I went to see Risen the other week, pre-judgements in hand. From the trailer it looked like a fresh take, but there are certain things I’ve come to expect from any bible movie – washed out theology, campy dialogue and a Jesus that looks fresh from the salon.
Surprisingly, Risen was so good. Though based on an aspect of the bible that is only talked about in summary, it showed a nuanced understanding of freedom, faith, and hope that previous movies have missed (I can’t vouch for The Passion as I’m still not brave enough to stomach it). So far Risen is the only biblical movie that I could watch with non-Christian friends without feeling cringey and embarrassed. That’s not to say it wasn’t campy in parts. Jesus was less Man of Sorrows and more Smiley Happy People Holding Hands – but we can’t have everything.
A terrible night’s sleep followed, partly because I’d felt 11pm was a good time for a coffee, so I lay awake half the night thinking about the movie. Not thinking so much about the theological side of it– there’s never much of a theological side if we’re being honest. I was thinking more about what the treatment of biblical films reveal about the worldly assumptions we place on the gospel, like a cultural miasma clouding certain truths. I only had word limit enough for two thoughts on this post, but here goes:
Praise Jehovah, it’s a non-white Jesus
Cliff Curtis, the Maori actor that plays Jesus, or Yeshua as he’s called in Risen, joked in an interview that he’d always wanted to play Jesus but his eyes weren’t blue enough. The list of JC actors past reads like a list of the whitest guys out. William Dafoe, Christian Bale, that scary as guy from the 70s with eyes as blue as they come, and soon Ewan McGregor – who’s Scottish for crying out loud. In the Jesus alumni there are a few actors who are ethnic – Diogo Morgado is Portugese for one, but as for being identifiably ethnic, he could pass as someone with a light tan. He still has the light brown hair and beard that is typical in images of Jesus. Granted, Jesus isn’t an East Coast Maori, as is Cliff Curtis, but it is progress at least. The white washing hath ended. Jesus finally gets the brown skin and black hair typical of a middle-eastern Jew.
I’m sceptical of people who claim to have returned from heaven and go on to paint Jesus – theology aside, the images are mostly of an anglo face, and brownish hair. Middle Eastern Jews do not look like tanned white people. To be honest though, I still caught myself when Risen had Mary looking like a middle aged Arabic woman wearing a black hood. I’m pretty vigilant against white people making everyone white, but even I forgot that Mary wouldn’t have lived and died as a blonde draped in blue, a perpetual adolescent as pure as the driven snow.
So does any of this actually matter? Does it make a difference whether or not a white guy plays Jesus? The reason I think it does matter is because when I turn the news on each night I have to hear the latest racist antics of Donald Trump’s supporters – many of whom claim to be Christian. In fact the realm of racism has largely been occupied by conservative Christians. As a community we seem to be largely cut off from anyone who is not a middle class white person – which is not only a devastating reality, but one completely opposed to the teachings of Christ. We should not be a community marked by exclusion. So what would change in the world if Trump supporters realised that the man they worship on a Sunday looks more like the people they want bombed, or kept behind their imagined wall, the people they preach violence against at rallies. I have known Christian white supremacists in my time as well. Full blown, holocaust denying Christians. A more accurate image of Jesus as a non-white man would surely strike a powerful blow against white supremacy.
Would Jesus – not White as a Lily Jesus in his Sunday best, but the Middle Eastern radical Jesus, be welcome at your church? If not then something needs to change, and it’s not Jesus’ appearance. How can a person hold to the view that white people are superior, and the view that the greatest person who lived (died and still lives) was non-white? You can’t, that’s how. So stop being racist.
Mary Was Not a Prostitute
The other thing that really grinds my gears is the casting of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Risen did it, The Da Vinci Code did it, The Passion kind of did it. The only Bible story that doesn’t do it is the actual Bible. Mary was not the adulteress saved from stoning by Jesus, she was not the woman pouring expensive perfume on his feet. She was not Mary from Mary and Martha. These women are figures in a series of powerful feminist statements. I love the image of Jesus standing in between the adulteress and her attackers, just as I love the image of Jesus telling Martha she should get out of the kitchen and learn. Jesus loves women and gives each of these an identity and a moment in history. The world lumps them into one big mess of Marys and reduces her to a sexual escapade.
The real story of Mary Magdalene is something along the following lines: She was healed by Jesus and went on to head up a group of women who supported Jesus and the disciples ‘from their own means’ – meaning she was likely wealthy as well as independent given that she could leave her home to follow Jesus. She is mentioned 14 times in the gospels, was at the foot of the cross when all but one disciple had fled. Upon the resurrection Jesus finds her, calls her by her name and trusts her to be the first to proclaim the news that he is risen. This is a free, influential woman, trusted by Jesus. What does the world relegate her to? A prostitute and a romantic subplot. She is now the patron saint of wayward women and artistic depictions often show her engaged in a half-hearted attempt at covering herself up.
It’s not prostitution that is a problem in itself. The woman who poured oil on Jesus’ feet was perhaps a prostitute and Jesus respects and affirms her. No doubt he would not treat Mary any less or love her any less had she been a prostitute. In order to convey why Mary’s recasting bothers me so much, I need to talk about another Mary. Jesus’ Mumsie, henceforth referred to as Mary MOG (Mother of God). Mary MOG is revered and venerated, so she has been cast as the perpetual virgin. Some theologies claim that she was not only a virgin at Jesus’ birth, but also for the rest of her life- despite being married and having other children. So we are left with the virgin and the prostitute. To venerate one Mary we cast her as virgin, to remind us the other had a ‘past’ we cast her as prostitute. It’s as though no one would know how to regard women without knowing their level of sexual experience so each is assigned a sexual history befitting their level of purity. Our interpretation and reaction to each woman depends on that history – neither of which is backed by scripture. Jesus consistently protects and empowers women, the world constantly strips that power away from them.
Imagine if as much focus was put on the sex lives of the disciples. It would be creepy and weird – just as creepy and weird as the amount of time spent discussing the sex lives of biblical women. Jesus doesn’t reduce any of his followers to their sexualities, so why do we? It shouldn’t matter. I don’t care who either Mary slept with. They were both badass women with ovaries of steel.
You might be thinking, ‘who cares how people are depicted. It’s just a movie’. This is not about me getting stomach ulcers over Jesus’ appearance. It’s about what those depictions say about the assumptions we superimpose over the Bible. I am genuinely curious to know what would change if the culturally accepted image was a non-white Jesus, and how much the character of both Marys would be considered and admired were they not reduced to untouchable icons of purity or waywardness.
That being said, Risen is the best biblical movie I’ve seen. You should definitely go see it.