Come Unto "JESUS" (and Bring Me Some Milk Duds)

Jesus the Movie, in Africa, image:jesusfilm.orgIf the story in Mel Gibson's The Passion sounds vaguely familiar, you won't be surprised by the revelations in Franklin Foer's article in the Times today. It apparently comes from a 1979 Warner Bros. movie called Jesus. [o Hollywood, remakes are like manna from heaven.] "JESUS" (the movie) has developed something of a cult following [sic].

Thanks to 300 earnest evangelicals at the Jesus Film Project who have translated it into 848 languages, and thousands of projector-and-generator-toting missionary/exhibitors who circle the globe, "JESUS" has become the centerpiece of a Rocky Horror Picture Show-style filmic conversion experience, albeit one where bread and wine replaces flying toast.

The distributor and original producer, Campus Crusade for Christ, claims that over 3 billion people have seen the movie. For those living in remote Andean and African villages, it was often the first film they'd ever seen. Foer points to Bro. Brian Helstrom's unsubtly symbolic story of a screening in South Africa:

"'You could see them physically jump back at the sight of the serpent tempting Jesus,' he recalled. 'When soldiers whip Jesus, you could hear grown adults crying.' After Jesus's death, but before his resurrection, a black South African missionary told the crowd that they had a chance to pray and to accept Christ. 'He asked everybody who prayed to walk forward and come into light,' Mr. Helstrom says. 'One hundred forty-five people walked out of the darkness into light.'"
And within months, missionaries from the Church of Loew's set up the bush country's first multiplex, making it possible for Charlie's Angels II: Full Throttle to be screened 35 times a day. Hallelujah.

I'm somewhere between troubled and pissed that film experience is so uncritically substituted for (or equated with) religious experience. There's some serious bill of goods-selling going on here. When I was a missionary (for another demonination) in Japan, I ran across people whose names were on the Church baptism rolls but who had no interest in being Christian at all, any more than eating at a Mongolian BBQ would make them want to be Mongolian. Turns out that ten years earlier, some missionaries with more zeal than sense decided to overcome Japanese teenagers' general religious apathy by starting a baseball league. After a season or two, they'd help out their cool American friends and climb into that pool there, and...well, what are friends for? Conversion may be embracing and emotionally powerful, but friendship ain't religion, and neither is a tear-jerking movie.

I wonder, what does the Bible teach us on this subject? There's the "render unto Caesar those things which are Caesar's" thing, which should put the kibbosh on selling cheap, emotionally manipulative cinematic hat tricks based on techonological superiority as salvation. [Unrelated: I can totally picture Mel having a "render unto Caesar his points against the gross" clause in his distribution contract, btw.] But I have another verse in mind: "By their fruits ye shall know them," or as they say in the picture business, "what else has he done?"

Jesus, it turns out, was an adaptation, or as its opening credits describe it, a "documentary taken entirely from the Gospel of Luke." But Luke lost his story credit [Luke, baby, you need new representation. C-A-L-L M-E. -ed.] to Barnet Bain, who has gone on to produce such dubious religious schlock as The Apocalypse (starring Sandra Bernhard??) and the eternally punishing Robin Williams CG-hellfest, What Dreams May Come. Decidedly not funny.

Co-director Peter Sykes has even more to answer for at judgment day (not to be confused with T2: Judgment Day, which rocks. Somebody say amen!). Before turning to Jesus (The Movie) Sykes made, um, let me get this straight: Tell Me Lies, Demons of the Mind, and, um, Child of Satan. I mean, I know the well need no physician, but what in hell [sic] was the Campus Crusader behind the project thinking to hire this guy? And where exactly did they meet?

So Campus Crusade is the world's biggest film distributor, the unsung McDonald's of global evangelism--with over 3 billion saved--and Mel's set to open his Passion on 2,500 screens. Whatever. As The Man Himself (verily) says (un)to us, "they have their reward."

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: February 8, 2004.

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