Monday, March 07, 2016

Hail, “Risen”

So, I saw “Risen.”

Before I saw it, I asked someone who had seen it if it was a well crafted film, if it had good acting, direction, cinematography, and if it weaved a good story together. They said yes and explained that it was a good story about a Roman centurion who came to know Jesus in the time between his crucifixion and ascension.

After I saw it, someone asked me what I thought. I told them that I was pleasantly surprised that most all of that turned out to be pretty much true. The acting, especially by the lead, was excellent. And, taking the film for what it was, it was generally very well crafted. So, I was pleasantly surprised by how some of the things about the film were very good.

I should have been less than surprised, however, that a central and key measure of the worth of a film about Jesus came up severely lacking. That is, considering that it was a major box office motion picture, I shouldn’t have hoped that the film would actually do a good job of telling the story of Jesus. One day, when I learn better my basic point of this blog post, I will not make such a mistake.

Here’s the bigger problem, though. The particular ways in which the story mis-tells the story of Jesus are the exact ways the American church does the same. I’m not sure whether the bigger problem is that the film well represents the church or that the church well represents the film.

There were actually a couple parts of the film that were deeply moving to me. One of them was when Jesus embraced and healed the leper. It was beautiful, and it was powerful. More importantly, it was moving and motivating. In the context of the film as a contextualized embodiment of gospel truth, however, this scene ends up reducing hospitality and love to fragmented principles to follow rather than elements of an integrated story being told by God himself in which we are participating.

Let’s start with the obvious. There was no such thing as a Roman detective. Sherlock Holmes was a late 19th century invention. There was no such thing as detective work until positivism brought the intellectual thrust of the Enlightenment to its fullness and end. Rome had no CIA. The West’s Tower of Babel wasn’t that high yet. The continuously present arm of Caesar simply responded to actual threats with actual violent force. In the trial of Jesus, Pilate wasn’t analyzing measurable data to predict social outcomes. He simply wanted to know, considering the raucous crowd in his courtyard, if Jesus presented an active and viable threat to Roman order and peace. Minus weeks of media discussion, of pouring over hundreds of files of information presented to him by his council members, Pilate rightly determined that Jesus had no intention of leading a violent rebellion. That’s all Pilate wanted to know.

Suddenly, three days later, with rumors that this Jesus was alive again, Pilate sends a centurion on a detective mission to find Jesus’ body to prevent the uprising he had already determined wasn’t going to happen even if he hadn’t killed him on the cross? Remember, Rome had no such thing as detectives. Please….

The scriptures mention that the Sanhedrin started a rumor that Jesus’ body was stolen. Pilate’s response would have likely been, “And that’s my problem why?” So, the Sanhedrin would have been left to its own devices to find the body if it was that concerned with it. But, even granting that Pilate may have been willing to play along, seeing as how the Jews are the ones who conjured up the rumor and did so knowing that the reason they did was because they had no idea what really happened to the body and simultaneously wanted the issue to just go away and wanted to attempt to scapegoat the disciples for the body's disappearance, why would the Sanhedrin be responsible for a giant detective mission that makes a big public spectacle of the issue?

The rumors of Jesus’ resurrection were just that – rummagings of rumors. There was no giant threat to Rome. There was no immanent threat to the authority of the Sanhedrin. Even the disciples reacted initially with a combination of utter shock and disbelief and dismissive confusion. Even granting that an ancient Roman would go on an analytical detective mission, what pressed the issue to being of such importance as to go on one?

It seems as though the answer to that question is that a contemporary Christian wanted tell a hypothetical story of what it might be like for a similarly contemporary skeptic to go on a mission to confront his doubt. The Case for Christ wasn’t written until 1,900 years after the Sanhedrin’s confusion. Not only was there not yet such thing as apologetics, but early apologetics didn’t have the same dynamics, the same antagonisms, the same concerns that drove it as the ones that drove the making of Risen, which, unfortunately, happens to be about the time before even that early church that didn’t yet have those concerns that drove the making of a film about that time. That sounded repetitive. You get my point?

So, Risen lost me at the basic premise.

The problem with that is the church tends to have very little understanding of the historical context of the gospel stories. And, it shows in what the church is and how it operates in the world.

Also, why was the band of disciples depicted as a jolly, traveling family of harmlessly loony nice guys? I truly enjoyed their joy, and, as Paul indicated, truth, power, and witness clearly lay the joy of a disciple. However…

The disciples seem overcome by a naïve, optimistic hope that smiling really big will convert Hitler to Jesus. The blindness of this optimism is affirmed when Pilate kicks Bartholomew in the shin while he’s already down. After spending the entire conversation up to that point trying to convert the Roman centurion with his giant white teeth and the gleam in his eye, Bartholomew’s Bohemian hair covers his face when the only thing he can do is look down at the ground and yell at Clavius to stop to indicate that the officer’s point was received. Bartholomew, his nice guy identity now broken, is unable to look Clavius in the face in that moment. The depiction of the character of the disciples not only has no reconciliation to the cross but no sense of how the vision of their King confronts the rulers of this world.

