The book is better than the movie.
I think I’ve said that about every film adaptation I’ve seen, except maybe Catching Fire. So it’s no surprise I’d say the same thing when the book in question isn’t just any book, but the Book, God’s inspired Word. Nevertheless bringing a book (even the Book) to the big screen can help the reader see with fresh eyes, look more carefully, and appreciate another’s perspective. Such was my experience with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s new movie, Son of God, which opened Friday across the country.
Clergy members around the city were invited to an advance screening last week, attended by the show’s producers. Mark and Roma briefly introduced the film, then fielded questions from the audience afterwards. The older I get, the more I respect the effort of filmmakers to adapt a book for the screen. I think it was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that showed how hard this task is. Although the book is short, there is no way that every detail could be put into the film. Sometimes I think producers do a great job (Deathly Hallows Part 2 comes to mind), other times not so much (Prince Caspian). In that light, I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to hear directly from Mark and Roma about this work.
Since a number of you asked, here are a few reflections from that night.
1. Chronology. Any careful reader of the gospels will recognize a number of differences between the biblical account and the movie. For example, in the movie the story of the four men who brought the paralytic to Jesus occurs while he gives the kingdom parables. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus arrives a night or two before his crucifixion. The two appearances of Christ to the disciples (first to the ten, then to the eleven) are collated into one. Again, I am sympathetic to screenwriters who transpose a book to film, and I understand how these decisions advanced the movie’s plot. Nonetheless I found them a bit distracting.
2. Climax. It seemed to me that the movie made the climactic scene of the resurrection not the empty tomb (as I’d always thought of it), but the upper room gathering. Consequently I felt a bit of a let-down at a moment when I thought the movie would peak. That this let-down occurred at the empty tomb was particularly dissatisfying.
1. Evangelistic edge. During the Q&A, Mark said he’s often asked whether this is a movie or evangelism. He says unapologetically, “It’s evangelism.” Consequently the story of Christ is told from the perspective of John the apostle. The movie begins with John on the Isle of Patmos, reflecting on the life of our Lord. Its opening words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The image cuts to a nature clip with the voiceover, “When everything was created, he was there.” Then to Adam and Eve: “When they sinned in the garden, he was there.” Then to Noah: “During the great flood, he was there.” And so forth until the early climax: “And the Word became flesh.” This is not a nice movie about a nice Jesus; this is a direct challenge to a secular age that the King has come and he demands repentance and faith.
2. Historical context. The most pleasant surprise in Son of God is how it helps viewers understand the political context for the life and death of Christ. The Romans were ruthless, brutal people, and from the early in the movie you see it, you feel it. The Jewish leaders were politicians, trying to stay in Pilate’s good grace enough to maintain their own authority.
The producers include some extrabiblical content to make this point, and I think that is entirely justifiable. When the gospel writers penned their books, the recipients were so close to the historical moment that they didn’t need the picture painted any more than it was. But our geographic and historical distance from the world of Christ makes such descriptions quite helpful.
By the time Pilate washes his hands of the whole matter, you understand why Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin did what they did, and why Pilate and the Romans did what they did. Both felt painted into a corner with no alternative left to them. And yet at the same time the movie makes the point that all of them were guilty—guilty of injustice, guilty of murder, guilty of killing the Son of God. To make both points well is very difficult (ask any preacher of the gospel), but this movie did it.
3. The power of the Word. Images have only so much power. Not so the Word. And nothing was more powerful in the movie than the words of Christ quoted from the pages of Scripture. If Son of God gets people to hear the Word who otherwise have not, then the effort will have been well worth it.
I was also encouraged to hear Mark and Roma say as much after the showing. They told the story of a Muslim journalist who had screened Son of God a week earlier. Afterwards they asked for her impression. “Apparently I do not know Jesus,” she replied. “I will have to read the Bible to find out more about him.”
“That,” Mark told us, “is our goal. If this movie gets people to open their Bible and learn about Jesus, then we hit our mark.”
