The God Question | Part One

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
-Matthew 16:18

But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
-Matthew 16:23

From the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen, I wrestled with what to think and believe about God and the Christian faith in particular. This not a polemic or an apologetic or a critique or an argument. It’s just a story. The ending of it is not here; it will be here in a few months.

I was raised in the Catholic Church during a time of considerable change. It was the Vatican II church of the 60s and 70s, and my parents found themselves in the liberal stream of change and reform. Questioning official dogma, institutions and customs was inherent in the liberal tradition. So was a modernist (as Rome called it), skeptical view of the Scriptures. Eden was allegory,  Noah’s flood a fable. Its history was unreliable, many of the commandments outdated.

As liberals we accepted the conclusions drawn by the secular world: we believed in Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and Freudian psychology. We went with general drift of the day, and mostly agreed with the cultural shift in values. After all, morality, in some arenas, needs to be updated to modern life. For example, why should premarital sex be considered a sin? Who says birth control or abortion or divorce are always – or ever – wrong? The very notion of sin is archaic. Hell is a preposterous conception in light of a loving God. In fact, psychology, medicine, and political and social progress offered more reliable, rational and scientific solutions to the human predicament than anything prescribed by ancient writ. When we look at the patriarchal, superstitious and pre-scientific worldview that formed the minds of the biblical writers, there is very little of what they wrote that can speak to us today. Yes, there are beautiful passages there, but we have to sift through the text to find what is inspirational and uplifting, and leave the rest. It is not, in its entirety at least, the divinely inspired Word of God.

I have told friends the religion I was raised with was defined more by what we did not believe than what we did. That may sound harsh, but it isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s meant to describe my experience. Though we affirmed many things that corresponded pretty closely with a secular-progressive worldview, when I asked if we believed one Christian tenet or another – the creation, Adam and Eve, the flood -  the answer was often No. But we did believe in God. That was foundational. We did believe in Jesus, and, even if the relationship might be strained, we did believe in the Church.

Where did this leave me? Well, let me spell it out. I have many friends who were raised in more conservative/traditional religious homes, both Catholic and Protestant, including fundamentalist homes. They commonly came to a point in their lives, if not as teenagers or young adults, then later in life, when they had to scrutinize their beliefs – those things that had been bequeathed to them as unquestionable certainties – with a more critical mindset. Usually this will result in walking away from faith or finding it strengthened by making it their own. They might become critical of the way they had been taught their faith, or adopt an easy bemusement toward the quaint backwardness of their parents and their church. I think they might not understand what an alternative would have been like.

So here is one. If the Bible is not a reliable source of information about what I should believe, and the Church is flat-out wrong in some of its bedrock doctrines, then what is my source, my authority? Me? How am I supposed to know anything regarding the faith, or what to believe? What is the truth about the most important things, and how do I discover it? This was at the root of my wilderness wanderings as a teenager.

The Historical Problem, or What if you are the gates of hell?
camelot 67It all began with King Arthur. Over my Christmas break in 1976, I spent a few days with my grandparents. At the time I was living in the country with my dad while Mom was away at grad school. I was 13. I watched the movie Camelot and was absolutely carried away by it. I watched it about three years later in a theatre and hated it, but when I saw it on TV, I was captured by the Arthurian story. When I got back to school, I spent the rest of the year in libraries consuming every book, historical or literary, I could find on the Arthur cycle. This led to an ardent interest in medieval European history and culture that lasted for years. I read up on the Norsemen, the Norman conquest, art and architecture, the Holy Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. I read the poetic Eddas, the chroniclers, and the epic poems. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Again and again I came up against the ugly character of the medieval Roman Church. It was politically powerful, enormously wealthy, and sometimes callous, manipulative, merciless and cruel. It sought to control the minds of people and the fates of nations. In short, it was a complete bummer.

I  began to think of this problem in a whole new light when I saw something else on TV at Easter: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single most important thing I ever watched on TV, and it was a singular milestone on the journey I am describing.

Simply put, this was the first time I ever saw Jesus as real, immediate, relevant or alive. Every Sunday morning I beheld him as a dead man hanging on a cross, and we read a mere few words from the Gospels. In six hours, I heard more of his words than I had in my whole life. The experience was profound for me because it was fresh. There wasn’t anything stale or statuary here. The flesh-and-blood man made sense. He answered something now.

The conclusion I drew from this experience would make all the difference in the next five years: If the character of a loving and compassionate God could be known, certainly no one has reflected that character better than Jesus. I still believed this when I came to question God’s existence. If there was a God, I thought, he was like Jesus.

