What Should My Family and I Watch During Holy Week?

Easter is coming in a few short weeks! As the non-Christian world grabs onto parts of our traditions, they still come up rather bunny-centric. Still, if you check your local listings, the Bible seems to be dusted off and handed to the network scheduling department this time of year. From the looks of some of their productions, it seems most just flipped through and looked at the pictures, where others seem to do a decent job of portraying the messages in an accurate way.

Now the first thing to realize is that movies are a different medium than a book. Things will have to be changed just to make the jump. On top of that, the Bible is not usually stories, but histories. Thus, to make a film, the story must be extracted from the history. With this in mind, a fun family night might be reading the Bible account and then watching the movie. (Sometimes we would do the Bible account over morning devotions beforehand .) Then we discussed what was changed and why. Most changes are made for dramatic interest, to simplify for a modern culture (like Moses’ 2 brothers in  Prince of Egypt: ). If there is going to be a problem with the changes, it’s often that they try to remove the supernatural from the story (“Peter and Paul” with Anthony Hopkins) or try to make God into the universal force for good in all men (“The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston).

I am always up for a well done Bible story, (I recommend Testament: The Bible in Animation) but moving toward the celebration of Jesus rising from the dead, you may want to focus on Jesus himself!

There are some very good films with Jesus; there are also some awful ones.

Of course The Passion of the Christ” is the obvious front runner. Picking up the story of Jesus in the Garden as he prays for the cup to be taken away, this is the struggle between the ultimate powers in the universe. Casting Jesus in the mode of sacrificial superhero, he battles to give up his life for the world, as Satan tries to stop the sacrifice. This is intermingled with flashbacks from Jesus’ life that become much more poignant when put in the framework of his death.

Then there is the Campus Crusade funded “Jesus Film” that goes almost word for word from the gospel of Luke. This is not as well done a film. It’s more a well done book on tape with nice pictures. (You can see the movie on line.)

Friends of mine who are now going to work for the “Jesus Film” ministry have just told me about the next development. The “Visual Translation” of the Jesus film will use the vocal tracks and then add all new music and sound effects for an anime version of the film. This new version is being headed up by director Barry Cook and you can see animatics of two of the scenes on their web pagehttp://whoishe.org/animationproject

I personally love The Miracle Maker“. This is the story of Jesus done by an amazing Russian Claymation team and an English group doing traditional animation used for flashbacks and whenever something spiritual (like the casting out of demons) happens. The story is sewn together by the struggles of a religious leader and his sick daughter. Will he let her suffer, or will he bring her to Jesus to be healed? This film spent months in the theaters in England . Here, it was shown once on ABC family before going to DVD; how sad.

You can now watch the Miracle Maker on line at Hulu.com

This may also be a good time to introduce your family to “Godspell: A Musical Based on the Gospel of St. Matthew .” This very quirky (read – “Weird”) offering from the 70’s has a group of thrift shop sheik hippies called out of the world of New York to act out the parables through the streets and monuments of the city that doesn’t sleep. They often move events to offer thematic continuity and artistic comment. At one point Jesus faces the “Pharisee Monster” who hits him with all the questions that are sprinkled throughout the gospels. This confrontation ends with an artistic representation of the cleansing of the temple. In the stage show the Resurrection is incorporated into the curtain call. Here we are told it will happen in the closing songs and then see New York go back to its life without taking notice of the gift it has been given. (There is also the unintentional irony of the song “All For The Best” and it’s big finial on the twin towers.)

Of course if 70’s hippy rock is not your thing; The Jesus story is narrated and serenaded by the Man in Black himself in Johnny Cash’s Gospel Road.

Taking one step away you have “Ben Hur”. Tied for having received the most Oscars ever, this swashbuckling Charlton Heston classic shows a man’s spiritual journey to forgiveness set against the backdrop of the Gospel story. This is a great movie for people who know the story of Jesus. You will see more of the story by filling in the blanks.