4. Great Commission. After the ascension with the words “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” still ringing in their ears, the disciples turn to go back to the city. As they walk, Peter says, “We’ve got work to do.” It’s a beautiful setup for the book of Acts, but an even better admonition to the Christians in the audience. We’ve got work to do.
Other possible objections
1. Violation of the second commandment. Some of my Reformed friends may object to the movie because of the second commandment (“no graven image”). For J I Packer’s classic articulation of this view, see here. I appreciate this concern and have wrestled with it over the years. To be consistent, of course, one needs reject not only movies like this but drawings of Jesus in children’s books and so forth. And to be fair, many of these friends are that consistent, even using construction paper in Bible storybooks to cover images of Jesus while teaching Sunday school.
But I think there is a danger with this position: it can tend toward a kind of Gnosticism that sees the spiritual as good but the physical as bad. You can’t press the second commandment so far that it leaves no room for a truly human, truly physical Jesus. And before I get a bunch of emails from these friends telling me that they don’t do this, I’m not saying they are. I’m simply observing that it can tend that direction, and they need to be careful.
On the other hand, those who have never given consideration to their argument need to be careful not to imbibe artists’ depictions of biblical events in such a way that the art overrules what the Bible actually says. When Passion came out, I saw it once and haven’t seen it again. I didn’t want Mel Gibson’s depiction of the crucifixion to be in my mind every time I read the gospels. And I figure I’ll treat Son of God the same way.
2. Roman Catholic producers. I’m a Protestant. A Reformed Protestant. A credobaptist Reformed Protestant. I’m part of a movement that has been protesting for nearly 500 years, and we don’t plan to stop any time soon. So this is a significant objection to the Son of God movie: if it’s produced by Catholics, isn’t it bound to be erroneous?
I watched it with this question in mind. And there were a couple of elements that would have served a Catholic apologist. For example, in that scene I described where the disciples walk away from the ascension and Peter says, “We’ve got work to do,” the narrator summarizes that they began Great Commission work “with Peter as our leader.” True enough, but what of Paul? Why mention Peter only? Perhaps because of his role on the Day of Pentecost, perhaps because the story of Paul doesn’t fit into the life of Christ. But it seems more than convenient to identify Peter as the leader of the church if you’re a Roman Catholic seeking to establish grounds for the papacy.
Or take Mary, played by Roma Downey. In one scene, she is told by a friend that Jesus has come back to town, so she runs out to see him. I expected to hear the familiar words spoken to Christ, “Your mother is standing outside,” with Christ’s amazingly gracious reply: “Who is my mother? Whoever does my Father’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” But instead it showed her greeting Jesus as any mother would her returning son. The producers also included a pieta-like image at the end of the crucifixion, which does not appear in Scripture. I think Mark and Roma would say that they were trying to put a mother’s love on display, and I could see their point. But it portrayed only part of what the gospels record about Mary: besides Christ’s words mentioned above, I don’t recall the movie including the Magnificat, with Mary’s key words, “My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”
Those were the most glaring examples I noticed. But since the producers tried to stick with Scripture, I didn’t find too many other Catholic-doctrine-specific intrusions. My dad will be glad to learn that there isn’t a rainstorm during the crucifixion after the thief on the cross is converted, as in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
In the end, I’d answer the question of whether the movie is bound to be erroneous by asking a second: can God use a crooked stick to draw a straight line? And the answer of course is Yes. He is so gracious and so powerful that he can use any one of us, crooked as we are. Thankfully he doesn’t leave us where we are, but causes us to know Christ more accurately and reflect Christ more fully as time passes. I don’t know the spiritual condition of either Mark or Roma (shocker!), but I think the Scriptures in the movie speak for themselves and testify more to the good news of Christ than to the Roman Catholic Church.
So would I recommend you see it? Yeah, maybe. It’s not essential to your understanding of Scripture, your knowledge of Christ, or your spiritual maturity. God has given you his Word and his Spirit, and he’s put you among his people in the church. So you have all you need. To the extent that Son of God directs you to the ordinary means of grace, it may be worthwhile.
But remember: it’s just a movie. And the Book is always better than a movie.