Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Who Do Men Say That I Am? Part II

I could have easily named this article "Who Does Hollywood Say That I Am?". Because it's Passion Week (aka Easter Week), the time when you see all of the usual 'Life of Christ' movies shown on TV, I'd like to discuss a few of them that may be aired in the next few days, along with some others that I just enjoy and appreciate for various reasons. Many stations even play The Ten Commandments during the Easter season (never sure why, since it's not about Jesus or the resurrection) but usually you just see movies shown about the Savior of the World starring very white, Euro-centric actors with British accents who portray Him in a very mannered and contrived way. Some of those films are listed here, but I do think that even they have redeeming facets to them. This isn't necessarily my Top Ten Favorites list, I would just like to comment on each of these.

1. The Passion Of The Christ. This movie made so much money for Mel Gibson that it altered the way Hollywood views all independent projects like this. I think that Gibson is a good actor and director, but in the case of TPOTC, he really shined (shone?) as a producer. He promoted his project heavily with and in churches before release, and as a result the movie developed a huge, grassroots following, and paid for itself in its first weekend.

There are many things about it that I like, particularly the fact that it was spoken entirely in Aramaic, Jesus' native tongue, and I also thought that Jim Caviezel was very effective in it. What's interesting to me, however, is that certain high-profile Evangelicals such as John Hagee, who are decidedly anti-Roman Catholic, promoted it so heavily. They seemed oblivious to the fact that it is so overtly Catholic in spirit and viewpoint. Director Gibson intended fidelity to the New Testament, yet expanded the screenplay by making use of additional sources. The principal, most controversial source is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ ,the meditations of the stigmatic, German nun Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), as told to the poet Clemens Brentano. Her vision of Christ’s Passion depicts certain Jews as more vicious and bloodthirsty than the Romans ruling Judaea. A secondary, extra-biblical source is The Mystical City of God by Maria de Agreda (1602–1665), a 17th century Spanish nun, and some imagined sequences. Many critics noted that the costumes worn by the Blessed Virgin (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) resemble the habit of the Augustinian Order nuns, in homage to Emmerich. There's also a scene where Mary seems to display telepathic powers, and sees and hears Jesus being tortured on the other side of a stone wall.

The Jewish community passionately protested the movie, and Gibson's subsequent anti-Semitic remarks have seemingly confirmed some of their accusations of his motives in making it. The movie was also controversial because of its graphic violence, but I personally don't think it even scratched the surface in conveying the horrors of the crucifixion. If that were portrayed accurately, the film couldn't even be released in theatres. But all in all, it's a very well-crafted film, and is definitely worth seeing.

2. The Gospel According To Matthew. This movie was produced by the International Bible Society, and has a script that is taken, verbatim, from a modern translation of the Scriptures. I was greatly impressed with the performance of Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, because, for one thing, he at least looks a little more middle eastern and a little less Anglo than the typical actor who portrays the Nazarene. His Jesus is probably the most joyful one you'll ever see in a movie...it's the only time I ever remember seeing a film that showed Jesus laughing...and his interaction with the disciples seems real and is quite believable. I like this one a lot.

3. The Gospel of John. Here you find the standard white, British "movie" Jesus (at least he doesn't have blue eyes like Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings) but I have to say that this is really a beautiful film. The depiction of Jesus washing the disciples' feet is particularly moving, and the scene where Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him is the best I have ever seen portrayed. I recommend it.

4. Jesus of Nazareth. Some would say this is the best Jesus film; it is certainly the most. At six and a half hours, Franco Zeffirelli's mini-series gets to explore the Gospels at greater length than usual, and it fleshes out the supporting characters in ways that convey the breadth and depth of the impact Jesus had on his contemporaries. This Jesus does have blue eyes, though. I generally like Zeffirelli as a director, but this isn't one of my favorites. The DVD makes a nice gift, though.

5. Jesus Christ Superstar. You don't want to get me started on JCS...too much to say, not enough time. Let me try to be succinct. Jeff Fenholt, the original "Jesus" on broadway is a good friend of mine, so I have a special appreciation for the Original Broadway cast album...didn't care too much at all for the movie...hated the revival of it on Broadway a few years ago because the director didn't seem to unserstand what it is about.

