“The Son of God,” as a movie and as a depiction of the Christ of the Gospels, was a bit underwhelming, a bit like a mix of Hollywood and a two-year graduate of a Bible college.
I mean no disrespect; my guess is that those who wrote, directed, acted and financed this film see themselves as committed Christians and hope to bring some people to faith and perhaps draw nearer those who tend to share their theology.
The narrative perspective was that of John as an elderly disciple, living as an exiled hermit. I thought the film would then be told from the Gospel of John’s perspective. Indeed, some partial quotes from John 1:1-18 reinforced that — if I would set aside my understanding of John being a part of a worshipping community outside Israel and Judea.
But then, narrative foreign to John’s Gospel was introduced. Most of its significance was either left on the cutting room floor or was never understood. Events and teachings were taken out of context and placed in a new narrative and also out of narrative order. Items foreign to any of the Gospels were added, almost as if chosen by a focus group. Parts bordered on boring — and it is hard to make the Gospels boring.
The Holy Land was made out to be more desolate and dry than it actually is, particularly Galilee. (The bright spot for those sensitive to history was the repeated use of a scale model of Jerusalem constructed several decades earlier by archaeologists.)
Jesus played his part apparently to elicit emotion and show how clever he was but was never allowed to fully engage in the serious theological debates with Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin. The encounter with Nicodemus not only came too late (it is recorded in John Chapter 3) but lost most of its power and the gradual transformation of Nicodemus by the end of John’s Gospel.
It is a challenge to fit the story of Jesus into a two-hour film. If only one Gospel were used, most of it would be edited out. Conflating the four Gospel narratives was not helpful. Out of the seven signs in John’s Gospel, which highlight who Jesus is and what he is about, the film captured only two.
Yet John Chapter 8, which is probably not in the original written text of the Gospels, and a scene in the movie where Veronica hands Jesus a handkerchief on the way to the cross (which doesn’t appear in the Gospel) were given preference in the film over other substantiated teachings and events in John or the other Gospels.
As we approach Easter, we expect Hollywood and other media to roll out teaser headlines and heterodox pap, giving their nod to those poor folk who are too simple to not believe and for genuinely alternative Hollywood to offer its more truthful alternative. But is is also true that this film is disappointing to the hopeful who suspect that the story can be done better and with more fidelity to the Gospels from which it is derived.
For the Christian and non-Christian, my advice is to read one of the Gospels from beginning to end. It won’t take much longer than watching the movie, and it will allow people to judge “The Son of God” on firmer ground.
The film may leave some folks thinking and talking and send some for their Bibles, but that is optimistic thinking. But if you want to watch a movie and believe that you have a deeper understanding of the person and claims of Jesus, try “Jesus of Nazareth,” or for the final days of Jesus, try “The Passion of the Christ.” Neither is perfect, but they come a bit closer than this season’s movie offering to the faithful.
I have not read any published reviews of the film; my wife told me she did read one where the reviewer gave the film two out of a possible five stars. I would tend to agree.
Peter Jessen is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Franklin. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.