Monday, March 10, 2014

Playing Jesus

I'm going to comment on this post:

Are Christians going to a Jesus movie merely to get a glimpse of the Lord’s humanity, or are they looking to be spiritually edified by a visual depiction of the God-man?

Speaking for myself, I watch a movie about Christ out of curiosity regarding the director's artistic interpretation, as well as the actor's artistic interpretation. In the respect it's not essentially different from reading a sermon about Jesus to experience the preacher's theological interpretation of Jesus. 

Added to this, an actor, no matter how good, cannot help but project his own personality (blended with a scripted personality) onto the screen. He cannot portray the personality of another perfectly - let alone the personality of the Second Person of the Trinity even approximately! Therefore, the actor who would dare play the Christ cannot but project a false image of God even if he sticks to the written script of Scripture. It’s not as though verbal tone and body language do not proceed from personality. 

As far as that goes, the gospel writer is, to some extent, projecting his own personality. That's part of the organic theory of inspiration, championed by Warfield. Commentators have often noted how the voice of the narrator blends with the voice of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Sometimes they're indistinguishable. 

Also, to say it's "false" is misleading. There's no reasonable expectation that an actor's portrayal of a historical figure will be identical with figure he portrays. We make that mental distinction at the outset. At least we ought to. 

What possibly intrigues me most in all of this is that when I watch a good movie I have no problem suspending my beliefs so that the actor may “become” for me the character. So, Al Pacino becomes The Don and Anthony Hopkins becomes C.S. Lewis. No sin there I trust. Do Christians do the same when watching Jesus movies? I would think not. I certainly hope not! Christians are to be on their guard because they should realize that the actor will not be faithful to the Second Person. We don’t know Jesus’ facial expressions, etc. but such expressions often speak a thousand words. Are those words consistent with the Son of God? More to the point, are they His words? If not, then how are movies such as this not putting words in God’s mouth?

That raises a number of issues which demand further distinctions:

i) Great actors find themselves in an ironic position. Once you gain a reputation as a great actor, people watch you to see what you will do with the character. It's harder to forget the actor and get into the character. 

ii) We need to distinguish between playing fictional characters and historical figures. And that requires further distinctions:

iii) Sometimes a director will film a fictional book. Say, film the Chronicles of Narnia. If you read the book first, then you have a preconception of the characters. You already imagined the characters in your own head. And you compare your preconception with the film. Often, you will judge the cinematic adaptation to be a success or failure depending on how it jives with your preconception. So we frequently bring that critical detachment to viewing a fictional character.

iv) Then you have fictional characters who only exist in film. The screenwriter created the character. The viewer's first introduction to the character is through the actor. In that respect we make less mental separation between the actor and the character, because we have no independent frame of reference. Of course, if the actor has done other memorable performances, then we don't exclusively associate the actor with that particular part. But some actors become typecast when, early in their career, their performance of a particular character is iconic or unforgettable. 

v) Then you have historical figures. That ranges along a continuum. In some cases it's difficult to distinguish between fact and legend. And many of them lived before the advent of photography. We don't know what they looked like or sounded like. In that respect they have a more fictional quality, because our imagination fills in so many biographical details. 

Then you have historical figures whose lives were in some degree captured on news reels, talk shows, &c. Their voice was recorded. They were photographed. 

That creates more potential to compare and contrast the actor with the historical figure he portrays. The extent to which the viewer draws that comparison depends on other factors. If, say, you're old enough to remember Eisenhower, then you can mentally compare Tom Selleck's performance with your personal recollection of Eisenhower from televised speeches, press conferences, &c. Or, if you're a presidential history buff, you may have watched news footage of Ike.

On the other hand, many viewers who were born after the historical figure passed from the scene don't have that frame of reference. 

vi) Jesus has been portrayed by so many different actors that we don't associate Jesus with any one actor's performance the way we associate Patton with Scott's performance. Speaking for myself, when I think of George S. Patton, I think of George C. Scott. But when I think of Jesus, I don't think of Max von Sydow, Enrique Irazoqui, Robert Powell, Willem Dafoe, Jim Caviezel, Henry Ian Cusick et al. That's not the first thing that pops into my head. 

vii) Finally, when we read the Gospels, isn't there a sense in which all of us sit in the director's chair? Isn't there a sense in which we play all the parts? By that I mean, isn't it natural for reader's to visualize narrative descriptions? When you read about Jesus cleansing the temple or feeding the multitudes, do you never imagine that scene?

