Friday, February 27, 2009

Christ-Honoring Movies - Recommendations

I have been thinking more about entertainment choices and the general content of movies lately, perhaps due to recent discussions on a couple of blogs I frequent. On one, Lordship pastor Tim Conway was telling off a Christian teen for watching "Defiance" (a film based on the real-life rescue of 1,200 Jews from the Nazis. Three brothers hiding in the Belarussian forest eluded the fascists for several years, despite their families being killed.) The pastor's objection was that the movie contained cursing (it was in Russian).

Now, I had recently watched "Defiance" and didn't feel his assessment was fair. Given that my Dad is a retired history teacher, I have seen hours of wartime footage of Allies liberating concentration camps that was much more raw than any drama could be. I truly believe context determines the moral implications of what we are watching. Is it informational, or entertaining?

On another blog, the writer considers the valid question of how we can entertain ourselves with the very things that crucified our Lord. Hollywood systematically and literally drags the Name of Christ through the mud at every opportunity. Against a backdrop of a "Passion of the Christ" trailer, Ashley interspersed sound-bites from various popular films where "Jesus Christ!" was used as an expletive (watch it here). Warning: graphic content; not for kids. Very effective; very sobering.

I simply cannot enjoy movies that treat immorality as the norm. Recently, we rented the comedy "Anger Management" from Netflix, as the trailer looked funny (I confess I did not pay attention to the rating - my bad). We had to turn it off less than 10 minutes into the film. Both Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson are talented actors with a rare gift for physical comedy - why the slide into sexual innuendo and filth?

It seems like I cannot enjoy most movies anymore, and like with TV, I won't watch something I would not allow the kids to watch. However, with that said, I would like to highlight a few truly God-honoring, family movies that you can watch and enjoy together. Today, I would like to focus on two movies - thus far the only two New Testament dramatizations that meet my standards of biblical accuracy.

First off, be sure and check out Anthony Hopkins and Robert Foxworth in the Emmy Award winning "Peter and Paul". This dramatization oof the Book of Acts is by far the most accurate portrayal of the Apostle Paul's journeys I have ever seen. The script sticks painstakingly to the biblical text, even depicting Hopkins (Paul) as narrating large portions of his letters. (Ever since watching the film, I always "hear" the epistles being read in a British accent. After all, everyone knows that Jesus had a Britich accent, so why wouldn't Paul? Insert tongue firmly in cheek here). I like British accents, and British people, for that matter. (Can you imagine a "Jesus" with a South Texas drawl? Or a "Bah-stahn" accent like mine? Didn't think so.)

As I recall, the only "imagined" scene in the movie came towards the beginning, when Peter and Paul met each other for the first time. They had a conversation in a semi-secluded garden, where Peter expresses his regret for denying Christ years before. Of course, Acts 9 doesn't elaborate on what was said by whom when the two Apostles first met, but it is entirely realistic to assume that such a conversation actually took place. This movie accurately depicted the historical context of the Hellenized world in the first century, as well as faithfully following the biblical chain of events. This was a much better film than the more recent "Paul the Apostle" (Johannes Brandrup), which was painfully inaccurate and historically laughable (naked Pharisees wrestling Greco-Roman style? Sadducee wives flirting with Pharisee bachelors? Come on, script-writers). "Peter and Paul" is available through Netflix, as well as (I have not reviewed the site, so I can't vouch for the quality of's movies), and I highly recommend it for your viewing pleasure.

Some "biblical" movies depart so widely from the Scriptures that they are painful to watch. Like the afore-mentioned "Paul the Apostle" (my husband suggested I just view it as historical fiction, in order to curb my incredulous outbursts), most movies made about Jesus Christ make me wince. The made-for-TV films are typically the worst, as they attempt to super-impose a late-20th-century agenda on the Christ of the Gospels. With very few exceptions, most movies about Jesus are just awful.

In 1979, the evangelistic movie "The Jesus Film" came out and has been since translated into most of the world's languages. A word-for-word rendering of Luke's Gospel, this movie had merits in that it presented the Gospel message of salvation clearly and effectively, didn't take artistic liberty with the Bible, and incorporated the story of creation, fall of man, and subsequent Law of Moses into it's introduction of the Savior. However, the Shakespearean acting was so wooden and the effects so outdated that it is not my first choice for a Christ-centered family film night.

I HIGHLY recommend, if you haven't seen it already, that you rent the 2003 production "The Gospel of John". This is an absolutely wonderful movie that follows John's Gospel, as the title implies, with narration directly from the biblical text. British actor Henry Ian Cusick does a phenomenal job playing Jesus Christ, bringing realistic passion, personality, and tenderness to the role. It is highly unlikely that Christ spoke in a King James monotone, as many of the older films seem to imply. Cusick grasps the importance of body language, eye contact, smiles and voice register in conveying the compassion and personal interest Christ displayed towards other people.

While John's Gospel seems to skip from one place to another and keeping venues straight can be confusing, the script writers seemlessly wove events and conversations together against plausible Jerusalem and Galilee settings. Like Jim Caviezel in "The Passion of the Christ", Cusick is a believable "Jesus" who communicates tenderness both with his eyes and his intonation. However, "Passion" was not only gratuitously violent and graphic, it also fell seriously short theologically. While focusing exclusively on Good Friday, (and taking much artistic license with the Gospel accounts - many scenes, characters and statements were fictitious), Easter Sunday was overlooked and the significance of the Resurrection was downplayed, if not completely lost. Gibson played fast and loose with Scripture, which few cinema goers have the discernment to realize. The critical message of salvation was missing from "Passion", which was a shame, given the film's wide exposure.

"The Gospel of John"
doesn't make the same mistake, although it sold far fewer tickets at the box office. Unfairly, the film received a PG-13 rating - completely undeserved; as it depicted by far the most sanitized version of the Passion I have ever seen on film. Neither the scourging nor the actual crucifixion is shown on-camera, and the only physical violence we see is the centurion coming to break the legs of the two thieves. The camera does zoom on the Roman spear piercing Jesus' side and the pericardial liquid oozing out, but the earlier physical torment is implied rather than shown on film. This is appropriate and in-line with the Gospels, none of which focus attention on the physical suffering of Christ. The camera shows Him on the cross - it goes without saying He got up there somehow. Do we really need to see nails being driven into wrists, or the contact of a whip with skin? Films that leave nothing to the imagination (secular as well as "Christian") leave images that distract us from the whole point of redemption , especially when viewed by children.

As good as "The Gospel of John" is, there are a couple of minor flaws. One is inherent in any film that follows only one of the four Gospels exclusively: important stuff from Jesus' ministry gets left out. John was the last of the four evangelists to pen his account, and he focused primarily on the deity of Christ. Since the earlier Gospels had covered "the action", John did not repeat all the details. Thus, following his account exclusively eliminates key moments from the story: we don't see Jesus instituting Communion during the Last Supper; most of the miracles are missing; and key statements of Christ from the cross are truncated.

Personally, I think the making of a quality, accurate film about the Lord should incorporate and blend events from all four Gospels, rather than following one slavishly. The Synoptics and John's account complement each other, rather than presenting competing stories.

The only other problem with "The Gospel of John" was one of accuracy. Director Philip Saville included Mary Magdalen throughout the entire length of Holy Thursday. Annoyingly, the camera moves to her rapt countenance, eyes riveted on Jesus, every few seconds during the Upper Room discourse. Absurdly, she accompanies the eleven remaining apostles to the Garden of Gethsemane, where she remains a silent but central figure up until the moment of Jesus' arrest. The chemistry between her and Jesus in the Upper Room is questionable, and her presence in those scenes is unbiblical. None of the four Gospels records Mary Magdalen as being present, and if she is included as a background figure, all of the women associated with Christ's ministry should have been written into the script. Luke records Susana, Joanna, and "many others" as being a domestic and financial presence among the disciples - although Luke indicates in chapter 22 that the apostles prepared the Passover meal themselves. Including a lone woman or women at the scene of the Last Supper and afterward is unlikely, even by the cultural mores of the time.

In closing, I would like to encourage you to seek out truly edifying, Christian movies to watch and enjoy, rather than despairing of the media altogether. If you have any particular suggestions of films you would like me to recommend or review, please mention them in the combox below. Remember, it must not take artistic license with the biblical narrative. I'm a stickler for that. Messing with the Bible is a PET PEEVE of mine!

As you allow God to renew your mind, let your entertainment choices reflect a heart after His!


Anonymous said...

Great commentaries, Marie. I'm a fan of the Gospel of John movie as well. I need to check out Peter and Paul sometime. We gave it to some Hindu friends and they really liked it (except for John 14:6, of course - I'm still praying for them!).

Marie said...

Hindus, huh? You're a brave soul. You know, there is a Hindi film called "Oceans of Mercy" which was made for evangelistic purposes, much like "The Jesus Film". I've noticed Gospel for Asia mentions it frequently, and they show it constantly in villages where most folks can't read a Gospel tract.

I wonder how it measures up in terms of accurately reflecting the biblical text. The guy who played Jesus was a Hindu, who became a Christian afterward. Kinda cool.

Anonymous said...

Hadn't heard of that one. Gospel for Asia sounds like a good organization, from what I've heard.

Marie said...

Found a link on it -

Daya Sagar in Hindi - "Man of Mercy"; not "Oceans of Mercy". It's amazing such a high percentage of India is unreached, considering the Church there goes all the way back to the 1st century.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I haven't even heard of "The Gospel of John" movie. I guess I missed that one. "Deliverance" is one I want to see, though. Our last good movie out was "The Tale of Despereaux." And there was "Bolt" We like animated films :oD

We've come to buy old movies that had some good messages, so we can just sit at home and watch a movie when we feel like it. Some of those old films had some outstanding messages. We just bought two Jimmy Stewart films: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "You Can't Take it With You." Last month we bought "The Picture of Dorian Gray" which really had some solid messages about the effects of sin (and it even call it "sin"!).

Hollywood isn't interested in these sort of movies any more - they are more interested in pushing liberal agendas.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I think we have a movie with a "mistaken identity" here. You said, "Deliverance" which I repeated, but I think you mean "Defiance". It just hit me that "Deliverance" is a movie I saw in my pagan days when I was in the Army, and NO Christian should be watching that one!

Marie said...

Oy! Good catch. Yes, it was the recent movie "Defiance" I was talking about - and Conway was criticizing.....I have HEARD of the movie "Deliverance", but have never seen it and really know nothing about it.