I will admit from the outset that I made no plans to watch “Son of God,” at least not on the big screen. I had already relegated it in my mind to the status of a future Amazon Prime selection and gave it no more thought. But a family outing to the drive-in theater (so cool!) forced my hand. I very much wanted to watch “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” but it came only as part of an incomprehensible double feature with “Son of God.” Given that I am more parsimonious than picky, I decided to get my 6 bucks’ worth and stay for the Bible movie.
All things considered, I’m glad that I did. The movie has its limitations, given that it is a cut-and-paste of a television mini-series. (I’ve read that Satan was cut from the movie version because the actor looked too much like President Obama, by the way. There is a really good joke in there somewhere, but I am too tired to find it). It is choppy and episodic, and any sense of the movie telling a story rather than bouncing from one New Testament story to another doesn’t develop until over halfway through. The sets look like television sets, especially the almost Leg0-like models of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple, etc. All of that I anticipated.
What I did not expect was for the movie to overcome all of that as well as it did. There were several things about this flick that I really liked. At the top of the list was the decision by the screenwriters not to chain themselves either to King James English (which no one ever spoke) or to the narrative of the New Testament itself. The writers almost could be accused of playing fast and loose with the New Testament by combining some stories, changing other stories in significant ways, and adding new material (even daring to put new words into Jesus’s mouth). I thought that was a great decision. You would have to be a bit daft to believe that the New Testament contains every important word Jesus ever spoke, so why not speculate a bit as to what he might have said or done off the record? It provides new food for thought, and that can only be a good thing. I don’t need a strictly faithful depiction of the New Testament. I’ve read the book.
Some of the scenes I found surprisingly powerful. For whatever reason, the twist they put on the calling of Matthew (even with scant scriptural support) touched me in particular, although I will avoid spoilers here. (Except for the obvious ones, like “The hero comes back in the end”). I also was relieved to see a less sanitized version of Jesus than these types of movies often show. His robes aren’t spotlessly clean and carefully pressed. His hair doesn’t cascade beautifully like a religious Prell commercial (I probably dated myself on that one. Do they even sell Prell anymore?). He has dirt under his fingernails–literally–and seems to have real emotions, including the occasional smile. He is not the strong-jawed, blue eyed, hunky Jesus that so frequent appears in Western art, much to my annoyance.
All of these things I appreciated, and I think they make the movie worth seeing. But there was one aspect of the movie (well, two, but I won’t spend any time on the gratuitous, distracting and almost goofy special effect of the see-through holes in the resurrected Jesus’s hands) that did not sit well with me, and that was the lack of any discussion of what Christ’s ministry really meant. The Jesus in this movie clearly claims to be the Son of God, but so what? He talks a lot about how people should treat each other. He performs miracles. He talks a lot about “changing the world.” He suffers a horribly violent and tortuous death. But why?
The meaning of the atonement of Christ apparently ended up on the cutting room floor, along with the Obama lookalike devil. That seems to me a glaring omission. While I applaud the film makers for not shying away from Jesus’s declaration of divine parentage, nor from his resurrection, I question why there was virtually no discussion of him taking upon himself the sins of the world. His suffering is merely a sad story unless you understand that the purpose of such suffering was to pay the price for our sins, so that we would not be required to suffer as he did. While the movie gives us the hope of overcoming death through the power of Christ, it fails to address the even greater hope of overcoming the horrible consequences of sin and being able to live again with our Father in Heaven.
It is our redemption through the atoning sacrifice of Christ that makes the greatest difference. His suffering had a purpose. By focusing so much on Christ’s teachings about good living and brotherhood and giving too little attention to the very real redeeming power obtained through the suffering of Gethsemane and the cross, “Son of God” trades in gospel light for Gospel Lite.