Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Movies of Christ vs. Reading the Gospel Account

A Facebook friend just posted the YouTube link to a beautiful worship song, "Amazing Love". ("Amazing love....how can it be...that You my King would die for me?" You know the one.) The frame, as much of this particular clip, features "The Passion of the Christ". I have a confession to make: neither that film, nor the depictions in more biblically-precise films such as the excellent "The Gospel of John", inspire devotion in me.

The song is beautiful and heart-felt. And (in my opinion,) there is nothing wrong with making evangelistic films about Christ, so long as they are absolutely faithful to the biblical text. But, for me, they do not whomp up emotions, inspire devotion, or bring me to my knees in repentance the way reading the Scripture itself does. Why?

Well, I guess I have an overly-literal nature. Not once, not for a single nano-second, did I forget that the man hanging on the Cross is Jim Caviezel. He's a great actor. I'm sure he's a really good guy, too. But he is not my Lord and Savior, and watching scenes of him accompanied by "Amazing Love" makes me feel like I am watching....Jim Caviezel playing Jesus to the accompaniment of "Amazing Love" (or in a full-length rated R movie.)

I try to think abstractly. I try to forget it's an actor I'm watching, and let him inspire devotion to Christ. Peeps, I'm sorry; it doesn't work. All it makes me think is, "Man, that Jim is a good actor!"

I was in a Christian bookstore once (once? Maybe twice?) and noticed they had artwork - framed portraits of "Christ" - Jim Caviezel reaching down to the Italian actress playing Mary Magdalene. Jim Caviezel looking pensively past the camera and off into the distance. "Jim Caviezel is good looking," I thought. "But I certainly wouldn't want portraits of him hanging in the living room!" (Not to pick on Jim Caviezel - there have been lots of other fine actors to play Christ over the years, like that British-Peruvian guy Henry Ian Cusick in "The Gospel of John", but I have never seen anything approaching the number of devotional-style music videos and artwork that is based on POTC.) Movie-generated images and clips, no matter how bloodied the actor, don't make me feel as if I'm vicariously gazing upon Christ.

You know what does, though?

Reading the Bible - especially the Gospel of John. There are parts of Chapters 14-15 that I can barely read without getting a lump in my throat. You can hear the sadness in Jesus' voice as He predicts His betrayal; comforts His disciples; tells them to have joy. He's going to be crucified in a few hours, and He's talking about joy? That gets me every time.

Does anyone else feel this way? I am not saying it's wrong to be affected emotionally by a movie - as long as your heart is moved closer to the Christ of the Bible (which, of course, should be the whole point of the movie in the first place.) Perhaps the problem is mine for being utterly unsentimental (I did not even cry as a kid at "E.T.", and I couldn't understand why the other kids did, because it was just a story.) I watch Christian videos others call "amazing" and "powerful" and think, "Uh.....I don't get it."

While we certainly aren't to live our faith based on emotions, as the Holy Spirit convicts, teaches, grows and conforms us increasingly to the image of Christ, He will continually light that "spark" of devotion to Christ that is a hallmark of a true disciple. I do not believe, nor have I experienced, any means of kindling true love and devotion for our Lord outside of Scripture itself. He truly is sufficient for meeting all of our needs -- especially our need for more of Him.


Elizabeth Marie said...

I think it depends on the person. God has designed each of our brains differently and thus, we all have different "learning styles." I hate that term learning styles because I feel like the modes of thinking do not only apply to the way we learn but also the way emotions are portrayed to us.
Reading the Bible of course affects me - if it didn't, I wouldn't be saved! And all the other things like plays and movies, music, etc are simply an application of the moving words found in Scripture.
I cry almost every single time I come to the Lord in worship. It's not something I think about or something I do intentionally, it just happens because music really gets through to me. On a recent visit to Pittsburgh for Easter, I went with my mom and step-dad to see a passion play that our family friends were in at their church. It was by far the best play I've ever seen, both technically and artistically. But what I loved about it the most was the way it touched my heart. You mentioned you had to deliberately try to think abstractly and connect yourself with the actor - for me it was the opposite. I almost grew angry at the men "crucifying Jesus" because I just got so into and it felt so real... like "no, that's MY JESUS!" At the end of the play when I met with the mother in the family, she asked me how I liked it and I was speechless. "It was... so good. Like, so... good." "Were you blessed?" "YES."
If movies don't inspire much devotion in you, I think that's fine - so as long as something does! And of course for anyone, the Bible should be the main source of spiritual growth. That's why He created the Word to be alive. :) I hope that made sense.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Some movies intended to help evangelism, such as the "Jesus" movie aren't intended to be entertainment, per se, so those don't bother me as much as the Hollywood depictions.

