Saturday, March 15, 2014

Filming the Gospels

Pastor Ron Gleason invited me, or challenged me (as the case may be) to engage his argument against movies about Jesus (or "pictures of Jesus"):

Before delving in to the specifics, I'd like to make three general observations:

i) Actor Alec McCowen pioneered solo performances of Mark's Gospel. Other actors like Max McLean and Lance Pierson have followed his lead. You also have amateur solo performances of Mark. 

Does Pastor Gleason think a one-man performance of Mark's Gospel violates the 2nd commandment? If so, how is that essentially different from the public reading of Mark's Gospel in church? If not, how is that essentially different from filming Mark's Gospel?  

ii) There are different ways to make a movie about Jesus. One way is for a screenwriter to produce a pastiche of two or more Gospels. These will include many things from the Gospels as well as excluding many things from the Gospels. I think that's the least satisfactory way to make a movie about Jesus.

Yet another way is to focus on a particular part of the Gospel. A particular phase of Christ's life. LIke his passion, death, and resurrection. 

Yet another way is to film an entire canonical Gospel. You preserve the Gospel intact. There is still the challenge of translating one medium into another medium. One issue is what to do with the narrator. One solution is to reassign the narrator's statements to various characters in the film. Likewise, some narrative descriptions about the time and place would be replaced by showing the event. 

I think filming each Gospel is a better way of making a movie about Jesus. I don't know how long a filmed version of Matthew, Luke, or John would be. There are some very long movies, like Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind–not to mention Bondarchuk's 8-hour version of War and Peace.

However, assuming it's too long for one sitting, it could be a two-part miniseries. 

iii) A basic problem I have with Pastor Gleason's case is the absence of a consistent principle. He will begin by stating a principled objection to movies about Jesus. Or so it seems. But later he will qualify his objection. Yet in that case, he's rescinded the original principle and substituted a different principle. Indeed, a contrary principle. When the dust settles, it's hard to make out what's left of his original argument. He keeps switching principles. You can see what I mean as we proceed. 

iv) Due to the rambling nature of Pastor Gleason's case, it's difficult to know where exactly to begin. I've excerpted what I take to be his key arguments. 

The Passion, Son of God, or any film that attempts to depict or portray Christ faces the impossible task of manifesting Christ’s divine nature. 

That raise's some questions. How did Jesus manifest his deity during his public ministry? How do the Gospels manifest his deity? In a variety of ways. Statements Jesus makes about himself or his relation to the Father. Statements the narrator makes about Jesus. Statements made to Jesus or about Jesus by disciples, seekers, enemies, angels, demons, the Father, and the Devil. Various actions of Jesus, like performing miracles or forgiving sins. Showing how Jesus fulfills OT motifs about the coming of Yahweh.

A filmed Gospel will manifest the deity of Christ in pretty much the the same way as the Gospel it films. It's just a different medium. And it's easy to exaggerate the differences. For a filmed Gospel can contain all the same words as Gospel it films. To that great extent, it's the very same medium. A largely verbal medium with visuals. 

Pastor Gleason doesn't seem to take much effort to answer the question he asked. It isn't hard to answer if you give it much thought.

v) But as far as that goes, does every sermon manifest the deity of Christ? Don't most orthodox sermons about Jesus treat his deity as a presupposition? Every sermon about Jesus isn't making a case for the deity of Christ. 

It makes no difference if the movie is Mel Gibson’s The Passion, the upcoming Son of God, or any other effort to show the world what happened to Jesus, the audience only receives a bit of biography. 

"A bit of biography." You mean, like this:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:30-31).

Of course, Hollywood is smart enough to throw in a smattering of biblical references, which are tantamount to throwing a bone to the evangelical community. 

If a director films one of the four Gospels, from start to finish, is that just a "smattering of biblical references"? 

The cinematography might well be exquisite, the actors might play their roles flawlessly, and the biography might be more or less accurate, but at the very best the audience receives only part of the story. In fact, the most important part of the story cannot be told because “What is omitted is the meaning of the event.”7 

If a director films one of the four Gospels, including the dialogue and narrative exposition or commentary, how does such a film omit the meaning of the event? Once again, Pastor Gleason doesn't seem to be making much effort to anticipate obvious counterexamples to his objections. 

Now a word especially to my P.C.A. colleagues: An investigation of the Reformation and Puritan literature will not produce pastors who would consider taking an exception to the second commandment.