Theatrically, it's written with Judas as the protagonist, and it explores the human side of Jesus, and how he dealt with the fame that came from His public ministry. The whole thing is supposed to be seen through the eyes of Judas, who is meant to be portrayed as a sympathetic, conflicted character. It is generally denounced by mainstream ministers as being blasphemous, but I've never seen it that way...mainly because I understand that it's not meant to be the Passion Play from First Baptist Church, and I do believe that Judas was not who we traditionally have thought that he was (see School of the Bible I), and I accept the fact that Jesus was and is every bit as human as He is divine!

The picture posted here is of the studio album that came out before the Broadway show, with Ian Gillan, the lead singer for Deep Purple, as Jesus. For me, it's the only Jesus Christ Superstar, and I love it. Maybe I just understand it because it was so much a part of my generation, but I had to include it here.

6. Godspell. Also part of my generation, and also loved by me. Not everyone gets it...you kind of had to have been there. Movie is pretty good (pictured on the right)...came out just as the twin towers of World Trade Center were being completed, and a big musical number is shot on top of one of them (the picture of it is on the cover of the movie soundtrack album). Great celebration of Matthew's gospel, and particularly effective in teaching the parables in an entertaining fashion. The picture on the left is the cover of the original broadway cast album...I love all of it except for the voice of the guy who sings "All Good Gifts".

7. The Greatest Story Ever Told. In my opinion, a little boring and pretentious, but beautifully shot. The main attraction of this one for me is the large and notable cast...I mean practically everyone who was alive in Hollywood in 1965 is in this! Charlton Heston is John the Baptist, Telly Savalas is Pontius Pilate, Claud Rains is Herod, Jamie Farr (M.A.S.H.) is a disciple...Pat Boone, Sydney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Victor Buono, Van Heflin, Russell Johnson (the professor from Gilligan's Island), Martin Landau (Mission Impossible), Angela Lansbury, Sal Mineo, Donald Pleasence, Marian Seldes, Shelley Winters, and Ed Wynn are all in it...even John Wayne plays a centurion!

I don't really enjoy Max Von Sydow as Jesus, but it's interesting to see him in the role because he's played the devil in a couple of things, and was Father Merrin in the Exorcist! I recommend this only for true cinefiles, simply because of the sheer uniqueness of it.

8. Color of the Cross. I really wanted to love this one more than I did. It has a lot of potential, and, to my knowledge, is the first big-budget Jesus movie with an all black cast (I don't use "African-American" here, because I'm not sure all of the players are American). Some of it is quite compelling, but I was looking forward to seeing a more powerful and magnetic Jesus of color on the big screen. Unfortunately, the gentleman who played Him was my least favorite cast member (I had my own ideas about casting Him, especially after seeing Blair Underwood read the words of Jesus in such a mesmerizing way in the DVD of The Making of 'The Bible Experience'). Some viewers may not know what to make of Mary asking Joseph, after finding out that their son had been crucified (or maybe it was after she found out He had been arrested, I can't remember), if they were punishing Him because He was black. It wasn't a great line, especially because the ones arresting Him were black (or at least that's the way I remember it...I'm open to correction on this). Anyway, it's not bad, and is worth a viewing.

9. The Gospel Road. I hadn't seen this in thirty-something years and ran across it in a store recently and bought it. After watching it I realized that most of it wasn't as good as I remembered, but parts of it were still pretty enjoyable. If you're a true Johnny Cash fan you'll appreciate it just for the music. My personal favorite part is seeing June Carter Cash play Mary Magdalene and sing the John Denver (yes, I admit it...I was a huge John Denver fan) song, Follow Me. But be warned, Jesus isn't just white in this one, he's a blond! This one I recommend mostly for the soundtrack.

