2016-06-30
"What movie had the greatest impact on you, in a religious sense, when you were younger?"

A colleague and I were asked that question recently by a reporter. Jimmy is a baby boomer in his 50s. At 32, I am the quintessential Gen-Xer. Jimmy responded, "Ben Hur." I said, "Planet of the Apes."

Ask your parents about "religious" movies and they will spout off titles such as "Quo Vadis" or "The Ten Commandments." Ask a Gen-Xer about religious films, and the list may include "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and a half-dozen "X Files" episodes. A Millennial might say "Seven" or "The Matrix."

What makes the difference? In years past, Sunday school and catechism could be counted on to shape the young. That's no longer guaranteed, or even likely. For Americans coming of age in a postmodern world, religious training occurs at the hands of popular culture and personal experience.

Religious training now occurs at the hands of popular culture and personal experience.

That makes film and other mass media the primary sources of popular theology and mythology.

Films raise questions about life--questions the church too often is unwilling to ask.

This doesn't mean we're not learning about Jesus through popular culture. He's a fixture in Hollywood, although you might not always recognize him. Can't find him in the credits? Here's why.

Cardboard Jesus
Like my friend Jimmy, many people associate Hollywood's spiritual agenda with what the film industry calls "the religious epic," those big-budget biblical dramas with the big-name actors. Baby boomers were raised on these. As church attendance soared after World War II, so did the popularity of the religious epics of the 1950s, which were a reflection of postwar optimism.

One of the most influential movies of this era was "King of Kings" (1961). It was a remake of the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille movie of the same name, which was the first film to depict Jesus on screen. Earlier movies showed Jesus only as a shadowy figure or kept him off-screen altogether.

Critics lambasted the 1961 film mostly for its main character. Hoping to broaden generational appeal, the studio had cast a teen idol in the title role, and credibility was instantly tossed.

Four years later came "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Again, the main target of criticism was Jesus. The Swedish actor Max Von Sydow was ridiculed for presenting a Jesus who acted like a robot: no emotion.

Despite the popularity of the religious epics, Jesus never really made it as a movie icon. So Hollywood took another route.

Rebel with a cause
The cultural upheaval of the late 1960s demanded a new kind of Jesus. The most interesting musicians and film characters of the time were rebels. So eventually, Jesus had to become the dissenter.

"Cool Hand Luke" (1967) marked a crucial transition and a defining moment in the way movies presented Jesus. Screenwriters discovered that it is not only possible, but also quite effective, to take the bare elements of the Jesus story and place them in a present-day setting.

Paul Newman plays Luke Jackson, a man sentenced to hard labor for destroying parking meters. In prison, Luke recruits "disciples" and tries to make hard time more endurable, even fun--doing things like wagering on whether he can eat 50 boiled eggs at once. Of course, conflict with the prison establishment is inevitable for this rebel. When he turns the arduous task of repaving a highway into a joyous game, the guards begin to fear his influence. From that moment on, the establishment knows there is a troublemaker in their midst, and they plot to ruin Luke.

"Cool Hand Luke" even concludes with two scenes that recall Jesus' Gethsemane and crucifixion. Pursued by the prison guards, Luke stands in an abandoned chapel and asks God, "Is this the way it has to be?" Then he is gunned down unjustly by the guards' fearsome leader who hides behind his ever-present sunglasses--the spiritually blind "man with no eyes." A "post-resurrection" scene follows in which Luke's disciples reflect on their experiences with him.

The "Cool Hand Luke" formula was later duplicated with critical success in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "Dead Poets Society" (1989). Both films have a "Judas" and a resurrection scene that vindicates the martyred nonconformist.

Unlikely redeemer
Today, Jesus is the unlikely redeemer--in the classroom of Dead Poets or in the home of an abused child, as in "Sling Blade."

Karl Childress (Billy Bob Thornton) is released from an Arkansas mental hospital after serving 25 years for the murder of his mother and her teenage lover. Returning to his hometown, he meets a young boy named Frank who lost his father to suicide.

An odd but redemptive friendship develops between Karl and Frank and his mother. Karl moves into the family's garage, much to the displeasure of Doyle, the mother's abusive boyfriend. Doyle terrorizes the boy and Karl, whom he constantly refers to as "that retard."

