Pastor and author Matt Rawle is on a mission. He sees Christ all around him—in books, movies, TV shows, rock music—and he wants to share what he sees. As Matt says, "God offers the raw ingredients, and 'culture' is whatever we cook up."
Hollywood Jesus is pastor and author Matt Rawle's study of Jesus and Christ figures in films including Cool Hand Luke, The Lion King, The Truman Show, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Explore what happens when script meets Scripture, when pop culture encounters the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Hollywood Jesus is part of The Pop in Culture Series of Bible studies in which Matt Rawle stirs up a tasty gumbo of insight, humor, and inspiration based on some of your favorite pop culture classics. A DVD featuring four sessions with the author, a full Leader Guide, and a Worship Resources Flash Drive also are available for group study.
About the Author
Matt Rawle is Lead Pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana. Matt is an international speaker who loves to tell an old story in a new way, especially at the intersection of pop culture and the church. He is the author of a new series of books titled The Pop in Culture Series. The series includes The Faith of a Mockingbird, Hollywood Jesus, The Salvation of Doctor Who and The Redemption of Scrooge.
Read an Excerpt
A Small Group Study Connecting Christ and Culture
By Matt Rawle
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
From Scripture to Script
If you'd come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.
Picture this. You're at a reception for your parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. All the family are gathered to celebrate, and it comes time for you to share a few words about how much your parents mean to you. Would you simply grab the nearest microphone and start talking, sharing stories and fun memories? Or maybe you'd choose a poignant poem to express your love. Maybe you would put together a slideshow of pictures that speak for themselves. Or perhaps you'd play a special song because words alone couldn't capture your emotions. Or maybe you wouldn't speak publicly at all, but would Instagram a play-by-play of the night for those who couldn't attend the party.
God created humanity in God's image, and part of that image is the ability to share stories, and in doing so, share with the world what means so much to us. Looking back through history — through ancient texts of epic adventures, battle stories, records of families, and tales about love — humans have always seemingly had a deep hunger to share what matters most to us in our day-to-day lives. Even though the medium has changed over the years, from campfire stories to the printing press, from telephone calls to texting, from actors on the stage to actors on the screen, we continue to have a deep hunger to share with each other what matters most.
Today, movies have become a huge part of our story-telling language, with movie ticket sales eclipsing the revenue of even the most popular books. Sometimes we even think a book really hasn't "made it" until it is adapted for the screen. One of my wife's pet peeves is when she hears someone walk out of a movie theater saying, "Eh. The book was better." She always wants to say, "Of course the book was better because it was your own imagination making the visuals!" So how do we react when a movie is drastically different than what our imaginations have created? It may be simple enough to say that a movie is good or bad or funny or rotten, but what if the film's subject really matters? What about when the Bible is adapted for the screen? Sometimes it feels inappropriate to say that a movie about Jesus was simply "good" or "bad" or even "mediocre." What does it mean if you thought Son of God was a bad movie? Does that mean you don't really believe that Jesus was God's Son? What if you thought The Last Temptation of Christ was a great movie? Does that mean you think Jesus was really tempted to have a family of his own? Is there a difference between the art of filmmaking and the meaning the film offers? In other words, can good art offer a bad truth, or bad art offer a good truth?
When Scripture becomes script, it can change the experience we have with God's Word, so let's explore how the medium of film affects the way we see the person of Jesus.
How to Tell a Great Story
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
– John 21:24–25 NRSV
What makes a great story? Should it be compelling or funny? Suspenseful? Heart wrenching and tragic? Or perhaps being memorable is the big secret to telling a great story. At best, a great story is simply a story that matters — one that offers influence and change. At worst, stories are simply subjective, based only in personal judgment, and thus leaving each audience to their own opinion.
Great art — whether the medium is movies or music, visual or narrative — is something that points beyond itself. Consider the story "The Three Little Pigs." One day a mother pig sends her three sons out into the world to find their fortunes, but the Big Bad Wolf is wandering about. For protection, the three pigs decide to each build a shelter. The first two pigs, filled with frivolity and little care, quickly build their houses — one out of straw and another out of twigs. The third brother, more careful, patient, and wise, builds his house out of brick. The Big Bad Wolf comes along and easily blows down the houses made of straw and of twigs, but he is unable to blow down the house made of bricks. Determined, the wolf then tries to enter the brick house through the chimney, where he is quickly cooked by the fire underneath and serves as a fine meal for the wise and patient bricklaying pig. You might question whether "The Three Little Pigs" is a profound and great story, but the point is that there is more to this story than the actual tale. The story isn't about organic architecture or the biology of wolf lung capacity — ultimately, it is a story about being prepared and living wisely. In other words, the entire tale serves to point to a truth greater than the story itself.
