By Timothy R. Furnish, PhD
In his 1925 book The Everlasting Man, Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton notes (pp. 190ff) that no church has ever erected a “statue of Christ in wrath:” whipping moneylenders out of the Temple courtyard, or cursing an unproductive fig tree—much less the warrior-judge of Revelation. On the contrary, Christians throughout history have gone out of their way to present Jesus as “almost entirely mild and merciful.” Following in this understandable, if one-sided, vein the new “Son of God” movie vastly overemphasizes Jesus’ kindness, to the detriment of his divine determination—thus undermining the true Christ of the New Testament.
“Son of God” was created by the husband-wife team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey as a follow-on to their wildly-successful 2013 TV miniseries “The Bible.” Their stated intent was to produce a “love story for an ‘under-served’ audience”—non-Christians, presumably—so that viewers would “fall in love with Jesus.” The movie finished number two in its opening weekend (at least as gauged by take, not the rather tenuous love-of-Jesus metric).
Trying adequately to tell the life-story of the founder of the world’s largest religion in 138 minutes would, of course, require miraculous film-making. “Son of God” attempts such by both leaving out important parts of Jesus’ life and compressing and conflating others. For example, according to the four Gospels Jesus performed 35 miracles: 23 healings, nine exhibiting power over nature, and three resurrections. “Son of God” shows only six: Peter’s miraculous catch of fish at Jesus’ behest, as well as Christ healing a paralytic, feeding the multitude, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead and healing Malchus’ ear after Peter strikes it with a sword. Admittedly, demonstrating all his miracles would have turned this into a thamaturgical saga. But almost a quarter of Jesus’ recorded healings were in fact exorcisms, making problematic Burnett and Downey’s insistence on cinematically “casting the devil out.” Exorcising Obama look-alike Satan will probably help the movie appeal to the unchurched legions among Millennials and Hipsters, but leaving out all of Jesus’ dealings with devils reduces his enemies—notably the Romans personified by Pontius Pilate, and the Pharisees led by the High Priest Caiaphas—to merely human ones. While this approach might help with the “political thriller” aspect about which Downey gushes, it also severely undermines the cosmic import of Christ’s Incarnation, as well as his power over the forces of darkness—what Chesterton (again), calls Jesus’ “lion-tamer” aspect.
Compression of events, while cinematically understandable, is still rather jarring in “Son of God.” Jesus’ birth (and the ahistorical, albeit traditional, presence of the Magi shortly after) is followed immediately by him commencing his public ministry by calling Peter then, in short order, all the apostles are following Jesus to Jerusalem. Satan having fallen out of this film, Christ’s temptation in the desert by the evil archangel is nowhere to be seen. Jesus’ growing popularity is counterposed with scenes in which Caiaphas worries about this “simple-minded” preacher and Nicodemus’ growing fascination with, and defense of, the new “prophet” and his movement. Pilate is Machiavellian and merciless (quite in contrast to the more nuanced and almost-sympathetic Roman procurator of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Ethiopian Christianity). This approach reinforces the idea of purely political opposition to Jesus leading to his crucifixion, while also contrasting his lovable nature with that of both the ruthless Roman governor and the inflexible, rules-obsessed Jewish High Priest.
Overall, “Son of God” tells a rather straightforward, albeit truncated and anodyne, version of the gospel truth. And there are good moments herein: Jesus delivering the famous “render to Caesar” line, then tossing the coin to a Roman soldier; the contraposition between Jesus praying to his Father, Caiaphas to the Hebrews’ God and Pilate and Claudia to their ancestors; Jesus on the way to Golgotha while a lamb is being sacrificed at the Temple for Passover. But its Jesus, while easy to love, commands little respect—from his interlocutors or from viewers. Closer to the Gospels are the otherworldly steel of Robert Powell’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” or even the heroic anguish of Jim Cavizel’s Christ’s passion. One might well ask: what does it profit the church to gain adherents via a milquetoast Jesus, only to lose its Gospel soul?
–Timothy R. Furnish