Sunday, March 9, 2014

Movie Review: Son of God

One form of blasphemy is to deny outright that Jesus is the Son of God.

Another form of blasphemy is to confidently affirm that Jesus is the Son of God and then make him into an embarrassing idiot. That is what this film does.

If you were an unbeliever, and your only exposure to Christianity was this film, and your only conception of Jesus was what is portrayed in Son of God, you would wonder how anyone could possibly respect him, love him, or believe in him. From beginning to end, this film depicts Christ in a way that is unbiblical, false, and demeaning.

As a believer, watching this film was agonizing. I went with the hope that there could be some redeeming value in it, but that was not to be. I sat in the theater with a sorrow in the pit of my stomach the whole time, shaking my head and feeling like the only thing I ought to do was turn around, kneel on the floor in front of my seat, cry out to God for His mercy and forgiveness for this farce, and implore His protection on the minds of others watching the film, that they would not be inoculated against Christianity and the gospel. And as soon as it was over, it was all I could do not to break into a run on my way out of the theater.

Major problems

Implying that Jesus committed sin 

1. In the scene of the woman caught in adultery, the Biblical account states that Jesus ignored her accusers and wrote on the ground with his finger. Only when they persisted in accusing her did He raise Himself up and deal with the situation. He said to them, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." Then he stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger. Those who heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, walked away one by one until Jesus was left alone with the woman. He states to her, "Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more."

In the film's depiction of this scene, the Pharisees encounter Jesus outdoors in an area of stony ground. They thrust the woman forward and announce that she was caught in the very act of adultery. Jesus picks up a stone and walks up to where the woman is cowering on the ground. He raises the stone high in the air in a dramatic gesture as she trembles. Then, apparently reconsidering, he turns the Pharisees. "I will give my stone to whichever one of you is without sin," he says. Slowly, one by one, they start dropping their stones on the ground in a symbolic admission of their guilt. Last of all, the camera zooms in on the hand of Jesus as He drops His own stone, and we watch it fall to the ground. Then he embraces the woman and tells her to sin no more. This is a serious implication that Jesus was in the same boat as all the Pharisees, condemned by His own conscience and therefore compelled to drop the stone. 

2. During the trial of Jesus, there is a bizarre scene where the soldiers bring Jesus in before the high priest. They have already begun to bruise up his face a bit, and they are roughly manhandling him along. Jesus falls forward when they let him go, and someone pushes the back of his head down in order to bang his face into the table. Jesus raises his head with a flash of such a fierce glare of anger at the high priest that everyone gasps. "Thou shalt not disrespect the leader of thy people," someone quotes.  The implication clearly was that Jesus had broken the law. It was like a confused mixture of Acts 23:2-5 with John 18:19-23 with extreme artistic license. (During this scene I was left shaking my head with a sense of 'What in the world was that?')

Ignoring the existence of evil

Christ died to save us from our sins, but nowhere is this mentioned in the film. Christ died to crush the enemy, but nowhere is Satan or anything demonic even remotely implied in the film. The crucifixion was the pinnacle moment of history in the epic battle between good and evil--but nowhere is evil even given any recognition. Instead, Jesus invites Peter to "change the world." By missing the existence of evil, the filmmakers redefined the whole ministry of Jesus. Even the chief priests and Pharisees who moved the people to call for Jesus's crucifixion are not depicted as evil, but rather as goodhearted, sincere people who simply want the best for their nation.

(*Edit: Further reading revealed that they had actually filmed a character as Satan who bore a striking resemblance to President Obama, and they cut him.)

A Powerless, Effeminate Christ 

Many films, Easter plays, and even sermons try to infuse the crucifixion scene with emotional impact by overemphasizing the pain of the crucifixion. I believe this is a mistake. Of course crucifixion would be excruciating, but our wonder and awe at what Jesus did for us should not spring from going over the gruesome medical details of what he suffered, but rather from the fact that He bore the penalty of our sin. God the Father crushed him under the full weight of divine wrath. Jesus, the beloved Son of the Father, who had delighted in the joy of loving and being loved by the Father, was forsaken. This was infinitely worse than the combined effect of lashes from a whip, a crown of thorns, nails in hands and feet, thirst, and exhaustion. 

