This is a first for my blog, I’m writing a movie review of The Son of God. I should start out by saying that I not a professional movie critic, nor do I have significant experience with movie-making from any angle, be it acting, directing, editing, etc. To that end, there’s only so far that my opinions on the movie are useful to others. As a writer and communicator, however, I am very much aware that movies can never be completely enslaved to the book that inspired it. Books and movies are different media of communication and story-telling; you can do stuff in books that movies just can’t do (like get inside the characters’ heads) and you can do stuff in movies that books can’t do (like exploiting the visuals to give clues and references about other events). Books and movies simply have to be at least a little different.
That in itself should be a red flag for Christians. If we really believe that the Bible is the authoritative word from God – his perfect revelation of Christ to mankind – then we really should think twice about how we “translate” it from a book to another medium of communication. Once you start doing that, you’re actually entering into questions of theology and exegesis (which is a fancy word for “authorial intent”). This is also the background undergirding the office of Christian preaching and teaching. As with any book being made into a movie, the producers have to know not only the story that the book tells on the surface, but also have some deeper insight into the ‘spirit of the story’ or what the author was trying to say through the story in order to preserve and amplify that spirit and intent in the movie version. Because, as Christians, we believe the Bible is co-authored by God and humans, this basically requires the producers to have insight into God’s intention in the Bible (theology) and insight into the human authors’ intentions in the Bible (exegesis). As one who preaches every week, welcome to my world!
It is on that basis that I can proceed with writing a movie review – how did The Son of God do with communicating the stories in the Bible? And for the sake of those who like to cut to the chase, I’m organizing my thoughts into what I thought was good, questionable, and problematic, before offering some final thoughts.
A pleasant surprise popped up when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The Gospel books, being books narrated by their authors, were able to step back and say “this was to fulfill what was written by the prophet…” But a movie with too much narration like that gets very tedious very quickly. So instead the movie put that Old Testament reference in the mouth of the High Priest when he hears that Jesus is entering the city. That was brilliant: it both gives the audience some Old Testament background holding up who/what Jesus is, and shows that the High Priest was aware of the significance of what was going on.
When Jesus was teaching in the Temple, and delivers the classic line “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” he tosses the coin to the nearby Roman military officer. That was a really neat flair, I thought. It made me smile. And it helps clarify just how serious this statement was: yes, pay taxes even to those who oppress you and hate you.
Building from that, the rough relationship between the Roman authorities and Jewish religious leaders was also very well depicted in this movie, I thought. In the trial sequence, particularly, it came out quite strongly that the Jewish leaders were trying to protect their people, Jerusalem, and the Temple. There was even a reference to an easily-missed verse (John 18:14) when Caiaphas suggested that Jesus’ death would be for the good of the entire Jewish nation.
One of the best things this movie did on more than one occasion was juxtapose events against one another into a brilliant compare & contrast moment. For example, one of the pharisees, Nicodemus, came to Jesus under cover to learn more from him. At the same time, but cutting back and forth between the two scenes, Judas was arranging to betray Jesus to the High Priest, Caiaphas. Now, we don’t know, chronologically, when Nicodemus had that conversation with Jesus, so putting Nicodemus’ inquiry alongside Judas’ betrayal made for a really neat juxtaposition. Jesus sure was a controversial figure, and he both gained and lost followers throughout his ministry.
Another cool juxtaposition was during the Garden of Gethsemane prayer scene. Jesus was praying to the Father, the Jewish Priests were praying in the Temple, and Pilate and his wife were praying to the gods in their home. It was really fun to see the differences between Jesus’ prayer of great humility, the Priests’ prayer of great self-assurance, and the Romans’ prayers to idols. I wish the movie had expanded on those cut scenes just a little more.
Combining the political comments a few paragraphs up and the character of Nicodemus afterward, the trial of Jesus in this movie had some excellent Jewish legal background provided by Nicodemus, pointing out some of the issues of having a trial at night, insufficient witnesses, and so forth. ‘Twas a great way to bring in more Old Testament material without interrupting the flow of the story.
If you’re Catholic, or at least influenced by popular Catholic devotions, there was a lot of material during the suffering of Christ in this movie that you’d love seeing. First of all, when Jesus is given his cross to carry, the first thing he does as he grabs hold of it to carry it is: he kisses it. Veneration of the Cross, anyone? Rejoice in your trials and sufferings. Additionally, most (if not quite all fourteen) of the Stations of the Cross were included in this movie. It shows that the producers had an eye on tradition and history alongside the Bible in the course of crafting this movie.
