Cinematic Savior: Hollywood's Making of the American Christ

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From Cecil B. DeMille's production of King of Kings in 1927, to Mel Gibson's recent The Passion of the Christ, films that discuss the meaning of Jesus have provoked interest, discussion, and reevaluation on a large scale. Hollywood films that deal with this subject have consistently managed to augment their inherent power by commenting simultaneously on political and cultural matters, and drawing from alternative cultural and mythological sources. The Greatest Story Ever Told, for instance, uses a landscape similar to that of the American West, while The Last Temptation of Christ deals with themes related to modern American notions of sexuality and sin.

This timely examination considers the life of Jesus as it has been portrayed in such films as King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Passion of the Christ, as well as the more allusive and implicit use of Christ-related themes in Spartacus, Shane, and The Matrix. It looks at the diverse content and often-surprising impact of these and other films, and reveals how these depictions have helped determine, and been determined by, particularly American notions of who Jesus was, how he lived and died, and what he means for both our religious and secular cultures.

Through an objective consideration of these movies, the emergent religious culture of mainstream American film becomes apparent as a central element in Hollywood movies—and in American popular culture at large.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book may not, as is suggested, do for the cinematic Jesus what the great biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer did for the historical Jesus, but it explicates the enormity of what movie-makers attempt—and the need for movie fans to beware."


Times Literary Supplement (London)

"[H]umphries-Brooks reconstructs the making of a cinematic savior with clarity and unhurried reason. Beginning with Cecil B. DeMille (and overlooking earlier film versions of the Christ story), the author teases out cultural reflections from a half dozen American film adaptations of the Gospel story. Interpretative insights follow previous studies, scanning parallels between director George Stevens's Jesus and his Western Shane and white American action-hero values in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Though several unique asides pay tribute to such peculiar bits as the Oscar Wildean antecedent of Salome, this well-written, engaging book settles down to finding American icons of the Savior that reflect anxiety, alienation, mainstream Protestant assurance, and Roman Catholic sacramental mysteries within contemporary society. The marketing of the myth of a messiah ultimately means that Hollywood has made another consumer product that sells well. Even without significant original sources on the films themselves, Humphries-Brooks provides a leisurely, intelligent prepackaged tour of the cinematic land of Holywood. Recommended. Lower-/upper-division undergraduates; general readers; professionals."



"Humphries-Brooks offers a different take from the dozen other similarly themed books from the last ten years….The strength of Cinematic Savior stems from the way it refrains from basing its critique in adaptation, in how well the films hold up to the literary accounts found in the Gospels. Instead, even though Humphries-Brooks was trained in the Gospels, he wisely sets his readings withing a reception history of Jesus films themselves, suggesting that students and other contemporaries receive their understandings and images of Jesus from Hollywood more than from the Gospels, Church teachings, or more traditional iconography….Cinematic Savior is a provocative work at the intersection of christology, popular culture, and visual culture."


The Journal of Religion

"… an engaging and provocative study that traces the development of the representation of Jesus upon the screen in six films …."


Religion and the Arts

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780275984892
  • Publisher: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/30/2006
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

STEPHENSON HUMPHRIES-BROOKS is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College, where he teaches courses in film, religion, and popular culture. He has been interviewed frequently on the subject of Jesus in film for outlets including the New York Times and NPR. He has also contributed to a number of edited collections.

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Table of Contents

1 Love and betrayal : Magdalene, Judas, and Jesus 9
2 I was a teenage Jesus in Cold War America : king of kings, 1961 23
3 The greatest story ever told : suburban Jesus and the mortgaged gospel 39
4 Jesus Christ superstar : the cinematic savior as alienated hero 55
5 Jesus of Nazareth : the contribution of television 69
6 The last temptation of Christ : the psychological problem of God in a body 83
7 How Jesus got a gun 101
8 The passion of the Christ : Jesus as action hero 117
Conclusion : where does Jesus lead us? 133
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