The Prodigal Son: three filmed interpretations (and more)

Today was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in Eastern Orthodox churches, and once again, I found myself thinking about how our gospel reading for the day had been handled in different films.

The parable of the prodigal son appears just once in the Bible, in Luke 15, so of course it is featured in the word-for-word adaptation of that gospel produced by the Genesis Project in the 1970s. And just as the Genesis Project dramatizes some of the other parables while Jesus recites them, so too it dramatizes this one. You can watch the relevant sequence by clicking here.

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The Publican and the Pharisee: four filmed interpretations

Today, in Orthodox churches, was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. It’s the day when we read the parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the Temple to pray; while the Pharisee spent his prayer bragging that he was a great and righteous man, the tax collector begged for God’s forgiveness — and it was the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, who “went home justified before God.” And so the parable reminds us that we need to pray in humility, and that it is not our place to judge our fellow human beings.

We read this parable on this day to remind ourselves that Lent is only a few weeks away, and that we should approach the season of fasting and prayer humbly, and without judging our fellow churchgoers (or, indeed, anyone else). And, naturally, as I pondered this parable, my mind turned to a few film versions of it.

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The Bible / What works and what doesn’t in the ambitious mini-series

It’s common these days for each new episode of a TV series to begin with a montage that sums up all the relevant plot points from previous episodes. So it was only natural that, when the History Channel aired its five-part mini-series The Bible over the month of March, all but one of the episodes began with narrator Keith David intoning, in his deep baritone voice, “Previously, on The Bible…”

All of the show’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in that one phrase. Produced by Mark Burnett (a TV mogul best known for unscripted “reality” shows like Survivor and The Apprentice) and his wife Roma Downey (who once starred in Touched by an Angel), the mini-series rushes through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in ten hours — though it’s more like seven, once you bracket off the commercial breaks — and it zips through the stories so quickly that you barely notice when they are compressed even further in those opening sequences. But the mini-series also makes a point of emphasizing the continuity between Bible stories in a way that is quite rare among Bible films, and in a way that sometimes allows individual stories to shed light profitably on others.

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The Bible: final episode, first impressions

And so it ends. Here are my first impressions of the final episode of The Bible, which aired last night.

Continuity between Bible stories, redux. Once again, I am impressed by the fact that this adaptation-of-the-whole-Bible approach — whatever its limitations — has allowed the filmmakers to emphasize the continuity between Bible stories in a way that you rarely see in other films.

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Come and See: How Movies Encourage Us to Look at (and with) Jesus

In orthodox Christian belief, Jesus is both God and man, fully divine and fully human. And it is because God has revealed himself in the form of a particular person who lived in a particular time and a particular place that Christians down through the ages have generally felt free to portray Jesus in icons, passion plays, and other forms of religious art. But except for the most basic and theologically essential points, such works of art generally pass over the particularities of Jesus’s life. His humanity, expressed in the mere fact that he can be depicted at all, is often balanced with his divinity by a degree of artistic abstraction: Whether depicting Christ in static paintings or following the stations of the cross according to a set pattern, artists have tended to downplay realistic or naturalistic details to focus on the more eternal truths.

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