I’ve seen a lot of Jesus on-screen. Meh.
The Son of God never seems to fit the box office or television prime time, so I’ve decided to make my own Jesus flick. As Executive Producer, here are some notes-to-self:
1. Cast a Jewish Jesus. Forget the Norwegian surfer guy. I’m not an anthropologist, but I’d be willing to bet that as a first century Jew, He was olive- skinned with brown eyes. Yes, I’m aware that many Jews have blue eyes. I have a Semitic racial background myself, yet blue eyes because of some English ancestry. It’s enough to mix me up pretty good. That’s my story, but I don’t think Jesus’ lineage intersected northern euro peoples.
2. Cast a plain guy. No “Hot Jesus” allowed. Look for a typical Jewish man who is a little on the unattractive side. The only hints given of His earthly appearance were in the book of Isaiah (53:2-3), which is unflattering, to say the least. It’s possible that if you saw a photo of the twelve apostles and Christ, you wouldn’t have been able to pick Him out of the bunch—unless He was seated in the middle, maybe. But forget locating someone with Hollywood good looks. And while you’re at it, make sure he has a haircut. Aside from the Nazarite vow (which we are never told He placed himself under), no males of the ancient Mediterranean world wore long hair except those who were sexually confused, slaves, or prisoners of war.
3. Pay close attention to how “Jesus” delivers His lines. The things Jesus said stunned His original listeners. His words have held the world in awe for twenty-one centuries. When I see an actor glibly, casually, mouthing those same words, it really doesn’t resonate. The Bible says of Jesus, “The crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29). Jewish scribes had a way of memorizing stuff from Moses and repeating it, like talking heads. It came across as borrowed authority. This is where it’s going to get hard for an actor, because nobody can duplicate Jesus. At least the person playing Him should try to navigate between sounding grave and sounding approachable. Jesus was approachable without devolving into a chatty-Cathy. He was also serious without artificial, melodramatic speeches (let’s save the cheese for the crackers).
4. Make sure “Jesus” is portrayed in first century Israel, not twenty-first century America. That means avoid putting sentimental religious ideas or modern social agendas in His mouth. He didn’t come to change the world, to help the world, or to make it a nicer place. He came to save it. Mistaken versions of Him sound like a spokesperson for your favorite political party. The other, well, sounds like a Savior. Remember, it’s the first century. Women keep their heads and figures covered and don’t wear makeup by Revlon. Men keep hair no longer than the earlobes. And a pervasive all-Jewish cast should also go without saying.
5. Portray Christ according to His Spirit-approved biographies. Use artistic nuances—music, special effects, etc.— to bring out his royalty as in Matthew (He’s the King of Kings), his work as in Mark (He’s the servant of God), his humanity as in Luke (He’s the ultimate compassionate man), and his deity as in John (He is God).
6. Be accurate. The life of Jesus is inseparable from the gospel. Tell it right. Tell it straight. Jesus spoke of love. He also warned of hell. He taught about forgiveness and of judgment. The gospel isn’t about hugs and affirmation. It all comes down to a bloody cross and an empty tomb. Hollywood can’t improve on that. There’s no need to add motivational “believe in yourself” fodder. The more you try to improve the Mona Lisa with crayons, the worse it looks. Similarly, when it comes to the Jesus story, stick with what has already worked for thousands of years.
7. Get creative with the feeling of the film. Antique it, portray mystery, enigma, wonder. Show grit. Capture moments of the surreal. Use cinematic effects of shadow and light. Splurge on good special effects. Leave the junky stuff to the million or so Z-grade religious titles on Netflix. Viewing audiences are far more discerning than ten or fifteen years ago.
8. Somehow locate fifty million dollars. That’s what it will take to pull it all off. Oh, and a team of talented young cinematographers and a hungry, aspiring cast that wants to send a message to millions of movie-goers.
Or—sigh—maybe I’ll just keep preaching and teaching straight from the page to the heart. It’s a lot more difficult than making a movie and in some ways costs more, but that’s the way Christians have done it for a long time, with spectacular results.
Meanwhile, if someone has that fifty million, shoot me an email.
We’ll talk about it over coffee.