“Faithful Viewer” is an occasional feature in which RNS reporters plumb religion and spirituality in film, television, books, music and other forms of popular culture.
(RNS) An unbeliever in the midst of an existential crisis meets Jesus and has a conversion experience. High-mindedness -- not high jinks -- ensues.
And while a lot has changed in the nearly seven decades since the first of these "come to Jesus" movies, the core plot mechanism of "he-of-little-faith meeting the ultimate man of faith" remains.
Why the resurrection of such an old narrative device, minus the sequined costumes, wigs and Max Factor makeup, which have been replaced by whips, scourges and buckets of blood (thanks, Mel Gibson and "The Passion of the Christ"!)?
"I think the idea of being carried through the narrative of Christ, from his Crucifixion to the Resurrection and the Ascension, through the eyes of nonbeliever allows us to come at this from a soft angle," said Joseph Fiennes, the British actor who plays unbeliever Clavius in "Risen." "Clavius represents the everyman. We’re all on a hunt, theological or not. We’re all on some form of investigation or discovery."
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In "Risen," Clavius is a high-ranking Roman soldier who, as the right-hand man of Pontius Pilate (an excellent Peter Firth), has a front-row seat at the Crucifixion. With his own eyes he sees Jesus dead and buried in a sealed tomb. So when the body is missing and reports of Jesus sightings come in, Clavius turns into the most skeptical of detectives, looking for the corpse.
Instead (SPOILER ALERT!) , he encounters a very much alive, very jolly Jesus ("Yeshua," in this film, played by Cliff Curtis). From there, let's just say Clavius makes some changes in his life.
"It's a nice model and it works," Blizek said. "It is about change. You’re changing for the better. If you're a nonbeliever and you see a nonbeliever become a Christian, the message to you is, 'If you do this you’ll be a happy camper, too.'"
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But that kind of Christian comfort food can work against a movie, said Doug Cowan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo who studies religion and film. Movies that present a more controversial idea of the Gospels or of Jesus -- think "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), where picketers were so upset by the film's married Jesus that they attacked a theater -- can bring in larger audiences, curious about the controversy.
"Those movies aren't hot dogs and beer," Cowan said. "They say there are some very hard things we need to chew over in this movie."
Case in point -- 2004's "The Passion of the Christ." Director-writer Gibson said it was based strictly on the New Testament Gospels, but scholars such as Cowan said it was also based on the very graphic visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century mystic nun. And many critics condemned it for its anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews as the bloodthirsty killers of Jesus.
"That wasn't comfort food," Cowan said, and audiences came out in record numbers.
But gentler, easier-to-swallow Bible movies such as "Risen" have their place, Cowan said. They are for "reality maintenance," he said -- not intended to make new believers as much as to reinforce the beliefs of existing ones.
Hollywood "is always telling the same stories because we are always asking the same questions," Cowan said. "Who are we, where do we come from, what is the purpose of my life? We are simply driven to ask the questions, whether we get the answers or not."
(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for Religion News Service)
Video courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube