The image of Jesus shifts with every generation, according to the time period, and symbolizes the image of God the Father as a reminder of humanity’s relationship with the divine, becoming the image needed by the cultural unconscious to communicate a particular archetype. I read the Gospels for the first time for this class, and initially found myself quite angry. Reading the Gospels fully debunked the image of Jesus I had developed through the liturgical teachings of my Episcopal upbringing. Furthermore, modern cinema has given us divergent images of Christ, some faithful to the Biblical tradition, and others not so much, creating a wholly different telling of this myth. This new image of Jesus/God is no longer confined to static images, but, rather, to moving images that give it a new personality. A survey of some of the most noted films/videos reflects the culture’s overall split-position on the nature of Christ as a religious figure.
There was a very clear shift in the art between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and this is reflected in the images of Jesus. Perhaps it might be too easy to suggest that the shift from positive, hopeful images of Christ to the appearance of crucified Jesus as a result of the Black Death is an oversimplification of the issue. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the endemic plague that spread through Europe, the images of the Christ child or Christ the good shepherd sent a positive message of the Good News to recent converts to the faith. These images helped further the mission of Christ culminating in the conversion of non-Christians. The Black Death reverberated throughout the whole of European culture. The disease knew no boundaries, affecting people of all classes and occupations, leaving very few people disease-free. This affected the overall cultural psyche of the people, as most catastrophes do, shifting the images of Christ as a good shepherd or an innocent to the images of the pieta or crucifixion, graphically showing the death of Christ. In this instance, Christ represented more than just a figurehead for a religion, he became the defining archetypal image of an entire continent, whose life represented the misunderstood life of a pious son who is still forsaken at the very moment when he needs God the father the most.
In modern cinema, we have the Jesus who is satirized (Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Dogma), incarnations of Jesus (Jesus of Montreal), the political radical (Jesus Christ Superstar), the tortured Jesus (The Passion of Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ), and Baby Jesus of various Christmas specials and local Nativity plays, which have been excluded from this paper. The ultimate message that is communicated is that we, as a society, have forgotten exactly who Jesus was.
The Life of Brian is a film by the Monty Python team spoofing contemporary British issues and the Gospels. Instead of Jesus, the story revolves around a boy named Brian, who, as an infant, is confused for the prophesied Messiah by the three wise men, and later as an adult gains a following of frenzied faithful who are mesmerized by a public comment that he never finished while trying to avoid the Romans. Because of this, he is followed around and all of his deeds are recognized by his followers as being miracles. He is later crucified for escaping the Romans for an earlier incident, and his crucifixion is heralded as heroic, except by his mother who is profoundly disappointed that he is a very naughty boy. In a moment of despair, he is told to “always look on the bright side of life” by a fellow crucified prisoner.
This representation of Jesus affirms the belief of Joseph Campbell, who further writes in the vein of Nietzsche, that Christianity has lost much of its sacred holdings on society. Through this spoof and humor, the Python crew imagines a mistaken Messiah, who lived at the time of the “real” Messiah, but people were disillusioned into following the wrong one. This implies that Christianity may have been established under the wrong auspices, while further implying that the whole of Western Civilization was founded in the name of the wrong person. This political dimension attests to the psychology behind fundamentalism, that the more one doubts a belief then the more one holds fervently onto it. The Pythons show us exactly why that requires more effort than necessary, since it could possibly be for all the wrong reasons anyway.
The Kevin Smith film, Dogma, is a commentary about the state of affairs with the Church, specifically the Catholic Church, and the looming crisis of faith running through American society. It tells of two former angels, banished from Heaven to Wisconsin for questioning God’s authority, who find a loophole that would allow them to be cleansed of their sins and thus return to Heaven. Meanwhile a woman, marked as the Last Scion, or relative of Christ, is called on a mission to stop them from succeeding while the Heavenly Host tries to find the missing God, who takes monthly embodiment trips to earth to play skee-ball on a New Jersey boardwalk. The angels harbor a grudge against God for closing the doors on them, and they are helped by Azriel, a fallen angel who harbors a grudge for having to spend time in Hell. The Last Scion suffers from a crisis of faith because she feels forsaken by God, and only goes to Church as lip-service to her religion. The movie’s ultimate goal is to remind us that Christianity is not about church and whether or not God communicates with us directly, but that it is about feeling God’s love, no matter the circumstance. This movie had to be made as a comedy because otherwise the message would have come across as dogmatic, rather than as a commentary/ reflection on the nature of things.