Now I looked at the problem of the historical Church in light of this television Jesus I had just been confronted with. Now, not only the sins of the Church glared at us, but its very nature didn’t bear any resemblance to the small, mostly poor band of followers Jesus knit together with his message of love and hope. The disparity I now saw made the Church – both medieval and modern – seem that much worse. How was I supposed to believe that this was the same thing Jesus established with his own words 1,940 years ago?

That was about as far as my 13-year-old brain could take the problem. You might wonder why I didn’t simply embrace this new-found appreciation for Jesus and carry on. Because it was movie on TV, a fading memory, and it didn’t begin to answer my questions.  I was left wondering where this remarkable Jesus was in the world. In the Roman Catholic Church? In a book, or a miniseries? Is there a forwarding number?

Is he nowhere, dead and buried, and just a great guy with some great ideas? Or was he everywhere, alive yet unseen and actually God in the flesh?

Or is he just one of many standing in the religion pantheon, with Buddha and Mohammed and Moses? Pick your favorite guy and exit through the gift shop?

Who knows?

jesus of nazarethPart TwoPart Three…Part Four

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The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
(La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ) (1902-5)

I have intended for some time to post short reviews of the major Jesus biopics, so here goes. There are many more films in this class than you or I would have access to, so I am limiting myself to those that are available on Netflix. You may be able to find more if you seek out DVDs for sale. Many more are discussed at Matt Page’s Bible Films Blog.

It seems superfluous to comment on a movie for you, when you can sample it or view it in its entirety for yourself by clicking your mouse. Nevertheless, I have a few thoughts.

The Life and Passion
is an early and primitive movie, but one made by the best producers in the world at that time, Pathé Frères of Paris. It was originally made in 1902, then scenes were added until it took its final form in 1905. You can now find an amazingly well preserved print of this 44-minute feature superbly transferred to DVD. On the same disc they’ve included 1912′s From the Manger to the Cross, which I will review shortly.

This was a popular film, lively, colorful and Catholic in its point of view. It used elaborate if not convincing sets and costumes, and employed the best of special effects at the time, including the pain-staking process of hand-tinting: adding colors to the picture by painting them directly onto the black and white print, frame by frame. The film deserves some respect for the care, creativity and energy the cast and crew put into it.

Hardly anyone watches silent films anymore. As it would be hard to find anyone younger than myself (born 1963) who grew up with easy access to them (even though they are even easier to find now, on DVD), mine may be the last generation that watched and enjoyed them. I started with Chaplin around age nine, then Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton, and as I got older, added Griffith, Murnau and Lang. To appreciate them calls for a suspension of current standards in acting and film-making technique. You need to see them for what they were at the time, given the limitations they worked under. Do that, and you will marvel at the genius, artistry, innovation, unbridled creativity and sheer insanity some of these brilliant pioneers gave to the world. To this day, people are still watching and enjoying Murnau’s Sunrise and Nosferatu, Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s City Lights.

At the same time, I don’t expect the average viewer today is going to enjoy most of early cinema’s lesser achievements. The Life and the Passion would probably fall into this category: it is technically marvelous for its time, but undeveloped in its story-telling and old-fashioned in its performances. When you see what was being produced in the mid-to-late 1920s, the turn of the century films are rightly deemed primitive. The camera might pan, but it doesn’t move (see the Nazareth scene). There are no close-ups. There is no montage, not even simple cross-cutting. In fact, there are no separate shots, only one master shot. (The year 1903 saw most of those innovations for the first time in Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery.)

With that in mind, I offer some comments for the modern viewer.

The Baptism of Jesus

Even with the kinetic energy and technical flourishes, it’s a little hard to look past the essential goofiness of this film. Through 21st century eyes it most resembles a Nativity pageant at the corner church, albeit with spectacular stagecraft. Shot in a series of tableaux scenes, there is no real narrative thread to connect them, so it it doesn’t flow or connect. “Scenes from the Life of Christ” might have been a better title. The intertitles identify each scene, but there are none that explain the action or provide dialogue. If you are not familiar with any of the stories portrayed, you are unlikely to have any idea what is happening in them. Possibly for the original, more biblically-literate audience, this was not much of a problem, since at that time the entertainment value was inherent any moving image. Add the spectacle, the miracles, real babies for the Slaughter of the Innocents, the appearance of Jesus, and well, you’ve got a happy audience.

