Easter Special – ‘God is in the Movies’ Blogathon

GodIsInTheMovies

Today is Maundy Thursday, a few days before Easter Sunday. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for such a blogathon. Well, Andrew has planned this since mid March but he was gracious enough to extend the deadline, bless his heart!

I was actually planning to do a similar post for Easter anyway so I just had to participate!

The concept is simple. I want you to rack your brains for the film that, to you, defines how the Bible (and all of its facets) should be presented in film. Do you like your scripture presented in a grand, sweeping epic like 1956’s The Ten Commandments? Do you like your scriptures tampered with, as in Scorsese’s polarizing The Last Temptation of Christ? Do you want to see an artistic approach to God’s book, like with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?  Or, do you prefer your faith handled in a more provocative and less direct way, as in the many works by Ingmar Bergman?

So Andrew’s assignment is to pick a movie (or style) and write a post explaining WHY it is your preferred dip into the Bible.

It’s a simple question but I’m going to expand on that topic a bit. as I was planning to do a post on that before I saw Andrew’s blogathon, I’m including my commentary about how Biblical movies as well as Christ’ portrayal in the movies.

I was actually re-watching Ben-Hur (1959) as I started this post… and I always rewound the Jesus scene as the enslaved Judah was bound and chained en route to the Roman galleys. He was dying of thirst when he fell to the ground and whispered, ‘God, help me…’ Almost instantly, someone came to him and gave him water.

BenHur_JesusWaterScene2

That scene alone is wonderful, but the BEST part is when one of the Roman soldiers scolds the stranger for giving Judah water and is about to whip him. The man stands up and simply looks at him.

BenHur_JesusWaterScene

The soldier’s thunderstruck expression is priceless. It’s as if he knew that the stranger could see through his entire being, and that makes him uneasy. He then starts backing away. Later Judah too looks up at the stranger and is rendered speechless. The end of the scene shows Judah looking so revitalized and full of hope that he barely noticed being whipped. He can’t take his eyes off his Savior as he’s led away, still in chains but somehow free.

So by mentioning that scene, I guess you could say that is my preferred way of God being depicted in Hollywood movies. It’s subtle but powerful and undoubtedly moving. I’d think that people who have no idea about God nor Christianity would be intrigued by the long-haired man in ragged clothing and why people react to him the way they did. Even without his face being shown, his presence is certainly felt and that’s truly one of the most memorable scenes in the entire 4-hour film. In fact, Ben-Hur is my Easter film of choice, yes even over Charlton Heston’s equally epic adventure The Ten Commandments. 

Truth be told, I felt that even with the sparse appearance of Christ in Ben-Hur, I was far more moved by those scenes than the entire film of Son of God. Now, as a Christ-follower, obviously I love films that glorify God and speak of His love for humanity. But even with the best intention of bringing the story to Jesus to mass audiences, the acting and dialog of the Mark Burnett’s film leave much to be desired and overall it just wasn’t as emotionally engaging as I had hoped. Cut from the TV-miniseries version of The Bible, the film was more of a Cliff-Notes chronicle of Jesus’ life. It also lacks any sense of mystique and grandeur, barely scratching the surface of His life on earth as uniquely extraordinary figure who’s both man AND divine. One of the main issue I had is with the portrayal of Jesus himself, which brings me to …

Christ Portrayal on Film

When we’re talking about how Christ is being depicted on film, it seems that Hollywood always subscribes to THIS classic drawing of Jesus that I often saw growing up in a Catholic household. Having seen Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told as a kid, Christ was always portrayed as tall and blue-eyed European figure. Slowly though, seems like Hollywood’s starting to concern themselves with authenticity, at least how the studio honchos see as authentic anyway. The latter portrayals of Christ is starting to look more Jewish, even Jim Caviezel wore prosthetic nose in The Passion of the Christ and had to wear brown contact lenses for the role.

