If all the information one ever gathered about film making came strictly from watching the Oscars he might be duped into thinking that Hollywood executives have no other concerns than the business of getting the right story and the art of getting the story right. In fact it might never occur to him that Hollywood, like nearly every other enterprise, might actually be most concerned with its bottom line. But stepping away from the red carpet offers a better perspective of the industry. What one begins to see is that a lot of movies are produced not because they are masterful examples of the art of storytelling, but because, well... they make money. Take Son of God for instance. Last week I heard an interview on the radio in which a film critic was asked her opinion of Son of God. Her reply began with an audible groan followed by a predictably dismissive review. Interestingly along the way the critic described herself as a churchgoing Christian. I could tell she felt bad about panning the movie. Her radio counterpart (a Jewish man, for what it's worth) could tell too which led him to ask rhetorically, "Who feels the need to keep making these movies?" But if you're an exec with a hunch that, so long as Jesus is involved in your movie, influential Christians such as Rick Warren may say things like, "If you have to choose between church and movie, go see the movie this weekend," you start to see dollar signs. This past weekend in particular you would have seen about 26 million dollar signs. That would provide all the motivation I need to keep making such movies. But it leaves unanswered the question of whether the flick is as bad as the critics claim or as good as the box office receipts suggest. Curiosity, known to have killed cats, finally got the best of me today. Fortunately this time it only cost $8.50...and two hours and eighteen minutes of my life I will never get back. I bought my ticket online, headed to the matinee, and settled into the back row.
It didn't take long to notice that the narrative of Son of God wasn't exactly true to the source. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't entirely off track, heretical, disrespectful, or even distasteful. I'll avoid creating the impression that I am nitpicking by simply coming out and saying, when it comes to portraying the life of Christ on screen or on stage, I like to nitpick. And Son of God leaves no shortage of nits to pick. Clearly liberties had been taken. Normally when artistic license is employed it is for the sake of making the story more compelling than it would be otherwise. But by the time the film got to the Crucifixion I found myself thinking, "How much longer can they possibly string this out before he finally dies?" Waves of guilt immediately washed over me for having thought such a terrible thing, but the truth is I was bored.
How could a devout Christian like myself be bored during a Jesus movie? It briefly occurred to me that I might be backsliding. But as the movie chugged along laboriously toward its conclusion I found myself reminded that people, myself included, simply don't know what to do with Jesus. They didn't then. We don't now. There is no naturally human paradigm within which Jesus easily fits. His life's story is on the one hand so simple that my 6 year old daughter "gets it," yet so mind bending that I imagine I'll never fully comprehend it myself. In any case the life of Jesus was one that just isn't that easy to portray in a manner that does it justice. It would seem that is why God provided the Bible. Of course reading the Bible, that's like...work. It takes time. Much easier and more fun to watch a movie. But suppose efforts to create more entertaining, easily digested depictions of Jesus serve only to further desensitize us to the upheaval that his life meant to bring to our lives. What then?
It's already happening. Several years ago we saw Americans reduce Christian living to nothing more than ordering a chicken sandwich and some waffle fries. Is that what Jesus taught? Is that why he died? Is that how we would prefer to be known? Now Rick Warren hopes that Christians will "send Hollywood a message" by buying a ticket to a movie that is, from an artistic standpoint, sub par. I don't deny the fact that the Holy Spirit can use Son of God to convince some who are not presently following Jesus to become followers of Jesus. But Rick Warren isn't asking those who are not Christians to send Hollywood a message by going to this film...because they likely won't go! He's telling Christians...to see a movie...rather than go to church where presumably (and I know it's a lot to presume these days) the actual Scriptures are read!
Rick Warren got one thing right about Son of God. "'It'll be a miracle of biblical proportions if the Academy awards a Bible-based movie an Academy Award,' said Warren. 'There's just a natural antipathy, a natural antipathy, to Bible stories.'" Likewise there's a natural antipathy to lame effects and poor acting. Nonetheless Hollywood will be laughing all the way to the bank.