10. Cotton Patch Gospel. I haven't screened the taped version that is pictured on the left, but I've seen it live on stage with Tom Key, and it's one of my very favorite versions of the Jesus story! CPG is a musical that retells the story of Jesus as if in modern day, rural Georgia. Based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John by the very cool and totally ahead-of-his-time Clarence Jordan, the music and lyrics to the musical were written by Harry Chapin (Cat's in the Cradle) and were his last work before his death. The stage version was written by Tom Key and Russell Treyz. As if the gospel weren't scandalous enough, having a teenage girl impregnated by God to bear the Messiah, the Cotton Patch Gospel ups the ante. Mary, it seems, is the daughter of a deacon at First Baptist Church of Opp, Ala. And Jesus isn't crucified by Pontius Pilate but lynched by the Ku Klux Klan working in concert with Gov. Pilate of Georgia. It's got awesome bluegrass music, and even after all the years that it's been performed on stage, some theatergoers still walk out in protest of the play's inference of racial equality as a gospel cause. I love, love, love this one!

One more thing...

The Last Temptation of Christ. This much-misunderstood movie is based on the novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek), first published in 1951, which follows the life of Jesus Christ from his perspective. The novel has been the subject of a great deal of controversy due to its subject matter, and appears regularly on lists of banned books. The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. By facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface, He struggled to do God's will, without ever giving in to the temptations of the flesh. His premise is based on Hebrews 4:15 which says that Jesus was “tempted in all points, yet without sin.”

The movie was directed by Academy Award winning director, Martin Scorsese, and when it first came out it set off a major protest movement from Evangelicals, led mostly by Jerry Falwell. It’s not what I would call an uplifting movie because of the heaviness of the subject matter, in fact it’s a little dark, but it’s not AT ALL what the televangelists said that it was! I own it and have seen it many times, but I don’t necessarily recommend it to everyone. It isn’t your garden variety ‘Life of Christ’ flick, and many church people aren’t intellectually deep enough to grasp its concept, or to even understand the meaning of “fiction”, for that matter. None of the stuff that Falwell and others like him said was in it is actually in it.

Basically, the whole thing is about a satanically-suggested dream sequence that Jesus has while He’s dying on the cross. In the dream an angel tells Him that He doesn’t have to die for the sins of the world, and He comes down off of the cross and begins to live a natural life, in which He marries Mary Magdalene and has children with her, and lives out a normal existence as a carpenter. I hate to spoil the ending (by the way, Bruce Willis was one of the dead people in The Sixth Sense, and “Rosebud” is Kane’s sled!)…but He wakes up from the dream and realizes that He is still on the cross, and that He still wants to fulfill the will of the Father in dying for the world’s sins, and then He dies. The end.

Neither the novel nor the movie was ever meant to be intentioanlly blasphemous. On the contrary, in fact. Do I recommend it? If you’re intelligent enough to understand that Jesus was and is as much Son of Man as Son of God…as human as He is divine…and if you believe that “tempted in all points” means just that...and if you understand the definition of "fiction". If not, you may need to stick with King of Kings.

If there's one that I didn't mention that you like, feel free to write your own review.


Anonymous said...

I've been waiting on this post! Around the time of the Matrix movies we got weekly movie reviews. Happy days are here again!

TPOTC: there is something “so right” about the fact that a Jesus film changed the status quo in Hollywood. Several scenes from TPOTC have stayed with me. Jesus putting back the ear of the Roman soldier and Mary trying to wipe up Jesus’ blood come quickly to mind. But, as a parent, the scene where Mary saw Jesus carrying His cross and flashed back to his boyhood touched me deeply and helped me “get” more of a sense of His humanity.

Matthew: Joy, Joy, Joy! Bruce Marchiano wrote an interesting book about his experiences with God before, during and after his work on Matthew. I’ve watched the final scene, His “follow me” wave on the beach, the same way you, Bishop tell us you’ve watched “remem-mem-member who you ARE!”

John: Haven’t seen this one. Sounds like I need to. After Matthew, Jesus just didn’t look right. (smile)

Nazareth: Is this the one that portrays satan as a woman in flowing red robes—tempting Jesus and saying look what men will do in your name? If so, someone can give me this one! But I’d have to post a profile. Durn.

DoubleBack Alley said...