Caviezel_Cusick_Morgado_Jesus
Jim Caviezel, Henry Ian Cusick, Diogo Morgado

But to me, it’s not just about what Christ look like that matters. There’s a delicate sensitivity combined with screen charisma required of any actor portraying Jesus. Out the three most recent feature film about Jesus: The Passion of the Christ, The Gospel of John and Son of God, Jim Caviezel‘s portrayal is my favorite. He has the right mix of otherworldly compassion, eternal wisdom and commanding gravitas as a leader. I often wish we got to see more of his portrayal in an extended look into Christ’ ministry instead of just the last 12 hours of his life. The brutal violence made it tough for me to revisit that film again, I was literally in agony watching it, it shook me to the core. But that was the point, Mel Gibson wanted to illustrate the extreme passion that Christ had for humanity, the length He went through to atone for the world’s sin, which was in line with what the Bible said about how Christ became horribly disfigured that he was barely recognizable as a human being.

GospelOfJohnDVDcoverAs for Henry Ian Cusick in The Gospel of John, I was skeptical about his casting at first as he seems too tough for the role. But he’s certainly got the charisma and screen presence, and portrays a more virile but also more relatable and approachable version of Christ. The adaptation itself was unique in that the dialog follows the Good News Bible, word for word, in sequential order from beginning to end. The excellent production quality + Cusick’s engaging portrayal made The Gospel of John my favorite Jesus feature film biopic so far.

In Son of God, we got a former Portuguese model Diogo Morgado, who despite his best effort is the least convincing of the three. He may look the part and has a serene and kind look about him but to me he lacks the gravitas and that effortless magnetism to make me believe he could inspire so many people to drop everything and follow him. His beatific smile seems more superficial and proved to be distracting rather than inviting.

So to answer Andrew’s question of

What movie/style is your preferred dip into the Bible?

I’ve already partly answered my question with Ben-Hur and the reason is the subtle way Christ is depicted actually made a greater impact as we saw how an encounter with Him changed a person life. At the start of the film, Judah Ben-Hur was not a believer and he became consumed with hate for Mesala after what he did to him and his family. Here we have a flawed man, just like the rest of us, being touched by God in the most unexpected way. Through a direct act of kindness (Jesus giving him water in his desperate hour), as well as seeing Him set an example of practicing what He preaches (forgiveness and loving one’s enemy) as Judah witness him being crucified, Judah’s heart is softened.

Judah Ben-Hur: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Esther: Even then.

Judah Ben-Hur: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

We later see his mother and sister were also miraculously healed the day Jesus died on the cross. But even before that, Judah has already let go of his hatred, which is a miracle in itself. The film never overtly displays Judah’s conversion but his transformed heart is palpable and that is deeply inspiring. We’ve all struggled with faith at one point or another, and that to me makes Judah so relatable and his story made a lasting impression to me.

Bale_Moses_ExodusI think more than the style of how God is being depicted is the intent or the essence of the film in question. It’s not just about Christianity, it applies to other Deity being depicted on screen. I feel that a filmmaker ought to at least treat a story about God or faith with care even if they don’t believe in that viewpoint. That’s why I choose NOT to watch films that I feel is deliberately blasphemous (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Da Vinci Code) or show obvious contempt for the subject matter (Religulous).

So naturally I have mixed feelings about Biblical movies that are on the rise again in Hollywood. Creative license being taken is one thing, but taking something from the source material and turn it into something else entirely (i.e. Noah) is another matter. Just in time for Christmas, we’ll have Ridley Scott’s retelling of Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt in Exodus: Gods & King. Well, according to this article, [Scott] has chosen an unconventional depiction of God in the film,” and in Total Film April issue, it’s said that Christian Bale as Noah is more Maximus type warrior than the Charlton Heston’s deliver in The Ten Commandments. So it seems God is to be overlooked once again in His own story [sigh]

So pardon the elaborate essay, but some of these topics have been on my mind for some time. So back to the burning question, my favorite depiction of God in cinema is the kind that presents Him in a respectful and authentic way. I don’t think the [borrowing Josh’ statement here] ‘hit me over the head with your belief’ approach appeals to me and I don’t think it rarely inspire people anyway. Subtlety paired with firm conviction can work wonders and as with the case of Ben-Hur, it proves to be quite powerful. The genre itself doesn’t really matter to me, whether it’s a grand, sweeping epic or a small indie about someone struggling with their faith, what I’d like to see is a stimulating and thought-provoking story of how God relates to man that makes me pause and reflect on our own belief, whatever that may be.


So there you have it folks. I welcome any comment you may have, and feel free to give your own answer to Josh’s question on your preference of God being depicted in cinema.