"The Three Little Pigs" (or as I like to call it, "A Prelude to Bacon") also provides a structure for how we understand a modern story. There's a prologue and introduction — in which Mama Pig desires for her children to find fortune and safety. The introduction reveals that there are three pigs that will carry the story along. A brief look at character development shows us that only the third pig is wise. There is conflict with the introduction of the Big Bad Wolf. The story resolves with the wolf being cooked in the chimney pot, and the story concludes with wolf stew and a happy bricklayer. Across genres — romance, action, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, drama — most stories follow a similar arc. The prologue offers background, the introduction sets the stage, the conflict holds the plot, the character development makes us fall in love with who the story is about, the resolution reveals that conflict is temporary, and the ending reminds us that all good stories must come to an end.
In a way, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John follow this basic story structure as well. There is the prologue of Jesus' birth in the Gospel of Luke, and the profound "In the beginning" from John's Gospel. In Matthew 3, Jesus' baptism serves as an introduction of sorts, revealing Jesus' mission to announce that God's kingdom is at hand. Then we hear stories about Jesus' character — about his teachings, his miracles, his disciples, and his healings — all with specific flavors, depending on which Gospel writer is telling the story. Conflict arises between Jesus and those who have religious and political power. The crucifixion resolves the conflict, and the empty tomb offers us the conclusion that Jesus' ending on earth was just the start of a new beginning.
But even though the Gospels do have familiar elements in common with what we understand to be a complete story, the Gospels break the mold in important ways. The Gospel of John, for example, seems completely uninterested in the normal flow of a story structure. Things happen out of order, such as in chapter 11, when we hear that Jesus is heading to Mary's house to visit with his ailing friend, Lazarus. Scripture says in 11:2, "This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill." The only problem is that, in this story, Mary doesn't anoint Jesus' feet until the next chapter, chapter 12. Another example is Mark's Gospel, in which the author isn't at all concerned with offering a proper ending. In Mark 16, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb to offer spices for Jesus' body, and they find that the stone has been rolled away. An angel appears to them saying that Jesus has been raised, and the women flee from the tomb, filled with terror and amazement. And then ... roll credits. The women do not experience the Risen Lord. There's no mention of what happened after Jesus was raised. The story ends without fanfare or dénouement or a final bow of the main character.
A 1965 movie depicted Jesus's life, and billed it The Greatest Story Ever Told. But the gospel is bigger than a story and any traditional constraints. The Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — are stories meant to matter because the gospel is bigger than any kind of box we might construct to contain its truth. The Bible's testimonies about Jesus of Nazareth point to a deep and profound truth beyond the words on the page. Stories of his birth, miracles, mission, suffering, and resurrection go beyond the goal of humor or suspense — they are shared so that the world, and all that is within it, might become part of God's kingdom. As the Gospel of John says at its conclusion, "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:24–25 NRSV).
If the world itself cannot contain the whole of the gospel story, this offers quite a problem when we are called to share the story. To hand someone a Bible is one thing. To share the gospel message in your own words is quite another. Sharing the story becomes even more complex when the Jesus of the Gospels becomes the Jesus of the silver screen. When the gospel is bigger than anything the world can contain, how do you portray Jesus on film and do God's story justice? Robert Powell, who starred in Jesus of Nazareth, offered his version — a stoic and almost otherworldly Jesus. Ted Neely's portrayal of the Messiah in Jesus Christ Superstar emphasizes Jesus' more socially radical moments, with a mop of hippie hair. In Jesus of Montreal we see a completely different picture of who Jesus is or was or was presented to be. In The Last Temptation of Christ ... well ... we'll get there.
The gospel is certainly the greatest story ever told, though it certainly can't be contained within a category on Netflix. Even though the Hollywood Jesus is seemingly as varied as the directors who yell, "Action!" the Bible's story of Jesus defies category. To say that it is simply a great story can never contain its fullness — the good news that offers grace, demands transformation, and invites us into eternity.
How do you understand the story structure of your life? Where are you right now in your current story?
What do you think has most shaped your perspective of Jesus — church, family, the Bible, visual art, media? What images have made you feel most connected to him?
How are you shaping the perception of Jesus to those in your community or household or business?
