Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

This is the third in a three-part series of posts exploring Christianity and mainstream cinema. In the first post I looked at how Jesus has been depicted in film, suggesting he hasn’t been treated terribly well as a cinematic hero. In the second post I looked a Christ-figures, non-religious characters whose lives have mirrored Christ’s in some way. In this post I want to look a some of the best examples of overtly Christian characters in film. The religiously pious aren’t always depicted in the most positive light. Hollywood movies are full of religious nuts. There’s a whole sub-genre of films about mad evangelists like Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and his counterpoint, the tongues-speaking, Max Cady (Robert De Niro) in Cape Fear (1991). Then there’s obsessive fundamentalists, like the albino priest, Silas (Paul Bettany) in The Da Vinci Code (2006), and the Bible-thumping Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood (2007). Similarly, there’s been a regular parade of somewhat unhinged nuns in film, like Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) in Black Narcissus (1947), Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) in Agnes of God (1985), and the crusading Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) in Doubt (2008). But it’s not all bad news. Mainstream cinema has presented us with some powerful, complex, and authentic depictions of

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Stealth Messiahs: Christ figures in film

Stealth Messiahs: Christ figures in film

In a previous post I complained about how many films about Jesus are so lame. I suggested it was because filmmakers tend to be overly reverential with their central character, as well as appearing to be paralyzed about using speculative or non-biblical dialogue (unless their name is Scorsese). A more satisfying, and frankly more successful, approach is to avoid a sword-and-sandal epic about Jesus himself and opt for a stand-in, a redemptive Christ figure who doesn’t crumble under the expectations of Christian viewers.  So to that end, here are some films I think do well at depicting part of the gospel story by using a character who looks like Jesus in disguise. To begin, allow me to get a couple of my pet-hates out of the way. Firstly, the cruciform sacrifice scene is just downright lazy, if you ask me. Whether it’s Ripley at the end of Alien 3 (1992), or Robert De Niro’s rope-prone boxer in Raging Bull (1980), or the sacrifice of Neo at the end of The Matrix: Revolutions (2003), it’s just all too obvious for my liking. I really enjoy a film that depicts the salvific effect of self-sacrifice, but I don’t need it shoved down my throat. And nowhere is it more obvious than in Cool Hand Luke (1967), where the religious symbolism is laid on

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If Jesus was such a great scriptwriter, why do his movies stink?

If Jesus was such a great scriptwriter, why do his movies stink?

Most viewers will take a biopic at face value, not knowing enough about the subject’s life to know whether it’s an historically accurate portrayal or not. But if you make a film about Jesus you know you’re going to have 1.2 billion Catholics and 800 million Protestants picking it apart frame by frame. That’s because Christians aren’t just fans of Jesus. They adore him. This might explain why nearly every screen portrayal of Christ has to make trade offs like artistry versus accuracy, and accessibility versus reverence. To appease Christian audiences, most filmmakers go for the latter (accuracy and reverence), which turns their Jesuses into vapid, unremarkable messiahs, who often seem either confused or downright smug, or too small for the epic drama they’re part of. But when a filmmaker like Pasolini or Scorsese tries to play with the narrative to make Jesus more accessible or to bring out a particular element of the story, they are pilloried by Christian audiences, and their films are condemned. Here’s eleven depictions of Jesus, most of which prove that while Jesus could write a brilliant script, his movies can be real stinkaroos.   King of Kings (1927) We might as well start at the beginning. This was the first film to portray Jesus using an actor (H. B. Warner). The director Cecil B

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Bruce, Freddie, Elton and the sounds of sehnsucht

Bruce, Freddie, Elton and the sounds of sehnsucht

In Danny Boyle’s new fantasy film, Yesterday, a young musician wakes up from a bike accident to discover he is the only person on earth who remembers the Beatles. So what does he do? He passes the whole Beatles’ back-catalogue off as his own and soars to fame and fortune, of course! Meanwhile, in an upcoming film, Blinded by the Light, a 16 year-old Pakistani boy growing up in England in the 1980s is given some Bruce Springsteen cassettes by a friend and quickly finds inspiration, using the anthems to navigate his way through life as an aspiring young writer in a difficult environment. Much of the inherent charm in the Bruce Springsteen-inspired film is the fact that a geeky Asian boy in northern England could relate so strongly to the muscular New Jersey working-class sensibilities of the Boss’ music. When you also consider the recent success of the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Elton John rock opera, Rocketman, it’s beginning to look like cinema is getting taken over by the Classic Hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And those songs seem to be everywhere these days. I was waiting in line to buy ice cream at a very cool ice cream truck in New York recently. The customized 1978 Chevrolet step van was pumping out hits