In this early effort some of the challenges, solutions and failings of later Jesus movies are already presenting themselves. Here the legend of Veronica is used, found in Catholic tradition but not in the gospel narratives. Also, we find the conflation of stories, presumably for economy’s sake – an acceptable but potentially confusing adaptation (see this at 21:23 in the video below). Good Friday is bloodless, until  Jesus is “pierced” (actually tapped with a stick dipped in fake blood) by the centurion: the scourging (at 32:05) consists of Jesus being lashed with silk scarves for 11 seconds.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Let’s talk about Jesus. One of my keenest interests in Jesus movies is the portrayal each offers of Jesus himself, a role that poses serious challenges for the best of actors. I will have more to say about this in later reviews. For now, let me speculate that this actor (I haven’t been able to discover his name) was given a free hand in developing a physical presence in this film. In fact, the performances of both the 12 year old  Jesus and the adult Jesus  suggest the actors were having a lot of fun playing him. A little too much fun, perhaps. Not that he is merry. No, he is grand. Instead of being humble and unassuming, he sweeps through the scenes, with big, “Hey, look at me” gestures, waving his arms, lecturing everyone with his index finger, and making a big deal whenever his attention is turned heavenward. At least once it appears that he points at the ground as if he were telling the Samaritan woman to kneel before him (at 18:42; Jesus allowed people to worship him, but he never told them to.). This Jesus looks like the aging proprietor of a head shop or a roadie for the Grateful Dead, but he acts like a low-level bureaucrat that just got made king of the world.

So even with the stagey acting and frenetic pace that quickens to almost farcical speed as it winds up to its climax (The Ascension: It’s spectacular, but it ill-advisedly shows God the Father as a grey-haired old man, ala Gary Larson’s The Far Side);  its flat, fake scenery; its lack of continuity; even with all that, I must choose the portrayal of a show-boating Jesus (“Everybody watch me turn this water into wine!”) as the most serious flaw in this movie. Their first task was to tell a good story, but 110 years ago the conventions of doing that on film were not yet established, so I won’t hold them to that standard. But I will fault them for a hammy, grandiose Jesus who gesticulates but never connects with another person. How could you read any of the gospels and not at least observe the deeply personal connection he makes with everyone who approaches him? There’s nothing even remotely like that here. He is an eccentrically animated icon, nothing more.

This points to one of the supreme challenges for the makers of a Jesus movie: how to bring him to life. Knowing him would seem to be absolutely necessary for the attempt, or at least a genuine sense that one knows him – as a writer, as a director, and as an actor must know their subject. Some actors have been honest enough to say that they struggled with how to play him. Other filmmakers have brought something running the spectrum from admiration to love for him. But it is almost a sure bet that the cultural perspectives of the time will have a lot to do with the image of Jesus. In this case a traditional, French Catholic image, as presented by a studio rather fixed on the business of entertainment and on technological innovation, peopled by creative entrepreneurs and artists. “Let’s make a Jesus movie! Oui! Angels! Stars! Miracles!”

But enough of my opinion (or had that already crossed your mind?) – Watch it for yourself. And just for fun, see if you can find the completely weird placement of the Pathé rooster in almost every scene.

Passing on The Passion

It’s been more than six and a half years since The Passion of the Christ was released. I still have not seen it. This is by choice, not by chance. Since I am writing a series of reviews of all the major films that portray the story of Jesus, I thought I should explain why this one – by far the most popular and highest-grossing Jesus movie ever – is being omitted, at least for the time being.

My reasons are both personal and theological. Let me say at the outset that my reasons have nothing to do with the man who made the film, Mel Gibson. Even though I think his personal life indicates that he is a deeply troubled man with some serious failings, that alone would not keep me from seeing it. After all, Richard Wagner was at least as flawed, and I listen to his music. Also, the fact that the film was controversial would not have kept me away. The Last Temptation of Christ was also controversial, and I saw it. More on this point later.

The film was released three months, almost to the day, after the death of our 13-year-old son in an automobile accident. At the time our 11-year-old daughter had just awoken from two and a half months in a coma, and my wife was living at the hospital with her. At this point any sensible person would say that alone was reason enough why I wouldn’t go running off to the movies. But actually, just once I had gone to the movies (The Return of the King). And I wish I hadn’t, at least when I did. But one typically considers seeing a movie when everyone else is seeing it, when it is being widely discussed and, in this case, debated.

I went though a lot of anguish and inner struggle over having lost my son. As a Christian, it was not a crisis of faith so much as a trial of faith. I felt like the soldier on the battlefield who is having his leg amputated after the anesthetic has run out. I know I can live through it, and know I must endure it, but that does not take the pain away. Will the fire refine me or burn me up?