Like Jesus, who dined with "tax collectors and sinners," Karl makes enemies by eating with the town's outcasts--two homosexual men and a mentally handicapped woman. Doyle, "Sling Blade"'s Pharisee, is appalled and refuses to share a table with those outsiders.

Karl determines to protect the boy from Doyle's abuse. Although he tells Frank that killing another person "will send you to Hades," he does exactly that. After a baptism scene and a "farewell discourse," Karl kills Doyle--an act intended to liberate Frank and his mother from Doyle's abuse. In doing so, he forfeits his soul for Frank.

Messianic consciousness?
Does the messianic plot in contemporary film represent a conscious effort by screenwriters to give us a Jesus for our generation? Or is the Jesus plot submerged in the filmmaker's mind as some repressed memory, unconsciously incarnating itself in an "original" story?

George Lucas said, "Religious and mythic elements creep into your writing because you write about what you like." For instance, Lucas' famous "Luke, I am your father" scene from "The Empire Strikes Back" parallels Satan's temptation of Jesus in the Gospels.

Moving Jesus from ancient Palestine to rural Arkansas works for today's audiences. Showy presentations of the Gospel don't. These "subdivine" characters come across as believable to an audience whose mantra is "be real."

Filmmakers who would attempt to bring back the biblical epic would face other obstacles as well. To be commercially viable, most movies need a big star like Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. But you wouldn't cast either as Jesus.

Filmmakers also wrestle with how to handle Jesus' divinity. Most of the biblical spectaculars chose to emphasize a a clearly divine Jesus so as not to offend people. The result was a Jesus who never laughed or struggled with doubt. A more human Jesus, as in 1973's "Jesus Christ, Superstar," is more believable and approachable but is certain to offend.

That's what happened in 1989, when Martin Scorcese created a human Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ." Scorcese's Jesus constantly tussles with uncertainty. He expresses anger because God's plan for him is ambiguous. He struggles to reconcile his personal longings for a normal, Jewish life with his divine mission. The final sequence in the film features a demon's vision of what life would be like for Jesus if he abandoned the cross. The possibilities are enticing--marriage? a family?--but Jesus ultimately rejects the offer and carries out his sacrifice.

Scorcese, who trained as a Jesuit priest, intended the film to generate discussion. But when early drafts of the script made their way into the evangelical media, the film was branded heretical even before its release. Protests against the film were so boisterous that theater managers across the country were terrified to show it.

But placing the Jesus story in alternative settings ("Cool Hand Luke," "Dead Poets," "Sling Blade") enables filmmakers to give audiences a more identifiably human Jesus figure without strings attached.

Such films carry their own problems, of course. The messianic figures in films like "Sling Blade" and "The Matrix" are far from sinless. They get angry. They kill. They question their calling. But that is the limitation, and the advantage, of an adaptation.

Postmodern messiahs
Movie messiahs of the past two decades, for all their rebelliousness and self-sacrifice, have reflected a fairly consistent worldview. The Jesus figure may exert a profound moral influence but is shorn of the supernatural powers so integral to the biblical Jesus.

That may change. "The Green Mile" may be the first postmodern messiah movie.

In "The Green Mile," John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is a messianic figure who possesses supernatural power. Coffey (initials J.C.) fits the criteria for the unlikely redeemer: a condemned prisoner and victim of discrimination who weeps over the existence of evil and pain. But never before has this type of movie character actually possessed the ability to cast out demons, raise the dead, and judge what lies in a person's heart.

An agonizing death awaits John Coffey, but he accepts it as necessary, while onlookers shake their heads and mock him.

Messianic movies like "The Green Mile" are ready-made for today's audiences, for whom visual images have replaced words as the most powerful channel of truth. By employing these visual metaphors, films have become mediators of the sacred in our society. Our consecrated stories go with us into the theater.

The messianic plot speaks to us because it uses these sacred metaphors. But messianic movies also force us to deconstruct our greeting-card Jesus. They do not pander to our saccharin stereotypes. And that can be very unsettling.

Metaphors "make the familiar strange." They break open "our structures of expectation" and "make us receptive to new and fresh insights."

Sounds a lot like Jesus to me.

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