OF JEOPARDY AND BIBLICAL EPICS

 

The game show Jeopardy is an occasional evening indulgence. Answering correctly, before the contestants, is the big draw, and fun when it happens, but let’s just say that I’m never tempted to audition, except when the Bible is the category. Alex Trebek became the host of the hit game show the year we got married, and since that time it seems the contestants’ biblical knowledge has decreased with each decade.

We have become a visual media culture, learning more from television, film, and streaming sources than any civilization in history. Fewer Americans, it seems, are reading the Bible, but more are watching movies.

That’s why I’m recommending my top five biblical movies just before Easter. I’m not suggesting that anyone can build a solid foundation of biblical literacy, still less doctrine by watching, but we can get the big picture, and some of the major themes. And movies contribute to cultural conversation. It’s always easier to begin a discussion with, “Have you seen …?” than with “Have you read the book of Matthew lately?”

The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s R-rated (for violence) 2004 blockbuster is not for children, or the faint of heart. It was controversial, but brutally accurate in its portrayal of the final twelve hours before Jesus’s death. The expressions on Jesus’s (Jim Caviezel) face at the beginning and the end capture the conflict with evil, and the hope of resurrection, like nothing else available on screen.

Ben Hur – The 1959 classic with Charlton Heston in the title role was remade last year by husband and wife team Mark Burnette and Roma Downey (The Bible). The new film is shorter, by an hour, and faster paced. But the mid-twentieth century version is truer to the best-selling, 1880, Lew Wallace novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The story of revenge and redemption between two adoptive brothers, Roman Messala, and Jewish Ben Hur, plays out in and around the crucifixion and resurrection. The climactic chariot race benefits from better special effects in the newer film, but the 1959 classic won eleven Academy Awards.

Risen –The 2016 film follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics, it is a good story well told.

Prince of Egypt – The 1998 animated epic remains one of the most powerful and accessible retellings of the Exodus ever produced. Watch it with your children and grandchildren. It is visually compelling and musically breathtaking.

The Jesus Film – This 1979 film hasn’t won many awards–on earth. Neither has it made much money, but the two-hour long, faithful rendering of the Gospel of Luke has been shown on more screens, to more audiences, in more diverse places than any other biblical film in history. From Bible-less peoples in the Amazon jungle, to Aborigines in the Outback, this film has probably changed more lives, and will win more awards in heaven, than any other. If you want a literal rendering of the most historically detailed Gospel, this is it.

These are just my favorites, included because I’ve seen them. What are yours?

 

 

 

RISEN: Something Good Out of Hollywood

Based on Bible stories made into movies of late, the Nathaniel’s among us would be justified in paraphrasing the dubious disciple’s first question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Hollywood?”

Noah, in spite of my initial enthusiasm about it, turned out to be a theological mish-mash and a box office disappointment. The trailers for Exodus: God’s and Kings, revealed such an obvious hack job on the original story that I, along with many others, didn’t waste my time or money on it. Roma Downey and Mark Burnette’s 2015 television hit, AD, also left me disappointed by the middle of the series.

Not so with Risen, the Sony Pictures release now playing in local theaters. Instead of trying to make something more or something different than the original Easter story, Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified, and Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is good. The plot is believable, the film is well paced, and even though it’s obvious that special effects were relegated to the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have a few weaknesses. One actor is glaringly amateurish in the two short scenes he inhabits. It wouldn’t matter if they weren’t so strategically placed. And those of us concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just prior to the ascension. But these things are minor and offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an otherwise excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar. That actor should win an Oscar.

Far more important however and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. Every man who feels the cynicism of Pilate creeping up on him in mid-life will identify with Clavius’ quest for truth. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”