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Grand designs – where heaven and earth come closer

Grand designs – where heaven and earth come closer

Recently, I set myself the modest challenge to list the ten most joyous buildings I’ve ever seen. By joyous I mean in the simple sense that they make me feel happy.  I love looking at them. They bring me a sense of delight, or elation, or contentment. I see the fingerprints of God all over beautiful design, no matter the motivation of their designer, and for me magnificent architecture, like all great art, draws me nearer to God. The Celts believed that the veil between heaven and earth was three feet thick. But in thin places, they said, the veil has worn through. Heaven seems closer. They used the term to describe rugged, breathtaking places like the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky outcrops of Croagh Patrick. But for me meditating in the Cathedral of Brasilia or the Rothko Chapel is a thin place. As is laughing at Frank Gehry’s Dancing House or the nuttiness of Habitat 67. Sometimes I’ve stumbled upon thin places in great architecture. Like finding the SR Crown Hall in Chicago. I hadn’t expected to be so touched by it’s elegance and simplicity. Other times, I’ve gone looking for a certain building, knowing it is famed for its transcendence, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Some of the buildings listed here I see every day. Some,

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Was Christ sexually assaulted?

Was Christ sexually assaulted?

Catholic blogger, Mary Pezzulo stirred up a bit of controversy this Lent when she published, Was Jesus Really Sexually Abused?  I must admit, it was a question that hadn’t even crossed my mind before. Pezzulo’s basis for raising it comes from both a reading of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion as well as historical research into the torturous methods of the Romans. Pezzulo wrote, “The ancient Romans were, as a culture, sadistic. They got off on hurting and humiliating people. And a gang of sadistic Roman soldiers ripped a Man’s clothes off and whipped Him while He was stark naked, then they forcibly dressed Him in a humiliating costume, beat Him up again, ripped the costume off, and threw His own clothes back on Him. That’s sexual abuse.” Some of her readers pushed back on this. They agreed it was abusive behavior, but questioned whether his forced public nakedness constituted sexual abuse. Pezzulo countered with, “Pretend it’s the first time you’ve heard that story.” And when you do try to imagine encountering it for the first time, being forcibly disrobed and mocked certainly has the elements of a sexual assault. But Mary Pezzulo lost a lot of readers when she pushed her argument even further, speculating on what she claimed was standard operating procedure for those brutish Romans. She began

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Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

In my previous post I mentioned I’m spending Lent meditating on Andrea Mantegna’s astonishing Renaissance painting, The Lamentation of the Christ, also known as The Dead Christ. This week in particular, as I’ve been contemplating it, I find my eyes drawn again and again to Mantegna’s depiction of Jesus’ feet. When you think about it, not many artists concern themselves with the soles of Christ’s feet. We get lots of pictures of his sandaled feet. And plenty of pictures of his feet anchored to the cross with nails as thick as your thumb. But not the soles. Which is odd really. I mean, this is the man who called people to follow him, to walk in his footsteps. You’d think we’d be more familiar with the feet of the one we’re trying to emulate. Alongside my reflections on this painting, I have been re-reading John’s Gospel. This week, I came to the lengthy conversation Jesus has with his disciples while sharing the Passover feast on the eve of his arrest and trial. The feast begins with Jesus performing the scandalous duty of washing his disciples’ feet, a necessary and routine practice, but one never undertaken by a teacher or master to his followers. Peter voices the feelings of all the disciples when he recoils in horror and says, “No, you

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A month with the Dead Christ

A month with the Dead Christ

I’m going to spend 40 days sitting with the dead Christ. I was inspired by one of my teachers telling me he spent every day in Lent contemplating a single image, Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Spending forty days sitting with Dali’s God’s eye view of the crucifixion, running his eye down the length of Christ’s cross-anchored body to the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, centered my professor on the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God the father. So I’m trying the same thing this year, but with a different painting, although one that takes a no less unlikely perspective on the Easter story. Andrea Mantegna was a Renaissance master from Padua in northern Italy. Some time in the 1480s he painted The Lamentation of Christ (also known more bluntly as The Dead Christ). It’s an Easter composition unlike any other. Mantegna’s perspective is so rare, it takes us aback. Christ doesn’t writhe in agony on the cross. He’s not wracked with anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. He doesn’t stand blood-soaked and humiliated before us, a crown of thorns gouging his head, a garish robe of red around his stooped shoulders. We are accustomed to all these views. In Mantegna’s vision, Christ is dead. He’s like stone. Like the marble slab upon which