That tendentiously assumes that a movie about Jesus violates the 2nd commandment. Yet that's the very issue in dispute. 

Packer’s second reason against the use of various images is that “Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God.”

But the Bible and Bible history contain images of God. Take theophanies. Take visions of God. If, in principle, images of God mislead us by conveying false ideas about God, then the Bible conveys false ideas about God through theophanies and visions of God. 

Pastor Gleason will attempt to address this counterargument further down. But to do so, he must weaken (indeed, sacrifice) the original principle. 

[Packer]: “To make an image of God is to take one’s thoughts of him from a human source, rather than from God himself; and this is precisely what is wrong with image-making.” The last quotation rings true concerning The Passion of the Christ and it will also be true of the upcoming film Son of God. It is true of all movies attempting somehow to depict the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

Is that a fact? Describing the baptism of Christ, the Gospels say the Spirit of God descended on Christ in the form of a dove. If a filmmaker depicts that scene, is he taking that image "from a human source, rather than from God himself"? Isn't it just the opposite? He's taking that image straight from the Gospels. 

Once again, why do men like Packer and Gleason overlook such obvious counterexamples to their strictures? Why don't they stop to consider if there aren't clear exceptions to their claims? They seem to be so conditioned by a traditional way of framing the issue that they view the issue through that prism rather than looking directly at Biblical examples to the contrary. 

The prominent reason given why God’s people were not to make images of people, animals, or the celestial lights is precisely that they saw “no form” on the day the Lord spoke to them.

Yet that objection is clearly too topical, for God does project a "form" on many other occasions, viz. visions and theophanies. 

Baal was worshiped in the form of a bull, a symbol of power...Every Israelite knew that Yahweh was invisible. If they had paused and thought about it for a moment they would have had to have concluded that if Yahweh is invisible, what happens when you look at the Dan and Bethel bulls?

Is filming one of the canonical Gospels equivalent to depicting God in the form of a bull? On the face of it, the comparison is so disanalogous that it's hard to detect any relevant parallel. If he weren't serious, it would be a parody. Certainly Pastor Gleason will have to flesh out the argument. 

After all, so the argument runs, Jesus took on a true humanity and people in his day saw him and touched him. They knew what he looked like. If we had had cameras, people could have taken pictures. Yes, if we had had them we could have, but we did not, did we? Few pause to reflect adequately on why the Lord God Almighty in his infinite wisdom chose not to have cameras during the Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry. Now no one knows and we are left not to know. It is that simple. Live with it.

Is it that simple? Or is that grossly simplistic? The existence of cameras presumes a certain level of technological development. It's not as if you're going to have an artifact of 20C technology embedded in a 1C culture. 

We raised an interesting point in the previous section that we need to address here. The “theophanies” (appearances of God in human or angelic form in the Old Testament) as well as the various dreams and visions were part of God’s sovereignty as he dealt with his people in the unfolding of the history of redemption. This translates into the fact that “God reserves for Himself alone the right to express and produce the images of Himself before which men must worship, through which men must conceive Him, to which men must respond in obedience to His own initiative in seeking fellowship with them.”94 It is crucial and essential that we take due note of the fact that it is God who decides when and how he will appear in a particular theophany. We also need to note that such theophanies were not commonplace, but occurred only at very special times.

i) Now he's shifting to a different argument, at the expense of his original argument. He's no longer contending that, as a matter of principle, images of God are false. He has to retract his categorical objection. 

ii) His new argument introduces a different principle: images of God are permissible so long as God produces the image. So he's conceded that, in principle, images of God are permissible. The real principle isn't whether to depict God, but who depicts God. 

iii) He adds the further caveat "that such theophanies were not commonplace, but occurred only at very special times." However, that's not a categorical distinction. That's a difference of degree rather than kind. 

iv) Finally, suppose we grant his new argument. If a director films one of the Gospels, he is reproducing the imagery that God produces of himself. It's a cinematic record of how God expresses himself in the Gospels. So how does that violate the essential principle? From start to finish, a canonical Gospel supplies the point of reference. 

Again, modern evangelicals view what transpires in the Lord’s Supper as a mere memorial event. As Presbyterian and Reformed, however, we believe the real presence of Christ in the Holy Meal through the agency of the Holy Spirit, who takes everything from the risen and ascended Lord and imparts that unto our hungry and thirsty souls unto eternal life. 

