The Hollywood Jesus

December 19, 2006

This is a post written by Tom Chantry on “The Nativity Story” a few weeks ago. He explains how Christ, as portrayed by Hollywood, is a violation of the Second Commandment, as are all images of Him. You can view this post and other posts by him at CRBC Pastor’s Blog

In the spring of 2004 the Evangelical World greeted with wild acclaim the Hollywood blockbuster on the crucifixion, “The Passion of the Christ.” Pastors across the nation led their churches to the theater, buying out huge blocks of seating. Books were written on how to turn this movie into the greatest evangelistic opportunity since the Great Awakening. Christians created the greatest buzz for any movie of the season. When they got to the theaters, what did they see?

Amidst the gore they saw an anemic, powerless Jesus suffering various trials, most not found in Scripture. They saw the heroine of the movie, a sinless Mary, achieving super-sainthood through vicarious suffering. They saw a botched atonement in which God the Father did not superintend events but shed tears from heaven over the terrible tragedy enacted by sovereign man.

Evangelicals in the throes of post-theological misjudgment did not recoil, but continued to praise Hollywood for finally “listening” to the Christian majority. Only one mitigating factor limited the damage to the church: Mel Gibson’s decision to portray the atonement in the slasher-horror genre kept the youngest kids away. Most (though certainly not all!) children born in the 1990’s or later missed the excitement.

Brace yourself: things are about to get worse!

Next week New Line will release “The Nativity Story,” a PG rated retelling of the birth of Jesus. Evangelicals will undoubtedly rush to praise Hollywood again, and the film promises to be a family blockbuster. We will again hear that the “voice” of the church has been heard and that Hollywood is listening. Really? Has the moral content of movies improved since 2004? Biblical Christians should know better than to patronize this movie, and here are some reasons why:

Entertainment is not Education.

Perhaps the cultural phenomenon which has most influenced America is “Sesame Street.” Thanks to those furry muppets, a whole generation is convinced that kids learn best when entertained. Every educational process is thought to be improved through games and songs, while video has become the pinnacle of educational tools. Christians have unthinkingly bought into this, and many thousands of Christian parents are right now saying, “Hey, our kids will really appreciate the birth of Jesus once they’ve seen the movie!” I would suggest two counter-proposals:

1. It will take years of solid Bible study and preaching to drive from a child’s mind the many falsehoods implanted during two hours in a movie theater. I’ll never forget the months it took me to convince kids who had seen “Prince of Egypt” that the Pharaoh had not thrown babies to the crocodiles, and they never could accept that Moses was eighty at the time of the Exodus. What kids see is more real to them than what they read or hear. Any movie about a central biblical theme must be absolutely accurate or it will prove destructive to biblical knowledge.

2. Adults aren’t much more discerning than children. If my discussions after “The Passion of the Christ” are any indication, adults are actually less critical than kids. I heard Christians who presumably had read the gospels many times say, “I wanted to cry when they threw Jesus off that bridge!” No matter that this sequence was drawn from the ravings of a French nun – they had seen it; it was real.
We will hear repeatedly that this film is based strictly on the Bible. We heard it about the last film too; it’s called “marketing.” Here’s an idea: Read through the narrative of Christ’s birth in Matthew, then in Luke, and time yourself. If you read slowly and carefully, it might take half an hour, and that includes the time it takes to leaf through the rest of Matthew and Mark to find Luke. Do you expect a Hollywood blockbuster to last just half an hour? What might they do to pad the story?

The answer should be obvious: they’ll do what Hollywood always does to make movies palatable. They’ll add intense inward anguish and exciting adventure footage. A little research on the web reveals the details. The Mary in the movie didn’t actually love Joseph, but agonized over her arranged marriage the way any twenty-first century teenager would. Taxes aren’t collected by local collaborators, but by Roman soldiers who ride (a fascinating detail to scholars of military history – whence this Roman cavalry?) into town bearing Nazi-like eagle standards and threatening the life and virtue of every pretty girl.
It is well-known that Hollywood thrives on emotional content divorced from facts. That’s why Hollywood history is always incomplete and misleading, which in turn is why we can’t trust movies on biblical themes. Even if they wanted to be fair, the movie studios would adjust the story to fit their medium. Doctrinal exposition and simple historical fact-telling don’t make good movies.

Idolatry is not Worship.

While practical considerations make us wary of “The Nativity Story,” examination of God’s law should settle the question.