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The Best Films of 2018 (for people who want to grow in their soul)

The Best Films of 2018 (for people who want to grow in their soul)

“Some people want to grow in their souls. Film must start to take that seriously. We must stop telling them stories they can understand.” – Howard Barker   There were some great movies released in 2018. Black Panther managed to break box office records and represent the African (American) experience unlike any film in recent memory. Isle of Dogs and Game Night were enjoyable diversions. The Coen Brothers’ foray into Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was terrific. As were American Animals and Roma. But a surprising number of really good films in 2018 addressed really big themes. Themes like love, injustice, white supremacy, religious faith, hope and despair, death and grief. These are the kinds of things some people go to the theater to avoid. But as film writer Howard Barker notes, some moviegoers like films that expand their souls. They don’t necessarily want easy-to-understand fare, and are willing to watch less mainstream films that address important issues. So, here’s five of my favorite soul-growing films of the year and the themes they address:   1. SWEET COUNTRY Theme: INJUSTICE “Sweet Country is Old Testament cinema, with an almost biblical starkness in its cruelty and mysterious beauty, set in a burning plain where it looks as if the sun-bleached jawbone of an ass could at any moment be picked up and

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Four paintings for the four weeks of Advent

Four paintings for the four weeks of Advent

It will soon be Advent, the most beautiful of church seasons, celebrated over the four Sundays preceding Christmas. You might not be part of a liturgical church tradition, but marking each Sunday with a reading and the lighting of a candle can be a rich way to prepare yourself, your family, your congregation for the true meaning of Christmas amidst all the tinsel and commercialism of the season. You might like to use these four paintings, each from different eras, as stimulus for thinking about the well-known story. Here’s how you might do it: Light the candle (you’ll need three purple and one rose candle, and a white one for Christmas). Read the Bible text. Take time to examine the picture. Read the reflection below each picture. This could be done in your Sunday service, or around the family meal table, or as a personal devotional practice. I hope this small resource helps to focus your heart and soul on the true things of Christmas – hope, faith, joy and peace – and forms a brief respite from shopping mall Santas and Jingle Bells and gluttony and avarice. Oh, and merry Christmas. __________________________________________ WEEK 1 — HOPE Light the Prophets’ Candle (purple), symbolizing hope Reading:  Luke 1:26–38 Artwork:  The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner  (1859-1937) In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of

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We can all use a little upgrade

We can all use a little upgrade

This week I saw Leigh Whannell’s new film, Upgrade, a sci-fi horror film that really got me thinking about the nature of Christian discipleship. The movie introduces us to Grey Trace, a bit of an everyman, an old-school car mechanic who loves his wife Asha and distrusts all this new-fangled technology (the action takes place slightly in the future so there’s some cool gadgets on display). When Asha is murdered and he is left a quadriplegic in a vicious gang attack, Grey finds himself confined to a wheelchair seething with desire to track down his wife’s killers but unable to do anything about it. He is approached by Eron, a world-renowned tech genius (with very limited social skills, you know the kind by now) who explains that his company has developed a stop secret, biomechanical enhancement, a beetle-like computer chip, that when implanted in a person’s spinal column can send signals from the brain to the body. Eron calls it Stem, and says he’s willing to trial it on Grey. Stem, he promises, can “bridge the gap between brain and limbs.” It can restore the life that’s been taken from Grey. And sure enough, with Stem implanted in his neck, Grey can walk and move freely. But there’s a catch. Stem can not only interpret brain signals and convey messages

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Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Remember that line in Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, when the protagonist tells his visitor, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Can stories really do that? And if they can, shouldn’t film have even more chance to convey belief in God, given the visceral impact they can have? So, which films would you recommend as those most likely to make someone believe in God? My mind went immediately to films about people struggling with their faith, like Black Narcissus (1947) or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), all masterpieces of religious-themed cinema. But in each of these cases, the viewer is invited to observe the characters’ tenuous hold on faith. Would they make someone believe in God? Any film that could evoke a sense of God’s presence would have to be extremely challenging one, the kind of visual experience that demands much of the viewer. I mean, God is worthy of our undivided attention, right? We’re not talking about Bruce Almighty (2003) or The Shack (2011) here. So, here are three admittedly extremely challenging films that I think could at least help you believe in God.   TREE OF LIFE (2011) Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Tree of Life is a film like no other. It

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