Look! The lamb of God! – John 1:36b
When we share the gospel story, decisions have to be made. If you had to offer an "elevator speech," a three-minute summary about who Jesus is, what stories would you include? Would you mention the Crucifixion and Resurrection? Would you start the conversation with "In the beginning ..."? Or maybe you would quote Paul, who summed up what God accomplished in the person of Jesus, saying
[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6–11 NRSV)
When we share the gospel message, decisions have to be made. When God's Word becomes our words, we have to decide how best to communicate who Jesus is. This becomes even more complex when the words of Scripture become the words of a film script. When Scripture becomes script, seemingly unimportant details of the Gospel stories are put on display and can have a dramatic effect on the way the story is told.
Portraying the gospel story on the big screen can be a powerful tool, but it also has great limitations. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch talks about how the way we tell a story often dictates what the story communicates. For example, who said that a pop song in the 1960s had to be less than three minutes long? The record itself — because it could only hold three minutes' worth of music. At that time in history, sharing music was limited to the technology available. So it's not that a good pop song is supposed to squeeze in a verse, chorus, verse, bridge, and chorus in three minutes. It just had to. In other words, the media dictated the message.
So how does film affect how we are able to tell the story of Jesus? When Scripture becomes script, decisions have to be made. For example, what do you suppose Jesus looked like? In Son of God, produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, Jesus is easy to recognize. His long hair and medium beard, along with beige robes and slight British accent, offer a typical and familiar snapshot of Jesus. Godspell, on the other hand, presents Jesus as a clown — complete with makeup, oversized shoes, and Superman T-shirt. I would imagine if you were sharing the gospel story with someone, what Jesus looked like wouldn't necessarily be part of the conversation. But when Jesus moves from the page to the screen, Jesus' appearance is often the first thing the audience will consider.
If you do a quick Internet search for "Jesus," the first images you will see reveal a light-skinned Jesus with finely manicured hair, neatly arranged robes, and a welcoming expression. What does it mean that this is the most commonly clicked-on Jesus on the Internet, especially when we consider that Jesus' physical appearance (other than during the Transfiguration) is never detailed in the Gospels? The oldest pictures of Jesus, such as the fourth- century Roman mosaic currently housed in the British Museum, shows Jesus with short hair and no beard, but I suspect that this Jesus would go unrecognized today. The "Google Jesus" suggests that the most commonly held picture of Jesus is one in which Jesus is a warm, inviting, white pastoral figure, ready to welcome all who answer the door upon which he is knocking. But is this a full picture of the Son of God? Hardly.
Deciding what Jesus looks like is an important element in visually communicating who Jesus was, but a more complex decision is which Jesus should be portrayed. For example, how do you tell someone the story of Jesus' feeding of the five thousand? It's a miracle recorded in all four of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — but each remembers the event in a slightly different way. Matthew makes a point that there were five thousand men, plus women and children there. Luke remembers that when Jesus welcomed the crowd, he taught them about the kingdom of God. Mark remembers that when Jesus saw the crowd, he was filled with compassion because they looked like sheep without a shepherd. John records that Jesus specifically asked Philip to feed the hungry crowd. Each Gospel offers specific details that are only mentioned in that particular story. So which story do you tell? Do you choose one over the other like Godspell, which more or less tells Matthew's story? Do you combine all four stories into one? In the opening scene of Son of God, a voiceless narrator is reciting the Gospel of John's prologue while combining images of both Matthew's and Luke's stories about Jesus' birth. Do you skip over the details and just say that Jesus fed the hungry and so should we, taking a more Jesus of Montreal approach?
It's not just a movie director who has to make decisions about which Jesus to portray when telling his story. Every day we make decisions about which Jesus we express through our words and actions, even though we are often unaware of doing so. For example, worship space plays a leading role in which Jesus a congregation offers. I think too often our congregations outfit worship spaces and styles in order to attract who they are trying to reach rather than Who they are trying to offer. A Gothic cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows and an ornate organ reminds us of Jesus' glory. A simple worship space filled with a few candles offers an intimate picture of Jesus. A sanctuary containing guitars and video screens presents a casual and progressive feel. Form often dictates the message. Again, it was the record that confined the pop song to three minutes. What does the form, or style, of your worship setting say about the Jesus you are communicating in your faith community? Maybe a better question is, do our preferences in worship adequately convey who we understand Jesus to be?
Excerpted from Hollywood Jesus by Matt Rawle. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Hollywood Jesus: The Big Picture from Story to Screen,
1. From Scripture to Script,
2. The Jesus of Now ... Whenever "Now" Is,
3. The Gospel According to ...,
4. Everyone Has a Story,