Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Well Said: Depictions of Christ in Art, Specifically Movies

Roger Ebert's widow, Chaz, has a blog at the Roger Ebert website. One of the features is other people's discussion of their "My Favorite Roger" columns. I could have sworn I found my way to Ebert's shortened essay about The Last Temptation of Christ via one of those columns but I can't find it any longer.

At any rate, Ebert's comment sent me on another search.
The film is indeed technically blasphemous. I have been persuaded of this by a thoughtful essay by Steven D. Greydanus of the National Catholic Register, a mainstream writer who simply and concisely explains why. I mention this only to argue that a film can be blasphemous, or anything else that the director desires, and we should only hope that it be as good as the filmmaker can make it, and convincing in its interior purpose.
I immediately sought out Greydanus' essay The Last Temptation of Christ: An Essay in Film Criticism and Faith.

I am often caught defending what others may think of as blasphemous or  decrying what others think is inconsequential when seeing faith depicted on the screen. Not in any professional capacity, of course, just as a general film watcher amongst pals.

This is very long but I intend to keep it on hand as a wonderful summary, a litmus test if you will, of how one may consider whether Christ is being portrayed in a blasphemous manner or not.
Now, Christian theology teaches that Jesus Christ was fully human as well as fully divine; and certainly there is nothing objectionable about trying to evoke or express in art the humanity of Christ. A work of art, a film or novel or painting, that evokes the truth of Christ’s humanity is a good and noble thing, even if it doesn’t directly address the subject of his divinity. A recognizably human portrait of Jesus — for example, one that envisions him being capable of suffering weakness, loneliness, fear, exhaustion; of becoming exasperated with his disciples, or of having a good time at a wedding party — all of this can be quite valid and worthwhile.

Moreover, the mystery of Jesus’ dual nature is one that no Christian can claim to fully understand or imagine. In particular the experience of being a mortal man who was also God in the flesh is one we cannot begin to grasp. Unanswered questions exist that leave room for a range of different ways of envisioning the person of Christ in drama and art.

For all these reasons, we must not be too quick to judge any particular portrait of Christ merely because it challenges our expectations or makes us uncomfortable, or because it doesn’t immediately evoke his divinity. After all, Jesus himself often confounded the expectations of his contemporaries, and didn’t necessarily impress most of them as being divine. Indeed, if any believer today were somehow able to see and hear him as his contemporaries did, the experience might not immediately confirm his faith — indeed, it might even give him a moment’s pause.

On the other hand, while Christian belief doesn’t tell us everything about what Jesus was like, much less what it was like to be him, it does give us certain insights into what he wasn’t. We may be unable to fully apprehend human nature united to divinity, but we can easily understand that certain things would be incompatible with this union. Christian belief teaches that Jesus shared our humanity, but not our fallenness and fallibility. Not only did he not sin, he didn’t suffer from our concupiscent appetites, our disordered and inflamed desires. He was tempted as we are — he could feel hunger during a fast, or dread on the eve of his passion — but his will was not pulled to and fro by wayward passions. He may, in his humanity, have had limited knowledge or insights, but he could not be deceived or confused into believing or teaching anything contrary to divine truth. At no time did he suffer doubts about his divine nature or messianic identity.

Imperfect art and the perfection of God

Does a dramatic portrayal of Christ’s humanity have to be perfectly compatible with every article of faith about him in order to have any value? No, not necessarily. Even an imperfect vision of Christ — one that doesn’t entirely correspond to known truths of faith, that contains elements that are clearly erroneous — could still be worthwhile and valuable, if it remains, on the whole, generally evocative of important truths about Christ.

That doesn’t seem like too much to ask or expect: That a work of art be, on the whole, generally evocative of the truth about its subject; that it be reasonably true to that subject, that it not turn the subject into something antithetical to itself. A movie about the man Jesus may have value if is shows Jesus to be recognizably and authentically human, while at least minimally leaving room for his divine nature, remaining at least compatible with Christian belief in his deity — in a word, while not turning him into an fallible, fallen man, one who could not be God.

A Jesus who commits sins — who even thinks he commits sins, who talks a great deal about needing "forgiveness" and paying with his life for his own sins; a Jesus who himself speaks blasphemy and idolatry, calling fear his "god" and talking about being motivated more by fear than by love; who has an ambivalent at best relationship with the Father, even trying to merit divine hatred so that God will leave him alone — all of this is utterly antithetical to Christian belief and sentiment. This is not merely focusing on Jesus’ humanity, this is effectively contradicting his divinity.
And so I finally understand why people object to the portrayal of Christ in Jesus Christ, Superstar.

Do go read the entire thing.

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