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38 thoughts on “Easter Special – ‘God is in the Movies’ Blogathon

  1. Ben-Hur is a film I hope to see soon as I often watch The Ten Commandments during this time as it’s kind of a tradition of sorts. For me, Willem Dafoe does the best portrayal of Jesus Christ. I have no interest in watching Son of God as I think it’s just blatant Christian propaganda. To me, the best film about faith is…. Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

    1. I hope you give Ben-Hur a watch soon, it’s a brilliant film. I couldn’t disagree more about Dafoe and the Monty Python movie though, but then you probably already knew that 🙂

        1. Why does it sadden you?? Not everyone is going to love the same type of stuff. It may be hilarious to some but it could be deeply offensive to some as well.

          1. But that film isn’t offensive except to those who are very sensitive or just very ignorant about their faith.

            I’m guessing you didn’t get that “you make me sad’ joke.

  2. I’ve never seen Ben-Hur, but you inspire in me a desire to. I agree with you that subtlety does wonders over smack you in the head. I love that you say “That’s why I choose NOT to watch films that I feel is deliberately blasphemous or show obvious contempt for the subject matter.” I totally agree! Cheers 🙂

    1. Hi yaykisspurr! Oh I hope you would see Ben-Hur soon, I think it’s a brilliant and moving story. Glad you agree w/ my sentiment about blasphemous films, I just can’t find it in my heart to support such projects.

  3. Ted S.

    A great and thoughtful write up Ruth. Personally I don’t really care how Hollywood portrays God in films since I’m non a believer. But I thought both The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ were great films, taking only as an art form, both of those films were quite excellent. I understand that both has their shares of controversies but I’ve never read the Bible or even a Christian, so I didn’t care what people were pissed about each film.

    I still want to see Noah but probably will wait till it hits Bluray since it’s no longer play at premium theaters, IMAX and Dolby Atmos.

    1. Hi Ted, hope your ankle is mending swiftly.

      I suppose if you don’t have any spiritual connection with a certain art form then you can see things with neutral eyes. It pains me that some people actually bashed ‘The Passion’ even without seeing it and calling it a bad film because they don’t like the subject matter, whilst obviously as an art form it’s a masterful piece of work.

      1. Ted S.

        The swollen went down but I can’t put the pressure on it yet, kind of sucks because now I can’t go the gym for a while. I’ve been working out hard to loose more weight and I’ve lost some already, now hopefully I won’t gain the weight back.

        BTW, I sent you an email about Locke showing, can’t make it. 😦

        1. That’s too bad Ted. I couldn’t go to Zumba for 2 months when I twisted my ankle last Fall.

          Btw, Locke screening isn’t until next Monday 4/28

  4. Wow! Tremendous post Ruth and filled with food for thought. As a fellow believer I obviously take note of how Jesus is depicted in movies. I 100% agree that Caviezel was brilliant. Fully committed performance that captured so much. I also think The Gospel of John is exceptional. It is almost a study piece which may turn off some. I find it as a wonderful rarity.

    Ben-Hur? Absolutely! It’s such a moving epic and at the risk of sounding old ‘they don’t make movies like that any more’. In fact, modern holiday would NEVER make that movie today! Instead we get weird mutated stories like Noah with other weird and self-serving motivations behind them. Hate hearing that Exodus may be more of that!

    Again, loved the post. Hope you have a wonderful and blessed Easter weekend!

    1. Thanks Keith! I really think it’s a shame that Caviezel was overlooked in ‘The Passion’ as he really gave his all to portray Christ, talk about suffering for his art as well as for his conviction. I’m glad you have seen The Gospel of John as well, I bought the dvd and lent it to a friend to watch with his family.

      Ben-Hur is truly a masterpiece and perhaps one that would never be done again. Even if they remake it, I doubt that they would retain the Christ portion they way it did in the 1959 version, which has the tagline ‘A Tale of the Christ.’

      Happy Easter to you as well!

  5. Great post, Ruth. I’m not a man of faith really, but I still agree with most of your thoughts. I too would want a movie that shows the humaneness of faith, the way it can lift up the devout, without prolestyzing.

    I haven’t seen Ben Hur. But that scene sounds truly amazing.