Maybe it's that as one ages, an affinity for the things of one’s youth grows stronger. I remember being about six years old and seeing TGSET for the first time. It was very late at night and I was the only one awake. I happened upon the movie quite by chance. I was mesmerized. I had not really heard anything about Christ or Jesus, so this was all new to me.

I can honestly say it had a life changing impact. As I said, there were no preconceived notions for me, so I got to watch the story of Jesus with a virgin mindset. It was actually my first introduction to all of the stars you mentioned as well. I guess that explains my love for vintage movies as well.

Pretentious? Yes perhaps. But to see the Duke drawl out, "Surely this was the Sonna Gahd” was awe inspiring. I mean the Duke could wipe out Indian nations, Japanese, Germans, and still have time left to beguile Maureen O'Hara. There he stood though, recognizing the divinity of the slain savior.

As I said, youth serves to remind us of an undefiled time before health issues, stock crises, slain presidents and their brothers (kin and non-kin). For me, it takes me back to that time where I first saw Jesus portrayed and replay in my mind the sympathy that I felt for Him and the empathy that I would come to learn that he has for me. What a guy.

Ain't God Good?

DoubleBack Alley said...


Maybe it's that as one ages, an affinity for the things of one’s youth grows stronger. I remember being about six years old and seeing TGSET for the first time. It was very late at night and I was the only one awake. I happened upon the movie quite by chance. I was mesmerized. I had not really heard anything about Christ or Jesus, so this was all new to me.

I can honestly say it had a life changing impact. As I said, there were no preconceived notions for me, so I got to watch the story of Jesus with a virgin mindset. It was actually my first introduction to all of the stars you mentioned as well. I guess that explains my love for vintage movies as well.

Pretentious? Yes perhaps. But to see the Duke drawl out, "Surely this was the Sonna Gahd” was awe inspiring. I mean the Duke could wipe out Indian nations, Japanese, Germans, and still have time left to beguile Maureen O'Hara. There he stood though, recognizing the divinity of the slain savior.

As I said, youth serves to remind us of an undefiled time before health issues, stock crises, slain presidents and their brothers (kin and non-kin). For me, it takes me back to that time where I first saw Jesus portrayed and replay in my mind the sympathy that I felt for Him and the empathy that I would come to learn that he has for me. What a guy.

Ain't God Good?

Bishop Jim Swilley said...

Now you've made me re-think the word "pretentious", DBA...maybe I need to watch it again...

And thanks, Avatar...your responses make writing the articles totally worth it...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bishop. I can't thank you enough for what you put into taking care of your flock/s!

I flaked last night after #4--what power food are you on? I guess I know at least one answer, but there's GOT to be something else I need to find.

I agree with "pretentious", but I saw TGSET as an adult. "The Ten Commandments" was my blank slate movie [opening scene: Adam born from the dust of the earth!].

Sounds like God wanted to plant one of those protective, deep-rooted mustard seeds for you, DBA.

I'm thinking I need to reprogram TIVO for this week.

DoubleBack Alley said...

I agree with you Sahib. It does look self-important now, but in those days it was stuff of life for me. It's strange that the things I detested in my youth, I now find that I like, or even love. I hated disco, but find great comfort in those songs now, not because of the sound, but where my head was during their broadcast. My memories make the songs sound better.

Is this the time? Is there a present now in those memories? I hope so. I even feel a little nostalgic for some of the church ceremonies that affected my early God walk. Man, some of those meetings were so passionate and filled with the wonder of wonders, the king of kings and the lord of lords. I can look back now and see the inadequacies of playing cowboys and indians or cops and robbers at church, but then, I believed it was the most important thing that God had for me. We all believed that. It was true then because we were children.

As I have matured, I see the inadequacies of the game we played in the name of the Lord, but we sure had fun. The challenge is to be an adult that exults in the pleasure of a tot-like romp in the field digging up the pearl of great price. No matter that Mom will stripe us when we get home for being covered in revelatory grime.

I hope I never get too pragmatic with my relationship to the eternal to realize that I am really, truly in love with all that is around me. Let me prophesy to my past, let me remember my future; let me be now, regardless of where my thoughts take me. I am past, present, and future, but not too tense to play with God and my friends.

