I saw the movie SON OF GOD on Feb. 28th, the first day of its national release. Doing so made me feel more like a fan of a movie franchise or production company instead of a Catholic father married to a Jewess, with a daughter in the catechumenate or a liturgical minister involved in parish sacramental preparation who used to work on the film festival circuit.
I remembered the last “Jesus Movie” to make waves was Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF CHRIST a decade ago. I remember the upset it caused in inter-religious relations with the Jewish people and for its brutal depiction of the torture and death of Jesus. This made the movie sound more like a snuff film than an act of faith. Its lack of a resurrection scene made many people of faith decry it as “Good Friday without Easter.”
For critics and fans of “Jesus Movies” and to ordinary believers, this is all familiar terrain. Given this background, SON OF GOD could be assessed in three main ways typical of this type of movie and its followers. First, how does the movie compare to “the Book.” Is it faithful to the source material or the spiritual commitment, value, intent of the original? Second, how does it compare to others in the series, version, or franchise? Finally, who is this movie best for? Or on a practical level, would I see this movie again?
How does it compare to The Book?
One could easily admit that with a running time just over 2 hours long there is hardly enough time to do justice to “The Bible” or the New Testament focus on Jesus of Nazareth with all its literary qualities and complexities. But one could also say that the movie as narrated by the Gospel writer John does present a type of Jesus that shares many qualities with the Jesus of John’s Gospel and the others.
The movie does a good job of presenting Jesus as confident and in control (much like the Jesus in John’s Gospel). The Jesus of John’s Gospel sets about his mission bringing “the Light” to the outcast, the despised, and the sinner. He confronts and overcomes his adversaries in public in the light of day. By contrast, his enemies plot his capture, trial and death through hushed conversations in dark corridors. Darkness falls across the holy Passover feast and crucifixion, but light returns when Jesus (the sacrificial Lamb) rises again (and we are delivered from our bondage). These are all hallmarks of John’s Gospel. The latter symbols have much more power and significance in “the Book” then the cinematic rendition.
Like the other Gospels, Jesus is also a gifted and clever public speaker full of wit, who taught using parables and physical demonstrations that often upset normal thinking. These surprises helped reveal how God was present to offer His love to people who were often excluded by other groups. Such people often carried negative images of themselves because of guilt or because of denigration placed upon them by others. Jesus’ simple message of forgiveness of sins and the freedom from fear that this brought about was attractive and made many follow him.
There are a handful of familiar Biblical parables, miracles and other stock scenes that are peppered throughout the film: the parable of the mustard seed, the healing of a paralytic, the teaching of the Our Father, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, Jesus walking on water, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Not all of these are in John’s Gospel. Not all of these moments are given equal weight. In general they serve the narrative purpose of agitating the religious authorities who worry that Jesus will come to Jerusalem with all his unruly followers during Passover incurring a brutal crackdown from Pontius Pilate. In this manner, they serve the narrative end of arriving at Crucifixion and less the direct appeal of his message of conversion: the forgiveness of the sins that allows us to experience God’s love for us and the freedom that gives us to love others.
One huge omission from John’s Gospel is the washing of his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper. In John’s Gospel this is a key image for which Holy Thursday (i.e. Maundy Thursday) gets its name and value for being a Servant Leader who follows the Master’s example. The other is the lack of any special significance to the piercing of Jesus’ side when he dies on the Cross. For John, this was a potent symbol for Baptism, not the blood of the Passover lamb in the temple, but the blood and water of the sacrifice on the Cross.
Original Series or Next Generation?
The second way to look at this “Jesus Movie” is in a generational sense. Older, more experienced believers and fans would have a different take for different reasons than younger or newer viewers. Before there was Gibson’s PASSION, there was Zefirelli’s JESUS OF NAZARETH. This was a made for Network TV (not even cable TV) film series in the late 1970s that played on regular TV stations for a few weeks during the Easter/Passover season.
At that time there were more channels on the AM Radio than on the TV Set and the TV Stations actually went off-air at midnight because programming wasn’t 24 hours. A whole generation of people in the 1970s grew up with this series as a staple (alongside annual epics like BEN HUR and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). The success of such TV series or movies depended on families who still came home from work at a decent hour, ate a meal together, and had some time afterwards to watch some family TV before bedtime or the evening news. They had the time and inclination to watch a week-long epic unfold.
