Hollywood Moves to Meet Demand for Bible-Themed Films
This past weekend, Son of God was released in movie theaters across the nation, becoming the first feature film on the life of Jesus since The Passion of the Christ was released 10 years ago. Although Son of God, which earned $26 million at the box office, will likely not attain the astronomical level of success reached by The Passion of the Christ, which grossed more than $600 million internationally, many Christians are grateful that Hollywood is more willing to produce family-friendly, religiously-based films, even if their motivation for doing so is purely monetary.
When asked if Christians should consider the increase in scripture-based films like Son of God and Noah a positive development, Eric Metaxas unblinkingly maintained that, “It is a great idea for the simple reason that, culturally speaking, we need to know these stories. It’s like having never heard of Shakespeare or Hamlet. It’s ridiculous. You can’t be culturally literate in the United States of America if you don’t know the Bible. So on that simple level, telling these great stories — we think of them as history, we think of them as sacred Scripture — but unless we get these things out there in the cultural mainstream, the Bible and those who believe are all going to be marginalized.”
Evidently, Hollywood executives are finally waking up to the huge, untapped market of evangelical Christians who would love to see high-quality renderings of biblical stories on the big screen. Ray Subers at Box Office Mojo reports: “According to the Pew Research Group, around 27 percent of Americans attend some kind of weekly religious service. Other polling suggests that around three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian. By that math, over 80 million Americans attend some kind of Christian service each week. If a meager 5 percent of that group turns out for Son of God this weekend, that would translate to an opening weekend of more than $30 million.”
How to Use Son of God as an Evangelistic Tool
Roma Downey, a producer who also stars as Mary in the film, says that the central goal of Son of God is to help audiences become more familiar with the story of Jesus. And, on that account, the film succeeds. In an effort to promote the film and use it as an evangelistic tool, the producers created the website sharesonofgod.com, which includes 10 ways to share the film (e.g., host a movie event, post on social media, download and disburse study guides) and an action plan for churches, schools, small groups, and other ministries.
For seasoned Christians, the film is an average retelling of the story. As Kenneth Morefield at Christianity Today writes, “Watching Son of God is a bit like listening to a pretty good tribute band doing a set list of Top 40 hits you have heard most of your life. The delivery is not bad, and the individual songs carry enough significance for you (both emotional and biographical) that the performance really only needs to remind you of what you already love.”
Still, for all the film’s shortcomings, the story of Jesus of Nazareth retains its power. As a result, the theatrical release of Son of God will truly be worthy of celebration if Christians use it to share the story with the biblically illiterate. Since it is impossible for a two-hour film to incorporate every element of the gospel story, Christians who take nonbelievers with them to the theater should follow up with them in order to discuss the portions of the gospel that didn’t play on screen.
How to use Son of God as an introduction to the fuller proclamation of the gospel
Son of God contains footage from the massive television hit The Bible, a History Channel miniseries that was viewed by over 100 million people. The material that aired on the History Channel has been reworked and added to in order to serve as a feature-length film. But, because Son of God was originally designed for television, the end product, edited for the big screen, feels rushed, uneven, and awkward. The first half of the movie feels like it is the gospel in fast forward, with random excerpts of Jesus’ teaching and an ad hoc sampling of his miracles.
As a medium for the majesty of the gospel, film is severely limited. So the faults of Son of God are somewhat inevitable. Still, anyone who takes an unbeliever or a young Christian to see the film will have an opportunity to fill them in on what is merely hinted at in the movie. So, in a post-movie conversation, you can use Son of God as a springboard to talk about the following life-changing truths:
Jesus meets real human needs
When Jesus reads from scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth, his hometown, he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” In Jesus, of course, these words are fulfilled. The fact that — in Christ — the kingdom of heaven is at hand is the extraordinary, awe-inspiring essence of Jesus’ message.
But in this film, we don’t see much of the poor and their plight. While we are shown the suffering experienced by the Jews at the hands of their ruthless Roman rulers, we get no urgent sense of the spiritual need for which Christ came. And when the problem of human sin and suffering is not made abundantly clear, the solution Christ offers seems less powerful.
Without emphasizing the needs of the people that are satisfied by Jesus’ miracles, Jesus becomes a gentle and humble showman rather than the divine healer who cures all human ailments.
While the film works as a vehicle that leads people to ask more questions about the faith, it is up to us to show how the Jesus of first-century Palestine is as relevant today as he was 2,000 years ago. The needs of the people that were met by Jesus during his ministry are the same needs that need to be met today.
Since Son of God merely scratches the surface, Christians must expound on why Jesus’ words and deeds remain the greatest ever witnessed.
The God who is distant is also the God who is near
No film can fully capture Jesus’ majesty. But in an attempt to preserve Jesus’ holiness and acknowledge his divinity, Son of God fails to convey his conviviality, which is a key aspect of his personality that made him so engaging, popular, and sought after. As is the case with every film (and every philosophical and theological treatise on the subject), we — limited humans — will never adequately represent the ultimate mystery of God becoming man. Films must either focus on his divinity (and his distance) or on his humanity (and his nearness). Son of God opts for the former, though that may be preferable to the latter, famously portrayed by the films Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, which did not depict Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus was perfect and holy, yes. But he was also Immanuel, “God with us,” who experienced every element of life that we face on a daily basis — who fully enjoyed that which was good and suffered even more than we can imagine. He laughed with us, cried with us, and sacrificed his own life for us. In that sense, God condescended to befriend man, for “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Ultimately, it is up to us — not Hollywood — to promote the truth that sets people free.
“Jesus said to the people who believed in him, ‘You are truly my disciples if you keep obeying my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-32).
What are we doing to set people free? To set them free from sin and self-doubt? To set them free from anger and addiction? To set them free from cynicism and cowardice?
The film Son of God is a fitting tool only if it is used by Christians to create disciples who begin to experience genuine liberty for the first time. No film is enough to make disciples. That is the job of faithful believers who take time out of their schedules to meet with people on a regular basis to teach the message of Christ.
Hollywood films are a great way to introduce people to scripture. Books, lectures, sermons, and Bible studies are all great, too. But the greatest way to free people from bondage is to invest in them — to take them to this film or buy them a book and then describe to them, personally, the way Jesus has changed your life. We — not Hollywood executives — are the evangelists. Bible-themed Hollywood films will be a great development if we use them to familiarize our family members, friends, and co-workers with the biblical worldview, showing how God’s truth has implications beyond the walls of the church — and the movie theater.