Jesus Christ is serious business. The remarkable ratings of The Bible miniseries on the History Channel led to the release of the new film Son of God. Producers played up the fact that it had been 10 years since Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was released and grossed at the box office more than $600 million internationally. In its opening weekend, the Son of God made $26 million—not bad, given that its content had previously aired on television.
Both films are serious for their revenue generating, their strategic niche marketing to the religiously devout, and their tone, style, and approach. The Passion was two hours of brutality. Some reviewers screamed that it was a horror flick, not a holy one. Gibson was intent on accuracy (or at least how his particular Catholicism viewed the sacred story). The characters did not speak English and he had the color of actor Jim Caviezel’s eyes digitally altered from blue to brown and gave him a prosthetic nose to make him look “authentically” Jewish. The Son of God is serious in its own way. A “political thriller” and an epic “love story,” the film features overtly evangelical themes of the virgin birth, miraculous healings, vicious crucifixion, and the resurrection.
Jesus films have not always been so serious, and they have not always been directed toward particular segments of the Christian community. In the 1970s, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar used whimsy, even silliness, to tell the old, old story, and both sought mass appeal. Neither film grabbed the market share Passion of the Christ did, but they were popular for their day. Why did so many Americans of the 1970s gravitate to inventive, artistic, and playful accounts of Jesus, while today Christ films are brutal and interested giving in a literal-seeming interpretation of the Bible?
Jesus Christ has played a prominent role in the American cinema since its modern genesis. In the beginning of the 20th century, directors D. W. Griffith and Cecil DeMille not only made the son of God a star on the silver screen, but also consciously set him in conversation with the nation’s most visible problems. After Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying film Birth of a Nation (1915) had Jesus appear to bless white supremacy, Griffith tried to prove his love for liberty with Intolerance (1916). In it, nasty Jews crucify the peaceful Jesus. Understandably, this had American Jews crying racism, much as blacks had done with the first film.
Ten years later, DeMille produced the relatively benign biopic The King of Kings (1927), which offered Americans a way to contain diversity within unanimity.* From the 1880s to the 1920s, the nation changed dramatically in its demographics. Massive immigration had brought to the shores millions of non-Protestants and peoples deemed non-white. They had their “kings,” spiritual and political, but DeMille’s film was there to remind everyone that Jesus was the “king of kings.”
In the early Cold War, the star of Moses rose above the cross of Christ with The Ten Commandments (1956). Another DeMille feature, it was both a box-office and critical success. Filled with sexual innuendo, light and dark flesh wrapped in eye-catching dress, and cutting-edge special effects, The Ten Commandments made its political point clear. Before the opening credits, DeMille is on screen before the audience. He explains, “The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.” Take that, Soviet Union!
But in the 1970s, for the first time, popular Jesus films emphasized playfulness, new sonic and visual aesthetics, and even “camp” to present the gospel tale. People had just experienced the ‘60s, with its passions and social strains (including several assassinations of public figures). Hippies and their religious analogue, the Jesus People, defined themselves by experimentation. For the former, it meant drugs. For the latter, it meant relating to Jesus in new ways. Their “buddy” Jesus “took a bad rap.” The new vernacular even had a new Bible, The Way, which translated biblical texts into what seemed then a “cool” idiom.
Set in New York City, Godspell presented Jesus in a superman T-shirt and suspenders holding up us his multi-colored pants. His followers ask questions in a quirky manner and overact on purpose. Perhaps the richest moments occur in a junkyard. Surrounded by garbage, Jesus and his followers retell the parable stories. Broken toys and hole-filled socks work with the words to teach us how to love one another.
Jesus Christ Superstar most certainly had its serious moments. The frustration of Judas is matched by the erotic devotion of Mary Magdalene. When Jesus goes before Herod, however, camp takes over. With a high-pitched voice, wearing sunglasses, and being massaged by women and men, King Herod dances as he invites Jesus to “walk across my swimming pool.” The new focus on humor, even giddiness, went beyond the films too. Americans could purchase “Jesus Laughing” from Ralph Kozak’s company in the late 1970s, which featured Jesus with an open-mouthed smile.
Neither Godspell, nor Jesus Christ Superstar endeavored to convert unbelievers to Christianity. If they had a particular audience in mind, it was those who loved the theater. Both originated as stage productions. Tim Rice, the writer of Jesus Christ Superstar, explained later that he was fascinated with Jesus as a human and not as a divine figure. Following the theological controversy of the 1960s that had some leading religious thinkers emphasizing the actions of humans and not the powers of God, Rice tapped into this humanistic concern. In some respects, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar wanted to have their communion bread and eat it too. They followed the Jesus People movement by repacking Jesus in the idiom of cool, but also indulged in the new theologies that wanted to dispense with his divinity. In both films, Jesus failed to return from the dead.
The attempted combination of respect and irreverence appealed to some and frustrated others. Billy Graham claimed that Jesus Christ Superstar “bordered on blasphemy” and some evangelicals picketed it. Film critic Roger Ebert maintained that the “simplicity” of Godspell and its “strangely irreverent” qualities made it “endearing.” For Ebert, anything that could “brighten up this miserable world” was worth the price of admission.
In the years after Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, major motion pictures about Jesus returned to their serious ways. Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) had more Americans outraged than were lining up to see it because the film had Jesus contemplate leaving the cross, marrying Mary Magdalene, and raising a family.
So what was unique about the 1970s? One main difference was that evangelicals and Catholics had yet to form tight political bonds and had yet to become a powerful niche market. By the time of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, an entire industry of the devout had been created. It boasted singers like Amy Grant, athletes like NBA star David Robinson, restaurants like Chic-fil-A, and painters like Thomas Kinkade. Those markets, along with conservative media outlets, made the Son of God and The Passion not only possible, but lucrative. In fact, a main sponsor of The Bible miniseries was the dating site Christian Mingle.
Present-day Americans still encounter a less-serious Jesus through comedy and theater. The best scene in Talladega Nights (2006) is arguably the family prayer where each member describes how they view Jesus (“I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt. ‘Cause it says like, I wanna be formal but I’m here to party too. I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”) Jesus has been on South Park since the show first aired. Sometimes weak, sometimes strong, their Christ often helps the kids “learn something.”
There are also mainstream films that joke with Christianity in sweet ways. Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty emphasize a variety of biblical and religious themes, but with no intention of sacrilege or irreverence. In fact, the message of those films is empathy with God and those he speaks to. Evangelicals, too, have and fuel their own comedy industry. Veggie Tales garnered a mass audience, but it began with Bible lessons for Sunday Schools.
Neither the Son of God nor Passion of the Christ provides a playful side to the story of Jesus, in part, because viewers can find that elsewhere. But even more, the films tell us something about the market. The devout niche is defined by exactly that: devotion. This audience is looking for portrayals of their faith that take it as important and true, and not as the stuff of jokes. The genius of Gibson and the producers of the Son of God is that they have tapped that market. The next step might be making of a film that can appeal across the divides—a film that could take Christ’s story seriously and have its fair share of comedy. That may take a miracle, but we’ve seen a bunch of movies about a guy who supposedly performed a bunch of those.
* This post initially misidentified The King of Kings as a talkie.