Thanking you for playing today, Sahib. Wanna come to my house tomorrow?

Ain’t God Good?

Lise said...

Bon matin, mes amies! (Just thought I'd greet in French today... what the hey?!?)

Only saw TPOTC once... on DVD, quite awhile after its release. Stunning, wonderful movie, but (of course) difficult to watch. Need to rent it again.

Saw a production of JCS at the Peace Center last year, and LOVED it! This was w/ Ted Neely and the dude from Living Color (can't remember his name). Dunno, Bish?!? I tried to watch the film, and it was like torture to me. Perhaps I should give it another shot.

Ahhhh, Godspell. Never saw the film. Wanted to, but couldn't find it anywhere to rent. Is it just available for sale? My older sis had the album, though. She was very into acting... actually studied w/ David Paynor among others in LA for a few years. Got a little jaded, I think, and couldn't make a decent living working 2 jobs, so she moved back home. Always wanted to return but never did. Still into community theater. Anyway, we used to sing the songs from that album all the time, particularly "By My Side." I don't claim to be a singer (not much power & pretty mid-range), but for some reason, probably the sister thing, we sounded pretty good together. Loved it when that played at Christina's wedding. Brought back all kinds of memories.

I'm sure The Last Temptation of Christ will show up on your 'more to come.' READ THE BOOK people!!! One of the most beautiful books I've ever read! Enjoyed the movie, but didn't hold a candle to the book. It's a long one, and you MUST be in the mood; the dream sequences can be confusing, but it is so worth the read! My VERY FAVORITE part of the movie was the expression on Willem Defoe's (Jesus) face when they discovered that he did, in fact, turn the water into wine. Jesus just raised His glass with a knowing smile on his face... didn't say a word. Priceless!

OK. Gotta get my act together. Going back into Greenville to pick up a copy of my bloodwork results. All very good. Potassium a little low, but otherwise fine. So,

a bientot!

Bishop Jim Swilley said...

Hello all...keep jumping in here between appointments...don't have time to talk now, but I'm not through with the article yet. Yes, LPnSC, I'm going to talk about Last Temptation (later today when I get some time)...cool as always,
DBA...Avatar, I think you're thinking of 'The Bible' which came out some years after Ten Commandments...got to go...later!

Lise said...

I don't know what you do for a living, but you could (and perhaps should) write! Your paragraph beginning "As I have matured..." painted the most beautiful picture in my mind. Understand the memories, but so appreciate the adult challenge! And I'll take a few licks for "revelatory grime" any day :)

Ebony said...

I've only seen a few of those, but I wanted to post some comments.

TPOTC: It's always cool to see when an independent film can touch base with mainstream USA, especially when the the film is inspirational in nature (and not OVER-hyped by TBN). The minute this film came out, it touched a nerve, the knowledge of Him is everywhere.

"Superstar": I love the fact it tells the story of Jesus from another person's perspective, and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is one of my favorite songs (I know exactly where Mary Magdalene is coming from when she sings that)

"Greatest Story" is pretty good, but long, and I haven't seen the others. I've always wanted to watch "Last Temptation", but was scared to because of what I've heard about it over the years.

What I'd really love to see though is a good portrayal of Jesus by an A. American in a film adaptation.

Kettly said...

Dear Bishop,

I Was not going to ask this question now,but since you came up this title;I said to myself,if I don't ask this question now, I may
never will.Today I was reading in the book of Matthew chapter 12:38-40.The pharisees asked Jesus for a sign.Jesus,told them no sign will given except the sign of the prophet Jonah.He (Jesus) said Just like Jonah Was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish,so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights.I,ve started to meditate on verse 40.I turn the days and nights to see or rather to understand where the three nights come from.I added the days I can see where they came up with the three days,so,Bish,how did they came up with the three nights, all four books of the gospel stated Jesus arise on the third day.If you count it,you'll find three days but,not three nights.Please Bish,can you help me understand this verse.I thank you for taking the time to enlightened the eyes of my heart about this verse.
May God in His infinites favor bless you and yours AMEN!

Anonymous said...

