By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
ONLY ONE FIGURE rivals Sherlock Holmes and Santa Claus as the longest-running characters in world cinema. As veteran-faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty points out in his new book, that unique, history-spanning figure is Jesus Christ, Movie Star.
Right now, the top entertainment correspondents in news media are writing about the countless Christmas movies pumped out each year since late 1897 (when a short silent film, Santa Claus Filling Stockings, debuted)—and they’re also covering the explosion of films and TV dramas about Sherlock Holmes since 1900 (the premiere of another brief film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled).
The Hollywood record holder? “Since the first 5-minute Life of Jesus appeared in 1897, countless movies from around the world have featured Jesus or Christ figures either as central characters or a key part of the story,” McNulty writes in his new book. There’s an ongoing debate about whether Santa, Sherlock or Jesus has produced the most media revenue over the past century.
But, this is certain: “One thing investors have understood since the dawn of moving pictures is that portrayals of Jesus matter deeply to viewers,” McNulty writes.
Sound cynical? Well, the temptation to cash in on Jesus is as old as moviemaking. That very first mid-1897 premiere of a Jesus movie was the product of a mysterious Victorian-era media pioneer who also cashed in on the new movie craze by creating the world’s first pornographic films. He wasn’t particular about his subject matter.
Whatever the motives—Hollywood repeatedly has dipped into the Bible to create blockbusters that provided reliable revenue, if not reliable history. For example, “It’s not surprising that Jesus on the big screen tends to look a lot like the majority of European-American filmgoers,” McNulty writes. “That’s been a Hollywood truth for more than 100 years.”
What’s fascinating is that, despite the many media compromises that have put a huge array of Jesus figures on the big screen—millions of us have indelible and often fond memories of what McNulty calls Jesus Christ, Movie Star. Just close your eyes as you read this article, and you’ll likely summon scenes from a number of classic movies.
Producer and host of the Day1 radio program, Peter Wallace, makes that point in his Preface to McNulty’s book. Wallace writes in part:
As a person of faith, I have always enjoyed watching films that not only try to capture the grandeur and meaning of the stories of the Bible, but also those that say something about faith, or God, or how we live as human beings on this little planet in a more allegorical fashion. I’ve come to realize that sometimes you can discover very powerful truths in the most unexpected places—including films. Ed is way ahead of me on that realization.
There’s an even more urgent concern, these days, for exploring movie depictions of Jesus and that’s quite simply this: The whole world is watching!
We’re in an era when all forms of global media are vying for control of powerful, religious narratives. Just pick up The New York Times any morning and religious conflict figures in the news. This is a vital conversation because billions of men and women around the world care deeply about religion. All around the earth, beloved sacred stories are fueling social and political movements.
In the new book, media scholar Ken Chitwood writes a Foreward that circles the planet in making this point. Chitwood writes in part:
There is no better historical moment than the present to be having these exchanges. Biblical movies and Christian films are big money right now. Toss in Bollywood’s Hindu epics, Muslim comedies and documentaries distributed on Net-flix—plus other films with religious/spiritual themes—and the category “spiritual movies/TV shows” makes up a significant slice of the film and television industry.
WHAT’S IN ‘JESUS CHRIST, MOVIE STAR’?
For many years, Edward McNulty has criss-crossed the United States presenting programs on faith and film. For a quarter of a century, he has been the popular founding editor and chief writer for Visual Parables. Currently, that’s the name of his website with more than a thousand of his free-to-enjoy movie reviews and it’s also the name of his monthly journal, available for a subscription fee, that adds complete study guides for small groups that enjoy discussing spiritual themes in movies.
He also has published a series of books, which are widely read by individual film fans, teachers and small-group leaders. This is his first new book in nearly a decade.
He divides Jesus Christ, Movie Star into three main parts:
- Life of Jesus Films—McNulty is a leading expert on the century-spanning history of Jesus movies. This section of the book includes six chapters, including complete study guides that provide readers everything you’ll need to start discussing some of the more traditional Hollywood depictions of Jesus’s life. Viewers may think of these movies as “swords and sandals” films, claiming to stick close to biblical accounts.
- Jesus Transfigured Films—These two chapters of the book explore Jesus of Montreal and Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which leap from the pages of the Bible to transform the depiction of Jesus in dramatic ways. These chapters also serve as study guides.
- Christ Figure Films—These four chapters are guaranteed to spark spirited conversation about movies that readers may not regard as having anything to do with Jesus. In these films, McNulty poses provocative arguments for identifying “Christ” as a major theme: Cool Hand Luke, Bagdad Cafe, Broadway Danny Rose and Babette’s Feast.
In describing the book in an interview this week, McNulty said, “I’m fascinated by all of these depictions of Jesus because making movies like this is a minefield for Hollywood. One reason it’s a big challenge is that Jesus stands for opposite values to what Hollywood tends to stand for in our culture. The idea that bigger is better and that we all should be chasing fame and fortune—that’s not Jesus’s message.
“That’s why it’s such an irony that Cecil B. DeMille gained his fame by making big biblical epics. He was a master at mixing a heady brew of sex, violence and piety and coming up with blockbusters. Personally, I prefer the depiction we see in what I call the Christ-figure films. In many cases, these are the movies that really get down to the level of what Jesus was trying to show us about life.”
WHAT’S THERE TO TALK ABOUT?
The most intriguing argument McNulty poses in this new book concerns the very nature of our moviegoing experiences. Most Americans may think about a night at the movies as escapism and pure entertainment.
“But movies are much more complex than that in the way we experience them and the way they stay with us over time,” McNulty said. “When I lead groups, I start by reminding them that—when we step into a theater—there’s not one movie being shown. There are as many movies as there are viewers watching. We all bring to the experience of art—whether that’s film or music or a painting or poetry—our own values and our own way of looking at things. So, actually watching a movie is only half of the film experience. The other half is our own individual reactions, insights, confusions and questions.
“That’s why people love talking about Jesus movies. Once we start talking, we discover there’s so much to talk about!”
Most importantly, as an ordained pastor himself McNulty believes he is truly working through his religious vocation when he inspires people to watch and discuss Jesus movies.
“Two thousand years ago, Jesus himself asked his followers to talk about these questions. The Bible tells us he asked: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ” McNulty said. “Jesus wants people to talk about the nature of his ministry and purpose. Even Jesus’s disciples often got this wrong. That’s why he asked them to engage in this kind of conversation.
“After reading this book, I hope readers will ask themselves: What kind of Jesus are we looking for today?”