The overall message that is communicated to me is that it is very difficult to be a Christian in today’s world, in part because we are so far removed from the history and the mythology of the Old and New Testaments. Jesus is not a dominant figure in today’s world, though we use him as an iconic image, as a sign pointing to something greater than himself, rather than view Christ as a martyr who, in the name of God, brought about social change in a peaceable fashion. Rather than staging an all-out war against the Romans, who possessed the greater military power, Jesus encouraged a grass-roots movement of peaceful protest and inaction, one of love and charity, over demonstrating who has the greater strength. Jesus behaved like Athena while the Romans behaved like Ares.
The problem of Jesus in our world is also over-simplified by the Nicene Creed or declaration of faith that has been woven into the canon of the liturgy, though several of the protestant services have taken it out in an attempt to stick to Biblical tradition. From the outset, it declared, " We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,/the only Son of God,/eternally begotten of the Father,/God from God, Light from Light,/true God from true God,/begotten, not made,/of one Being with the Father…" thus equating Jesus with his crucifixion and not with the actuality of his life. At the beginning of Dogma, a New Jersey cardinal announces a campaign to "update" Catholicism and make it more likeable. He unveils the image of Jesus that he called "The Buddy Christ" – a laid back Jesus who looks more like a fun-loving hippy dressed in Hebraic robes than either a good shepherd or a crucified Christ.
Movies like Life of Brian or Dogma highlight all that is wrong with the religion, attempting to make us aware of the larger picture of the social ramifications of decisions made by the Church and clergy over the last 2000 years, and, as a mythology student, this is what makes studying Christianity all the more crucial. Because of dogma, there are misconstrued messages going about the field as to what Christianity actually is. Furthermore, because of various ecumenical councils and translations, the Bible itself is miscommunicating the teachings unless one is able to read all available versions and construct a more complete picture.
Incarnations of Jesus
Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal) is another movie that attempts to revision Jesus without actually being about Jesus. Like Dogma, this film approaches the question of faith. Daniel Colombe is an avant-garde actor who is hired by a church to stage the Stations of the Cross, yet to update them to attract a larger audience. Through his research into recent archaeological discoveries that suggest that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman and that his mother was unwed (two issues that Monty Python plays with in Life of Brian), he creates a show that suggests a radically new way of interpreting the life of Christ. Initially he has the blessing of the church priest, because the Stations have been staged outside the church for over forty years. Daniel and his friends reenact all aspects of the story, including the archaeological findings in the area surrounding the church, calling the show “The Passion on the Mountain,” receiving rave reviews. The show is cancelled by the priest who hired Daniel, because he feels that they are being too radical with their portrayal and that his superiors are unhappy with the production. Daniel and his troupe stage one final performance. While he is on the cross as Jesus, the police interrupt this final performance and a fight breaks out between the audience and the police. Daniel’s cross gets knocked down and he suffers from fatal head injuries. Before dying, he is briefly resurrected and assumes a prophetic Jesus-like behavior in the subway station. No one believes him, and regards him as a crazy person. He finally collapses and this time does not rise again, though his organs restore sight and life to a couple lucky recipients.
The question of faith appears in the movie two times. The first time is during Daniel’s research in the library. A librarian comes up to him and asks him if he is seeking Jesus. When he replies yes, she responds that Jesus will find him, suggesting that faith is not something to be sought after. One cannot simply go on a spiritual quest and find all of the answers, but wait patiently for the right time when the divine will present itself. In the West, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. The society has been based on the concept of quest and seeking enlightenment, to the point that in modern society, patience is a virtue that very few people actually have. The second question of faith is when Daniel confronts the priest about cancelling the play about the “show” that the church already provides parishioners of hope and cheap plastic Jesus figures. The priest insists that this is necessary because cheap plastic Jesus figures are still better than expensive drugs. People need something in which to believe, regardless of the truth or the lies. As Daniel comes to terms with this, he still struggles with the same facets of his own life, never really reconciling the two.
