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Films define image of Jesus

(ran PW edition of PT)

It's spring again: gentle rains, yellow tulips, Easter.

As soon as the grass begins to green, TV and cable networks nationwide roll away the stones that seal their movie archives to rerun an array of films that depict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

More than at any other time of the year, the pre-Easter season is when Christians gather before their televisions to worship at the shrine of "the celluloid savior."

"There is a significant portion of Protestants, Catholics and other Christians that still believe the time of Lent is to focus on the passion, and you have an audience," said Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

"The image of Jesus and his story will not let go of our culture nor will our culture get rid of it," he said.

For the past three years, Humphries-Brooks has taught a course called "The Celluloid Savior," which explores the history, trends and cultural significance of films about Jesus. He contends a majority of his students, as well as most other Americans, get their ideas about Jesus from Hollywood rather than from the Bible.

"Students come into my class with a preset interpretation of Jesus . . . much of which does not appear to be from the church but from the media, especially film," he said.

Some film scholars believe four films _ Jesus of Nazareth, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Jesus Christ, Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ _ have played instrumental roles in developing America's perceptions about Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth, the 1977 NBC miniseries by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, "is the current cultural definer of who Jesus is," said Humphries-Brooks.

Viewing Zeffirelli's film remains for many a favored rite of spring because Americans feel comfortable with its traditional portrayal of Jesus, he said. "Read against the Gospels and popular mainstream piety, this is a canonical film."

Terry Lindvall, who taught film courses at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., for 15 years before becoming the school's president, agrees that film has overtaken Scripture as the major force shaping America's ideas about Jesus and the Bible.

"We have become people of the image rather than people of the word," he said.

Consequently, Jesus of Nazareth continues to have the greatest impact on impressions about Jesus, he said, agreeing with Humphries-Brooks.

"It is both reverential and entertaining, it captures the drama and the passion of the Gospels," Lindvall said. "It's still great entertainment."

Lindvall isn't completely taken with the high-polished aesthetics of Jesus of Nazareth.

"If there is any fault with Zeffirelli's film it's that he shows more of his own artistry, so you are left with other impressions than what is . . . the Gospel," he said. "It becomes a museum piece."

In stark contrast to Zeffirelli's reverent, smooth portrayal of Jesus stands the gritty The Gospel According to St. Matthew, directed by another Italian, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in 1966. Unlike most other biblical films, Pasolini produced a low-budget film using a non-professional cast to capture the ruggedness of first-century Palestine. Viewers come away from this film with an altogether different view of Jesus.

"There's not a camouflaging in Pasolini's film," said Lindvall, who claims The Gospel According to St. Matthew as his favorite Jesus film. "It is a literal, almost materialistic, Marxist approach. It shows the subversive elements of Jesus. . . . Jesus is more of an angry, young revolutionist who supports the poor and the oppressed."

A subversive Jesus is also found in Jesus Christ, Superstar, the 1973 rock opera that was a huge success as a stage production and a film. Humphries-Brooks said Superstar is another primary source of his students' sensibilities about Jesus because many grew up in homes where baby-boomer parents frequently played the soundtrack.

"The Jesus of Superstar is a counterculture, semirevolutionary figure not sure of his relationship to God," Humphries-Brooks said. "It is a dramatic reinterpretation (of the Gospels) and it offended when it came out."

Lindvall isn't offended by Jesus Christ, Superstar, only by its un-super Jesus, Ted Neely, who Lindvall said has an "irritating and limp screen presence. . . . Who would want to follow him?"

Not so with the hip Jesus of Godspell, another 1973 film based on a Broadway smash that presented Jesus neither as reverent nor revolutionary, but as a modern-day New York City clown, whose parables reveal the secrets of life.

"Godspell had a fresh effect on me," said Lindvall. "It was a celebration of the gospel. . . . It portrayed a hippie Christ you wanted to be around to see what he was going to do next. . . . It was one of the freshest treatments."

And what sort of impressions do viewers come away with after seeing Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, arguably the most controversial film on the life of the Nazarene?

"In a certain sense, it is exceptionally orthodox," Humphries-Brooks said of the 1988 film that caused a furor because it depicts Jesus in sexual situations.

"One of the major (orthodox) theological problems is how can Jesus be totally human and at the same time totally divine," he said.

In The Last Temptation, this ancient belief is illustrated in "modern form" by Jesus being "torn between the flesh _ wanting to be a homeowner and settling down with Mary (Magdalene) and choosing the divine path," Humphries-Brooks said.

Lindvall believes all films about Jesus, especially those like Scorcese's, are public disclosures of the director's values and beliefs.

But viewers who rely solely on movies to learn about the life of Jesus miss the benefits that come from reading the Gospels directly, Lindvall said.

"When you read the words, they get inside you. On TV or in film you are able to distance yourself. . . . But the words themselves confront."

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