My major problem with Hollywood movies are the distortions of the Biblical record. I think the worst offender was "The Passion" because it was nothing more than a Catholic catechism, and had many false stories gleaned from Catholic mystics. And yet protestant churches were buying out theaters as "evangelism" efforts!!!!!

Marie said...

Glenn, I couldn't agree with you more; I had to decide whether I was going to go down that road with this post or not...I think I have blogged about that very issue before. I know that I did a post once on biblical movies I would recommend - and there were only about 3 of them: The Gospel of John; The Jesus Film; and The Apostle Paul (the one with Antony Hopkins in the title role.)

Notice I said only that Caviezel is a good actor; I deliberately didn't get into the (many) theological problems with that movie! It also angers me greatly when Hollywood or made-for-TV movies (like the one with Jeremy Cisco) take major artistic license with movies supposedly about Christ. It's "another gospel" they are promoting.

Right around Easter, the Youth Pastor at our church decided to show POTC to the high school Youth Group, without asking the parents' permission first. (Mine are not yet in high school, so I kept my mouth shut on this one.) I was shocked, though - not only because of the gratuitous violence and the R rating, but because of the blatant romanist theology deliberately put forth in that movie. Gibson missed the point of Good Friday entirely.

Why, with several movies about Christ available THAT ARE BASED ON THE BIBLE, did the YP feel the need to show them a film that was based on a 19th-century mystical nun's "visions"? (Parts of Emmerich's "vision", such as the Cross being constructed by Jews in the courtyard of the Temple, were left out of the movie because they so obviously contradicted the Bible and the historical record.)

Anyway, as very much against that movie as I am, what I was pointing out that fails to move me is seeing a human actor/model portraying Christ. I just can't look at them, no matter how good the actor (or how good the movie, to be fair) and feel increased devotion to Christ. Not sure images are wrong, but definitely don't work for me for devotional purposes.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I whole-heartedly agree that actors playing Christ can never motivate me in any way. The Bible is far superior. Part of the problem is that we have developed a touchy-feely, overly emotional Christianity wherein reasoning is pushed as something almost heretical as we want everything emotion-based. And it's that mentality that these movies play to.

Marie said...

I think that's true. And don't even get me started on the whole "Jesus-is-my-boyfriend" genre of CCM!

Oh wait....you've already written about that. I have, too!

Yes. A big problem with the sentimental/emotionalism approach to faith is apparent in most Christian women's "literature". Which is one reason I like Martha Peace and Elyse Fitzpatrick so much - they are balanced (definitely not austere or cold), but do not dive right into that whole "Bridal Paradigm" that so many others have. The whole notion that "Jesus is so 'in love with you'" is nearly heretical. Mike Bickle didn't start it, but he's one reason BP has caught on like wildfire, and the IHOP cult is so seductive to many young Christians.

Andy said...

I belong to shrinking minority among Reformation Christian who hold that any images of Christ, whether statues or pictures (stationary or moving) is a violation of the 2nd Commandment. Faith comes by hearing, not by looking at an image or watching a movie.

The Heidelberg Cathechism asks:
Question 98. But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity?
Answer: No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word.

Marie said...

Andy, I've been inching closer to that position myself - more so in the last year (you may have seen my post, "If Your Favorite Portrait of Christ is from a Cult, Is it Still Your Favorite?"

I guess what stops me from being a full-blown iconoclast is the following: what about representational drawings in little kids' Sunday School papers and Bible story books? Children, even small ones, understand instinctively that those images are symbolic, and not representational. The other thing that gives me pause are the strictly evangelical movies, such as The Jesus Film and the Indian equivalent (Man of Mercy) which have brought the Gospel message to many millions of illiterate people.