In Son of God, there was not quite as much gore as, say, The Passion of the Christ, but the character of Jesus was so exaggeratedly wimpy, weak, fainting, trembling, and breathy, it was shameful. A woman would have taken a crucifixion more bravely. I had the sense that the actor was actually enjoying flopping on the ground under the weight of the cross and struggling back to his feet in increasingly dramatic expressions of helplessness. More and more blood appeared mysteriously on Jesus's face and body over the different stages from Gethsemane to Golgotha, as if the makeup artist just couldn't help dabbing on a little bit more, and more, and more in between camera shots. In contrast to this, the two thieves on the cross looked quite fine, accentuating the sense that Jesus was just a pathetic weakling. Crucifixion was crucifixion. It would have been just as miserable for them as for Jesus. Nothing in the Bible indicates that Jesus's crucifixion was exponentially more brutal than anyone else's, and in fact, it was probably less, since he died so much earlier than the other victims. I couldn't help thinking of movies I've seen where filmmakers portray a "manly" character (e.g. Jason Bourne) who accumulates massive injuries (gunshot wounds, car accidents, cuts, bruises, and getting beaten up) and uncannily has the ability to keep on being strong. The contrast was striking between that and the filmmakers' ability in Son of God to portray Jesus as an unbelievably pathetic character. 

While it is true that the crucifixion was a display of apparent weakness instead of the conquering hero the people expected, I found their portrayal of Christ to be repulsive and unnecessary. To our human understanding, getting killed does look weak when one expected a military hero, but the way they handled Christ's reaction to his circumstances was entirely overboard. 

The Bible clearly indicates that Christ was not a victim, but rather laid his life down of his own accord. He had self-possession and control. He deliberately allowed the circumstances in the events leading up to the crucifixion. He was silent before his accusers, not out of defiance or shame; he was purposely silent because He knew He was fulfilling the will of the Father. The things he did say were pointed and irrefutable. He went as a lamb to the slaughter. He showed His power and majesty by single-handedly defeating the enemy, though He was pinned to two pieces of wood. 

Attacking Jesus's Omniscience

Many scenes suggested that Jesus was not all-knowing or re-defined the situation to take away from His omniscience. 
  • When Jesus declared to the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, the Pharisees said aloud, "How can he forgive sins? Who can forgive sins but God only?" In the Bible, they didn't say it, they just thought it, and it says He knew their thoughts. 
  • When Jesus fed the 5,000, the people who had received the food started chanting "Messiah! Messiah!" pumping their fists in the air. Then it was as if Jesus had an "oops!" moment, like "Oh, great, they want me to be their king because I fed them. Now what do I do?" He suddenly went from smiling and interactive to gloomy and pensive. He acted unhappy that the people reacted this way, and he worked his way through the crowd and walked away alone. In the Bible, He knew this was what they wanted and he had a plan of action for how to handle it. 
  • During the last supper, Jesus is eating, smiling and hanging out with his friends when suddenly he has a momentary flash of foresight, revealing a few key scenes of the crucifixion. He suddenly gets quiet and sad, and he says to the disciples, "This is our last meal together before I die." Then they all get sad. It is as if he just realizes that he is going to die. In the Bible, he had been telling them over and over that he would suffer, die, and rise again, and they just weren't getting it. He knew what this day meant from before the foundation of the world. It didn't just "dawn on him" during the Last Supper.
  • After the film depicts Judas goes out to betray Jesus, Peter goes out as if to stop him, and Jesus follows Peter and says, "Let him go." While they are still outside the door alone together, Peter says, "I will never betray you. I will die for you." Jesus sighs with a sense of relief and opens his arms for a grateful embrace with Peter. Then Jesus stiffens in the embrace and his eyes widen. He softly says, with a note of sad incredulity, "Peter, before dawn, you will deny me three times." This is so far from the Biblical account it is shocking. In the Bible, Jesus declares to Peter, "Behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." Jesus knew what cosmic forces were in place, and what battles were being waged. He prayed beforehand for Peter, that his faith would not fail. In informing Peter of the fact that he would deny him, it was not in a surprised tone of voice, as if he just realized that Peter, too, would deny him.  

What they did with prayer

While Jesus was praying in the garden, the filmmakers juxtaposed two additional scenes--one of the priests in the temple chanting a sort of ceremonial prayer, and the other of Pilate and his wife facing their idols and praying to their ancestors. Thus, they took Christ's most intense moment of prayer and equated it with the empty, ritualistic, and even idolatrous prayers that people can offer when they do not know God. This was offensive.

