of Jesus Christ in the landscape of North American culture stands as both an
enigma and an icon. To some, he is a mythic figure. To others, he is life
itself. In profound and complex ways, Jesus is set apart from society while
at the same time he is a part of society. He exists and functions within
the cultural framework of a postmodern society – one that is struggling to
redefine and understand itself. According to one scholar, the problem is so
pervasive that, “At the moment, the idea of Jesus has been hijacked by
people with a series of causes that do not reflect his teaching” (McKibben).
little questioning about the considerable effects, both positive and
negative, that Jesus and religion have had on persons throughout North
America. Recent Gallup Organization Polls reveal that six in 10 Americans
say “religion is very important in their personal lives” (Carroll). Of
those Americans questioned in May 2005, 80 percent said they were Christian
(“Poll Topics & Trends”). Surprisingly, the number of Christians in the
United States has remained fairly constant for the past two decades, since
1988, when it was just slightly higher at 83 percent (“Poll Topics &
Trends”). No doubt such statistics represent long-held religious beliefs
and practices that have been handed down, as a sort of a religious heritage,
from one generation to another. In fact, “people who go to church absorb
lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly,
these lessons inform their politics” (McKibben).
statistics, it is easy to understand why any reference to Jesus,
Christianity or Christian values attracts almost immediate attention among
millions of Americans. Whether the religious issue at stake is a court
case, play, movie, book, television program or proposed government
legislation, those who regard themselves as Christians take a keen interest
in the matter. They are quick to react whenever they feel that their system
of beliefs has been either attacked or affirmed in some way. No where is
such reaction seen more clearly than in an examination of one of the most
important elements of American society: the cinema. “Television and mass
culture have so shaped the American consciousness that many citizens are now
intellectually unable to sustain a serious moral conversation” (McKibben).
Todd A. Kappelman explains that, “Western society is now defined more
strictly by the image, the sound, and the moving picture than by the written
word, which defined previous centuries.”
soundless, black-and-white beginnings, film has captivated people throughout
North America in a profound manner, so much so that it is seen today as an
essential ingredient of the culture and fabric of an entire nation. One can
hardly engage in conversation these days without referencing, referring to
or echoing phrases from a movie. “Cinema is a powerful, affective medium,”
says David John Graham in “The Uses of Film in Theology” (38). “That is, it
engages us at the level of the feelings and emotions. And it is much more
immediately affective than it is cognitive, engaging our feelings before it
does our logic and rationality.”
writer adds that film is “one of youngest arts,” yet “one of the most
pervasive and powerful” (Browne). It [cinema] “was born out of desire to
reproduce images which represent the world in which we live” (Browne). In
little more than one century, film has become not only one of the most
effective of all the arts ever created, but certainly a critical influence
on the very culture of America. “The film is located within culture and
culture within ideology. Film’s determinants are cultural and ideological”
There is not
sufficient time or space in this paper to examine the underpinnings,
evolution and ideology of film. A brief word must be said, however, about
the purpose of film. First and foremost, a movie attempts to tell a story
of some sort. Filmmakers and dramatists always have used themes, be they
religious or otherwise to engage the audience. There must be a compelling
story with a beginning, middle and an end; each act and scene needs to be
carefully crafted so there is a logical sequence and unity throughout the
production. In addition, the overall account must allow the viewer to
relate to the message.
during the first half of the 20th Century, films about Jesus were immensely
popular, as William Telford points out in “Jesus Christ Movie Star: The
Depiction of Jesus in the Cinema” (Telford 116). “Before Cecil B. DeMille’s
‘The King of Kings’ (1927), there were at least 39 earlier versions of the
Christ story.” He adds that there were many top “Bible” films in the 1940s
and 1950s. Each movie was popular because of “its esthetic merit, the
religious subject matter, the pietistic mentality of American audiences, the
sublimated lure of sex, violence and spectacle, the immediate post-war
climate, the struggle against communism, the establishment of the state of
Israel, etc.” (Telford 116). Historically and contextually, re-enactments
involving the life of Jesus Christ and other religious themes are centuries
old, dating back to the popular medieval English Cyclic dramas: the York
Cycle and the N-Town pageant (Pilkington). In these early representations
– also known as Morality Plays, Moral Plays and Miracle Plays – the aim was
religious: the teaching of dogma or Christian doctrine. “The subject matter
is concerned with Bible narrative, Lives of Saints, the Apocryphal Gospels,
and pious legends” (“Moralities”). One of the most popular of these
medieval dramas was “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which depicted the
“human” temptations of Christ, acted out with precise clarity and exacting
dialogue. For more than 500 years, the church has been both the source and
subject for drama.
consider religion as a storytelling enterprise,” explains Christine Hoff
Kraemer in a recent volume of the Journal or Religion and Popular Culture.
