A Liturgy, A Legacy: Why I Study Jesus Films


It’s always interesting to talk to people about why I study Jesus films. Beyond the pure cinematic interest, for me, there are two threads that run through the study of Jesus films: The historical and the liturgical.

I started out with the historical. My goal in seeing and studying Jesus films was to view them for their historical veracity. I’ve always been keenly interested in understanding as closely as possible what Jesus and his world were like.

I can remember getting into the car with my dad on a night when Jesus of Nazareth was playing on Television, asking him if what I saw depicted in the film was what things were really like in Jesus’ time. I wondered just how accurately we could know how people dressed, what they looked like, what the buildings were like, what people said and did. My dad tried his best to explain to me as a little kid how long ago those events took place and how difficult it was to know many things for certain. There were things we did know, but others we didn’t. I immediately became interested in the space between – the gaps left by history and filled in various forms by fiction in the films about Jesus. I wanted to know what belonged in those gaps as definitely as possible.

Jesus films became a doorway into history, as I felt that the goal of each film must be to try to reproduce as accurately as possible what the best research was telling us life was really like for Jesus and the Twelve. Of course, I learned that was not the case. I soon realized that there was at least as much invention as research that went into these films – often more. I was somewhat disappointed by this revelation. If these films weren’t aiming for historical fidelity, what was the point?

Wilem Dafoe as Jesus in ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’

It was The Last Temptation of Christ that changed my perspective and showed me a new way to view these films – and a new reason to study them. Last Temptation was the most intentionally and unapologetically fictional portrayal of the life of Christ I’d ever seen, yet it was undeniably moving on a very deep level.

Once I got beyond my initial cognitive dissonance as I tried to reconcile the historical and fictional elements of the film, I began to realize why it affected me so strongly. The questions the film raised, the sacredness of time and place that it expressed, even as it showed me a messier, guts-and-sinew version of the Biblical world, were not about history. They were a liturgy.

When we think of liturgy, we often think of church buildings filled with incense, robes and candles. We think of ancient rituals like Communion, Advent and Lent. And those are indeed liturgical things. Their purpose is to engage us in an activity that captivates our senses and involves us in a tangible re-enactment of the Gospel and its principle concepts – like Grace, Atonement and Repentance.

We are probably already familiar with these stories and concepts when we engage in liturgy. But liturgy does something for us that we desperately need as humans. It reminds us of what we already know. Liturgy is a remembering – a re-membering – that is, a reconstitution of parts into a whole. It takes the elements with which we are familiar and reassembles, or re-collects, them in a new way in order to keep our forgetful minds and hearts freshly engaged with the most important of truths.

Jesus films can do that too. As I watched The Last Temptation of Christ over and over and learned more about it, I began to realize that it wasn’t a bad thing that many details were not historically accurate. In fact, it was essential to director Martin Scorsese’s purpose. What the film was doing was taking symbols and theological concepts I was familiar with and re-membering them – reassembling them and re-imagining them in new and even shocking ways. In so doing, it took the Gospel out of a comfortable context and made it once again unsettling, once again challenging and transformative.

I then began to look for this liturgical element in other Jesus films and found it ever-present, for each film is a unique vision of the Gospel that engages the viewer in remembering again. From the stark cinema verite of Il Vangelo Secondo Mateo causing the words of Christ to ring in an unadorned and almost maddeningly uncompromising fashion in my ears to Son of Man, which asks if we would truly accept a Jesus who appeared as insane, yet undeniably compelling to us as he did to many of his contemporaries, I’ve found in Jesus films endless opportunities for challenging, liturgical viewing.

Certainly The Passion of the Christ was intended and experienced by millions as a worshipful theatrical event, newly acquainting us with the harsh brutality and moving beauty of an old, old story with which we’d become a bit too comfortable. Similarly, Bruce Marchiano’s daringly joyous and emotionally expressive portrayal of Christ in The Visual Bible’s Matthew has been brought into countless homes as an oft-repeated meditation on the deep love of God.

‘The LIfe and Passion of Jesus Christ,’ Circa 1905

Over one hundred-ten years have passed since the first cinematic representation of Jesus was filmed. So, again the historical thread of Jesus film studies comes into view. For now we have a liturgical history before us, a record of people’s attempts to express and understand Christ through the medium of the cinema. Learning more about Jesus films helps us to appreciate the many different ways in which people are affected by and attempt to connect with Christ.

Our church liturgies connect us, not only with the Gospel itself, but also with the generations of believers who have gone before us and have sought out these same mysteries through these same engagements of the senses. In the same way, the liturgy of the Jesus film can connect us with the history of modern humanity’s quest to understand God. These films are a liturgy and a legacy – of the Gospel, of Christ and of our striving to know him and make him known.

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