“Son of God,” produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett and directed by Christopher Spencer, was an enormous disappointment. Despite some strong performances, including Darwin Shaw (Peter) and Sebastian Knapp (John the Evangelist), it wasn’t even close to being the greatest Jesus movie of all time, and in fact, it wasn’t even a good movie. Not only was it shallow, disconnected, and self-important, it neglected to show a crucial aspect of Jesus’ saving ministry: relationship. Jesus had and has relationships with us, and with the Father, and he invites us into his intimate relationship with the Father. Nowhere did this crucial element of his life and teaching appear in this film.
The-who-what-where-in-the-what-now? (Trying to make sense of this movie)
The episodes of Jesus’ ministry were never connected with who Jesus was as a person, and characters were drawn with neither depth nor passion. They came and went with no explanation and with no real connection to him or to each other. Several characters were introduced and then abruptly dropped (Martha and Lazarus) or mentioned without us having seen them (John the Baptist), such that we didn’t know and didn’t care about them at all. Mary Magdalene was apparently combined/conflated with Mary of Bethany, which reveals poor attention to detail and scripture (not to mention lazy writing).
The Jesus of the New Testament spent his time teaching, healing, ministering, and offering mercy to those that his culture considered ‘undesireable.’ As he, himself, said, “But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt 9:13). Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to see Jesus among the ‘undesirables’ except for one scene when he calls Levi/Matthew the tax collector to follow him, but this was a one-off scene. Jesus teaching and living at the fringe of acceptable behavior and institutions was merely suggested, not shown in a way that lets the audience understand his purpose. Thus the figure of Jesus comes off as two-dimensional. Many of Jesus’ words from the Gospels are even put into the mouths of interchangeable disciple characters, and the delivery is so flat that they don’t carry any weight.
Morgado offered us a charismatic screen presence, and as such was adequate as Jesus, but he could have been stunning with the right script and direction. As to the critique that he’s a “too sexy” Jesus, that’s only one aspect of what bothers me about this film. There's an excellent commentary on that issue here. For me the issue is more that he’s a “too white” Jesus. Not Morgado’s fault that he’s white, obviously; the blame for this casting falls squarely on the shoulders of the producers.
Co-producer Roma Downey as Mary the Mother of Jesus was simply the wrong woman for the job. She doesn’t pull off the illusion for a moment; it is impossible to suspend disbelief. (I had an easier time with Harvey Kietel as Judas in “Last Temptation of Christ,” and I actually appreciate that film.) Her presence in “Son of God” was distracting at best, and at worst, it detracted from any potential emotional on-screen resonance between Jesus and his mother. The producer who stars in her own film with so many close ups smacks of trying to jump start a career, not honoring the Mother of God.
The disjointedness of scenes was undeniably a huge problem with this movie. Structurally, it felt like the writers took a bunch of stories from the Gospels and threw darts to decide which ones to include. The editing felt amateurish in places, with jump cuts and poor continuity. Perhaps they didn’t have a script supervisor, or didn’t get enough coverage, or maybe they just didn’t care. Pacing was uneven, and some of the cutaways left the audience hanging at what could’ve been emotionally impactful moments. Many of these problems can be traced to the fact that the film was edited down from a much longer made-for-TV movie, which also indicates multiple layers of decision making. This is never the best environment for filmmaking, so once again, we need to turn to the producers.
Ah, the producers…
The producers’ promotional machine for “Son of God” was a grass roots juggernaut that pushed opening weekend sales up to $9.4 mil, past The Lego Movie, to capture the #2 spot for the weekend. Church groups bought up and continue to buy up bundles of tickets, which has helped these numbers considerably. Some would say this is a major victory for Christians in media/Hollywood/pop culture. There is some room for this argument, to be sure. Getting something noticed on the big screen that’s of a spiritual bent and not about guns, sexual violence, or dick-and-fart jokes really is something to be excited about. And the (purchasing) power of organized grassroots efforts cannot be denied; film marketing ain’t what it used to be. Yet the question must be asked: is this image of the non-relational Jesus actually who the producers and supporters of the film believe in? Furthermore, we need to inquire into their agenda for presenting this “plastic” image of Messiah.
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." [greed/debasing material wealth] (Matt 6:24)
One might ask whether the movie was positioned as nothing more than a cash cow for the producers after the success of their TV mini-series based on the Bible. Did they really pay attention to how they were depicting their Savior? How much attention was there to the script and direction that controlled this image? Or were they just drumming up as much expectation and ticket sales as possible without attention to the film they were producing? It’s big, it’s epic, it has familiar names and places if you are a Christian or know anything about Christianity. But does it really tell the story, does it really help the individual to know who Jesus is/was on Earth? And what about those who don’t believe? They see this film, they scoff at Roma Downey’s obvious placement, they get lost in the editing of unconnected vignettes, and they see Jesus’ hair blowing in the wind. What kind of Messiah are they being presented with?
Where’s my Jesus?
Where’s my Jesus?
I don’t pretend to know Downey and Burnett’s motivations or intentions, but I do call them into question. All I can say for sure is that I find their film to be devoid of anyone truly resembling the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who came to set us free from the shackles of our limited understanding of self and other, to give us eternal Life, freeing us from the wages of sin.
Where did “their” Messiah eat with the sinners, explaining to real people in a context they could understand what the Kingdom of Heaven really is? How did their Messiah create relationships with people who most of his society discarded as sub-human? He had his little band of followers, and he preached to crowds, but where is the Son of Man who defended and rejoiced and cried and laughed with his fellow human beings as he taught them how to love by being love? I didn’t see that Messiah at all. In this film, I saw a plastic Jesus, smiling and healing, moving through crowds of people, but not connecting with them. I saw nothing that would encourage his followers today to touch the lives of others and participate in the Kingdom right now, right here.