One thought that kept recurring was that God the Father had also lost His Son to the grave. I would always think, “Yes, but that was only for three days; this is for the rest of our lives.” I eventually came to believe that the difference I perceive between three days and the rest of my life will someday evaporate in light of eternity. If you were to say, “But God knew that His Son’s death was only temporary,” I would say, “So do I.”

All of this to say, I couldn’t contemplate watching a whole movie that focused on Jesus’ death. Death had gutted me: I’d had enough of it. “Well, it wasn’t just any death. Maybe it would have helped.” I doubt it.

Another reason: I was horrified at reports of people walking into the theater with their little kids, buckets of popcorn and half-liters of pop as if they settling in for Toy Story. This is not just a movie, and it is certainly not for the little ones. This is like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. It calls you to witness a harrowing portrayal of suffering that will not amuse you. It is not entertainment. Perhaps in a few months I could sit through such an experience, but I could not sit with such an audience. I certainly could not abide people subjecting their children to such an ordeal. I would have to watch it alone.

I know that the movie was charged with portrayals that some took as anti-Jewish (The movie had Jewish defenders as well as detractors). Without having seen the movie, let me assume that it reflects the gospel narratives. The gospels have a polemic nature, so there are antagonists and protagonists. It should be pointed out that while some of the antagonists are Jews, practically all of the protagonists are. But more significant is that, while in Jesus’ arrest and trials the key actors are the Jewish leaders, in his execution there is a clear and necessary joining of Jewish power and Gentile (Roman) power. Any fair reading of the texts would bear this out. This fact also has a theological significance for the early church:

So when they (the Christians) heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:
‘Why did the nations (Gentiles) rage,
And the people plot vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.’
For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:24-28 NKJV)(Parentheticals mine.)

Jew and Gentile, who were separate and opposed, came together in agreement that Jesus should die. In this collaboration they represent all of humanity. Luke, the only Gentile NT writer, makes a point of telling us,

That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other. Lk. 23:12

Of course, I would have to see the movie to know for sure, but if the charge is that the movie is anti-Jewish because the New Testament is, I don’t accept the premise. Just because the Jewish leaders are villains does not make the narrative anti-Jewish. All the the heroes are Jewish as well – not the least the rabbi Yeshua himself.

Finally, my interest in the film is dampened by by the apparent emphasis it has on the gruesome nature of Christ’s sufferings. I have no doubt that the torture and mutilation it shows is without exaggeration. I have seen plenty of stills, and a few clips from the movie. I have also seen most of the major Jesus movies, with their typically mild depiction of the passion. Tiny stripes with little streaks of blood. This is for two obvious reasons that I can think of and one less obvious. The audiences and the level of violence that both they and the censors (when they reigned) would have tolerated would not permit of a graphic rendering of Jesus’ torture. Second, most people would like to consider the story of Jesus a family movie, and not want the little children of the world to be exposed to such horrors. The less obvious reason is that most Jesus movies, from the silent era on, drew their imagery and staging from Christian iconography – most commendably from great renaissance painting and sculpture…

…and more regrettably from lesser forms of popular art, like those found in old family bibles or on prayer cards.

The Passion is to those sanitized portraits, I imagine, what P.O.D. is to Evie.

But I think there is an even more important consideration. I have sat through at least a half dozen sermons in my life that did in words what The Passion has done on film: draw attention to the gore and mutilation of the passion. The speaker usually goes for the effect of horror or revulsion and then says something to the effect of, “He suffered all of this for you.”

And it’s true. He did suffer these things on behalf of everyone of us. The New Testament says this very clearly, and I do not disagree. But what it does not include is any of the vivid details. That’s because it was neither necessary – most readers and hearers were all too familiar with the cruel practices of the day – nor was it central to the point of His sufferings.

The meaning of His suffering is profound, and it is considered from more than one perspective in the NT. We are to understand it as the ultimate form of humilty and obedience.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Php. 2:8

It is a model of suffering for us, that is, it makes our character and conforms it more to Christ’s.

For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. Heb. 12:3

It paid the penalty in full for all the sins of the world.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit…1Pe. 3:18

And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1Jn. 2:2

It reveals the full extent of God’s love for humanity.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1Jn. 4:10

To understand this should not require – and apparently the writers of the NT agreed – a detailed mental image of butchery and mutilation. The point of His torture and death is spiritual and theological not physiological. To have witnessed the events would have elicited an R-rating, but to understand what they meant in the fullest sense certainly does not.

Perhaps someday I may feel differently about the prospect of watching The Passion of the Christ. From what I have read, it is an extraordinary film. But it is hard for me to foresee gaining so much from it that it would outweigh the ordeal of watching it.