“The canonized sacred text becomes problematic even as it establishes a
stable centre for a tradition. In the case of Christianity, the Gospels
provide some of the best-known stories of Western culture, stories that are
cherished by believers, but are also an essential part of being culturally
literate for non-believers” (Kraemer). Christians throughout the ages have
enjoyed and patronized many dramatic re-presentations of religious stories
primarily because the performances validate their beliefs and confirm their
identity within society.
On the other
hand, when dramas involving a religious theme appear to mock or parody
orthodox Christian beliefs – even slightly or superficially – the result can
be a backlash of criticism and censure throughout society. Contemporary
productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Godspell
(1971) drew the immediate ire and anger of many mainline Christians. The
reworking of traditional Christian themes for a newer, post-modern audience
did not sit well with established religious leaders or their congregations.
By the time Martin Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ in
1988, Christian tolerance regarding drama and film was worn thin. Still
reeling from the base, almost unholy, plays and musicals of the 1970s,
where Jesus seemed to have lost his divinity, Christians reacted violently.
particular film, explains Ivan Dugic in “Reception of Scorcese’s film ‘The
Last Temptation of Christ’ and the State of the Living Myth Today,” “with
its peculiar mix of traditional and new elements, all given very
realistically and in historical context, provoked a vehement reaction from
conservative American Christians, who had tried to save the souls of their
brothers and sisters waiting for hours in line for tickets; they tried not
only verbal and physical persuasion, but also put bombs in theaters or made
bomb threats” (Dugic).
years later, however, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ was
hailed as a masterpiece – perfect except for the violence. To date, it has
grossed more than $611 million worldwide: $370 million alone in domestic
receipts (“The Passion of the Christ”).
has seen Scorsese’s movie or read the book by Nikos Kazantzakis (1955) knows
why Christians and the Church reacted with such vehemence. The mere
suggestion that Jesus could be tempted by sex was too much for most. In the
minds and beliefs of many Christians, Scorsese had crossed the line by
focusing on Jesus the Man and not Jesus the Divine. “Scorsese is the first
filmmaker to attack the problem of Jesus’ simultaneous divinity and humanity
head-on, giving us a saviour who longs for the love of a woman, a family,
and the simple, quiet life of an ordinary man” (Kraemer). As Telford notes,
Scorsese also follows Marxist director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 The
Gospel According to St. Matthew in attempting to recover Jesus from the
influence of centuries of religious orthodoxy, which both directors perceive
as distorting” (qtd. in Kraemer).
would argue, however, that Jesus does not need rescuing – that he is fine
the way he is portrayed in the Gospels. “The historical Jesus, the Jesus of
Scripture and of the Christian creeds, bears no resemblance to the sinful
and cowardly Jesus of Martin Scorsese” (Gudel). The church has always held
itself as the sole interpreter and dispenser on the life of Christ. It is a
problem in hermeneutics: Scorsese v. The Church. The director tried to
defend himself by warning that his attempt was “to make the life of Jesus
immediate and accessible to people who haven’t really thought about God in a
long time” was being attacked (Kraemer). One cultural historian of the time
observed that Scorsese was out of step with the current milieu: “Aware of
mounting organized pressure against the film, in 1987, Universal hires a
liaison with the Christian community, a born-again Christian himself, and
arranges a private advance screening for agitated groups, including Reverend
Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association and Bill Bright’s Campus
Crusade for Christ. The audience is especially disgusted by a closing
image. . . . Some 1,200 Christian radio stations in California denounce the
film, and Mastermedia International urges a boycott again parent company
MCA. Bill Bright offers to reimburse Universal for its investment in The
Last Temptation of Christ in exchange for all existing prints, which he
vows to destroy” (“Martin Scorsese’s”).
controversy created by Scorsese’s film is no different than that caused by
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Gudel, writing in the
Christian Research Journal, says, “For many, the Islamic uproar over The
Satanic Verses is essentially no different from how Christians reacted to
‘The Last Temptation of Christ’” (Gudel) In fact, the Time magazine cover
story on Salman Rushdie (Feb. 1989) said, “last year’s furor over the . . .