I'm familiar with the old Orthodox argument that the icons in the monasteries were for educating pre-literate Byzantine Christians by depicting Bible scenes etc., but the truth is, they ended up worshiping the icons. They've even overlaid the hands in many of them with silver talismans and touch them for luck. Likewise, when I was Catholic, it struck me as eerie how the nuns were teaching us to pray before these life-like paintings of Mary and Jesus - they were actually praying/emoting as if those were Polaroid pictures of them. I've seen it and I'm sure you're familiar with that sort of "worship", too. What I think, and I'm open to being wrong about this, but what I think is problematic is the making of representational portraits/icons. I am not sure the 2nd Commandment covers media made for an instructive purpose and in a reverent way, but it's possible I am wrong on that. Perhaps that is why something instinctively just won't let me "see" the actor as "Jesus".

Marie said...

* I meant "symbolic" drawings in little kids' Sunday School papers! Not representational. :)

Neil said...

I share your general concerns. I liked the Gospel of John movie much better than the Passion. I used it in Sunday School once, but really just to double upon the scripture review. We'd watch 1-2 chapters then go verse-by-verse through the text.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

One thing about others representing Jesus: I read an analogy a long time ago which I thought was excellent. If I carried a photo of a model in my wallet and told everyone she reminds me of my wife and when I look at her it helps me focus my thoughts on my wife, do you really think my wife would approve or do you think she would be a bit jealous? Same thing with others representing Jesus - they aren't Jesus and if we claim they help us think of Jesus, etc, does that please Jesus?

Barb Winters said...

It's amazing how God created us differently! How boring life would be if we all responded the same way.

I am a crier and very emotional. It doesn't take much to get me going. I only watched the movie once because it upset me so much I don't want to watch it again.

I don't think to myself, "That is Christ." But I do think, "Wow! My Messiah went through THAT. What devotion. What loyalty. What passion."

Anonymous said...

I agree with Elizabeth. It depends on the person. I looked at the Passion as a way for the whole world in essence, to view the crucifixion. Because it went globally, it brought Jesus front and center-visually- to the whole world. Also, whether we like it or not, the culture we live is a visually-stimulated one. That visual stimulation which impacts the emotions is something many can respond to. As an artist, I understand what Gibson was trying to do. The movie can be a tool to reach those who think 'religion' is boring and wouldn't set foot in a church, but would watch a movie. It's just one tool to start evangelism conversations.

Marie said...

@ Anon: Good point - it could easily be a tool or a means to presenting the Gospel; I guess my comments about TPOTC have more to do with the fact that the movie, as it stood, did little (if anything) to presnt the message of sin, salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and our response to the Cross. But yes; one could easily use an opportunity afforded by the mass exposure of the film to do so.

My original point of the post was how I just cannot use a visual with a human actor (ie worship songs featuring Caviezel-as-Christ) in devotion, because then I feel as if I'm singing to an actor. Whether or not a biblical film per se has a legitimate use is an issue I'm less sure of, as I said. Good thoughts!

Anonymous said...

@Marie..yes your original question did get kind of lost in the shuffle and I didn't address it. Actually, personally, I don't have a problem with the visuals because it's all imagery. When I see something where someone has taken clips from the movie and put it to music...it doesn't make me think of the person representing Christ..it makes me think of Him who lives in me.

Perhaps because I already look at the things God created that we see in the world around us... they are also the very things He uses to help us understand Him better. For example, in Psalms 91 where it says "He will cover you with His feathers" . does God literally have feathers, or is it that the image He painted helps us understand Him better because we know that action is something a mother bird does to her young to protect them.

And you and I... Are we really that person on the outside..or is the real person just encased in this outer shell?

I may not be tying this all together to make it understandable from my point of view, but...then again we view things through different lenses. :)

Andy said...

The objection specifically addressed by the Heidelberg as a violation of the 2nd Commandment actually has to do with illiteracy. Many people in the Middle Ages were illiterate and the Roman church taught (starting with Gregory I) that images were books for the illiterate.

When an adult is illiterate, he or she is on the same level as a child who has not yet learned to read. It is the same condition. And it is this condition to which the Catechiem refers when it says that we must pretend to be wiser than God. Faith comes by hearing.