In “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, ” we have Jesus interjected into a fantasy world . Here we see the sacrifice of Jesus illustrated in thematically graphic and personal terms. We can all relate to selling out all we should love for brief personal pleasure or “sweeties”. It is wonderful to see Jesus as Lord of everything, even the imagination of man, in the character of Aslan.

Finally , we can look at movies that offer us “types o f Christ.”A “ type” is a character that has their own story but , when you stand back from the details, you see the story of Jesus. In the Bible, characters like Joseph ( who is sacrificed by his family, and then goes on to become ruler and savior) and Jonah ( sent with a message to a foreign land, sacrificed, “resurrected” 3 days later to offer repentance) are types of Christ. Jesus even references Jonah as a type in Matthew 12:38-41 Matthew 16:4, and Luke 11:29-32 .

Fiction writers have also used the “type of Christ” to allow their story to point to Jesus. This is very popular with film makers. Just check out the trailer for the recent  “Superman Returns”.

In the film (or film series, depending on your point of view) “Lord of the Rings”, there are three characters that point to Jesus. In “Fellowship of the Rings” you see Frodo and the Ring. The Ring is the force of evil in the world. Frodo, though it is not his to deal with, takes the evil of the ring on himself and bares it in order to destroy it. In “The Two Towers” we re-visit the sacrifice of Gandalf. We are reminded that he gave himself to save his friends from a demon (another symbol of evil) and was then sent back to be with them in the battle. Thirdly in “Return of the King” (as if that title isn’t a dead giveaway) we see Aragorn enter into the realm of those living in death because they refused to follow the king. He enters death to give the people an offer : You may follow me and I will set you free from this death. His later rule as king is a nod to the second coming of Christ.

In the 1954 Marlon Brando /Karl Malden classic, “On The Waterfront”, a local priest realizes that Jesus would not stand by and let mob bosses and crime ruin the people he is supposed to be serving. In a wonderful speech we are told that when people are killed for doing what is right, it is a crucifixion. This sets us up for a “ type of Christ” I call “the freedom bringer.” (SPOILER) At the end of the movie, Marlon Brando’s character has decided to stand up to the mob. The result is that they take him out back, with all the waterfront workers standing helplessly aside, and beat him within an inch of his life. This is where we see an illustration of the resurrection and the people set free. This is also the movie with the famous “Could have been a contender” speech.

Will Smith‘s “I Am Legend” is a dark film about zombie/vampires. It is being released on DVD in time for Easter. This may seem like an oversight, but it may have been a part of a marketing plan. By the end of the film you realize that the Zombies are symbolism for a people infected with evil who need the blood from a sacrificial savior to release them from there torment. (You can read my full review here.) I have heard that the DVD has two versions of the film. I have seen the theatrical version and can not comment on the alternate version.

You can also see acts that artistically bring to mind Jesus ’ sacrifice in movies like “To End All Wars” , “Man On Fire” , “Meet John Doe” , and “I Robot” . “I Robot” has the entire trinity, but unfortunately also has weirdly pro-cussing messages.

Unfortunately, some films will use the connection to Jesus to bring a “new” message or to suggest Christianity to be wrong. Where The Matrix’s Neo, Star Wars’ Anakin , and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” all have used the character of Jesus and even some of his words, they are not there to point you to Jesus , but away — or beyond — him ( as some of the film makers may tell you) .

What Is Your Recommendation?

As part of your family time this season, it would be great to find one of  these films that would be appropriate for your entire family. Then, do not just watch it together. Afterward, talk about what the film was saying about Jesus. Who in the film emulated the person of Jesus? What characteristics did the character share with Jesus and what was different? And what do I notice about Jesus that I may not have seen before or have not though t about in a while?

This is just another fun way to have film watching do more than just fill a couple of hours.

For more – Check out the Q&E Extra – The 6 Jesuses of Film and Literature

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