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11/8/20 Jesus Movies - Helpful or Hurtful?

I remember when I first saw a copy of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST film displayed on a shelf in a video store. It was between two titles extremely unworthy to be in the company of a film about the Son of God. But then I remembered that He died naked and bleeding between two thieves. The meaning of the Incarnation is not just that God became Man, important as that is. It is far more to the point that as Man, He descended into the deepest depths of our most depraved places and, as C. S. Lewis said, He died in the dusty marketplace between two thieves, not on an altar between two candlesticks. And with that realization, I took comfort rather than offense at the sight of the portrayal of the most important event in the universe sitting on a store shelf alongside two films which were worldly at best.

Does it hurt or help to make movies about Jesus? A. W. Tozer warned about the dangerous side of it back in the early 60s. He was right, I think, to have us consider that Hollywood is hardly a trustworthy source for the gospel. He was not merely attacking Hollywood as morally unworthy as much as he was (accurately I think) pointing out that people who don’t know Jesus will inadvertently misrepresent Him. Think of it like an invasion of Martians who see a store window mannequin, and then try to model that as representative of real humans. Some of the early Jesus films were stilted and stiff, with religious verbiage that was embarrassingly bad, and often totally missing the real point. So Tozer’s warning had a point.

As a young pre-teen boy, going to the movies to see the 1956 re-release of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was a big event for me. Even though it was really cheesy acting, at the time I didn’t even notice. What gripped me was the majestic imagery and music. I was a very impressionable ten-year-old. It gave my imagination a place to land, and presented God and His commandments in way I could emotionally digest. And what is put on the big screen in our culture tells kids that this is what we value. It would only be two more years of such image-making before Hollywood would throw off all restraint. So these early exposures of some degree of goodness on the big screen was a gift to me. Still though, with all the good, there was the element of human misconception about the heart and character of God in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

When I saw BEN HUR in the theater later that same year, I was even more deeply moved. Jesus’ presence was presented not by showing His face, but by not showing it. And that had a dramatic effect that brought His loving character very near to me while still keeping a reverent humble distance. Then came THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD in 1965. This time, Jesus was not faceless, but up close and personal. And as a kid approaching my turbulent teen years, I welcomed a more direct access to Jesus. But was it the real Jesus? Max Von Sydow went on to play Ming the Merciless in FLASH GORDON, a cold-blooded hitman in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, Satan in NEEDFUL THINGS, but worst of all, the priest killed by the demon in THE EXORCIST. My inner image of Jesus was repeatedly invaded by the later images of Max’s face in these other, less than holy, roles. Yet overall, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD had many positive effects on me. Even though Hollywood tried to cram everybody in the film business into the cast as their tribute to the Son of God, it was beautifully filmed art that depicted a reverent expression of Jesus. And for a boy growing up in a godless yet religious southern culture, the Holy Spirit used it to reach deep inside me.

By the middle of the Jesus Movement (1976), the JESUS film hit theaters, and then was taken by missionaries all over the world. Only God knows the great fruit that has come from that effort! That same year, the epic JESUS OF NAZARETH was made as a TV series. It was in many ways a masterpiece, yet still, Jesus is presented as almost mystical, somewhat removed, and with a British accent. It was far more good than bad, but still with something lacking. I am skipping a bunch of dishonorable mention of some badly filmed projects, which all seem to totally affirm Tozer’s earlier warnings. For a generation becoming less and less literate, and more and more impressionable by shallow film presentations, many folks began to believe these weak story lines to be the true gospel. As a result, the power of the real gospel was compromised with pictures and ideas that were at best, fiction; and at worst, outright false.

Now we have THE CHOSEN. In my opinion, something fresh and truly effective is being offered to a screen-hypnotized, relationship-starved, and gospel-hardened generation that is penetrating their souls. Yet the question is still asked: in the long run, is it a good thing or a bad thing? The concern is as it has always been. Will an actor portraying Jesus misrepresent Him? The man playing that role in THE CHOSEN has that very concern, and has honestly expressed his wise doubt over it. And that fact to me is one of the great encouragements that it will not be mispresented. He has a humble holy fear which causes him to ask for grace to communicate the One he is portraying in such a way that the Real Jesus shines through.

I can only speak for myself. But I am so thankful in my early boyhood to have been given some powerful food for a higher imagination, regardless of the negatives I have listed. Those early films, with all they lacked, had just enough goodness in them to provide me some antidote against the flood of film poison that would erupt throughout the late 60s and onward. And so I believe THE CHOSEN to be another such God-given tool for this generation. I believe the Holy Spirit is using it in ways we cannot fully imagine. I hope you will see it, pray for it, and support further filming. When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will raise up a standard against it.

One more word. I remember after seeing THE PASSION, I told the Lord, “I don’t want to know you as a TV or film icon. I want to know the Real you. I want to have you in my imagination, not as a film version, no matter how well represented.” I think the Lord agrees that that is a wise concern. I sensed Him saying to me, “You should know me well enough by now to be able to make the difference between the Real Me and any film presentation of me, and yet still be happy that I am being honored and shared with a generation that may not hear of me from sermons, but will embrace me in a well-presented story. Trust my Spirit to make real what is offered, and to correct what is less than valid. I am going after this generation. And this is only one good way of many good ways that I am doing it.” There is a humanity and kindness in the portrayal of Jesus by THE CHOSEN that is not the result of mere human imagination. I believe it is an incarnation of the Real. And for many who have a deformed image of the heart of God from having been exposed to angry legalistic or stilted religious iconography, this could be a very healing and helpful gift. Image and symbol matter. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words! And how much more a true-to-life portrayal to open our hearts up to the Real.







McLean Ministries (Nightlight, Inc.) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization supported by contributions and committed to Jesus Christ and His healing work.