The creation of cinema brought a new medium to which art and representation were transmitted. This new visual tool allowed people to bring to life favorite stories. Deemed in 1947 as ‘the greatest story ever told,’ the four Gospels found in the New Testament, have been ripe for cinema. Over fifty movies have been made which depict the life story of Jesus. Some have found lasting popularity and influence. Franco Zeffifrelli’s Jesus of Nazareth became the template for successful Jesus films. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was another turning point for Jesus cinema. Each new Jesus film becomes a window to study how the story is reimagined.
As of March 14th, two movies are being shown at movie theaters, both surrounding Jesus. The Young Messiah focuses on the childhood of Jesus (which is based on the book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt written by none other than vampire novelist Anne Rice). It follows Jesus as a seven-year-old boy coming to grips with the knowledge of his ‘true’ lineage and future while him and his parents are coming back from living in exile. Anne Rice has since written a sequel book entitled Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. The Young Messiah projects an interesting glimpse of what could have happened during the childhood of the man that would be deemed the savior.
Risen is a story surrounding Roman soldiers and their search for the missing body of Jesus. The movie shows the unrest between the Jews and the Romans. In the search, Clavius the main Roman soldier, finds Jesus’s disciplines and encounters the resurrected Jesus. Clavius helps the disciples evade Roman capture and is there to witness the ascension of Jesus. No surprise that Risen has grossed over $34.2 million whereas The Young Messiah has only pulled in $4.4 million. Risen plays into the highly successful genre of historical fiction.
Christian historical fiction has gained large followings in all its popular culture forms. From movies, to television (ABC has just premiered a new show called Of Kings and Prophets – executively produced by popular scholar Reza Aslan – concerning the lives of Saul, Samuel, and David), and to its most popular form, novels. Books written by Francine Rivers, Redeeming Love (retelling of the Book of Hosea) The Mark of the Lion series, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent (which have become a Lifetime miniseries and a retelling of the story of Dinah) and Stefan Heym’s The King David Report just to name a few. Fox, on March 20th, will broadcast a live performance of the passion play. It will play out on the streets of New Orleans. Hosted by Tyler Perry and acted by top musicians, the play seeks to “bring alive the greatest story ever told.” Rounding out the cast is a Cuban American playing Jesus, the musician Seal playing Pilate, and famous country singer Trisha Yearwood as Mother Mary. The play will use secular, popular songs throughout. This live reenactment through the streets of New Orleans is meant to make the Passion gain added significance to this modern age. A way to keep ‘the greatest story’ relevant to this new century.
This push for making a new Jesus narrative comes on a string of recent adaptations. NBC and the producer of the reality show Survivor, Mark Burnett produced miniseries which surrounding the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament, The Bible, Son of God, and A.D.: The Bible Continues. There are currently 6 versions of Ben-Hur (fictional character who interacts with Jesus), 10 versions depicted the story of Salome (usually identified as the unnamed woman in Mark 6 and Matthew 14 and later given a name by Flavius Josephus), 11 versions of Moses, and 13 versions depicting the life of David.
So the question now becomes what happens when people start to consume multiple versions, adaptations, and ‘inspired’ films, shows, and books and then in turn start to incorporate that into their social memory of their religious community. An example is how some people might be aware, now, that Moses and Jesus would have been fairly dark skinned (due to their geographical location and movement in the sun) yet many will continue to picture the likes of Charlton Heston, Robert Powell, and Jim Caviezel.
It is why, that despite scholars stating that Mary Magdalene is not specifically named in any of the four Gospels as a fallen woman, a prostitute, her status as a prostitute was coined in 591 C.E. by Pope Gregory I. Yet, despite this addition/edit/deliberate change, for over a thousand years, people have since agreed to this as canon. Every film produced since cinema was invented has depicted Mary Magdalene as the ill-fated woman found in Luke 7.
It now behooves each and every person to start to understand the complex weave which now resides in religious structures. A weave which feeds the popular culture’s adaptations and presentations. When the adaptations and presentations became accepted by people, they in turn reinforce and even at times change the original narrative. With the creation of this cycle, also creates a new understanding of how one consumes religion and popular culture. The incorporation of the internet and social media has also further complicated the waters. People attending worship services using digital copies of scripture, communities tune in via YouTube or Skype to listen to gurus and monks talk in different countries, and more and more people are able to travel to religious sites.
It is not merely congregations reinterpreting holy scriptures, pouring over texts, and calling upon the wisdom of the ancestors. It has become generations which seeks to reimagine and see these stories come to life. Many more films and shows will be made that offer new tellings and new aspects coming to life. And in turn will continue to influence the scriptures and communities.
Anjeanette LeBoeuf is on the verge of taking her qualifying exams in Women Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She has become focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. Recently she drove across country to learn Sanskrit at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is an avid supporter of both soccer and hockey. She is also a television and movie buff which probably takes way too much of her time, but she enjoys every minute of it.