussion that Beth and myself have had from time to time since both The Passion and Gospel of John came out, partly following on from a conversation about films we had with Rev Sheila where she said that she had used parts of The Last Temptation Of Christ with some of her older youth group to explore the ideas of calling. We talked about whether you could run a house group looking at the way Jesus and Christianity is portrayed through movie. It addition to the three films mentioned already, suggestions for inclusion include Jesus Of Nazareth which I remember being shown parts of as a child, and more recently Bruce Almighty which although being from a different genre than the others, still has a lot to say to a Christian.

One of the reasons for the house group setting, is that with all of the ‘Jesus’ films, I think there always needs to be a bit of a health warning when using them. Much more than with other mediums, with a film there is a big element of spin. If you look at the Gospels themselves, there isn’t enough in the text to produce a film entirely on the basis of the books alone. In the case of The Passion especially, which tells the story of just twelve hours, the material on which to produce a feature length movie in the Bible can be read in a matter of minutes.

For that reason alone, in order to make a film, there has to be input from somewhere else. In the case of the Gospel of John the documentary DVD explains how the scriptwriter and director went about staging the various scenes based on the words in the Gospel, and the historical recreations of first century Palestine. It also explains how they coped with some problems in the text that would be difficult to film and so on. In Gibsons case it is the book Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich that provides a lot of material, and again looking for authentic settings and costume, and in the case of Gibson, authentic language. The Last Temptation Of Christ is as you may well know, based on the book The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakes, and was his exploration of the human side of Christ. With all of them there is a strong influence of the personal theology and belief of those who made the film. It is also worth remembering that any film that is “true to the Gospels” will have to have harmonised the four differing versions of the story that are presented in the four Gospels. Again, how this is done will be different depending on the theology of the maker of the film. Whilst with them all there is a team behind the movie, as with any film it is the vision of the director that ultimately appears on the screen.

This leads me on to probably my biggest issue with the Gibson film, and the reason why I think it is a bad idea to show it. The massive media circus that surrounded it with many people in Churches around the world saying that it is faithful to the Gospels. Subsequent to it’s release surveys of moviegoers found that there were many viewers who believed it to be a purely Gospel account. Although the use of Emmerich wasn’t hidden particularly, it’s use was not prominently shown in the film. As this guide to viewing Passion plays and movies highlights, it is important to go back to the four differing Gospel accounts and look at how the play or movie has drawn elements from each, and to consider the reasons particular elements have been taken from them or left out. Whatever you belief about the authorship of the Gospels, in any movie there is a large element that comes from elsewhere – ultimately, our faith is based on the Gospels, not on a movie. As a result of the media circus, without putting the film into a proper context we are in danger of presenting Christianity based around the fictionalised Gospel expansion of Emmerich rather than the Gospels themselves.

Anyway if you want to explore Jesus in film further, the easiest way to start is to watch the movies and make up your own mind.

Gospel of John [3 Discs] (REGION 1) (NTSC) The Passion of the Christ [2004] The Last Temptation Of Christ [1988] Jesus Of Nazareth [1977]

If you want to read more about the background to The Passion of the Christ and it’s relationship to Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich, from my reading of it so far I can recommend Jesus and Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, The Film, The Gospels and the Claims of History.

Jesus and Mel Gibson's the

One thought on “Using the ‘Jesus Movies’ in a Church”

  1. I agree with you, Richard. I can’t believe that there is a Church that hasn’t condemned ‘The Last Temptation’ without actually seeing the movie! Amazing! OK, there are some parts in there that I don’t agree with, but it’s the same with Gibson’s The Passion. But another recommended movie is ‘Jesus of Montreal’, (it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes I think it was 1989 or so)…and tells the story of a group of worldly actors who stage a Passion play in Montreal and then Christ’s life starts to affect the actors personally…this is just a brief description, it’s hard to encapsulate the movie in just a few words. It’s in French, with subtitles so it’s fairly demanding to watch, but I agree with you that all of these films, if they’re done well, have something to say about Christianity and can make us think about our Faith in a new way…but only if we don’t check our brains at the door first.

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