This Easter, the television offered a number of ways to receive the story of Jesus.  I was able to watch portions of Killing Jesus and A.D.   The latter promises to focus more on the early church, but began in its first episode with Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem and His resurrection.

Both shows fill out the behind-the-scenes political intrigue between the Sanhedrin (Jewish religious leaders), Herodian palace (Roman-appointed, Jewish-in-name tetrarch), and the official government of Rome represented by Pontius Pilate.  There is grist there for their mills, as the first century was an era of disparate and animated political actors.

But at the center of any story about Jesus or His church has to be the Christ Himself.  And that is the great challenge for artists who deal in the media of narratives.  Many great artists have been impressively successful at showing scenes from Jesus’ life.  Churches are full of sculpture, painting, frescoes, and stained glass.  But very few novels, plays, or movies have stood the test of time when they have chosen to make Jesus a central figure.  How do you imagine Jesus reacted when Peter made the first confession: “You are the Christ”?  How do you see Jesus reacting to Pilate when he asks, “What is truth?”  It is easier for you and I to say, “Huh.  I don’t know.”  An actor and his director, however, can only hide Jesus’ face so often.

In A.D. we actually see Jesus roll his eyes at Pilate.  In Killing Jesus the Messiah is surprised when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Son of God.  Some of these reactions we know are wrong.  The Gospel of Luke, for example, shows Jesus as a child “in My Father’s house,” claiming God as His Father (Luke 2:41-52).  He didn’t need Peter to reveal this to Him.  Similarly, Jesus shows great sorrow, not uncontrolled anger or tedium, for His aggressors (Luke 19:41-44).  He wishes He could gather them in as a hen gathers her chicks (Matthew 23:37-39).

But that’s not to say there wasn’t anger!  Jesus’ great woes upon the Pharisees are bitter rhetoric (Matthew 23).  So how do you balance righteous anger, the man of sorrows, and the joy of a rabbi who had children flocking to Him?  It’s not an easy task.  It may be an impossible task.

Some of the world’s greatest artists have tried to portray Jesus in narratives of different sorts.  John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost is considered one of the greatest works in the English language.  Yet his portrayal of Jesus is underwhelming, and people wonder if the more vividly drawn Satan is the true hero of the poem.  Milton would be scandalized that anyone suggests that.  It’s harder to draw perfect righteousness than abject evil.

An actor draws on his own experience to decide what to portray.  We have experienced love.  We have experienced anger.  We have experienced joy.  None of us have experienced these emotions without sin, always loving both aggressor and victim.  We have been angry for the right reason, but have we restrained that anger so that it doesn’t cause collateral damage?  We have loved, but have we loved each person in the room with a passion that was willing to give our own life?

In the Ten Commandments, God says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).  St. Paul repeated this, “Being God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29).   Images of God were forbidden because there was only one Image that would stand on earth for God.  The incarnate Son of God is the image of the invisible God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15).

When we paint or sculpt an image from the Gospels, it can be a snapshot and a reminder of the Gospel narrative.  Most narratives (like films and stories), on the other hand, add to the Gospel accounts (the 2003 film The Gospel of John is a notable exception).  They add with imaginations that are often incredibly talented artistically.  But no amount of artistic talent can make up for the problem that we live life without the constant overflowing love and the utter faith that Jesus had.

It is amazing to contrast the fruits of artistic talents like William Faulkner (see the decade-in-the-making self-proclaimed “masterpiece” yet artistic failure depiction of Jesus: A Fable, 1954) with the works of much less prestigous, much less educated first-century writers:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  At least one of these writers was an uneducated peasant.  Yet all four produced believable accounts of a perfect man.  How could they do this unless at least one of two things is true:  they worked with eyewitness accounts of a perfect man (Luke 1:1f.); they were inspired in their writings by God Himself (2 Timothy 3:16).

So my expectations for any movie of Jesus are limited.  The best use for these films is to test your own imaginations against the actor’s and director’s.  Just as I caution that no director or actor gets it all right, my own imagination is similarly defective.  When I find something in one of these movies that seems different than I thought it went, it is good to be driven back to the Gospels themselves.  Do they really say this happened?  Was I imagining it myself?

What parts of the recent Bible movies made you rethink things?  What parts did you like?  What parts did you think were really off?