Inappropriate Situations with Mary

"Mary," quite a beautiful girl, is in every single scene that portrays private moments with Jesus and the twelve disciples. She walks through the countryside with them. She gets in the boat with them when they cross the sea in a storm. She sits with Jesus and the twelve. She is always, always present. This is not just in crowd settings where there are lots of people around. The many women who attended Jesus in different places in Scripture (Mary, the other Mary, Salome, Joanna, etc) are entirely omitted, except for Jesus's mother Mary, who appears during the crucifixion scenes. There are no women with Jesus and the twelve everywhere they go except this one girl. This looks like a huge nod to the popular (and totally unscriptural) belief that Mary Magdalene was some sort of girlfriend to Jesus. There are never any explicit interactions between her and Jesus, but the number and frequency of times when she is shown to be alone with Jesus and the twelve disciples makes a highly inappropriate suggestion. My memory suggests that she also seems to have had more speaking lines than any of the other disciples. This is entirely inaccurate, and her words are all invented (since they do not come from Scripture).

In Scripture, Mary Magdalene appears in twelve verses: Matthew 27:56, 61, 28:1, Mark 15:40, 47, 16:1, 9, Luke 8:2, 24:10, John 19:25, 20:1, 20:18. Because the four gospels each repeat the same stories, these twelve verses only account for three appearances of Mary Magdalene.
  1. Once during Jesus's ministry, as one of many other women (Luke 8:1-3)
  2. At Jesus's crucifixion and burial (Matthew 27:56, 61, Mark 15:40, 47, John 19:25)
  3. As witness to the resurrection (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, 9, Luke 24:10, John 20:1, 18)
Scripture makes it clear that she was one of many other women present at the crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41, John 19:25). On the day of resurrection, she was with at least two other women (Salome and Mary the mother of James and Joses). The movie depicts her discovering the resurrection alone.

Source of Jesus's strength

The film clearly suggests that Jesus's mother, Mary, was his source of strength and the cause of his ability to keep going through the different stages of his suffering. During the flogging, Mary is looking sorrowfully through the gates. There is a mystical sort of energy that seems to get transmitted to Jesus when he sees her, and it is as if he suddenly has the courage to take the rest of his lashes. Later, when Jesus is carrying the cross, he falls down in what appears to be the final stage of exhaustion, and Mary runs out from the crowds on the side of the road and makes her way to him. They make eye contact and she embraces him. It is as if Mary's touch has a galvanizing effect on Jesus. The Roman soldier drives Mary back, and Jesus is able to struggle back to his feet because of the strength she imparted to him. 

While I have no problem with expressions of tenderness between a mother and her son, I completely disagree with this depiction of the source of Jesus's strength. For one thing, as Jesus was carrying the cross in the procession to Golgotha, he noticed the women weeping for him, and he said to them, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children." (Luke 23:27-31). In the midst of his own suffering, Jesus was still more aware of the needs of those around him, and he was pouring out love and giving of himself to them, even in His greatest hour of agony.

More importantly, Jesus's strength came from God, not from Mary. He lived by the grace of God, and it was grace that empowered his every move, not a loving glance and gentle touch from his mother. Jesus was the embodiment of the way a man ought to live when every detail of how he lives, speaks, and thinks is supplied by God, surrendered to God and dependent on God. The Father was the one who enabled Jesus to go through with the crucifixion, not his mother. 

Mystical depiction of the supernatural

Several of the scenes in the movie are stripped of their majesty and invested with a ghostly, superstitious quality that is entirely different from the Scriptural potrayal.

When Jesus walks on water, he looks semi-transparent. He appears to float forward towards the boat without movement of the feet. The filmmakers heightened the ghostly quality of this scene by having Peter hear as it were a voice in his head where Jesus calls him to come, and he is mysteriously drawn to the end of the boat, where he steps over the edge as if he is in a trance, against the advice of the other disciples. He takes a few tentative steps towards Jesus before he sinks. When he sinks, he plunges instantly underwater. Jesus picks him back up with a misquoted version of what the Bible says He said. Then the scene instantly jumps to Peter popping awake, as if from a dream, which effectively undoes the entire scene as a mere figment of Peter's imagination.