Is Pastor Gleason excluding Zwingli from the company of the truly Reformed? 

Does the New Testament not tell us that Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (cf. Col. 1:15)? In addition, Hebrews 1:3 reminds us that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature. When we combine this with the well-known verse in John’s gospel that states that the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and Jesus’ own words declaring that he who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9), do we not have some kind of license to portray Jesus since he was a man? By way of reminder, David Wells makes a solid and cogent case against such things in his distinction between the crucifixion and the cross.97 Recall that Wells argued against dramatic presentations of Christ’s life and death, such as on TV and in movies, because, he asserted they “so often miss the point. They give us the crucifixion, not the cross.... It leaves us with only a biographical Christ, who may be interesting, but not with the eternal Christ whom we need for our salvation.”98

If a director films one of the four canonical Gospels, how is a filmed Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John "only a biographical Christ" whereas the Gospel it films is not "only a biographical Christ"? On the face of it, Gleason and Wells are arbitrarily dichotomizing the two media. 

The age-old problem of a painting of Christ is that we really don’t know what he looked like. Even if we did, how would the artist capture the godhead of Jesus in a painting? What would a portrait of grace, covenant, and forgiveness look like? With all due respect, a painted halo just does not hack it. It is insufficient, especially in light of the fact that halos are often painted over the heads of, say, Paul and Peter. When the time had fully come (Gal. 4:4) Scripture teaches us, God sent forth his Son. In that time, there were no cameras—digital or otherwise—and no portrait of Jesus has survived—I believe for very good reasons. I truly believe if such a painting were in our possession we would become even worse idolaters than we already are—if that’s possible.

This raises a number of issues:

i) Even if a painting of Christ may fail to "capture the godhead of Jesus," how does it follow that a filmed Gospel will fail to capture the godhead of Jesus? A filmed Gospel doesn't rely on halos. 

ii) Are theophanies and visions of God representational? Does God really look like the figure in Isa 6? Isn't that deliberately anthropomorphic? If Pastor Gleason is making resemblance or correspondence the condition of a true image, then Biblical images of God misrepresent God, for God isn't a physical being. 

iii) This exposes an equivocation or paradox in the Puritan objection. If the "age-old problem of a painting of Christ is that we really don’t know what he looked like," then is he objecting to a picture of Jesus because it is not a picture of Jesus? If so, what's objectionable to not depicting Jesus? After all, Puritans think it's wrong to depict Jesus. But if they think paintings of Jesus fail to depict Jesus, because we don't know what he looked like, then the painter isn't guilty of depicting Jesus. Does that mean he's guilty of not depicting Jesus? But according to Puritans, we're not supposed to depict Jesus. In that event, can't the painter plead innocent? "I wasn't depicting Jesus. You admit I wasn't depicting Jesus."

iv) What makes a "picture of Jesus" a picture of Jesus? What makes it about him? Suppose St. John had a Kodak. Suppose he snapped a picture of Jesus feeding the five thousand. What makes that a photograph of Jesus?

a) One explanation might involve a correspondence theory of truth. The photographic image resembles Jesus. It looks just like Jesus–from that angle, distance, lighting. 

b) Another explanation might be the act of photographing Jesus. On our hypothetical, this was taken of Jesus, where he was at the time, when he was feeding the five thousand. The camera captures the historical event. A snapshot of the actual incident. A direct, visual record in real time. 

But a painting of Jesus isn't a picture of Jesus in either sense. Rather, it's a representation of Jesus. 

v) Apropos (iv), an actor who plays Jesus in a filmed Gospel represents Jesus. Does that violate the 2nd commandment? If so, how so?

To revisit my earlier example, if actor gives a live performance of Mark's Gospel, does that violate the 2nd commandment? Is reciting statements Jesus made in the Gospels a violation of the 2nd commandment? Suppose you were to film the performance. Would that violate the 2nd commandment?

What's the essential difference between an actor in a business suit performing Mark's Gospel on stage (or in church), and an actor in period dress reciting lines from the Gospel in front of a cameraman? What makes the difference, if any? The beard? The robes? The sandals? 

vi) Finally, let's consider a painting. Take Da Vinci's "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne." This depicts the Christchild playing with a lamb. But what makes that a painting about Jesus? 

a) One explanation might be artistic intent. Da Vinci intended the child to represent Christ. Christ is the willed referent

Even if we accept that explanation, it means the identification is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. The painter assigns that religious referent to the child.

b) But there's a further complication. Recognizing that the child represents Jesus requires some knowledge of traditional European art on the part of the viewer. You could show that painting to millions of people, many of whom would fail to appreciate the religious significance of the portrayal. It wouldn't be a painting about Jesus for them, because they lack the requisite background knowledge to discern the intended referent. 

