The Culture of Christ in the Cinema


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

As hard as it is to believe, Jesus of Montreal turns twenty this year. I recall vividly when it arrived in theaters, mainly because Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ had arrived just the year before (1988) and had been the target of loud protests from the Catholic Church as well as conservative Protestant Christians. Scorcese’s film and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal raised troubling questions for many—questions about one the central figures of their religion. Scorcese, translating to film the even more haunting visions of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel (and the novel is much better than the film), zeroed in on the nature of Jesus. If Jesus was supposed to be human, wouldn’t he have had human desires and urges? What would have prevented him from lustful stirrings for Mary Magdalene, played in the film by a sultry Barbara Hersey? Wait, though, wasn’t Jesus also supposed to be part God? If so, how could he have succumbed to temptation? Wouldn’t Jesus have been above such temptations? Of course, as the novel makes clear, Jesus’ temptation is not simply for a roll in the desert with a hot chick, it’s the temptation to bring salvation to humanity through community, specifically marriage and children. Jesus of Montreal asks no less challenging questions about the nature of Jesus and also faced a good deal of criticism from various religious communities.

This twentieth anniversary of Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal set me thinking this week about the relationship between religion, specifically Christianity, and film. Over the past thirty years, numerous books have probed this relationship, and I have listed those as “further reading” at the end of this column.

Until the 1960s, the phrase “Christian cinema” would have been an oxymoron. Most Christian groups frowned upon the movies, either because, in the eyes of these groups, the movies subverted Christian doctrine or because they encouraged youth to engage in behavior of which the Church did not approve. The Roman Catholic Church expanded its Index of Prohibited Books to include films, thus banning, as part of official Church practice and governance, many movies and forbidding movie-going. Protestants, especially Baptists and Methodists, lumped movie-going into the same moral categories as gambling, dancing, smoking, and card-playing. Although Protestants did not have an Index that was binding on their behavior, they did associate movies with disreputable social behavior and unseemly witness to the Gospel and so forbade (and many still forbid) their congregants to darken the doors of movie theaters. Sheer entertainment was the devil’s playground, and Satan could corrupt innocent youth in those dark palaces of sin.

Christian attitudes toward the cinema began to change in the 1960s, however, as Christian youth cried for ways for churches to make their faith more relevant and as movie makers introduced thoughtful films that engaged religious themes in a serious and not mocking fashion. Individuals like Billy Graham and Nicky Cruz and organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Young Life, among others, saw movies as a way of witnessing to teenagers and making faith relevant for a new generation. Films like A Thief in the Night, made by the Billy Graham organization, and Nicky Cruz’s The Cross and the Switchblade emphasized personal evangelism, focusing on the dramatic and positive shifts that a conversion to Jesus Christ could bring to an individual’s life. These films played primarily to youth groups in various churches around the country as well as to revival meetings targeted specifically to the youth of a city. The success of these films, however, did not mean that Christianity embraced the movies and most churches still condemned many of the films playing at the local theater as immoral and irreligious.

By the mid-1960s, however, two forces combined to change Christian attitudes toward cinema. After 1967, a number of Christian critics began to take film seriously as a medium of understanding the struggle between faith and doubt as well as the sometimes contentious struggle between Christianity and culture. Although many movies showcased an ambivalent attitude toward Christianity and the Church, the films demonstrated how deeply the Christian religion had imbued culture. The first force was the rise of the religion and literature movement in the late 1950s. Nathan A. Scott and others began to ask deep-seated religious questions of literature that most church goers would not have called Christian. Scott wrote about the ways that Christian ideas like hope, redemption, and revelation could be found in readings of novels like Camus’ The Stranger, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka’s The Castle, and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Such readings paved the way for people to start asking similar questions about other forms of art, and the popularity of cinema made it a natural place for such questions to arise. The second force was the steady influx of foreign films from the late 1950s to the 1970s, as well as the rise of American films in 1967 that posed moral and religious questions that challenged Hollywood studios. To be sure, some movies such as The Graduate (1967) and M*A*S*H (1969) might have presented inept Christian religious figures, but the films themselves raised questions about the role of Christianity and the deep contributions that the Christian religion could make to modern society. Ingmar Bergman’s early films—The Seventh Seal (1956) and Winter Light (1962)—asked explicitly religious questions about the nature of authority, belief in God, faith and doubt, and redemption. Films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) raised challenging, and sometimes disturbing, questions about the nature of religious authority and the role of religion in society. While some Christians shunned these films as immoral, numbers of others saw them as ways of talking openly about the role of their faith in society. Thus, from the late 1950s through the beginnings of the twenty-first century, Christians have been engaged in productive examinations of Christian themes in films.

C.S. Lewis once said that there is no such thing as Christian literature, only Christian approaches to literature and consequently examinations of Christian themes in literature. Much the same can be said of film, for while the number of films produced explicitly by Christian organizations or Christian directors is small, the number of films that examine Christian themes is overwhelming. Some of these films examine such themes explicitly, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacular biblical epics, from The Ten Commandments (1924; 1956—his well-known remake of his 1924 film starring Charlton Heston), King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), and Samson and Delilah (1949). Other films examine such themes in a figural, and less explicit, fashion. The epic struggles between good and evil in Star Wars (1977), the Jesus-like figure of R. P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and the conflict between forgiveness and vengeance in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) are only three examples of such figural readings of Christian themes in films.

The distinction between archetypal and figural treatments of Christian themes in films is nowhere better found than in movies about Jesus. Archetypal Jesus films present Jesus as the central character in the film and attempt to follow, almost scene by scene, the life of Jesus from the Gospels. These films are re-presentations of the Gospel stories and formal re-tellings of the life and work of Jesus. The most famous examples of such films are King of Kings, Jesus of Nazareth, The Robe, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell!, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion. On the other hand, films that depict a character who has Christ-like qualities, who might have the initials J.C., who might attempt to mimic the life of Jesus (though he is not named Jesus), or whose life in some way mirrors the life of Jesus are figural treatments of Jesus. The central characters in such film are often called Christ figures. Sometimes all it requires for a protagonist to become a Christ figure is for the character to die a sacrificial death, often with arms outstretched in a cruciform figure. Cool Hand Luke, where the main character challenges authority and dies a sacrificial death, Jesus of Montreal, where the protagonist plays Jesus in the town’s version of the Passion Play and finds himself taking on the identity of Christ, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where a rebellious inmate challenges authority, forms a rag tag group of disciples, and ultimately dies a sacrificial death and is remembered by his followers in their stories about him, are all well-known examples of figural treatments of Jesus.

Since religion often provides the substance of culture and culture is often the form of religion, the examination of Christian themes in film provides one more approach to the understanding of the relationship between cinema and religion in popular culture.

Further reading:
Flesher, Paul V.M. and Robert Torry. Film and Religion: An Introduction. Abingdon Press, 2007.

Jewett, Robert. Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle’s Dialogue with American Culture. Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.

Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Baker Academic, 2006.

Marsh, Clive and Gaye Ortiz, eds. Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 1997.

May, John R. and Michael Bird, eds. Religion in Film. University of Tennessee Press, 1982.

Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values at the Movies. Beacon Press, 1997.

Mitchell, Jolyon and S. Brent Plate, eds. The Religion and Film Reader. Routledge, 2007.

Tatum, W. Barnes. Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. Polebridge Press, 2004.

Wall, James M. Church and Cinema: A Way of Viewing Film. Eerdmans, 1971.

Walsh, Richard. Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film. Trinity Press International, 2003.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.



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