    1. Hi Josh, I hope you get to see Ben-Hur one day. I love it for the redemptive quality but as an artwork it’s also exceptional. It was the first film to win 11 Academy Awards, tho there have been others that won the same amount of Oscars, but some of the newer categories didn’t even exist yet at the time of Ben-Hur’s release in 1959, which made the 11 wins all the more impressive. The chariot scene alone is worth a watch!

  6. Really interesting post Ruth and a thought provoking blogathon. This is a hard one but I guess I’d have to fall into the Ingmar Bergman camp or films of that ilk – films that subtly raise themes of spirituality rather than full on Biblical epics.

      1. I recommend Through A Glass Darkly if you haven’t seen it already. It’s a very interesting exploration of a lonely woman’s state of mind and descent into madness. There’s a review of it on my blog. I liked Seventh Seal too although that one is much harder work – I probably need to see it again to really dig deep into the meanings.

        1. Oh great recommendation! I have been meaning to see The Seventh Seal but I’ll put ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ on my to-watch list as well.

  7. Marvelous post Ruth. Thank you so much for contributing. I have to completely agree with you on the depiction of Christ. I usually avoid all films dealing with the Bible, mostly because they tend to veer too far for my taste, and I did LOATHE The Last Temptation of Christ to such a degree that it soured me on attempting to watch a film on Christ ever again, but I have always desired to see Passion of the Christ.

    I love Ben-Hur though, outside of Heston’s wooden performance (but I know I’m in a minority there).

    I just love the thought you put into this Ruth. Such a beautifully well-rounded and thought provoking piece.

    1. Hi Andrew! Thank YOU for hosting this blogathon which topic is dear to my heart. I could only muster seeing a couple of clips of The Last Temptation of Christ, as the very idea of seeing our Lord depicted in such a way is just too painful. By the same token, it’s also painful to watch Christian films with that ‘beat me over the head’ style as I think it actually defeats the purpose of inspiring people.

      Ahah, well I think Heston’s acting style might be considered wooden to some but I don’t have an issue with it. I do think he’s not Jewish looking in the slightest to be playing a Jewish prince. In any case though, I think the film as a whole is quite a masterpiece by William Wyler.

      Thank you for the kind words and for giving me the opportunity to write it 😀

  8. PrairieGirl

    The scene with Heston, the soldier, and Jesus with water in Ben Hur was one of the most powerful and moving exchanges I’ve ever seen. It practically took my breath away the first time I saw it. It’s wonderful to be reminded of it this Easter season.

    1. Hi Becky! I really think the way Christ’s depicted in Ben-Hur is still one of the most powerful scenes of ALL films I saw in my lifetime. It still deeply moved me when I saw it last week, I think it always will.

  9. I loved this post, Ruth and I share your sentiments. I especially loved this line you wrote about the Ben-Hur scene with Jesus in it: “He can’t take his eyes off his Savior as he’s led away, still in chains but somehow free.” -powerful.

    I have a hard time with some Biblical films as well. Because it seems recently that regardless of it “being an art”…the films tend to be one-sided lately in carrying a message of being a story with God in it but not a film about God or His power. Like what you note about Ridley Scott’s upcoming Exodus or as was seen in Noah. Granted, I don’t expect the film to be terrible, but it makes me sad when those aspects of the great work of God is then attributed to the “great” works of man.

    Like you, I tend to avoid several films that I know will make me upset in the manner in which our Lord is referenced. I haven’t even bothered to see Bruce Almighty believe it or not.

    A wonderful post here and I hope you have a blessed Resurrection Sunday.

    1. Hi T! Thank you for reading, my friend! I wrote that line a while ago, I couldn’t find another way to describe Judah in that very moment as he kept looking at Jesus. He didn’t even notice he was being whipped!

      It seems that it’s more ‘en vogue’ these days to have their own interpretation of God but yet they still turn to the Bible as a source for their stories. I don’t think the filmmakers of Ben-Hur was a believer either but I respect that they didn’t try to come up with their own vision about Christ.

      I actually did see Bruce Almighty. It’s interesting tho that the director Tom Shadyac is supposedly a Christian, and it seems that he didn’t make the film as a mockery of God. But if you don’t want to see it, I totally respect that T, I haven’t seen it in ages and I actually skipped the sequel, Evan Almighty.

