Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Killing Jesus airs this Sunday (Palm Sunday) @ 8:00 (ET) on National Geographic Channel.

Synopsis: The story of the political intrigue that led to the crucifixion of Jesus.  Screenplay by Walon Green based on the book by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Directed by Christopher Menaul. Cast includes Haaz Sleiman (Jesus), Stephen Moyer (Pontius Pilate), Rufus Sewell (Caiaphas), Emmanuelle Chrique (Herodias), John Rhys-Davies (Annas), Eoin Macken (Antipas), Stephanie Leonidas (Salome), John Lynch (Nicodemus), Chris Ryman (Malchus), Klára Issová (Mary Magdalene), Abhin Galeya (John the Baptist), Alexis Rodney (Simon/Peter), Khalid Laith (John), Yousef Sweid (Joseph), Waleed Elgadi (Saul), Joseph Long (Joseph of Arimathea), Joe Doyle (Judas Iscariot), Julie Namir (Young Mary), Jason Kavan (Matthew)  and Kelsey Grammer as King Herod. The long list of executive producers includes Ridley Scott (producer/director Exodus: Gods and Kings), David W. Zucker (TV’s The Good Wife)  and Bill O’Reilly.

Mini-Review: The gospel according to Bill O’Reilly and company certainly has a realistic look and a cast that, by and large, reflects in appearance the region where the events recounted took place. Though the movie may irk Christians by taking no stand on whether Jesus was the Son of God, Haaz Sleiman, a Muslim, does a fine job of portraying Him (who I believe is the Son of God) as a man of love with a divine connection to the Creator. He brings an admirable heart to the role.

O’Reilly, a Christian, and his collaborators take pains to present a historic, just-the-facts version of events that isn’t skewed by religious beliefs — which, in the end, has the impact of diminishing the dramatic power of the story. And, even as strict history, it seems to me that there are scenes that probably rely less on historical documentation than on the writer filling in the gaps between the broad history that can be verified and the details that can’t.

In any event, I’m not a historian, a theologian or particularly smart. But, as a viewer, I think the film may have benefited from keeping its focus to the drama and political maneuverings surrounding the final days of Jesus. Attempting to cover Jesus’ entire life made the film seem both a little long and a little rushed.

While I’m a fan of Kelsey Grammer, his inclusion as King Herod seems unnecessary and his death scene borders a bit on camp. And, while its true Grammer has a great voice, utilizing that voice (Herod’s voice) at the end for the narration describing what happened to those involved — and the Christian church — following Jesus’ death seems a very odd choice.

Overall, Killing Jesus isn’t awful but is uneven. And that’s the memo.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief airs this Sunday @ 8:00 PM (ET) on HBO.

Synopsis: An investigative documentary profiling eight former members of the Church of Scientology who detail how the church allegedly cultivates true believers and what they were willing to do in the name of religion. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Alex Gibney (Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine).

Mini-Review: In what I think are my better moments, I try to resist piling on against any group, religion or person just because it is currently in vogue to do so. For instance, I don’t know one way or the other if Bill Cosby is guilty or innocent of any or all of the multiple sexual charges against him but it’s somehow become politically incorrect not to assume his guilt and, in too many case, to shout that assumption via any online platform available. As an American, that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not accusing anyone of lying but sometimes people do lie and sometimes they’ll lie in large numbers. Trial by Twitter can be a very dangerous thing.

My point being that, even though Scientology is powerful in terms of cash on hand, it is waning in popularity and, despite Tom Cruise and John Travolta (both of whom take hits in Going Clear), it is not currently in vogue. My own opinion of Scientology certainly is not a good one. But I endeavor to be fair.

All that said, Going Clear is far from a hit-and-run Twitter post. Instead, building on the highly-researched book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright, the compelling documentary makes a very convincing case for staying the heck away from the organization founded by the late sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard who, as presented in the film (and elsewhere), was a bit of a nut job.

The stories of the eight former Scientology members are nearly as riveting as they are disturbing. My suggestion is that you have to be in the right frame mind to take in the film since it’s hardly feel-good television. But Going Clear is a fascinating film and an important reminder of how otherwise intelligent people can be manipulated by skilled manipulators.

Note: For its part, Scientology issued a letter to The Hollywood Reporter refuting the charges made in the film. That letter can be read here.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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