Latest Pap From Christian Movie Industry, Or How to Sucker a Billion Christians
You do not mess with blind faith.
Just a humble reminder. You do not question the dully codified stories of Christianity, or challenge them, or offer even remotely refreshing, alternative storylines with anything resembling intelligence, or humor, or deep intellectual curiosity.
What are you, a masochist? To do so would imply there is something to be gained, some sort of cultural progress to be made in the realms of the exhausted – but still deeply paranoid and very simpleminded – Christian faith, when there most certainly is not. Besides, you want to make lots of money, right? Of course you do.
Do you know who understands this overarching rule perfectly? Mark Burnett, the goliath TV producer who single-handedly destroyed the modern world by popularizing reality TV. Burnett and his wife, “Touched by an Angel” actress Roma Downey, know exactly how sucker-able are the vast majority of the world’s Christians. Because they’re evil that way. Smart. I mean smart.
So smart are the Burnetts that they recently hacked together a terrifically lousy movie about the life and times of Jesus, called Son of God. They made it by cobbling new footage with bits of last year’s 10-hour History Channel miniseries on the Bible that was already quite perfectly lousy but still really popular because, you know, Jesus.
But of course, they didn’t stop there. The Burnetts recently travelled the country, shilling this new hunk of spiritual Valium to pastors, churches and shopping malls in hopes of pre-selling millions of tickets, safe in the the knowledge that devout Christians will see just about anything that reassures (but never, ever challenges or advances) their faith, no matter how poorly made, intellectually insulting or terminally boring it might be.
Sexy. Hunky. European. Heavily sedated. Nice hair. Bland as dishwater. Praise!
Are they right? Of course they’re right. There is tremendous money to be made endlessly reinforcing what the masses have already been told to believe, in keeping millions addicted to the very same drug they’ve been taking for millennia (hi, Fox News). Conversely, there is less money to be made – though much more fun to be had – sparking religious controversy, or at least trying to create something, you know, incisive, spiritually messy, or artistically interesting.
Here’s a fun factoid: Back in 1988, I worked as a lowly intern for a small record label that had its offices in the Universal Pictures building in Burbank, the very same year the “The Last Temptation of Christ” came out. Oh, what a time it was.
Controversy! Melodrama! I remember looking out the smoked-glass windows of the label’s office one fine morning and seeing a very long, poorly dressed line of angry-looking Christians marching uniformly toward the building, holding signs and yelling slogans, protesting the film’s “radical,” “blasphemous” portrayal of Jesus. It was all sort of adorable.
Do you remember what Jesus’ “last temptation” actually was? To be a normal guy. Wife, kids, a glass of wine before bed, mortality. This was the great, “sacrilegious” controversy: that Jesus might have been a little bit troubled, a little bit scared, a little bit human about accepting his divine fate. Being the messiah, after all, is a bitch.
But here’s the best part: The movie hadn’t even been released yet. Not a single protester had actually seen the film (much less read the original Nikos Kazantzakis novel). None of them had any real idea what the film actually depicted, or that it ended on a perhaps even more genuinely spiritual note than the same childish, Sunday school narrative they already knew.
Did it matter? Of course not. They’d been told – by a callow priest, an angry radio host, a terrified grandma – that the movie was heresy, that a tiny aspect of their faith was being lightly prodded by a popular entertainment. They were told to be outraged. Because if there’s one thing that threatens God’s all-encompassing love, compassion and eternal omnipotence, it’s an ’80s Scorsese flick.
The church, of course, has been doing this same dance for millennia – rallying their sheep to protect their own version of religious history, the very history they themselves made up/swiped from pagan sources, rewrote, rewrote again (and again and again) and then forced down the world’s throat for 2,000 years. Great scam.
Fast forward to 2004. It was exactly 10 years ago that the nation endured “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic splatter-fest, a film so grotesque, so ultra-violent and cruel, it was like a master class in how to shred human flesh with a whip.
But oh, how the believers flocked! By the millions, over and over again, all at the behest/command of their pastors, fundamentalist radio hosts and their Rick Warrens. Entire Christian families packed the country’s theaters for weeks and even months, stone-faced and miserable – many bringing along their young children – as Romans beat poor James Caviezel’s Jesus into bloody veal for two hours straight. The more devout believed they were seeing actual history, when all they were seeing was one man’s violently distorted horror fantasia. It was ugly.
The good news is, Son of God offers no such melodrama, on either end of the spectrum. It takes the exact opposite tack, going straight for saccharine blandness, depicted Jesus as a hunky, cream-filled, Euro-looking white boy completely lacking in mystical intrigue, Hallmark-ready and devoid of anything resembling true spirit. Or brain. Or heart. Or spark. Bring the kids!
Whoops, how did this spiritual icon representing all of consciousness, a figure that precedes Christianity by many thousands of years, get in here? Sorry.
Whoops, how did this ancient spiritual figure that precedes Christianity by many thousands of years and which represents no dogma or churchly power-grab get in here? Sorry.
As irreverent Episcopal deacon David Henson pointed out in his hilarious live-tweeting of the movie: there’s no heresy here. But there is some weird racism. White supremacy. White people everywhere, in fact. Also, Jesus not really giving a damn about the poor or the oppressed. Is Jesus perpetually on Xanax? Sure looks like it. Is everyone speaking in a British accent? Apparently.
Son of God offers, in short, every bit of clunky spiritual pabulum the church has endorsed out for centuries (full disclosure: I watched exactly 58 minutes of the History Channel miniseries, more than enough to glean the suffocating blandness. I’m quit sure the movie offers little else).
Is there any other way? Sure. You may, if you are so inclined, create something thatsubverts religious dogma, by either exploding it with wild, Monty Python-grade satire or smartly undermining it with fantastical literary genius (ref: Kazantzakis, or even something like Philip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials). Of course, doing so will only please those who already get it, who are educated and therefore capable of complex, nuanced, abstract critical thinking. In other words, exactly not the millions of literalist faithful one might hope to entice to begin to think for themselves.
So here we are, 2014, and to the church’s delight, the song remains ever the same. We have another big-budget, terminally weak Jesus rehashing, featuring the same stultifying ideas, the same staleSunday school mythologies originally (re)written by some very old, very repressed men who lived so long ago they might as well be aliens, men whose job it was to destroy/refashion ancient pagan belief systems to suit the church and fortify its power for centuries.
Kudos, then, to Mark Burnett for buttressing their musty cause, for inspiring not a single new possibility or tantalizing spiritual idea, for merely pouring another bucket of lukewarm water into what’s already a very tepid ocean. The church should be pleased.
Jesus, not so much.