Jesus the Political Radical
The ultimate question Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice pose is, “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” Rather than write an entire story around Christ’s passion, Jesus Christ Superstar re-tells the gospels mostly through the eyes of Judas and Mary Magdalene, showing the fullest extent of Judas’s self-torture for turning Jesus over to the Romans. All he wants to know is why Jesus allowed the movement to extend so far beyond the initial plan, to the point that Jesus actually was equating himself with God. Judas feels is that Jesus allowed the movement to get out of control and was reaping the benefits of having unquestioning followers who are willing to anoint him with expensive oils rather than feed the poor. He believes that the only option is to turn Christ into the Romans, as a sort of intervention for his behavior. Jesus is high on the attention he is getting, and keeps imbibing more and more. From this angle, the passion is necessary, not as a sacrifice for the people of Jerusalem, but for the sake of Jesus’ own soul. Shortly after the Last Supper, Jesus, too, begins to question the loyalty of his followers. He watches them eat and realizes that they could care less whether he was there or not. Or at least, that is how he is portrayed in this version, lacking in some self-esteem. Before he is taken by the Romans, Jesus asks God for guidance – then confesses that he is no longer interested in this plan of God’s, but realizes that he has no choice.
What this reflects is the question whether or not Jesus was just a man or if he really was divine, an age-old question that theologians have debated off and on since the Middle Ages. Judas and Mary Magdalene sing a reminder that Jesus is just a man, one that they do not know how to love, but they want to because they know they love him so much.
Python also accomplishes conveying its Jesus figure in the same manner as that of Webber and Rice in that Jesus is more than just a Messiah, but is also a political radical seeking to free his people from the repressive aspects of Roman rule. He gets angry when he enters the temple, less because he is concerned about the profaning of the Lord, but more because he sees the control of the Roman armies have had on the people, to the point that no place is regarded as sacred.
Perhaps it is because I watched this movie for the first time after numerous viewings of Life of Brian and Jesus Christ Superstar, but I really was unimpressed by The Passion of the Christ. Gibson’s recreation of the Passion reflects more of a sensationalist, borderline propaganda piece showing the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ. Based on the canonical Gospels and the other movies of Jesus’ crucifixion I have been discussing, Gibson remains faithful to the story. However, unlike the other films in this paper, Gibson ups the gore factor. There are two responses to gore: distancing the audience from the participatory experience because the images are just too horrendous, or complete emotional persuasion because of one’s sympathies towards Christ. The desired effect is the latter, with the hopes that one will be completely moved – also combined with the choice use of music and slow motion images. Gibson also strongly conveys that the Jews condemned Christ, following the tradition that Jews were punished for their action by losing their temple and Jerusalem, being doomed to wander the Earth. This teaching was rejected and forbidden by Vatican II (Blech and Doliner 11).
The creators of South Park commentated on the reaction to Gibson’s film in the episode “The Passion of the Jew.” In this episode, the three main children, Stan (a Jew), Kyle (the level-headed one) and Cartman (the one seeking world domination) watch the movie. Kyle is so annoyed with the time wasted watching it, that he flies to California with his friend Kenny to beg his $2 back because the movie theater does not give refunds. Cartman is moved by the movie into continuing Gibson’s message of ridding the world of Jews and launches his own neo-Nazi movement in South Park. Stan, on the other hand, is convinced that the Jews need to apologize to Jesus. Kyle gets his money back, Cartman’s mission of world domination is foiled and Stan convinces his family that they should apologize to Jesus for condemning him when he did nothing wrong. This reflects the fact that the response to Gibson’s was more of a social response. He was accused of anti-Semitism and simultaneously congratulated for his portrayal of the Passion, which was supposed to be as historically accurate as possible.
Martin Scorsese begins his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ with a quote from the author: “The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God… has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh… and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.” This version of a tortured Jesus comes from Kazantzakis’ own struggle with this spiritual conflict, and is only loosely based on the Gospels. The Jesus of Kazantzakis’ novel is both enlightened and a political rebel. He is fighting for a cause, but not against the Romans, but against human nature. His weapon is love, but he has a vision that hands him the axe, leading him to declare that he will baptize everyone with fire. He takes up the mantle to fight a war. His enemies are not just the Romans who oppress the Jewish people, but also the Jewish people who oppress each other or show lack of tolerance for each other. He wants to force everyone into loving each other, which ultimately backfires and he is crucified. This is also the approach of the Western mission: try to convert with love, and when that fails to work, convert by force.
But more importantly, this Jesus reflects Kazantzakis’ own struggle between war and love, evil versus good, temptation versus purity. This is how he reflects that the opposing forces work collectively in the human soul to create tension. When we first meet Jesus, he is suffering from delusions and headaches, and eventually leaves home to go on a spiritual quest that will hopefully cure him of the pain. In a way, Kazantzakis’ suggests that Jesus suffered from some sort of psychosis, which leads to delusions of grandeur as he performed his magic on the people. The “voice of God” was no more than a voice in his head, similar to a voice a schizophrenic would hear.
