Jesus on the Big Screen

Post Author: Julie Hoplamazian

Movie Reels

Movie Reels

While I was serving as a camp chaplain this summer, a young woman asked me if I could recommend a Jesus movie. Her question surprised me at first: I wasn’t aware of a demand for Jesus films from teenagers. But we were at the end of a very deep conversation about her faith, and she was at a tender and critical moment in her journey. I wanted to make sure I recommended the right one.

As I racked my brains for just the right Jesus movie, I realized that she was seeking more than just a cinematic experience. Her generation, more than any other, is one that gathers its information from online media, especially videos. While books, plays, and other forms of art and entertainment provided connection and conveyed meaning for past generations, she and her peers turn to video sources like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix for those needs. This teenager was asking for more than just information: she was asking for a way she could connect and relate to Jesus.

I also realized that I actually had the know-how to respond to her request because I have watched a host of Jesus movies in my lifetime. From our annual viewing of Jesus of Nazareth in Catholic school to my adult viewing of films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I was able to evaluate which film would probably resonate with her most.

Thinking through the Jesus movies reminded me: films move us, and connecting to the person of Jesus through movies can bring his story to life in a dynamic and unique way. However, I haven’t watched Jesus movies in a long time. I find most of them cheesy at best, bad at worst. As my faith matured and my relationship with God evolved, my need to connect to Jesus on the emotional level that movies lend themselves to waned. Seminary study shifted my relationship with God to one of intellectual scrutiny and doctrinal statements. In some ways, I felt I’d become too smart or evolved in my faith to need something as superficial and emotionally manipulative as a Hollywood film that would appeal to the religious masses but ignore the nuances of who Jesus really was. I’d begun to think I was too “advanced” of a Christian to need Jesus movies anymore.

But in my heart of hearts, I still like these films. More than that, I still need them. I’d become embarrassed about the fact that these films moved me, but I watch these movies and feel I’m brought as close to Jesus as the disciples sitting at table with him. It is still, and always will be, discomforting to watch a depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, but that’s because it’s a reminder of the very personal idea that Jesus endured all of that for me. I still need these films, and I think we all still need these films, because feeling a personal connection to Jesus is the substance of grace. Jesus, who was God Incarnate, loved so deeply and perfectly that he modeled unconditional, sacrificial love for all humankind. Being moved by Jesus’ personhood, and his life, passion, death and resurrection, deepens our love of God.

The wonderful thing these films do for us is present different points of connection to the person of Jesus Christ. As I thought about which film to recommend to this young woman at camp, each film that came to mind also brought up my own emotional response to it. A sampling of the films that tell the story of Jesus:

  • My personal favorite, the 2003 TV mini-series Jesus, presents the more human, friendly side of Jesus who made me feel deeply loved.
  • The 1961 film King of Kings presents a more awesome, holy, divine Jesus.
  • The 1977 TV film Jesus of Nazareth tells the whole Jesus story, from the Nativity through the Resurrection, with some narrative liberty taken to give it an epic feel.
  • Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ still makes my stomach coil in discomfort in its presentation of Jesus the suffering servant.
  • On a lighter note, musical films like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar make me want to dance and sing along and be part of Jesus’ posse.
  • Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is a fascinating exploration of a non-Scriptural dimension of Jesus, perhaps the ultimate cinematic question of the intersection of Jesus’ humanity and divinity.

The beauty in this variety is that, even through film, we are drawn toward the Great Commandment, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

In the end, my pastoral responsibility to this teenager was to recommend a film that would help her feel personally connected to Jesus. I so wanted her to feel loved by Jesus, to feel drawn in by him, to feel inspired by and in awe of the immense love he has for us. Yet I could tell she was suffering, and needed to connect to a savior who had suffered as well. The Passion of the Christ was the right movie for her at that moment. I hope it won’t be the only Jesus film she ever watches. This teenager reminded me of the importance of seeking a profound, personal connection to God — one that doesn’t necessarily come through seminary education and years in professional ministry, but from the Jesus story brought to life.

Julie Hoplamazian is an Episcopal priest and the Associate Rector at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn, NY. When she’s not procrastinating writing her sermons, she’s practicing her plie’s in the ballet studio and her scales at the piano. She lives with her husband, Jeremy, and they share the apartment with their dog Takouhi (“queen” in Armenian), who lives up to her name and refuses to share the couch.

Image by: Sonny Abesamis
Used with permission
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