So it's relative to both the painter and the viewer. Even if you think paintings like this are idolatrous, for whom are they idolatrous? For whom do they violate the 2nd commandment? 

Consider different kinds of viewers. A devout Catholic. An atheist. A disapproving Puritan. Someone who doesn't even understand the painting. A Christian who admires the painting without "worshipping" the depiction. 

God tells us what is acceptable worship of him and in his love for his people he has made ample provision for the image he has given us in Christ. This obviously begs the question: Which image has he given to us? The answer is: An analogous image to what we find in the Old Testament. There, Yahweh gave his Word, Circumcision, and Passover. In the New Testament, he gives his Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The continuity between the Old and New Testaments, which has been the mainstay of Presbyterian and Reformed theologians down through the centuries, retains the prohibition to making images and representations of the Lord. The Ten Commandments are still in effect for the believer.

i) Sacraments aren't the only images God gave us. 

ii) How is watching a movie about Jesus equivalent to "worship"? 

First, he argues, whoever attempts to make an image or likeness of God denies his freedom.108 This approach is tantamount to man’s effort to eradicate the Creator/creature distinction. In Douma’s words, “An image attempts to make the Incomprehensible comprehensible.”109 It is also an attempt to make the Incomprehensible God comprehensible to man—on man’s terms. Man makes God in man’s image and suddenly God takes on man’s attributes, likes, dislikes, and propensities. The Creator ends up acting, thinking, and speaking very much like the one who fashioned the image—whether the image is actually in physical form or in man’s imagination.

How does that characterization accurately characterize a filmed Gospel? 

The second reason Douma offers next to God’s freedom is his majesty.112 Another way of saying this is God’s sovereignty or transcendence. When the Lord thundered from Sinai, the Israelites saw no form but heard the terrifying voice (Deut. 4:11). In that same fourth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy Moses gives a summary of what happens to people who abandon following God’s plan and strike out on their own to fashion/imagine gods after man’s image, which is simply disobedience.

Once again, how does that characterization accurately characterize a filmed Gospel? 

Making images—any image—is a slap in the face to God. Why? Simply because, “The love that Yahweh bestows is despised. Instead of receiving life as a covenantal gift, people seek by means of serving images to secure life for themselves.”129

Why is there any reason to think that bit of armchair psychoanalysis is accurate? 

The problem is that modern Christians would rather get a “quick fix” at the movie theater or from a CD instead of being fed from the solid preaching of the Word. 

Why does Pastor Gleason deem it appropriate to libel millions of Christians he never met? How does he know what motivates them all? 

We justify making “innocent” images that are supposed to be helpful to and for our covenant children. Would it not be far more fruitful and productive to spend time catechizing our youth rather than providing images for them when they are young? Do we not realize that a time will come when our children become more conversant with Scripture that they, too, will question the propriety of images? 

Is he suggesting the catechism is a substitute for a chlldren's Bible? Should we not give our younger kids a children's Bible? Should we catechize them instead? 

First, the Law of God is still relevant and applicable for the New Testament Church. What Yahweh commanded in the Old Testament still applies for the New Testament saints.

There's some truth to this although it's clearly overstated. Surely Pastor Gleason would limit that to the "moral law" or "general equity." 

Second, New Testament Christians are still prohibited from making any image of the deity— even in a movie or in art. The reason is that it is impossible for any artist to depict the godhead or spiritual matters, but more importantly, no matter how necessary or essential we might believe a movie to be, God has said “No.” That ought to be more than sufficient for us.

Why assume the justification for filming a Gospel is because that's "necessary" or "essential"? Does Pastor Gleason think Christians are only allowed to do what's necessary or essential? 


  1. Sorry to ask a tangential question, but the Lord's Supper and Zwingli came up- do you know of any particularly good expositions and defenses of the memorialist view of the Lord's Supper (or have you perhaps written any)? Especially in contrast to the Calvinian view.

    1. I've written a number under the label "sacramentalism."