By Candice Lucey, Crosswalk.com
Why would a Christian avoid watching shows about Jesus? After all, he is the hero of our lives, and movie-goers love heroes. But not all movies about Jesus are based on truth, while some start with truth and then spin it out, creating imagined words and scenes from Jesus’ life. There are good reasons to use caution when choosing to watch a Jesus movie.
Some recent depictions of our Savior have been excellent, not to mention a few television shows. Certain examples have garnered much attention from non-Christian communities: The Passion, for instance; Risen; and The Chosen.
Each of these brings to the cinema a mixture of biblical truth and also some imagining on the part of gifted writers. They help audiences to visualize scenes they might not have been able to picture before, or never wanted to picture.
They are not factual in every sense, and we must remember that the people who wrote, directed, and produced them are only human beings.
They have used their gifts to reach as wide an audience as possible with the gospel using the medium of film. Many testimonies out there of people coming to Christ after watching these and other films.
Yet, Christian and non-Christian viewers alike need to exercise caution when approaching these films. This might seem like an obvious point, but skillful filmmakers and writers bring their tales to life so vividly that one can forget these are stories, especially when added historical features make characters and events plausible and three-dimensional enough to care about.
Films about Jesus are not necessarily bad. As with everything, we need to think about what we expect from a film and who is watching.
Here are five reasons for discernment, whether you are attending a film for personal enjoyment or as a way of introducing Jesus to your unbelieving friends.
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1. Is it Truth or Fiction?
A genre of storytelling known as “historical fiction” uses a historical context, even real-life characters from a given era, but builds a fictional story around them.
An example of this would be Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton, in which a Roman tribune is sent to find the body of Jesus after the grave is found to be empty.
Scripture reports that Roman soldiers were instructed to “tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’” (Matthew 28:13).
Perhaps Pontius Pilate also sent soldiers to find Jesus’ body. The writers of this film simply wondered about the resurrection from a unique point of view.
While we might be curious and compelled by the idea, we must remember that the events recorded in the film are not historical or factual; they are fictional yet thoughtful.
Risen asks the question, “How could a cynical soldier come to believe in the risen Christ? What would that do to his identity as a Roman tribune in a culture where Caesar is Lord?”
Screenwriters add to the real biblical story in order to further the purposes of a plot or to lengthen a series into several seasons, writing scenes that are not depicted in the gospels.
Meaning is conveyed more effectively in film using visual tactics. Not everything in a book — including the gospels — transfers well to screen, so a screenwriter will often add or subtract in order to make the story work well in a visual format.
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2. Making More Heroes
The language of the Bible is important to how we understand His story, His purposes, and His character. The very words on the page are critical to our understanding, and we also learn from what the Lord left out.
If someone is turning the Bible into a series (like The Chosen), writers are required to read between the lines and imagine a great deal that has not been written about, like backstories for the apostles and Mary. This is one way to make their material fill more airtime.
With The Chosen, we are expected to identify with the apostles to some extent. Simon, Peter, and John: they are regular guys who probably cursed and drank and worried a lot about money. Matthew was hated — there is always someone who knows what it feels like to be an outcast.
But as John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The Apostle John added, “He who comes from above is above all” (John 3:30,31). We view Mary’s transformation and her backsliding, and we root for her because we know the pain of trying to kill our sins in the midst of trials.
In reality, we learn little about the apostles or Mary: His story is not about them. The four gospels are the story of Jesus’ ministry.
We learn a great deal about our Savior and ourselves through his interactions with people. For instance, their squabbles might offend us at first, but then we are inspired to ask, “Would I have behaved better?”
Not only that but as we relate to those characters on the screen, we might also come to like them a little too much, becoming fans of the fictional characters and ignoring the real story.
In fact, there is fanfiction dedicated to The Chosen, which is already kind of like fan fiction in its own right, only with a loftier purpose.
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3. Tracing the Emotional Impact
As Hannah Le Cras points out, there is a risk in allowing ourselves to relate more closely to the cinematic Jesus than to God’s Word about Jesus, his disciples, and others who came into contact with Him.
“Our physical senses make it so much easier to respond with our hearts to a depiction of Jesus on a screen. Drawing forth a similar response from the written words of Scripture is significantly harder. This means it’s quite likely we’ll have a stronger response to someone’s audio-visual representation of Jesus rather than Jesus as he is presented to us in the Bible.”
That poses a problem: watching instead of reading can become a temptation, yet God wants us to read the Bible. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Can we do both? That depends on the person. Someone strong in his or her knowledge of the Bible, one who reads Scripture daily and does not replace Bible study with a detailed examination of Bible-related cinema is in a good position to recognize the good and the bad.
The trouble is that so many people want anything challenging to be served to them visually or audibly, while they do something else like crocheting or putting a puzzle together.
They are not getting the full effect of what God wants to say to them through Scripture which cannot be conveyed as effectively on screen as it is on paper.
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4. Shaping Ideas about Christ
When features of Christ’s personality and actions are omitted or added due to the nature of moviemaking, one must be careful to check impressions against Scripture. Otherwise, there is the potential for one to form incorrect and potentially blasphemous ideas about our Savior.
Brett McCracken warned that “film and television are popular because they have unique, visceral storytelling force. They do have significant power to shape public opinion and personal morality. Among other things, the more we see certain behaviors, words, and worldviews on screens, the more proximate and palatable they become.”
Take The Last Temptation of Christ for example. This story warps the character of Jesus to suggest that, even if he did not give in to temptation, his mind could have wandered into sin.
Some might argue that merely thinking about something sinful is not a sin in itself, but Christ said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20).
If Christ had been able to think lustful thoughts, then his heart would have been defiled by sin. Jesus was sinless.
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). God sees beyond outward behaviors to the heart of a person.
Any picture of Jesus Christ in which he would either do or think anything sinful is a distortion of the real Jesus. Just because a movie is purportedly about Jesus does not mean the film was designed to glorify God.
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5. Learning about Jesus
A Jesus movie can be a legitimate means of making biblical topics accessible and interesting. Many people who dislike reading will watch a movie or a TV show which requires no real mental energy. By the same token, curiosity might be aroused, and good questions asked.
But “‘Should I watch this?’ is [...] a valid and mature question for the Christian viewer,” wrote Brett McCracken.
While a viewer might be surprised to discover a new interest in the life of Jesus after watching a film, movies have the “unparalleled knack for burrowing its images and ideas deep within us — for better or worse” (Ibid.).
No movie about Jesus will be perfect because the Bible is “the only completely trustworthy place we can go to find the true Jesus,” wrote Le Cras. We can rely on no other.
The Bible is the reliable authority on the life of Christ, but is it legalistic to say no one should ever see these films or read those books, even an individual who spends time in the Word daily?
A portrayal of Jesus mixing with crowds and healing people, like he does in The Chosen, can help us to identify more closely with our Savior as a real person who once walked this earth.
Jesus “listen[ed] to and empathize[d] with people,” says McCracken, and though we are not watching him do that in reality, a television show or a movie exploring the real day-to-day life of Christ can support our understanding, as long as we remember that portrayals of Jesus should point us back to the Bible. “Yes, there is a risk of overthinking our entertainment choices. But the greater risk — to the state of our souls and our witness in the world — is underthinking it.”
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