The spectacle of JESUS OF NAZARETH back then to SON OF GOD now would be a bit like comparing the original Star Wars Trilogy (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) which also came out around the same time period with similar generational impact and the newer Prequels (Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith), in which what is newer is not necessarily considered better, despite better special effects etc. Another comparisons might be between Star Trek (Original Series), Star Trek the Next Generation, and J.J. Abrams latest offerings. The first two generations seemed successful adaptations of the value and message of the franchise and Gene Rodenberry’s vision both on screen and on television, while the newest iteration was a clear and controversial departure. Or again, it may be like the Lord of the Rings TrilogY (books and movies) and The Hobbit. Readers of the books and devotees over the years will have reasons for allegiances and critiques of choices made on screen. The current criticism now is how can one book, The Hobbit, be turned into three separate movies?
Who should see this movie? Is it worth seeing again?
Finally, probably the most practical way to look at SON OF GOD would be to ask how can it best serve its ideal audience? How does the Word meet the hearers and believers of the Word? On this level, we would have to admit that the Bible is still a very rich source for moving human narratives. It sparks imagination, feeds our need to work out meaning through myth and ritual. As such, the movie is sometimes a sustainer of such energy or a spark of evangelization and at others merely a tool moving us for just a moment.
As a minister, I would observe that there is a reason why the Lectionary (the cycle of liturgical readings) spreads out the entire Christian Bible over a three year period. It takes time to tell a good tale, be drawn in to its web of relations, and have one’s life, worldview and society deepened and changed because of it. Because it takes time, it also bears repeating and sharing. But is the movie SON OF GOD a “must see again” experience like this?
On this count, my personal view is no. (This is not the same as saying it isn’t a good movie or worth seeing at all). The practical view would be because we already know the ending and we even see the narrative logic that created this ending. Jesus could simply have slipped away in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus could have decided not to go to Jerusalem at all or at Passover when tensions were so high. Jesus could have kept a low profile and let things blow over, etc. But no re-watching will change the manner in which the Jesus in this movie meets his end. (Not to mention the fact that he commissions his followers to go out into the world, to follow him, to do this in memory. And the “this” is not “watch this movie again.”)
But the deeper reason I personally say no is this: I have a hard time actually experiencing and deepening my relationship with God in this movie. I have no trouble experiencing the moments when Jesus opens our eyes and causes a conversion so that we are honest about our own shortcomings. We become more aware of who we exclude by our misguided self righteousness or ignorance. When we seek forgiveness for this waywardness and insensitivity, we are able to be more compassionate to others and more loving precisely because God’s forgiving love and will is poured out upon us. Experiencing this generosity, we have nothing to lose.
But the people in the movie do not seem to have ANY sense of a real God who reaches out to them like this apart from Jesus. The only people who catch glimpses of this are those who have exchanges with Jesus. But then it is only in an “at that moment” and in an intensely personalistic kind of way.
This is not the God I know, nor the many people of faith or good will that I encounter. While I have come to believe so strongly in God’s intimate union with humanity in history through the Incarnation, the Triune God I have come to know is greater than just an intensely personalistic moment. There is still the God of our ancestors and the Spirit who moved across the face of the deep before the creation of the world or who is still with those who are no longer with us now. This God is not just a for the moment experience, like a bolt of lightning. God is an enduring presence covenanted to humanity over a very long period of time. It is God’s eternity that embraces our humanity.
The closest the movie gets to this “something more” is during the Last Supper. Jesus blesses bread and wine as we expect him to do. But the movie also cross cuts to the Chief Priests praying in the Temple and to the home of Pontius Pilate praying to those Gods. The moment reads less about who was better or more righteous and more to the need to approach transcendence: that there is clearly something much greater at work in all this.
Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, the way to the Father in an immediate, but also “still to come” way. Christians tend to preach about Jesus with a litany of beliefs that can be divisive or plainly doctrinaire. There is something that can get lost or misaligned in that conflation. One person’s Son of God is blasphemy. To another, this Lordship is insurrection. But to those who have experienced forgiveness and freedom to love, He Lives because this is the I AM who has pitched his tent in our midst. Always and forever. Intimate and personal, but not merely a private, individual change of heart.
The Lord who comes for John at the movie’s end seems like such a lonely reunion in a desolate world. Surely, a God who calls sinners and the outcast would have a Kingdom filled with so much more.
Have you seen SON OF GOD? What did you think?
What Lenten and life changes might this movie bring this season?
Copyright 2014 Jay Cuasay
About the Author
Jay Cuasay is a freelance writer on religion, interfaith relations, and culture. A post-Vatican II Catholic father with a Jewish spouse, he is deeply influenced by Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism. He was a regular columnist on Catholicism for examiner.com and a moderator and contributor to several groups on LinkedIn. His LTEs on film and Jewish Catholic relations have been published in America and Commonweal. Jay ministered to English and Spanish families at a Franciscan parish for 13 years. He can be reached at TribePlatypus.com.