Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Hollywood, White, Glam Jesus and Comments about "Christian" Art

"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him/ nothing in his appearance that we should desire him./ He was despised and rejected by mankind/ a man of suffering, and familiar with pain./ Like one fromwhom people hid their faces/ He was despised, and we held him in low esteem." Isaiah 53:2-3
I am guessing that I am not the only one that sees the huge disconnect between Isaiah's description of the prophesied suffering servant and the image on the poster for the new Son of God film.
First, a disclaimer: I have not seen this film. And I generally get annoyed when people write off things that they have not yet seen. I may or may not see it. But I am interested here in just saying a few words about the marketing and reviews of this film, as well as some deeper considerations about "Christian art" that both the reviews and online conversations instigate.

As for the choice of actor not "fitting" the biblical description: I do not have huge problems with some artistic liberties when re-narrating biblical stories. After all, there are many things that we are not directly told and must imagine. What I do have a HUGE problem with is a film about Jesus  that  (seemingly) conforms more to superficial American marketing standards than to the heart of the gospel narratives, the point that Christ came as a suffering servant, that his birth, life, and even death were not glamorized, marketed, or airbrushed for mass appeal. Again, I have not seen this film so I can only speak to the marketing--and this image of Jesus, as well as others that I have seen from the film, really concerns me. Many critics, Christian and not, have commented on the "sexy," model Jesus. It seems to me that marketing a desirable, easy on the eyes, sexy Jesus is completely missing the point of the gospel itself and pandering to a desired target market. Of course, producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) is no stranger to glam Hollywood formulas.

My second thought about this film deals more with the reviews and conversations surrounding it. Both some Christian and "secular" reviews have commented that the film is mediocre, bland, not well made, --a somewhat tired cataloguing of "Jesus' greatest hits." None of the reviews that I have read have been snarky or mocking of the biblical story; if anything, they are disappointed that such a glorious, beautiful, complex story is told in such a mundane, one dimensional fashion. The best review I have read yet is from The Washington Post. The critic commends the film for its earnestness, but speaks of it as very underwhelming art.

I have a problem with a biblical narrative being made as underwhelming "art." A big problem.  This speaks to the theologically problematic "Christian" cultural view that the quality of the art does not matter as long as it conveys a good message. Of course, then one begins to ask the difference between art and propaganda (I am not saying that this film is propaganda--but I am questioning the often made claim that aesthetics don't matter and are even worldly).

I also have a problem with the idea that critiquing a "Christian" work of art is anti-Christian. We have to separate the reality of the biblical narrative, the mysterious, human, God Jesus Christ himself from a human ret-telling of the story. The story can be told in an unhelpful, shallow way. It can also be told in a way that leads us to ask more questions, puts us in a state of wonder, urges us to become angry at injustice and thirst for righteousness. Good art can put us in this state of mind when it tells the truth. Of course, I do not even think we need another human re-narration of this story to put us in this state of mind as we already have the gospels. But if one does attempt to retell the story, it should be breathtaking, difficult, challenging, revolutionary. It should be true.

On a side note, it would be interesting to compare Pasolini's beautiful film The Gospel of Saint Matthew to the more recent depictions of the gospel narratives. Pasolini's film is gorgeous, powerful art. Most of his actors are Italian peasants, not really actors. Pasolini, a Marxist atheist, made this film after reading the Gospel of Matthew one night in a hotel room. He was utterly captivated and had to retell the story. Of course, his artfully made film does have an agenda; his Jesus is a Marxist revolutionary, whose care for the poor is his central focus. And he also is crucified and resurrected. But the film does leave us in a state of awe and mystery...

My last point is a response to a quote from the above mentioned Washington Post article: "But Downey and Burnett clearly mean for their film to make an impact not as an aesthetic experience, but as a spiritual one." I could write pages in response to this very problematic statement concerning its false dichotomy; this is an old debate. It makes me deeply sad that many Christians do not see that an aesthetic experience can and should be a spiritual experience. Instead, there is still the widespread idea that Christian art should be purely functional, a (shallow) and uplifting way to reenforce what you think you already know. If the art we encounter is not changing us, we need to start questioning it.

 If anything, Christians should spend the most attention on making complex, glorious, even sublime art to point toward the author of complexity, glory, the sublime. So much "Christian art" peddles one dimensional, sentimental pictures of reality; Christians, of all people, should recognize the infinite beauty, complexity, and mystery of life, of ourselves, of God. Making films and art from a seemingly Christian perspective that flattens reality seems, at best, deceptive and shallow and, at worst, heretical. In "The Church and the Fiction Writer", Flannery O'Connor argues that when we partake in sentimental art, we arrive at a mock state of innocence, perhaps even ignoring the need for the cross. Any "Christian" depiction of a sanitized, one dimensional, comfortable reality is a false one, one that ignores the great mystery, beauty, and tragedy of the human condition. Good art should tell us the truth, remind us that we need beauty, grace, and redemption from our own brokenness.

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