Evangelizing can be a beautiful thing, but there is more to it than proclamation. There is the doing and the praying and the being. Jesus is the perfection of what we call “contemplative in action,” but we don’t get to see this aspect of him: the part of Jesus that needed to rest, to commune with the Father. In fact, I can’t recall him really talking about his relationship with the Father much at all, except for the Crucifixion dialogue and the Garden of Gethsemane (and let’s face it, Ted Neeley did that better).
Which brings me back to my very first point: this film doesn’t show Jesus living in relationship with the Father or with others, nor does it present his invitation to us to participate directly and intimately in relationship with each other and with the Trinity.
The most notably disturbing scene of “Son of God” is near the end, with Peter suddenly having his own personal epiphany about the Resurrection and then “instituting” the Eucharist on the spur of the moment. The problem isn’t that this scene is extra-Biblical. Rather, the danger is its suggestion that individuals cannot have a relationship with Messiah without a pastor or priest as the intermediary.
Priests and pastors have a necessary function, of course, but this scene clearly posits Peter as the only one who “gets it,” running the show while everyone else just sits around like passive stumps (even though Mary Magdalene has already seen the Risen Lord and everyone thought she was nuts, hello!).
I get that it was supposed to be Eucharistic, but we don’t need to see Peter doing this action because Jesus Messiah already did it! What we needed was to see Peter struggling to forgive himself, then being forgiven by the Resurrected Jesus, and then being told “Feed my lambs...tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” The priest or pastor is to be a caretaker of the flock, not the middle man/woman between them and God.
A friend of mine also pointed out that this scene smacked of “magical thinking,” which is that if we do this particular thing, God will do what we demand because of that action. Peter breaks bread and drinks wine, and visually, we’re told that it’s only because of that performance that Jesus shows up, instead of unexpectedly in their midst at a time of his own choosing as the Gospel presents it. The Eucharist as practiced by Catholics is made as an offering to God, not a magical ritual that demands God’s presence. God’s will is his own and is not dependent upon actions we take or demands we make, and in his wisdom, he knows when to “show up” and how best to help us in the moment! This scene, to me, borders on heretical for these reasons. I know, strong words. But my point stands.
Dang, girl, did you like anything about this movie? Well, yes, there were a few things.
- Jesus meekly taking the cross, kissing it, lying on it without being forced to ~ like a lamb to the slaughter. The Lamb of God. Accepting his cross because of his love for us.
- Cross-cutting the Passover lamb being slaughtered with his Passion.
- Cross-cutting Jesus praying in the Garden, priests praying in the Temple, Romans praying to their gods – although as with most other things in the film, the meaning was lost because it was so disconnected. (Sorry, this is supposed to be the list of what I liked.)
- Jesus being surprised at the visions and flashes of insight, especially the scene after the Last Supper where Peter says he’ll die for Jesus. Jesus embraces him, feeling relieved and supported that his friend is going to stick by him, until he has the vision of Peter denying him three times. Then, when Peter does deny him, they are both knocked to the ground by the Roman guards, and there is the eye contact – Jesus still loving Peter, Peter realizing what he’s just done to his Rabbi. But again, more could’ve been done with this aspect of Jesus’ human/divine love.
- Pilate’s wife having the dream about Jesus and begging Pilate not to kill him.
- Jesus getting into Peter’s boat at the beginning, paired with the later scene of Jesus asking Peter to step out of the boat to walk on water with him.
- John the Evangelist telling the story, and the bit of Revelation at the end. But if we see John, it should be The Gospel of John, which it most definitely wasn’t.
- Everyone had dirty fingernails. Realistic detail.
- I liked that Mary Magdalene was there the entire time, close by Jesus, and that there was no talk of her having been a prostitute (though her earrings and deep red costume colors were suggestive). However, I was highly irritated that she had nothing to do or say that was worthwhile, other than her expression of faith when the other disciples were squabbling, but again, that was never rounded out or connected to her vision of the Risen Messiah, which would’ve been powerful. Instead, it ended up as a throw-away line.
- Morgado’s ability to be gentle yet powerful in the few scenes that allowed him to do something meaningful.
…and…that’s all I got
I really wanted to like this film, but the inaccuracies, poor story telling, "candied" Jesus with only a few sparkling moments thanks to the charisma of Morgado, and Roma Downey’s conceited casting of herself put this at the bottom of my list of films, Christian or otherwise, that I would ever recommend to anyone. In fact, it’s not even on the list. I call into question their motivations for releasing such a poorly made film with such problematic theology and Christology.
Given this fact, I am troubled that a sizable group of Christian moviegoers are taking this in and spitting it out with two thumbs up, uncritically acclaiming it. Are they accepting this plastic Messiah figure as their own, one who doesn’t challenge them to be the more, to be in relationship? That’s a sobering thought. Another troubling aspect of this is that for Christian h8ers, the film and its fawning fans only seem to bolster the ‘dumb Creationists who can’t think for themselves’ stereotype that does not represent Catholicism or Christianity as a whole, and certainly not how God leads us to understand the world in which we live or the creations of humankind (that is to say, with our emotional and intellectual intelligence).
I leave off with a little prayer that God will bring good things out of this film, despite its many shortcomings, and/or that it’ll be a flash in the pan, soon forgotten. Heaven knows, we have more important things to be focused on in this world.