Alongside that, it was also great to see Simon of Cyrene helping carry the cross. Cyrene was a Greek colony in Northern Africa, so Simon could likely have been Greek, though in the movie he was a black African. It seemed like a tasteful and geographically accurate way to depict the racial diversity that would have been in Jerusalem at that time.
Finally, on the cross, I was impressed that the movie managed to squeeze in all seven last words of Christ. With the season of Lent upon us right now, these sayings are fresh on my mind, so I was curious to see how many of them would make it into the movie. It was a delight to see them all, and (if I remember correctly) even in the traditional order.
“We’re going to change the world,” Jesus said to Peter when he called him to follow him and be a fisher of men. It sounds rather cliche to me, even though it’s perfectly true. But cliche isn’t my area to critique. What strikes me as questionable here is that when Jesus called Peter (and the rest of the twelve, and by the way, in the biblical order Peter wasn’t the first anyway) Jesus’ teaching was heavily emphasizing the “repent, for the kingdom of God is near” sort of message. That “change the world” line is so vague by comparison that it seems to de-fang Jesus’ ministerial focus a bit.
Another potential issue is the story of Lazarus. Granted in just one movie there was probably no way to communicate that Lazarus and Jesus were already friends. And it was a little odd that Mary Magdalene took the initiative in the movie to ask Martha what happened rather than Jesus finding out directly. (Although there has been a prominent stream of thought through history that has identified Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha & Lazarus, to be the same person. It’s not a popular view today, but perhaps that view would explain why the movie has Mary speak with Martha first.) But what’s more important is how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In the movie he climbs into the tomb and touches Lazarus to bring him life. In the Bible Jesus commands him to arise from outside the tomb. Again this could be seen as a reduction of Jesus’ power, requiring his physical involvement when sometimes a word was all that was required. Jesus’ miracle-working ministry in the Bible was pretty diverse; it’d be good for a movie to reflect that diversity too.
Since we’ve mentioned Mary Magdalene, let’s talk about her next. From the Bible, we don’t know much about her. She had seven demons cast out of her by Jesus at some point, and become one of his loyal disciples. Her main feature in the Scriptures is her role visiting the tomb of Jesus, being the first to see him alive, and then informing the apostles. In the movie that whole post-resurrection sequence struck me as a bit rushed and almost carelessly put together compared to much of the rest of the movie. And she is featured prominently throughout the movie as one of Jesus’ most loyal disciples. While this is appropriate for the crucifixion and resurrection scenes, we don’t know how early into Jesus’ ministry this can be applied. And when she even replaces James in the garden of Gethsemane, I can’t help but feel like they’ve taken her character too far. I understand that there’s a distinct lack of women in the story as it is by today’s standards, but this movie’s solution doesn’t seem a satisfactory solution.
Peter’s denial of Jesus was poorly done in this movie. Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before dawn (which is a fine paraphrase of “before the cock crows”) but when Peter denies Christ in the movie, it is clearly broad daylight. At worst this makes Jesus’ prophetic abilities look inaccurate. At best it was a sloppy oversight, almost as if it was almost forgotten. It doesn’t wreck the movie or undermine good theology; it just makes it look bad for a moment. Also, it’s a shame to include Peter’s denial while leaving out his restoration by Jesus after the resurrection.
That brings me to another questionable moment: the apparent celebration of Communion by the disciples after Jesus is discovered to be alive. From a movie narrative standpoint, this scene could be understood as a restoration of Peter as one of the disciples. However, as far as matching the Bible is concerned, it gives a very confused combination of post-resurrections stories. The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize Jesus when he breaks bread with them, Jesus appears to ten of the disciples and then to all eleven to correct Thomas’ faith, along with several other appearances. But the movie takes those scenes and crams then into one, centering it around Peter celebrating Communion with them. It’s almost as if saying “if we do this communion thing, Jesus will appear!” And while that has positive implications toward the doctrine of the Real Presence, it may be communicating that the resurrection of Jesus was not bodily, but only mystical or spiritual.
Something else that struck me as interesting was how the Jewish Priests’ staff filtered the crowd that came into the courtyard to decide if Jesus or Barabbas would be released. On one hand that seemed like a cool addition to the biblical material, highlighting the craftiness of the Priests. On the other hand, though, it leaves room for the movie-watcher to consider that the majority may still have wanted Jesus alive, and I’m not sure that’s a reasonable understanding of Scripture. The crowds that welcomed him as king were generally the same crowds who shouted “crucify him.” Even by having Mary Magdalene and some of the other disciples in the background trying in vain to shout out Jesus’ name seems a bit of a stretch to me – most of them had abandoned him at that point, and I’m not sure it’s a safe assumption that they’d be so openly defending Jesus at that point.
