Theological complacency is a pandemic, but four controversial films might help us grow as healthy Christians.
Recently, we looked at why Jesus-movies like “The Chosen” aren’t realistic portrayals of Jesus. Last week, we explored other films, both educational and recreational, that help U.S. Christians better understand Jesus’ cultural world and the Biblical texts. It may seem controversial that none of these movies were explicitly about Scripture or Jesus.
To my knowledge, there is no film explicitly about the life of Jesus that offers culturally-informed depictions. Thus, I can say that no such films will help you better read and understand the Bible. It may be controversial, but this is especially true of 1950 cheap-grace Bible epics (e.g., “The Ten Commandments”). I don’t care much for these theological boilerplate movies.
Nevertheless, there are four excellent recreational movies important for theological reasons. All four explicitly deal with Bible stories in controversial ways. Each of them offers a much-needed and profound theological challenge to Christians today. Essentially they challenge our theological complacency.
To see what I mean, watch this—
Controversial Film: “Noah”
Two of these controversial films are by Jewish atheist filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” is a profound retelling and midrash of Genesis 1—11, with help from 1 Enoch. “Noah” has been slandered as “the most unbiblical movie ever made.” What an ignorant statement that is. The controversial “Noah” is surprisingly more faithful to biblical material than many other Bible films promoted as such. Indeed, “Noah” is the best movie presentation thus far of the story in Genesis 6—11.
This is a brilliant film. The mark of such a movie is that it challenges on many levels (unlike theological boilerplate movies that merely confirm us in what we already accept, stroke our egos, and appease our sentiments).
“Noah” offers a fantastic opportunity to look at the Mystery of God and how people grapple over it. Until the end of this controversial film, Aronofsky presents Noah (Russell Crowe) as an imperfect prophet. Noah inflicts upon himself a masterpiece of self-deception. Hardened into a self-centered controller, Noah becomes a fundamentalist, a despotic interpreter of God’s designs. Therefore Noah suffers from a dogged sense of vocation and mission. Driven by a vision of despair, Noah’s calling transforms into an evil, hopeless desire.
Despite all this, God is ultimately revealed, and healing comes. This happens in life-giving love and mercy, in the human community, symbolized by hands and fingers touching throughout the film. Noah is told, “The choice was put in your hands because He [the Creator] put it there. He asked you to decide if we were worth saving.” Isn’t that true of how all of us must decide how we want to understand, interpret, update, and live out the Mystery of God?
Controversial Film: “Mother!”
Aronofsky’s mind-bending “Mother!” is another controversial and challenging film for American Christians to watch. For any Catholic who thinks they understand Salvation History via Scott Hahn or Jeff Cavins, they should have no problem recognizing the storyline of “Mother!” But unlike famous Catholic authors (and their team of ghostwriters), this film offers a damning indictment of how religion plays a significant role in distorting God and God’s love. This happens through imperial cruelty and the tremendous ecological destruction we have committed against Creation.
Indeed, what Father Richard Rohr says is true—“Your image of God creates you.” And when believers are narcissistic, centripetal individualists, that does affect their theology accordingly.
Controversial Film: “Seder-Masochism”
Another brilliant atheist filmmaker, animator Nina Paley, offers us one more theologically challenging film—“Seder-Masochism.” Paley, an avowed “open-source activist,” imaginatively gives us a run-through of the traditional Jewish Passover Seder. To this end, she combines Haggadah with 20th-century popular music (including Louis Armstrong, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles). What Paley creates is hugely controversial.
Paley fills “Seder-Masochism” with the most irreverent and unorthodox depictions of the Exodus story and characters. But “Seder-Masochism” has heart, also.
Paley includes an unscripted personal dialogue between herself and her late dad, Hiram. Paley animates herself as a black sheep/goat and her late father Hiram as God, seen traditionally as a male with a flowing white beard. And the God she shows is undeniably the God of Americans: money.
There is so much to chew on in Seder-Masochism. Paley draws from feminist commentaries of Scripture and contrasts the traditional male God with a much kinder Goddess-figure. She even gives us a profoundly beautiful Goddess creation-myth. Paley reminds viewers that goddess-worship was brutally suppressed by Israelite reformers in Old Testament times. The real protagonist of Seder-Masochism is the Goddess.
Controversial, Yet Deep
Seder-Masochism raises important questions. Women are equally human to men, no? Then why are they silenced and marginalized in Scripture? Why does the same happen in hierarchical religion? Where are the female voices in human expression, and why are women treated so poorly in the great monotheistic traditions? Paley subverts the traditional Passover themes, exposing popular ideas about Moses and Yahweh-God as better related to bloodthirsty villains and control freaks.
Seder-Masochism also delves into other critical religious issues. Such as: why do so many bloodbaths stain the history of people grappling with God? Why all the genocidal hatred and slavery? Why is there so much cruelty?
Watch the film here:
Dismissing in Cowardice
It would be so cheap and easy to dismiss Aronofsky’s Mother! and Paley’s Seder-Masochism as sacrilegious garbage and cast them out of sight and out of mind. But the authentic problems these films raise don’t disappear with our cheap-grace dismissals. Real faith acknowledges the ugly side and goes ouch when others hurt. Therefore, instead of condemning or attempting to cancel voices like Darren Aronofsky and Nina Paley, maybe we should instead be grateful to them?
Not all atheists are silly, scratch-off fundamentalists. Many are, but not all. Some are mystics, like Aronofsky and Paley, maybe even holy atheists. They present a challenging witness, and a righteous doubt of counterfeit truth offered sacrosanct through complacent religious tradition. With the heteroloquy of these artists, we might be spurned to change and grow in healthy ways.
Finally, let me offer you one more challenging film to consider watching this Lent. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a 1973 movie directed by Norman Jewison. It is based on the rock opera of the same name by lyricist Tim Rice (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Evita).
As far as Jesus movies go, it’s at the top of my list. Why? Primarily it is because of two critical aspects that should be kept in mind when watching the film.
The first is that “Jesus Christ Superstar” does not directly deal with Jesus and other Gospel characters. Instead, it depicts a group of young hippie actors reeling in the social changes of the late 1960s while trying to put on a passion play.
Grappling to discover their characters, these Western Boomers draw extensively from the “Jesus biographies” produced by the New Quest for the historical Jesus. This mixes with all the social changes impacting them (civil rights movements, Vietnam, corrupt governments, Feminism, sexual liberation, etc.). In that sense, it is so much more honest than all the other Jesus films.
Asks, Not Tells
The other saving grace of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is that instead of telling us who Jesus is and what he means, it asks.
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
WHO are you? WHAT have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, Superstar,
Do you think you’re what they say you are?
These are essential, gutsy questions Christians reflect on. Merely repeating like parrots a verbal orthodoxy is no escape. If you want to grow in a relationship with Christ, the songs of “Jesus Christ Superstar” offer a great exercise regimen.
Give these films a try this Lent. You don’t have to swallow anything, just sacramentally find the Good and challenge your ability to listen. What good is a Christianity that refuses empathy and active listening?
More controversies ahead…