Why All the Jesus Films?

Constantly clasping hands through their interviews, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett introduce the new release, Son of God. Their posture and banter reflect an iconographic history of religious media couples, looking not unlike Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in their prelapsarian days. I’m no prude, but I find something a little off-putting about their public displays of affection (scan the Google images page here), as if they just can’t let go of each other in the face of the big media world. But of course its part of the iconography that must be maintained, that happy loving couples working on a project together is good for business.

Just in time for Lent, and having had success with The Bible on the History Channel, Downey and Burnett found a key market at a key time. (Recall that Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ opened on Ash Wednesday exactly ten years ago.) They reassure us in the interviews that Son of God is “the way it should be seen.” Their rhetorical repetition of “large,” and “big” are striking, as Burnett brings it all together, “A story larger than life needs to be experienced larger than life.” Not terribly good, or even orthodox, theology, but chances are few will notice that. The important thing is it’s big. Which also might make us wonder if the History Channel’s The Bible was really meant for the small screen.

Downey says that it’s been ten years since Jesus was on the big screen, and fifty years since the Greatest Story Ever Told, a curious historical reference. The “ten years” of course goes back to Gibson’s Passion, but notable that out of all the Jesus movies of the past half-century, it’s George Stevens’ Greatest Story that’s marked.

In the last ten years, at the very least, South African Mark Dornford-May’s brilliant Son of Man should be noted, and going back fifty years would include multiple Jesus films, including the evangelical-ish films, Jesus of 1979 and Jesus from 1999, or Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth from 1977. (No use mentioning Scorsese’s Last Temptation, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, or Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal.)

But Downey and Burnett are after a specific Jesus. And it might be one that is not exactly what their biggest audience may be expecting.

As with Stevens’ film, what they stress, besides the size, is the “story.” What’s refreshing is that they aren’t saying it’s “historically accurate” (though I’m sure plenty of others promoting it might be). Again and again, its a “story.” A quick look at the trailers gives us a bit of the hodgepodge that goes into any good story: A Portuguese Jesus meets a Scottish Peter, while Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 blues song, “What is the Soul of Man?” plays in the background, here done by Steven Stern and George Krikes (Stern’s music credits include Fame, Big Momma’s House 3, and Wild Things IV).

Borrowing from the biblical tradition (and audience expecting that tradition), there may be something to the storytelling aspect. And it leads us some way toward answering the need for more and more Jesus films, why one is never enough. The stories are only real as they are told and retold. The making of Jesus films, for Lent or otherwise, has itself become a ritual: repeated, formalized, performative, and social. 

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, from Beacon Press. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

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