NBC’s 1999 prime-time spectacle Noah’s Ark outraged Christians with its sloppy, cockeyed account of early human history (a heretical time-warp made Noah and Lot pre-flood contemporaries). So when CBS announced it would air a two-part, four-hour miniseries chronicling the life of Christ, families were justifiably leery. Would Jesus honor or reconstruct the historical Savior? Would script and Scripture part company? And how might Christians and Hollywood find common ground on biblical epics?
In the title role, Jeremy Sisto assumes the unenviable task of portraying a historical figure with whom millions of people carry on a daily, personal relationship. In the end, Jesus comes across as a loving, humane, determined, self-sacrificing individual with miraculous powers—including dominion over the grave. But while the saga seems eager to respect the figure of Christ, Jesus commits theological miscues and countless sins of omission.
For example, according to Matthew chapter 3, John the Baptist fervently preached repentance and proclaimed the coming Messiah. In the film, however, that voice crying in the wilderness merely tells people to "hate injustice" and pull themselves up by their bootstraps ("Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean").
The Word also states that when Jesus asked to be baptized, John (recognizing the Lord’s divine nature) humbly replied, "I need to be baptized by you." CBS tells a different story. Asked by Sisto’s Jesus if he will baptize him, John turns to the spotless Lamb and says, "If you confess your sins and dedicate your life to God, of course." Confess sins? Who is this impostor?
Will the Real Jesus Christ Please Stand Up?
John the Baptist isn’t the only one confused about the Nazarene carpenter’s mission. Jesus himself seems to be learning as he goes rather than following a meticulously preordained directive. Reluctant to begin his ministry, he’s practically tossed from the nest by Mary and Joseph. Only after Joseph dies (and a grieving Jesus demands that God resurrect him), does Christ take steps to fulfill his destiny. He returns from forty days in the wilderness to find men waiting to follow him, but shrugs them off incredulously until Mary straightens him out.
Prior to delivering the sermon on the mount, Jesus scans the crowd and asks his disciples what they think the people want. Peter explains that they want him to speak. Jesus replies, "Do you think I have anything to say?" Based on the gospel of Matthew, he had a great deal to say, although little of eternal consequence made it into the script. Amid gentle heckling from the crowd, this Jesus promotes peace, love and understanding without many of the unpopular claims and life-altering challenges that thinned crowds and upset Pharisees. It’s a soft gospel delivered with all the authority of a child winging a book report. A scene that should have quit while it was ahead involves the Syrophoenician woman pleading for Jesus to heal her daughter (drawn from Mark 7:24-30). After honoring her faith with a miracle, he informs his disciples, "This woman has taught me that my message is for the gentiles as well. If I can learn, so can you. Did the omniscient cocreator of the universe really "learn" about his calling from us?
While some dialogue goes too far, other exchanges don’t go far enough. Time constraints notwithstanding, critical sermonettes sound gutted and abstract. For instance, Jesus predicts his death onscreen without a word about the hard, yet pivotal teachings that immediately follow in Matthew 16:24-28.
Furthermore, the Lord appears prostrate in Gethsemane where he receives a poignant (if undocumented) visit from an Armani-clad Satan who tries to convince Christ that his martyrdom will be in vain. Jesus points out, "I will die for the everlasting kindness of the human heart." Actually, kindness was never a crisis demanding divine intervention; sin and eternal separation from God were.
To be fair, CBS doesn’t entirely miss the point. Jesus says he is "the way." And prior to raising Lazarus from the dead, the Lord assures Mary, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me shall live." Great! In addition, scenes featuring the woman caught in adultery, Jesus walking on the waves, Peter’s denial, and the political ping-pong match between Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate following Christ’s arrest (Luke 22:66-23:25) are all riveting and generally true to the text.
However, many Christians will ache for Jesus to make stronger, more authoritative claims about himself and God’s plan of salvation. Families may also choose the Book over the movie just to avoid bloody violence, brief nudity and shots of Mary Magdalene plying her trade as a prostitute.
Walking a Tightrope
Frustrated network execs must feel trapped in a no-win scenario. First, evangelical Christians complain that prime-time TV relies too heavily on pointless sex, violence and crude humor. Yet when producers try their hand at biblically based movies such as Jesus, the church is quick to point out theological inaccuracies and criticize abuses of creative license.
Believers shouldn’t expect a literal, verse-by-verse replay of biblical events. We can extend Hollywood some grace in the "nonessentials." In Jesus, a concocted character named Liveo is a perfect example. While the Bible never mentions him, the storytellers use Liveo to communicate important background information and bridge scenes in a way that doesn’t undermine or contradict spiritual truth. He loiters on the fringe simply to maintain clarity and continuity.
Filmmakers, on the other hand, must not abuse that grace and should know when they’re treading on sacred ground. The Bible can’t be reduced to Tom Sawyer or The Canterbury Tales. Transcending mere literature, it should be handled with extreme sensitivity. Scripture is more than a series of broad plot points to be woven together with threads spun from whim and convenience. It's about particulars. God dwells in the details, many of which have been changed or ignored for Jesus.
"Who Do Men Say That I Am?"
Jesus Christ Superstar. King of Kings. Jesus of Nazareth. For years, filmmakers have turned their cameras on the life of our Lord, making it the greatest story ever retold. Some versions (most notably The Last Temptation of Christ) have slandered the Gospels. In contrast, ABC’s recent special The Miracle Maker exemplified network TV at its best. And Campus Crusade for Christ’s evangelistic Jesus film has reached an estimated 3.3 billion people in 566 languages, leading countless individuals around the world to a saving knowledge of God’s Son.
Between those extremes lies the gospel according to CBS. Jesus means no harm. It’s just trying to entertain. In doing so, however, it takes liberties that make for a tight story but communicate incomplete, occasionally misleading doctrine. Some scenes are brilliant. Others feel abridged and watered down. A handful will leave Christians righteously indignant. Why tinker with the most compelling and romantic drama ever written? It may be unrealistic to expect Hollywood to represent the Lord with absolute integrity, but the fact remains that few viewers will pause long enough to consider the source, or page through the Bible to verify the accuracy of prime-time theology.