  10. Pingback: » Movie Review – Passion of The Christ, The Fernby Films

  11. This is the most serious post you have ever written Ruth! Although webhave different beliefs but I can totally relate to your post…you and I still believe in God in the world where most people tend to ignore God.

    Great post even though I can’t answer the question.

    Anyway…Selamat Paskah Ruth. (I notice that Easter in western is more to celebration while here in our country Christians honor the day as a thoughful day)…no bunny ever mentioned.

    1. Hello Nov! Thank you, it is a personal topic for me, but also quite timely given so many Biblical films are coming out.

      It’s true that society is increasingly becoming atheistic and even against God. But for me, that’s all the more reason that I held on to my trust in Him.

      Yeah I think in countries where Christians are a minority, Easter is celebrated more as a religious holiday instead of about bunnies and colorful eggs. Just like Santa is the center of attention around Christmas 😦

      1. Same here..there’s a scientist saying this (I forgot who) ‘the more I learn science the more I believe in God’ and I agree with him.

        I know, I saw santa in the mall but still people are going to Church on Christmas instead of having a party.
        I even asked my friend once why Santa is more famous than the birth of Jesus, she was also wondering because in here (and I saw in news, also in most if south american countries) it’s more to that special day than santa

  12. First, yours and Josh’s posts are the two I look forward to reading; you two always comment on my posts and I can’t thank you enough. Therefore, how the heck did I miss this on the 17th? I scroll down my reader and somehow missed it. Yes, I’m busy, but shoot. So thank you for inviting me to read your post. Having got that off my chest, your post is great! I agree with you that God depicted in film should be reverent–Ben Hur is one of my all time favorites for this reason–Charlton Heston humbled as JC walks by is the best scene in the whole film. Mel Gibson was trying to be realistic, and I’m sure JC was a bloody mess, but I find it distracting and over-the-top. The recent film ‘Noah’ was poor because it side stepped God all together which I felt was a big mistake.

    1. Hello Cindy! Aww, likewise girl, I always love your historical and insightful perspective on films, plus you’re so fun to talk to 😀

      Hope you had a lovely Easter. It was such a perfect timing that Andrew’s blogathon was about God in the Movies. To me, Ben-Hur is always my go-to inspirational film precisely because of the powerful portrayal of the Christ story in parallel to Judah’s fictional journey.

      I hear ya about POTC being distracting for its gruesome violence, I too find it hard to see it and it was just being shown at a Good Friday service last week. Even the sounds is really too much to bear. Interestingly, when Gibson was asked by a Christian reporter why he didn’t tone down the violence, he replied, well I DID tone it down. I think in the Bible Christ was said to be horribly disfigured that he didn’t even resemble a human being.

      As for Noah, that is exactly my issue with it. That’s why I haven’t seen it yet, I might still give it a rent out of curiosity though.

  13. Excellent post, Ruth! I’d much rather see God depicted subtly than in a “hit me over the head with your belief” way.

    Since you welcome any comment, I did want to address your comment on The Last Temptation of Christ. To be fair, I think calling it blasphemous is rather dismissive, even if the film uses fiction to tackle Jesus’ story. Like you mentioned, it’s the intent that’s important. Jesus’ last temptation on the cross is explored in TLTOC to portray Him as both a man and the son of God. It tackles the kind of temptations He (as a man) might have resisted to remain pure and blameless (as God’s son). I know it’s a slippery slope, but I appreciate what Scorsese was going for in that film.

    1. Hi Josh! Yes I do welcome any respectful comment even if I disagree. The thing w/ TLTOC, it portrays Christ as fantasizing about having sexual relations with a woman, and that contradicts with what He said in the Bible that even thinking about it is already considered an act of sin, and I believe Christ as a man without sin. I felt that it’s a sensational interpretation of His life that I don’t find respectful, so as a believer I have a very hard time accepting that.

      1. Good point, Ruth. But is He fantasizing or just being tempted (as He was in the desert for 40 days)? I wonder if the filmmakers tried to depict the latter and ended up with the former. Maybe they were just too extreme with their ideas.

        1. Hi Josh, well that’s the thing. There’s a big difference even if it’s a fine line, between Him fantasizing and being tempted, it seems that in the film it came out as the former. I don’t know if Scorsese was conscious of it the way Aronofsky did in sidestepping God in the story of Noah though.

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