DBA: what LPinSC said! Totally!

LPinSC: I cannot believe you used French. They're probably Italian, but Monday I was particularly focused on what I thought of as "the French words" in the song "The Prayer". Played it over and over to get back into my joy. Thanks for the smile.

JCS & Godspell: flower power revolutions!

btw--Wikipedia says JCS created a benchmark in copyright law, due to pre-premiere community productions. That's our Guy again!

Bishop: "The Bible", really? [to quote Isumi/joy--aaacckk!] I didn't do drugs or even smoke! Gotta check this out and rethink my walk with God timeline.

Bishop Jim Swilley said...

Kettly, I'm going to address this in an article later in the week, so just hang on.

Anonymous said...

LTOC: I waited several years to finally rent this one. Got myself too wrapped up in the bad news to see it when it first came out. By the time I did, I had enough Word in me to really get that somebody (Scorcese?) really believed in more than the Sunday School Jesus.

Using the "satan can appear as an angel of light" truth made the deception very memorable.

In the end, the thought I left with was, "Jesus did have a choice!" [as do I] and that "fully human" meant that Jesus' walk was not as simple [well? He was God!]as I had a tendency to think it was up to then. "Fully human" really changes things.

Lise said...

If I may share just a portion of Kazantzakis' prolouge to the novel LTOC...

"This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death - because all three can be conquered. Christ suffered pain, and since then pain has been sanctified. Temptation fought until the very last moment to lead Him astray, and Temptation was defeated. Christ died on the Cross, and at that instant death was vanquished forever...

Every obstacle in His journey became a milestone, an occasion for further triumph. We have a model in front of us now, a model who blazes our trail and gives us strength...

This book is not a biography; it is the confession of every man who struggles. In publishing it I have fulfilled my duty, the duty of a person who struggled much, was much embittered in his life, and had many hopes. I am certain that every free man who reads this book, so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ."

Kazantzakis was nearly ex-communicated from the Greek Orthodox Church for writing what they believed to be heresy. Interesting that he, as an intellectual, did a 360 - from Christ to Nietzsche to Buddha to Lenin to Odysseus - and back again to Christ.

I think he was brilliant, and I can't imagine people thinking otherwise. But then I guess there have been "3x5" minds all throughout history!

Anonymous said...

Bishop Swilley I have really enjoyed all your reviews and especially the one's that the religious have pronounced as taboo,The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus Christ Superstar.I've really never understood why all the outrage surrounding LTOC.If Jesus was not tempted sexually,He was not tempted in all points.

My favorite on your list has to be Matthew.I love it not for how Biblical accurate it may be or what theological message it may contain.But I love it for Bruce Marchiano's portrayal of Jesus.Marchiano portrays a Jesus who,laughs,smiles,and who exhibits as much joy and excitement at the miracle's that he performs as those who receive them.Most of the older films portray Jesus as almost devoid of any emotion,almost Spock like.BTW wasn't William Shatner in The Greatest Story Ever Told too.

Now to the flick you didn't review.It may not be a strictly Easter film but I think it could be,Ben-Hur.I love the fact we never really see Jesus but we see him through others in the film.Also,I love the ending,after the crucifixion the rain is pouring washing the blood out upon the earth and Ben-Hur's mother and sister getting healed of leporsy.Thats great.

I think the Ten Commandments is shown at Easter,because Passover generally coincides with Easter some what.


Bishop Jim Swilley said...

Hey Tom. Thanks for your great comments. The Gospel of Matthew really is a good movie, and I actually started to include Ben-Hur (which I love) on the list. A few years ago I visited the studio of Union General Lew Wallace (who wrote the novel) in Crawfordsville, Indiana. It was fascinating.

I don't think Shatner was in TGSET, but one cast memeber I didn't mention was David McCallum who played Illya Kuryakin on the Man for U.N.C.L.E. Maybe that's who you're thinking of. But you're right about The Ten Commandments.

Please visit often.


Bishop Jim Swilley said...

He was also on The Man FROM U.N.C.L.E.!

And I forgot to mention that we named our son, Judah Benjamin, after Judah Ben-Hur.