Likewise, take silent reading (subvocalization, inner vocalization, implicit speech). There's a simulated voice in my head reciting the lines. An inner actor who's voicing what Jesus says. And it's in my own voice. I supply the accent, the inflections, the tone. In that sense, every Christian plays Jesus when he reads the Gospels. Every Christian is hearing Jesus, in his own mind, speak those words, as the Christian himself would speak them if he were reading aloud.     

Likewise, what about the public reading of the Gospels in church? The lector will supply the verbal tone and facial expressions. And if he's a skilled reader, it will be a vivid enactment.   


  1. I'd add it's possible some Christians may sometimes dream of Jesus. But their conception of Jesus isn't necessarily anything other than their own conception of Jesus.

    In this respect, their dreams about Jesus aren't necessarily Jesus' actual "facial expressions" or his actual "words" or the like, and as such aren't "consistent with the Son of God." Isn't it possible at least some dreams of Jesus are "putting words in God's mouth"?

    At the same time, their dreams of Jesus aren't intentional in the same way a director would make a film about Jesus. As such, how can they be held responsible for unintentional dreams?

    1. Just because we may not be responsible for our negative dreams does not necessarily mean that their content is not negative or undesirable (though I don't think dreaming of Jesus would fall into that category).

    2. Thanks for your comment, Thomas. I assume you're addressing me. However, what you say isn't an argument I've made.

    3. Patrick: Indeed you did not; I was trying to understand the relevance of your final paragraph, taking it as a tacit argument for the acceptability of images of Jesus. Since I have misunderstood you, could you please explain to me what the relevance of it is in your argument or to the post?

    4. Thanks for the question, Thomas. Sorry if what I said wasn't clear. (And/or maybe it's a lousy argument!) Anyway, I'll try to explain if I can.

      The Reformed Apologist evidently thinks it's inappropriate for Christians to depict Jesus in movies or other media. A reason given is because the actor playing Jesus wouldn't be "faithful to the Second Person," such as in his "facial expressions" which "speak a thousand words" and in that the actor may be "putting words in God's mouth."

      However, some Christians dream of Jesus. As such, they have a particular picture of Jesus in their dreams. I'd think most likely it's a picture of Jesus that's of their own conception rather than what Jesus really looked like. At least in some (if not many or most) cases it's unlikely to be an accurate picture of Jesus.

      Moreover, in some dreams it's possible these Christians imagine Jesus speaking to them. Perhaps he doesn't use words from Scripture in these dreams, but other words such as "I can't wait to see you, Johnny!" or somesuch. If so, these Christians are "putting words in God's mouth" by dreaming about Jesus saying something to them if he says something that's not explicitly in the Bible.

      As such, these dreams about Jesus wouldn't be "faithful to the Second Person."

      I could've stopped at this point. Maybe I should have. But for better or for worse I added:

      Yet dreams aren't generally intentional (excepting lucid dreaming).

      Hence, if it's wrong to dream about Jesus because to do so wouldn't be "faithful to the Second Person," yet dreaming about Jesus may be entirely unintentional, then is it right to hold the person who dreams about Jesus responsible for what's not necessarily in his/her control? If so, how so?

    5. Patrick: Thanks, that clarifies. I would imagine Reformed Apologist might respond as I did above, that although we should not hold that person responsible for their dream (in the same sense as wouldn't hold them responsible for an angry dream or an erotic dream) their dream is nevertheless bad (even if in a way they aren't responsible for).

      So whilst I agree with you that images of Christ aren't a problem, I was just saying that's how I think Reformed Apologist would respond.

    6. Cool, thanks, Thomas. I appreciate your reply.

      I would think if someone is unrighteously angry in his dreams or if he dreams about erotic images as in illicit pornographic images, then it's possible it could reflect a deeper struggle with his sinful nature. Similarly, I would think dreaming about images of Jesus, which according to Reformed Apologist would be verboten, could likewise reflect a deeper struggle with one's sinful nature.

      As such, it seems to me it's not so much that we don't hold someone responsible at all, but we hold them responsible to a lesser degree. That is, if it's wrong to imagine Jesus in the fashion depicted by Reformed Apologist, then it seems to me it'd be wrong to do so intentionally, but it'd also be wrong, though less wrong, to do so unintentionally. Or so it seems to me, but perhaps I'm missing something.

      Also, now that I think about it, it's possible to be unintentionally or reactively angry or lustful when awake. Just like it's possible to "unintentionally" daydream and imagine Jesus when awake. So perhaps it wasn't necessary for me to posit the dream state in the first place!

      I suppose in the end it all goes back to Steve's point about us sitting in the director's chair and visualizing narratives about Jesus as we read the Gospels.