Finally, while there was a good sampling of Jesus’ teachings throughout the movie, including ethical material from the Sermon on the Mount and a few parables from later on, there was a distinct lack of the “repent” message compared to the “believe in me” message. Sure, nobody enjoys a hellfire preacher in the movie theater, but if it’s a movie about Jesus shouldn’t that have come up a little more often than it did?
Jesus’ prediction of his death was very poorly handled in this movie. Although it can be challenging to get the chronology of the Gospel books to match up neatly, it’s still very clear that Jesus predicted his suffering and death at least three times before the Last Supper. But the movie strongly implied that Jesus got this premonition during the supper. Yes, the impending death of Jesus was something that hung heavily over the supper, but there was a lot going on besides that, and the movie reduced it almost exclusively to the betrayal and death. I’ll get back to that shortly.
Next, though, is the institution of Communion. What Jesus says in the movie struck me as a pretty poor translation of the actual words of institution. I’d have to go watch it again to double check, but the translation seemed to imply a bare memorialist view of Communion. That works just fine for the majority of Evangelicals watching the movie, but for those who hold to sacramental theology the words of Jesus in the movie were pretty close to sacrilege.
Then we get to the betrayal of Judas. Again, this is one of those moments in Scripture that is very difficult to unravel. Here’s a quick summary:
Matthew 26:20-25 = the disciples ask “is it I?” and Jesus answers to Judas “yes”
Mark 14:18-21 = the disciples ask “is it I?” and Jesus says it’s someone who’s eating bread from the dish like he is
Luke 22:21-23 = the disciples are wondering who the traitor is
John 13:21-30 = John & Peter ask who the traitor is, Jesus indicates by giving a piece of bread to Judas, who then leaves, but the other disciples don’t know why
The movie seems to combine Matthew & John’s accounts by having Jesus say “it’s the one that I give this bread to” after everyone asks who the traitor will be. The worst part of all this is that Jesus seems to be pressuring Judas into eating the bread by slowly moving it close to his mouth. This implies that Jesus endorsed Judas’ betrayal, which is hogwash. The reality is that, as most of the Gospel books describe, Satan entered into Judas beforehand; his mind was already made up. Besides that, the Gospel books clearly show that the disciples were confused, while the movie makes it perfectly obvious to them all that Judas was a traitor, to the point where Peter tries to stop him from leaving.
Last of all, the appearance of the resurrected Jesus was concerning. With all the glowy light effects, he came across more like an angel or a spirit than a bodily-resurrected man. Christianity asserts without apology or hesitation that Jesus rose in the flesh (and thus so shall we). It’s understandable that the movie would portray him looking a little different upon his resurrection, but the effect made him seem non-human, which is absolutely the last thing it should communicate.
Scrolling through all that I’ve written above, it seems that I have close to equal amounts of things to say about good things, so-so things, and bad things. Though if you count by number of items I wrote about, I have about as many good things to say as questions & problems combined. And that’s an accurate reflection of my overall impression of The Son of God – it was largely a movie I enjoyed. There were definitely some things I would have done differently if I were in charge, and several questions that I would ask the producers given the chance, but such things are inevitable. It’s a movie, not the Bible; it simply can’t be the same.
And there’s a whole host of aesthetic questions that could be brought up: why Jesus the only long-haired male in the movie? Why was Jesus and his mother so white-skinned? Why all the British accents? What’s up with Jesus’ creepy grin? We can discuss things like that until we’re blue in the face; you’ll never make everyone happy. At the end of the day it’s a matter of practical and cultural considerations. We English speakers tend to look up to the British accents as being respectable. We English speakers also tend to be white-skinned Europeans. How much time and energy is it worth trying to find quality actors who look like Palestinians, Jews, Greeks, and Romans? Just repeat to yourself: “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”
That’s how I would recommend this movie to others, too: relax and enjoy. It’s entertainment, it’s fun, and it can be of devotional value too, helping us to visualize and “hear” various parts of the biblical narrative. But I wouldn’t stretch this movie past its bounds: its use as a teaching tool or evangelistic tool is pretty minimal. Enjoy it for what it is, and don’t try to make it something that it’s not.