The Last Temptation of Christ demonstrated that Christians,
particularly those who believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture,
are similarly sensitive about fictional portrayer of the sacred, thought
their protest generally takes less violent forms” (Gudel). Few seemed to
care what Scorsese was attempting to do. “Film makers often explore the
darkness of the human condition. They don’t do it simply to posture or
exploit, but to see deeply and lay bare the problems and tensions. But,
they also do it to look for answers, even the light of salvation” (Kappelman).
was minor controversy concerning The Passion of Christ, (namely, the
violence and the suggestion of anti-Semitism) Americans greeted the film
with open arms and eager wallets. Many people saw the film not once but
several times, making the drama one of the highest grossing movies in
history. Filmed in Matera, Italy, Gibson spent $25 million in production
costs and $30 million in marketing. His investment, both in following a
script based upon the Scriptures and using his own money to fund the entire
project, paid off well.
leaders everywhere promoted The Passion because of its almost
clinical adherence to the Gospel stories on the death of Christ. Dr. James
Dobson, president and founder of Focus on the Family, said in an open letter
to his millions of supporters that, “I had the privilege of viewing a ‘rough
cut’ of the movie last summer during a writing trip to California, and again
in September. I can say that, in addition to being faithful to the
essentials of the biblical account, it is easily the most heart-wrenching,
powerful portrayal of Christ’s suffering that I have ever seen. Shirley
[his wife] and I were deeply moved by the stark depiction of the brutality
and humiliation that Jesus endured on our behalf” (Dobson).
carefully paved the way for his film by seeking the feedback, and ultimately
the approval of, many religious leaders throughout North America. In the
summer of 2003, he brought a rough cut to Regent University, where I am
currently teaching. Gibson met with a select group of administrators and
invited guests, which included Dr. Pat Robertson, the chancellor of the
university as well as the founder of evangelical television program “The 700
Club,” and Peter Engel, who was then dean of the School of Communication &
the Arts and the producer of the “Saved by the Bell” sitcom series.
No doubt one
of the primary reasons for the overwhelming success of The Passion is
due to its storyline, which mirrors the Gospels as well as the beliefs of
generations of Christians with precise determination. Americans, like most
other cultures and societies, tend to judge the unknown by the known. Both
The Passion and The Last Temptation were judged by the same
standards, mores and ethos, even though Scorsese sought to deflect criticism
by warning viewers at the beginning of the film that, “This film is not
based upon The Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal
spiritual conflict” (The Last Temptation of Christ).
cause for the success of one film over the other is the fact that,
“Westerners tend to dichotomize life into different realms or spheres” (Gudel).
Something is either right or wrong; someone is either right or wrong. It is
more expedient for the Church, and individual Christians, to condemn The
Last Temptation. To accept the film, either in whole or in part, might
require a partial forgiveness of the sexual sins committed by the fictional
explanation for the film’s popularity is because a “culture uses rituals and
artefacts to sustain its coherence,” explains McKenzie Wark in “Meanings of
Culture.” “Culture is something one picks up and internalises. It only
exists if people act according to the codes and conventions of it. Yet a
culture also passes through a set of things external to the members of the
group it defines, as artefacts, rituals, texts.” (Wark). In essence,
Christians can only be Christians if they adhere to an accepted system of
beliefs and principles concerning Jesus. One fundamental teaching of the
Church has always been not to question the sovereignty or authority of the
Scriptures. They are the holy, inspired word of God. As such, the stories
and teachings are much too sacred to think about reworking a story even for
more insight and impact. There is no room or allowance for artistic
dimension of the issue may be that the Church still is trying to find its
place in modern society. “The Church has constantly been perplexed
concerning its proper relation to culture. . . . In candor, we must admit
that the Church has been displaced. Once an authoritative voice in the
culture, the Church is often dismissed, and even more often ignored” (Mohler).
does all of this leave Jesus, who is at the very center of the issue? No
doubt, he will continue to be an outsider on the broader stage of society
and the media. Yet, to many of the eight in 10 Americans who call
themselves Christians, Jesus is “The Word made flesh” (New International
Holy Bible, John 1:1). To the millions of others, he is merely a word, a
name, a man. In American culture, the figure of Jesus remains somewhere
between believers and non-believers – much like his duality of being both
human and divine. How we see and define him remains outside the realm of
one, all-encompassing culture of North America. “For better and (probably)
for worse, Christianity in America is mediated as much through popular media
as through the traditions and institutions of our various churches” (Fredriksen).
The image of
Jesus in contemporary America no longer seems to depend exclusively on the
Church. “Moral relativism,” comments McKibben, “has so shaped the culture
that the vast majority of Americans now see themselves as their own moral
arbiter. Truth has been internalized, privatized, and subjectivized.
Absolute or objective truth is denied outright.” But therein lies another
paradox: the fact that Christians are willing, at times and for just causes,
to put their theological differences aside in favor of the greater good. In
addition, whether to support one religious film or to boycott another seems
to be driven largely by the evangelical movement. How much influence this
effect will have on future cultures remains to be seen. Whatever happens,
though, religion in America may forever be fashioned by the new visual
images produced by Hollywood rather than the established constructs of the
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