Growing up Baptist, Lent always fascinated me. Many of my friends were Catholic, and I was always intrigued whenever they would have to give something fun up in the weeks preceding Easter. I never really wondered why my family didn’t participate; mostly, I think I was just relieved that I didn’t have to give up chocolate.
As I grew older, my relationship with Lent grew complicated. In my twenties, when I was a bit of a “cage-stage Calvinist,” I was dismissive of the idea of Lent. After all, shouldn’t I be dying to myself every day? Shouldn’t I always be putting aside the things that distract me from my relationship with God? And wasn’t this just another extra-biblical tradition the Catholic Church was placing on its followers?
Shortly before I turned 30, I met my wife. Kelly grew up Methodist and found Lent to be a time of spiritual growth and renewal. I’d started to mellow on my “Reformed or bust” mentality, and I found her observance of Lent — she gives up coffee each year — beautiful. I began to see that it wasn’t about giving up something bad. It was about sacrificing a part of our life that we loved in order to focus on Christ and his sacrifice for a month. I began observing it on my own, often giving up social media or smartphones for the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
It’s sometimes been a helpful way for me to learn about my own idols and obsessions, but I don’t participate every year. Too often, my participation starts from a place of well-meaning spiritual searching but turns into “look at me and the sacrifices I’m making,” and I lose sight of the goal. Sometimes, I just like pointing out to my Baptist friends that I’m doing Lent. Neither of these things are helpful in further understanding Christ, his suffering and preparing for Easter.
This year, I’m doing something a little bit different, and I want to share it with you on this blog. And I’m posting it today, the day before Lent starts, so you can participate with me. In an effort to focus more on Christ’s life and death and see more about the response we’ve had to him and how art has captured him, every week from now until Easter I will be watching and writing about one film about Christ. These articles will likely post on Sundays, except for the final one, which will post on Good Friday.
A bit of a word of warning: I’m not interested in stuffy passion plays or too many straight adaptations of the Gospel. I can attend an Easter play at church or find the story in the Bible. What I’m interested about is how artists have approached different facets of Christ and his life. What have they been interested in? What have they gotten right or wrong? What does it say about our response to him and who we are today? What does it say about us as a church?
I believe the best art has an element of danger to it, and these are not all films that are “safe.” Some are films I deeply love. Others, I greatly enjoy with a few caveats. And there are few that I feel are very problematic and yet still worthy of discussion. I don’t approach these any of these films expecting them to be the final word on Christ or a perfect portrayal of the Gospels. But I think they each have something to say about Christ and faith that is worth paying attention to.
And so, here’s the schedule, starting with this Sunday’s edition:
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Pasolini’s adaptation of Matthew’s Gospel may be the most literal telling of the Gospel that we have; his dialogue comes straight from the book itself. And while I’m not interested in staid, straight adaptations of Christ’s life, I’m making an exception here. The story behind the film’s making, particularly the story of its filmmaker, is fascinating, and there’s a vitality to it that you don’t see in the religious costume epics of the 1950s. It’s my favorite biblical movie.
Jesus Christ Superstar
We start venturing out of orthodoxy pretty quickly with this 1973 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical. Again, this is one of my favorite depictions of the Christ story, but not because of its close fidelity to the gospels. This is not so much of a story about Jesus, but about people’s reactions to Jesus. No one who encountered him walked away without an opinion, and the film attests to that. And the music is amazing.
Anytime I mention my love for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” people ask what I think of “Godspell.” Truth is, I’ve never seen it. I’ll be fixing that with this series.
Jesus of Montreal
It’s been close to a decade since I’ve seen Denys Arcand’s 1989 drama. Part allegory, part passion play, its the story about a group of Toronto actors seeking to put on a play about Christ’s life that is relevant to the current day, and the way it rankles traditional thinking. It’s a film I’ve wanted to revisit since my first viewing, and I’m excited to do so.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
This one might get me in trouble. But it’s worth remembering that “Life of Brian” isn’t about Christ. Monty Python wanted to make a story about Jesus, but in studying his teachings they found there wasn’t much that you could really make fun of. He appears in the background, but the film is more about the way people can twist teachings to meet their own agendas, and some of the absurdism that comes with over-stringent religion. It’s also one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.
The Last Temptation of Christ
I’ve been unable to escape this movie in the past year. I participated in a podcast about the film in the fall, and wrote an article about wrestling with the movie for Christ and Pop Culture shortly after that. Martin Scorsese’s film is controversial, and rightly so. From a theological perspective, it’s deeply problematic in many places. And yet, I don’t question the sincerity with which Scorsese and Paul Schraeder approach the material. In many ways, it’s so messy and dangerous because it dares to explore concepts many films don’t ever approach — what did it mean for Christ to be fully God and fully man? The film treats it seriously, and while I think it at times errs too much on the “man” side at the expense of Christ’s deity, it’s still a discussion that fascinates me and provokes deep thought, even with its flaws.
March 25 (Good Friday)
The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s film is just as controversial as “The Last Temptation of Christ” and, in many ways, I think it’s just as flawed. It’s not a film made for nonbelievers. The worst idea in the world was trying to use it as an evangelism tool. This is a movie devoid of context about Christ’s life, and it treats the resurrection the same way Marvel treats its post-credit scenes. It is brutal, ugly and horrifying, and I understand why so many nonbelievers equated it to an artsy snuff film. Yet for believers, I find it a deeply powerful meditation on Christ’s suffering. It isn’t a film for Easter, but for Good Friday.