Monday, February 24, 2014

A book, not a movie

Some Christians are taking preemptive strikes at the upcoming Son of God movie. Some of them trot out the Puritan objection to images of Jesus. There's nothing wrong with raising this issue. However, it gets to be tedious. Critics who raise the Puritan objection always act as if no one has heard that argument before. 

I'd also like to comment on a post by Tim Challies:

i) I agree with him that a movie is not substitute for Scripture. I agree with him that the way Gibson's film was promoted by some churches represents misplaced resources and misplaced priorities.

ii) He mentions a survey by George Barna which indicated that the evangelistic impact of Gibson's film was negligible. It might be useful to speculate what that's the case.

a) For one thing, I assume it was mainly Westerners who saw his film. Most of us have grown up with movies and TV dramas. Many of us have seen thousands of movies and TV dramas (or episodes thereof). Given our saturation exposure to the cinematic medium, it's very hard for any one film to have a dramatic impact. It's diluted by the competition. The sheer volume. 

b) Moreover, most of the films and TV dramas we watch are fictional. I think that conditions us detach it from reality. Even for films "based on a true story," you have to consciously remind yourself that it has a historical basis. And, for most of us, films are entertainment. If, when you watch a film, you're saying to yourself, "This is based on a true story," then the film is an artistic failure inasmuch as you should be able to forget that you're watching a film. It's supposed to draw you into the illusion. 

To make the same point differently, compare Tombstone to The Unforgiven. The former has a historical basis (no doubt artistic liberties were taken) whereas the latter is imaginary. yet watching one doesn't feel any different from watching the other. The Unforgiven doesn't feel less real than Tombstone. So films have that leveling affect.

c) Finally, what makes the passion of Christ theologically significant is not merely the raw event, but the theological interpretation of the event. God's intent behind the event. 

That's why the Gospels are, in large part, a long preamble to the passion of Christ. That provides the theological context. That lays the foundation for what makes the suffering and death of Christ theologically significant.

Otherwise, just watching a reenactment of his death isn't essentially different from watching J. B. Books die in The Shootist. The significance of Christ's suffering and death depends on who he is, the nature of sin, penal substitution, and so forth. 

Because Gibson is Roman Catholic, the passion of Christ for him is like the Mass. That's the main event. 

Challies then says:

The first caution is that The Passion caused us to look away from Scripture. This is ironic, of course, since The Passion was based on Scripture (plus a bit of imagination and a dash of Roman Catholic tradition). The fact is, though, that God saw fit to give us the Bible written, not displayed. He chose to give us a book, not a film.
That's catchy, but overstated:
i) It's a false dichotomy. Although we tend to classify film as a visual medium, most films also have a thing called dialogue. A script as well as a plot. They aren't just pictures in motion.
Films about Jesus can, and usually do, contain extensive quotes from the Gospels. Speeches and dialogues.
ii) At the risk of stating the obvious, it's anachronistic to say God gave us a book rather than a film. The technology didn't exist back then.
Moreover, although it's possible for God to jump-start technology, you really can't have, say, a film crew shooting Pharaoh's charioteers pursing the Israelites. That's because, in a world where cameras, movie theaters, and dvd players exist, you wouldn't have charioteers to film. Everything would be up-to-date.  That entails an alternate timeline. An alternate past and future. Retrojecting modem technology into the past demands corresponding socioeconomic readjustments across the board.
iii) From what I've read, The Jesus Film has been an effective tool in foreign missions. Because film is a mass medium, where one film can reach an audience of hundreds or thousands, it can have a penetration that Bibles don't. It's the difference between a one-to-one medium (one Bible per reader) and a one-to-many medium (one movie to many viewers). 
Keep in mind, too, rates of illiteracy in some parts of the third world. 
Finally, it can be easier (as well as more cost-effective) to smuggle a dvd into a closed society than a truck full of Bibles. 
The Jesus Film needs to be supplemented with discipleship. But it's somewhat idealistic, if not elitist, to think missionaries necessarily have the financial wherewithal, or gov't approval, to make Bibles available to everyone. 
The Jesus Film may be more effective if some unreached people-groups in the third world have less exposure to film than we do. We so jaded by watching so many movies and TV dramas–most of which are fictional to begin with.
I'm not commenting on the quality or orthodoxy of the Son of God film, since I haven't seen it or read reviews.


  1. Sorry, but what's being argued in this post? That some films about Jesus may not be devoid of merit (artistic, evangelistic, or other)?

  2. iii) From what I've read, The Jesus Film has been an effective tool in foreign missions.

    Exactly. Also, the children's cartoon shows made in the 1980s SuperBook and The Flying House seem to have sown seeds in the hearts of millions of children around the world on all (or most) of the 7 continents.

  3. From what I remember from the TV series episodes with Jesus in:

    The Good- the representation of some of the dominical miracles, high production values.

    The Bad- lots of complex characters like Thomas or Nicodemus become pastiches. Jesus himself is reduced from 3D to 2 or 1D. Perpetuates a mythical (rather than Biblical) version of the Nativity. The resurrection becomes an almost ethereal event with the lighting.

    The Absurd- one can't help but notice that Jesus is a white Iberian whilst the unbelieving Pharisee archetype looks stereotypically Jewish. Paul somehow composes 1 Cor 13 extemporaneously.

    1. Agreed.

      Hopefully, the new computer generated 21t century version of SuperBook will continue to plant seeds in the heart of children (and adults) everywhere.

  4. "He mentions a survey by George Barna which indicated that the evangelistic impact of Gibson's film was negligible."

    But this is narrow-sighted on his end. First, there's no distinction between what's usually dubbed "pre-evangelism." Was that impact negligible? Second, what of the value in "reviving" one's faith? Perhaps the movie caused a sizable portion of "luke-warm" Christians to reignite their faith, they became more active in their church and their home. Perhaps they became apologists or evangelists (or both). The film would then have a "delayed" evangelistic impact.