I saw a preview for the movie when my oldest son and I went to see Pompeii (quick review on that flick: save your time and money and spare yourself the atrocity of, among other things, Kiefer Sutherland trying to do a Roman English accent. No, I didn't know there was such a thing either). I'll admit to being intrigued. I remember the last time Jesus and Hollywood hung out - it was ten years ago with Mel Gibson's "The Passion." The staff of the church I worked with at the time saw it as part of a birthday celebration for our preschool director. Years later, she still rakes me over the coals for that, deservedly so. The merger of Jesus and Hollywood comes with two certainties: there will be controversy, and someone will make a lot of money.
Of particular interest is the location of the evangelical Christian community in the mix. Back in 1988 as a college sophomore, I engaged in a lengthy discussion with a nice gentleman outside a movie theater in Winston-Salem, NC. I was there to see The Last Temptation of Christ, another Jesus movie directed by Martin Scorsese. He was there to try and talk me out of it. His church, a conservative non-denominational stalwart of the community, had organized protests at all the theaters around town. I wound up seeing it, and it remains the only time I've ever had someone try to talk me out of walking through those theater doors at the theater (well, other than Wild West. Should've listened).
This time, though, the evangelical community is squarely behind Jesus in the theater. In fact, one could argue that's been the intention all along. Burnett and Downey, unapologetic evangelicals, have said as much in advance of the film. The dialogue is taken almost exclusively from the Gospel of John, an evangelical favorite for its lofty language that lifts Jesus to superhuman heights (as opposed to Mark, where the humanity of Jesus is emphasized). In Charlotte, two megachurches bought out entire theaters this past Thursday evening so their church members could attend. And - and this important - to bring lots and lots of non-Christians with them. Organizers are openly plugging the tactic to create high first-week ratings at the box office, in hopes it will cause even more to see it. A win-win for these churches and Hollywood: greater revenues and higher conversions. One of the official movies website pages is practically an evangelism-how-to, offering numerous ways to use the movie to solicit faith-filled commitments from family and friends. The general agenda: if we get as many people as possible to see this film, they'll be so overwhelmed by its message - a message they've never fully gotten but will finally get with this particular movie - they'll be so overwhelmed that they'll grab hold of Jesus and never let him go, creating a national revival and a country truly "under God."
I like Jesus movies - and yes, it's because of what I do for a living. I'm intrigued by the particular nuance they bring, the overarching story they seek to tell, and even who gets to play Jesus (didn't see Willem Dafoe coming in Last Temptation, did you? Neither did I). I find that whatever their intention, Jesus movies can elicit some powerful conversations among the faithful about what is proper doctrine and interpretation and - most importantly - who Jesus is.
But I'm not a fan of using Jesus on the big screen as a form of evangelism, and here's why. People in our post-modern society are most interested in authentic substance. By nature they are hesitant, even suspicious, of institutions and over-arching truths. They're fine with a sales pitch for a pair of jeans or their next car; but when it comes to things in life that really matter, they're not looking for a show. So taking these people to see a Jesus movie with the hopes of a lasting conversion experience tends to do one of two things: turn them off altogether, or elicit an initial emotional response that fades over time.
What they value much more than Christians taking them to a Jesus movie, I'd suggest, is Christians actually acting like Jesus themselves. The best "show" we can give them is loving all people, treating everyone with grace and dignity, caring for the sick, giving voice to the marginalized, standing up in the face of injustice, and articulating what we stand for instead of what we're against. In other words, doing the same things that the real Jesus did 2000 years ago. This tends to be a much more effective witness than taking them to a two-plus hour movie in a cozy theater seat. When we strive our best to live like Jesus, it lets others know that we are serious not just about their souls but about their lives and the lives of others. That we are willing to go to the trouble of living out our faith as individuals and as a community of faith, rather than simply watching it.
Don't get me wrong: Jesus movies have merit. They elicit good conversations and (hopefully) good blogs. They make money for the people who put them together. They get people talking. All of these are perfectly good things. I'm planning to see the movie myself at some point, but not because I want to learn about who Jesus is. I figure the real one 2000 years ago - and the way I strive to emulate his life in mine today - should suffice just fine.