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, in the film, he does not stand at the mouth of the tomb and command, "Lazarus, come forth!" Instead, he goes inside, followed by Martha. He lays his hands on Lazarus's head, brings his mouth close to Lazarus's forehead, and slowly exhales air over his face. Lazarus's eyes pop open. This is a mystical version of this account of raising the dead, stripping Jesus of his power to command a reversal of death with a word.

When Mary sees Jesus on resurrection morning, he has a very unrealistic quality. Mary is inside the tomb, and Jesus appears in the doorway, framed not by the ordinary surroundings of trees and shrubs that you would expect to see in the background, but by a white shimmery haze. Jesus says a few words to Mary and then disappears into the haze. You don't get the sense that Jesus has risen from the dead in bodily form; it feels more like Mary could have simply had a vision.

In an age where filmmakers can make Superman really seem to fly, and where they can make us believe that Spiderman can crawl up walls, the filmmakers have done quite a shoddy job at making the miraculous look realistic in Son of God.

The character of Judas

The Biblical account plots a steady course of development regarding Judas's willingness to betray Jesus. We learn that he is a thief, and has the bag. We know that after Mary poured out her spikenard on Jesus, Judas looked for a way to betray him from then on. Judas went of his own accord to the priests. He received the money and led them of his own accord to Jesus in the garden. He kissed Jesus in a blatant act of hypocrisy and pretended friendship. 

The film paints a totally different picture of Judas and the betrayal. In the film, he is merely a conflicted character who is simply trying to do the right thing, and circumstances just happen to get out of control. The movie depicts him going to one of the temple guards and tells him that he is worried about the direction things are heading. The guard tells Caiaphas about this interaction, and Caiaphas sends for Judas. Judas meets Caiaphas, but he is reluctant, conflicted, and not easily persuaded to do anything against Jesus. Finally he says, "What's in it for me," and Caiaphas hands him the bag with the thirty pieces of silver.

Then, during the last supper, right after it "dawns on" Jesus that this is his last meal with the disciples, Jesus says, "One of you will betray me." The shocked disciples exclaim, "Who?" Jesus breaks off a piece of bread and replies, "Whoever eats this." As he speaks, he reaches over and holds the bread right in front of Judas's mouth. Judas looks at Jesus like, "NO, I'm not going to, I would never do that to you," but after hesitation, he eats it, as if against his will. Jesus says in a quiet, kind tone of voice, "Do it quickly." The conclusion one draws is that Jesus mystically coerced Judas into betraying him. 

The Veil of the Temple

While Jesus was hanging on the cross, the film cut to a scene of the priest preparing to enter the veil, having just cut the lamb's throat. I started to think, "Wow, they're going to show how the veil is rent. Maybe they're going to have one decent, accurate scene here." But I was to be disappointed. The earthquake happened, and some large clay pots started to topple over, and all the priests ran for cover. They never showed the veil being ripped from top to bottom. Terribly disappointing.

The Ascension

The film shows the disciples and Mary on a mountainside. Jesus is on a rock slightly higher up than they are. He says a few last words and then, *blink* He is gone. No ascension on a cloud. No angels telling them that he will come back in the same way. Again, this is completely unbiblical.  

Other problems

  • It was simply boring. It was bland and passionless. 
  • It was not a story well-told, it was more like a collection of scenes thrown together by people who had no understanding of the gospel, in ways that didn't always even make sense. For instance, there was no attempt at explaining how the people went from crying "Hosanna" to "Crucify Him" in the span of one week. 
  • Things happened out of order compared to the Biblical account. The timing of the events of the crucifixion was inaccurate. 
  • People were incorrectly portrayed (the character of Nicodemus, for example, in his interactions with Jesus)
  • Certain scenes were "sanitized" for political correctness (for example, when Jesus cleanses the temple, we couldn't possibly have the Son of God actually driving the moneychangers with a whip of cords, could we?)
  • Low-quality acting, cinematography, and special effects (this was originally filmed as a series for the History channel)
  • The ridiculous hole in Jesus's hand after the resurrection. *Shudder*


Overall, this film is terrible.

There are MANY MORE problems with this movie than what I have detailed here, and some of them have already been discussed by others (see, for example, this review, which explores, among other things, the movie's re-definition of Jesus's call of Peter at the sea of Galilee and how it undermines his authority).

I would not recommend this film to a believer or to an unbeliever. And I would not show it to a child.

Read the Bible instead.