Drama and the arts were always the heart of pagan worship. The Egyptians, like all the ancient cultures, used their artistic talent to portray their gods in realistic terms. When the Israelites were reintroduced to the God of their fathers, it was a natural impulse for them to communicate what they learned about this God in the same manner. Thus the second commandment, forbidding all artistic renderings of God, was especially emphasized. Golden calves could not reveal the mysteries of the Godhead; neither can modern cinema.

Film technology was unavailable in the Sinai Wilderness, a fact which allows many Christians to overlook the obvious connection between two types of artistic renderings of God’s character. We somehow imagine that if the scripts are written well enough we can somehow get at the truth through film. This ignores the critical part played by actors. They do not merely recite lines; they endeavor to enter into the minds of the characters they play, and they present their ideas about those roles in a myriad of subtle ways. Is Hamlet mad, or merely pretending to be mad? Shakespeare leaves the decision to the actor, so Olivier’s Hamlet bears little resemblance to Branagh’s. And what about Caviezel’s Jesus? Did he, in “The Passion,” accurately represent God the Son as He is revealed in Scripture?

Every aspect of film, from lighting and camera angles to script and casting, is interpretive. Film is even more likely to reinterpret its subject than sculpture or painting. If God is offended by human attempts to reveal Him in golden statuary, how will He respond to those who endeavor to reveal Him through the imaginations of actors? The point of the commandment is this: only God can reveal Himself. He has done so through His Word, and He commands us to discover that revelation through the study and preaching of His word. Bible movies are not a short-cut; they lead down an entirely different path.

The certain failure of artistic representations of biblical truth can only be more pronounced when rendered by the hands of the skeptics of modern culture. Hollywood’s major concern is to avoid giving offense to any segment of the market. Consequently, though we are hearing that great care was given to biblical accuracy, we also read that Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish theologians were all consulted in the writing of this film. Ponder that for a moment, and ask yourself if it is even possible that “The Nativity Story” could be theologically accurate. Two issues come to mind:

1. The Person of Mary Mary will be the unquestioned star of this movie. Much of the story is seen “through her eyes.” We can certainly understand this from a biblical perspective. No one else experienced the incarnation of Christ in quite the same way.

But who will the “Mary” of the film be? I will venture a guess here: she will not be the redeemed sinner we meet in the Bible. She will not be the somewhat overbearing mother who struggled to understand who her Son truly was. She can’t be, or New Line would infuriate that huge demographic of Catholics who, sadly, know their theology better than most Evangelicals know ours. She is more likely to be the semi-deified Mary of “The Passion.” (Did you know that Gibson was shocked at the Evangelical reception given to what he rightly perceived as a distinctly Marian film?)

In a day when evangelicals are rushing to accommodate the Heretic Church of Rome, which is itself moving inexorably towards titling Mary the “Co-Mediatrix” with Christ, can we really afford to spend two hours having our ideas about Mary shaped by Hollywood?
2. The Person of Christ As troubling as it is to imagine the casting calls for babies to play the role of Jesus, we have a bigger problem here. “The Nativity” is, we are told, based largely (though clearly not exclusively) on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Biblical history is always accompanied by a doctrinal interpretation. In the Old Testament the prophets provided the interpretive detail necessitated by books of history. When we consider the story of the birth of Jesus, we must confess that Matthew and Luke alone do not reveal the full richness of the story. We require the doctrinal interpretation of John:

“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.Here we discover the real miracle of the nativity. What makes the story wonderful has nothing to do with wise men and sheep. It has little to do with the agonies undoubtedly experienced by a young man trying to get help for his pregnant fiancé and winding up watching as she gave birth in a barn. What makes the story wonderful is the fact that this child was and is God the Son, willingly giving up the glory of heaven for a time to walk among us so that He might die for us. How likely do you think it is that New Line will play up that angle? Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with their world view to show us a poor couple struggling against oppression in the attempt to realize their own dreams and aspirations? And is that the message of the Incarnation?

The Path of Wisdom
We cannot expect Hollywood to treat the birth of Christ wisely. Sadly, we can no longer expect Evangelicalism to treat Hollywood wisely. Biblical Christians, though, may still make wise decisions. Skip the Hollywood version of Christmas, or if you can’t bring yourself to do that, watch something more innocuous. Almost any of the classic Christmas movies are going to be less damaging than “The Nativity Story.” “Miracle on 34th Street” may exalt the false god of the season, but it won’t misinform about the true God. “It’s a Wonderful Life” might mix trivial sentimentality with an absurd parody of angels, but even it won’t mislead us concerning the nature of our Lord.

And by all means, if you want your children to have a better understanding of the events of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, then read the Bible with them and discuss its teaching. Don’t let Hollywood become your family’s Sunday School teacher. The consequences of false teaching are far too high.

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