The current film “Son of God” tells us as much about the movements and tensions of our world today as it does tell the story of Jesus. The film reminds us that one surefire way to understand what is going in the culture is to look at how Jesus shows up in the movies.
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey do just that in the Atlantic, as they wonder “whatever happened to hippie Jesus?”
Jesus films have not always been so serious, and they have not always been directed toward particular segments of the Christian community. In the 1970s, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar used whimsy, even silliness, to tell the old, old story, and both sought mass appeal. Neither film grabbed the market share Passion of the Christ did, but they were popular for their day. Why did so many Americans of the 1970s gravitate to inventive, artistic, and playful accounts of Jesus, while today Christ films are brutal and interested giving in a literal-seeming interpretation of the Bible?
Jesus Christ has played a prominent role in the American cinema since its modern genesis. In the beginning of the 20th century, directors D. W. Griffith and Cecil DeMille not only made the son of God a star on the silver screen, but also consciously set him in conversation with the nation’s most visible problems. After Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying film Birth of a Nation (1915) had Jesus appear to bless white supremacy, Griffith tried to prove his love for liberty with Intolerance (1916). In it, nasty Jews crucify the peaceful Jesus. Understandably, this had American Jews crying racism, much as blacks had done with the first film.
Ten years later, DeMille produced the first major “talkie” that starred Jesus, The King of Kings (1927). A relatively benign bio-pic, The King of Kings offered Americans a way to contain diversity within unanimity. From the 1880s to the 1920s, the nation changed dramatically in its demographics. Massive immigration had brought to the shores millions of non-Protestants and peoples deemed non-white. They had their “kings,” spiritual and political, but DeMille’s film was there to remind everyone that Jesus was the “king of kings.”
So what does the new film tell us? Blum and Harvey don’t think that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ nor the current Son of God could have happened in the 1970’s. For one thing, convervative Catholics and conservative evangelicals were still at odds with each other. Their current alliance in politics and the culture wars had not happened yet. Also, since the 1970’s a whole industry has built itself around devotion. They write:
By the time of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, an entire industry of the devout had been created. It boasted singers like Amy Grant, athletes like NBA star David Robinson, restaurants like Chic-fil-A, and painters like Thomas Kinkade. Those markets, along with conservative media outlets, made the Son of God and The Passion not only possible, but lucrative. In fact, a main sponsor of The Bible miniseries was the dating site Christian Mingle….
…Neither the Son of God nor Passion of the Christ provides a playful side to the story of Jesus, in part, because viewers can find that elsewhere. But even more, the films tell us something about the market. The devout niche is defined by exactly that: devotion. This audience is looking for portrayals of their faith that take it as important and true, and not as the stuff of jokes