In a bold, controversial move, this Jesus is rescued from the cross by a guardian angel who arranges for him to marry and have a family. This is the last temptation, the fourth and non-Biblical. Jesus in his old age is reminded by Judas that he did not complete his job. Judas unwillingly turned him over to the Romans, yet Jesus did not fulfill his part of the bargain by dying. Judas also helps unveil the guardian angel as the Devil and Jesus finds restored faith in God. Is this an illusion or does it really transpire? Scorsese leaves that up to us.
How is it that all these movies can tell the exact same story of the Passion yet tell a fundamentally different story? Each of these movies were made at different times with different goals in mind. It is not just about retelling the Passion to remind people of its horrors, though, of course, that is part of the motivation. It is also about being so gripped by the story that the writer and/or director need to retell it to make it their own, one of the fundamental aspects of myth. The story itself does not change, but the meaning and message behind it do as it is altered to fit with the sentiments of the interpreter. The Christian mythos needs to be revisioned periodically and not treated like dogma, with stale, static images. Without this revisioning, the religion falls into the trap of which Joseph Campbell is highly critical: stale religions push people away or create fundamentalist (in the negative sense) behavior, and I suggest that this is the dynamic in which we currently find ourselves in American society. We are experiencing a stretched tension between non-believers and fundamentalists, battling out their opposition around those who genuinely still believe in the faith. This tension was especially felt during the previous administration, which kept blurring the lines between the constitutional separation between church and state. Now, under a different administration and cultural mythos, we are in a different state altogether towards religion. The tension has loosed a bit, but threatens at any time to reemerge, especially with talks of universal healthcare and how much the government should provide for the people.
So what does Jesus symbolize? It is too difficult to separate the myth from the man and find a coherent symbol. It is too easy to confuse the fact that Jesus was crucified as a martyr and overlook the political unrest he was stirring among the Jewish people. The Romans and the Pharisees both wanted to eliminate him from the competition because he posed a threat to their power. Kazantzakis suggests that Jesus’ motivation was power for himself, and he was using the Hebrew oppression as a tool to gain followers. The Monty Python crew suggests that Jesus’ motivation was that there was no motivation at all: he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Mel Gibson suggests that it was crowd actions that destroyed him, that the people wanted him dead, not the Romans. None of the movies really make it clear why Jesus had to die. It seems more like he was too vocal in the oppression, and was killed according to the Roman practices of the time. Similar figures in modern time have been killed according to modern practices. The Roman technique is less humane but not unique to Jesus’ situation. Granted that does not necessarily make it okay, but it seems to be the only reason why Jesus is at the forefront of the holy Christian crusade and not some other messianic figure.
There is something rather interesting about trying to write a paper about Jesus at Christmas time. All over the place, I am encountering reminders that the holiday is really about celebrating Christ’s birth, although he was probably born at a different time a year and that we celebrate Christmas on December 25th has to do in large part with the fact that Constantine converted to Christianity and aligned Christmas with a pagan feast day. The other day on the radio, a woman called in and was telling the DJ that one of her family’s traditions is to have a birthday party for Jesus, complete with cake and singing "Happy Birthday." My father-in-law sent me a Christmas e-mail forward of a letter "written by Jesus" to remind us how to be good Christians on the holidays. Yet, this is the idealized hopeful Jesus, the Jesus who is the good shepherd, the Prince of Peace, the one who died for our sins. This is not the Jesus who staged a movement against the Romans for religious freedom and tolerance, nor the Jesus who transformed the laws of Moses into laws of humanity. This is the Jesus whose interests were in taking care of the people who could not otherwise take care of themselves.
- Blech, Benjamin and Roy Doliner. The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. New York: HarperOne, 2008. Print.
- Dogma. Dir. Kevin Smith. Perf. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Linda Fiorentino. Lions Gate Films, 1999. DVD.
- The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford U P, 1989. Print.
- Jesus Christ Superstar. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman. Universal, 1973. DVD.
- Jésus de Montréal. Dir. Denys Arcand. Perf. Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening and Johanne-Marie Tremblay. Netflix, 1989. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
- The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey. Netflix, 1988. Web. 15 Dec. 2009.
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle. Anchor Bay, 1979. DVD.
- The Passion of the Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Perf. Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci and Maia Morgenstern. 20th Century Fox, 2004. DVD
- “The Passion of the Jew.” South Park. By Trey Parker. Dir. Trey Parker. Comedy Central. 31 Mar. 2004. DVD