In 2016, there were no fewer than four Hollywood movies about Jesus: Risen, The Young Messiah, Last Days in the Desert, and Ben-Hur. One thing all of these movies have in common is their attempt to fill in gaps in the biblical narrative. Such imaginative engagement with Scripture might seem sacrilegious, but is actually unavoidable if we are to imagine Jesus as a real human being whose life can serve as a model for our own lives. Whereas Islam prohibits artistic representation of stories from the Qur’an, the biblical principle of Incarnation has licensed Christians to represent Scripture in visual art and encouraged us to translate the Bible into many languages and cultures. Every Jesus movie — like every sermon, Bible study, or theology book — is an act of translation and interpretation, a rewriting of the gospel narrative for a specific audience. Jesus films are typically framed as “biopics” that emphasize character over plot. So there are two questions to ask of any Jesus movie: (1) what is the theological interpretation of Jesus being offered? And (2) what sort of person is Jesus depicted as, based on what events are portrayed and how the film portrays them? Whether a film is a “good” Jesus movie depends mostly on whether its theological viewpoint and interpretation of the character of Jesus are compatible with the theology and character of Jesus revealed in the Bible, but it also depends on what they are trying to accomplish with the film. We often assume that Christian movies are either for evangelism or devotion, but the recent Jesus movies might be better at raising questions that open a space for apologetic conversation.
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