Lent and Holy Week bring out strange media events. There is the parade of "exposes" by all manner of skeptics that propose to offer new insights or discoveries about what really happened or more often the case what did not happen around some Biblical event. There was no exodus; the "Reed" Sea parted because of a well-timed earthquake; Jesus was married; Jesus did not claim to be Divine; Jesus was a revolutionary; Jesus did not exist; the Resurrection was an appropriation of pagan myth by the followers of Jesus who kept him alive in their hearts; etc. I am amazed at how much energy and pseudo-scholarship goes into trying to dismember the faith by certain "historians", or more often former believers with an ax to grind . A better strategy if you want to undermined Christianity is to leave us to our own devises.
I do know people who have "lost" their faith and it is almost never a function of the intellect, but of the will. I probably know 95% of the historical, scientific and philosophical objections to the Christianity and some of them are quite formidable in both the English and French senses of the word. None of those arguments come close to creating real doubt in me. Doubt for me is almost always a function of trying to live under grace and the wrestling of "deep speaking to deep."
Most of the time I find equally problematic romanticized films that are supposed to be "faith-affirming." I was helping a young man recently with a writing project and we were reading Mark's account of the Last Supper and he kept saying "this is not how it happened in the movie." I did not ask him which movie and the good news is that he has now read the text. For me the chief problem with live-action representations of Jesus is that they diminish the complexity and mystery of the Gospel portrayals. This can also be true of any artistic interpretation of Christ; but a good painting or even more so an icon, points beyond itself and is more conducive to touching at least the aesthetic soul of the viewer if not somewhere within even more profound.
Films are more difficult. The imagination is mostly taken out of the equation and one is subjected to the limitations of the film makers vision. It is impossible not to project into the film whatever is going on in the world at that time or the particular biases of a film's creators. One is not seeing the Bible come to life-its more like bringing the interpretative notes of a commercialized study bible, a personal devotional, or in the case of Mel Gibson perhaps one's inner demons to the silver screen.
Arguably that is both the promise and danger of the Gospel story-every generation/individual is invited to see Jesus through their own lenses. The beauty of this is that it illustrates both the transcendent and accessible nature of the figure of Christ......"some children see him...." The danger is that we create a cultural idol that tends to reinforce "the Jesus that reflects our values/prejudices-our 'own personal Jesus' we can control" as opposed to the Jesus that makes an armed mob step back; the Jesus whose very disciples desert and betray; the Jesus who people of faith kill with their words and actions.
The fact that the early Church included four Gospels in its scriptures creates a wonderful tension and any attempts to present harmonized accounts of Jesus ultimately are unsatisfying. * The passion narratives do basically follow a generally shared outline (Mathew & Luke use Mark as a primary source; Luke and John seem to share a separate common source), but each Gospel has its own tone and theological outlook. There are some details that cannot quite be reconciled, but more importantly, each writer views the meaning of the events from a slightly different angle that invites the reader into a Holy Tragedy and the Mystery.
For instance, instead of approaching Good Friday from the harmonized perspective of the "Last Seven Words of Christ," read each account alone. In Matthew and Mark, hear the cry of dereliction-"My God, My God..." stand alone offering solidarity to the existential problem of human suffering, while at the same time raising more than a few theological questions. In John's Gospel, Jesus' stoically transfers' the care of his mother; asks for a drink; and then announces his work is complete and dies. In Luke, even to the end Jesus is ministering compassion and mercy on the way to and even as He hangs on the cross.
I don't know how to harmonize these nuanced portraits in a way that does not do violence to the integrity of each Gospel's proclamation of Jesus-so lets not try. I am so grateful for each of them. Sometimes I need John's Jesus: to know there is a plan in the face of tragedy, injustice, and death itself. Luke's Jesus teaches me to forgive my enemies and to believe that my last day will end with Him. Finally, Mark tells me that Jesus has been to hellish places and offers hope to all who find themselves in some hell as well.
On one level, there is nothing wrong with watching some actor portray Jesus. But why settle for something so limited? Read the Gospel of your need and trust the via dolorosa where it might lead this week.
Here might I stay and sing , No story so divine; Never was love, dear King, Never was grief like Thine. This is my Friend, In whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend
*The most successful attempt was The Diatesseron, a harmonized version of the Four Gospels from the Second Century by the Assyrian Christian Tatian, a pagan convert and early apologist. It remained popular among Syriac speaking Christians through the Fifth Century.