And, that’s probably because the vision of their King himself, in the first place, has no sense of how who he is and what he does confronts all the treasures upon which the world is built. When Jesus came face to face with authority figures - say, the Roman centurion or the rich young ruler – his words and his actions were like arrows heading with power straight for the bull’s eye of difference between what moves the world and the Word standing before his audience. When the resurrected Jesus came face to face with Clavius, Jesus had no bull’s eye. It was simply a soft and open smile of acceptance without confrontation, sacrificial blood, or atoning fire. It was the presumption of an easy and complete union without repentance. As a result, in the scene of Bartholomew’s questioning, the disciple of that passionate king had no bull’s eye, no passion, no way to reconcile with his suffering inflicted upon him by this authority figure who questioned him.

The problem with that is, the church operates as if it has very little understanding of how it presents a confrontation between the King of the universe and “the rulers…the authorities…the cosmic powers over this present darkness…” And, a big part of why the church is overcome by this naïveté is because it projects it’s own history of modern Christendom – which is perfectly happy with the church BEING the “ruler” and “authority” of “this present darkness” – onto the historical context of the New Testament. No wonder the writers of the script of “Risen” seemed confused on how to portray Bartholomew after Clavius kicked him. It’s easy to be nice when you’re in the seat of power.

And, that reminds me of my final big complaint with Risen. I don’t know how to say it other than to simply say that the ending was utterly stupid. I’m sorry.

In ancient Rome, walking alone through the desert was called forced exile. No one chose to do it unless Jesus was pushed there by the Holy Spirit or Paul went there to relive Israel’s Exodus after God had already joined him to His body. The ending of “Risen,” though, implies that the strength of Clavius, after being clearly presented with the truth of the resurrected King of all of creation, couldn’t quite get himself to join with his merry band of fools and, yet, also couldn’t return to Egypt. He’s left to confront the open horizon alone with the existential angst of bearing responsibility for deciding his own eternal fate resting upon his shoulders to make the ultimate of spiritual decisions.

The problem with that is the continued influence of the Billy Graham disease upon the church. Does the ending of the film reflect the ideology of the altar call, or, rather, is the ideology of the altar call in the mega church to add to their demographic and financial numbers extended out into the ending of “Risen”?

Of course, the reason for this disordered ending is twofold. First, this individualist wondering through the desert of existence is because neither Jesus nor the church presented a message of clear choice between one mission and another. The lips of the Jesus who greets Clavius with a warm smile of naiveté about the cross he’d just died on would never have said “No one can serve two masters,” much less “Whoever is not with me is against me.” The same idiot’s optimism that can’t look the violent ruler’s aggression in the eye later leads that very ruler with not only the false illusion that he doesn’t have to choose between his own rule and that of Jesus but also with the illusion that such a choice doesn’t involve the membering of himself to one body or another. Of course, needless to say, no one in ancient Rome would have suffered such an idiot’s optimism. No one in ancient Rome would have forgotten they had a body, either.

Secondly, speaking of the lack of clear choice of a master (that leads to the lack of clear choice of a body), Clavius’ end of aimless wandering through the desert to endlessly ponder what he’d just seen assumes a self-autonomy that, quite simply, no one in the ancient world pretended to even begin to fathom. A running theme of the film is the Roman centurion’s quiet resentment over being forced to be at Pilate’s beck and call whenever “Pilate summons you.” I doubt anyone in Rome enjoyed being under Caesar’s thumb anymore than any modern enjoys being forced by their bosses to do what we don’t want to do, but the whole reason Clavius’ annoyance at Pilate’s summonses is supposed to provide amusement and vicarious connection to his character is because he is most foundationally assumed to be self-autonomous. As if he had a choice, anyway, or as if it was possible in the first place for him to “do his own thing” or to “think for himself.” No.

Subjection under something or someone greater was simply a fact of life in the ancient world. At that point in the gospel narrative, fitting quite well with the fact that most of the disciples fled from Jesus when captured and Peter denied him at his trial, Bartholomew would have been quivering in fear for his life standing before the judgment of Clavius. When, after Penetcost, John and Peter later stood before the Sanhedrin with such boldness, the Jewish leaders were, quite appropriately, utterly shocked.

I shouldn’t have to mention the obvious connection between the lack of clear choice between missions and bodies presented by Jesus’ merry band of fools in “Risen” and the presumption of Clavius' individual self-autonomy. By now, I hope it is also obvious how those two interwoven reasons for the ending don’t just cause the ending but are embodied in the acting out of it.

The ending was unbelievable. The basic premise was equally unbelievable. The characterization of the disciples was silly. And, the depiction of the face of Jesus would have been better taking a lesson from Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” and been avoided entirely.

Generally, all of this was because the story of the film didn’t tell or fit into a coherent gospel story of the climax of God’s story for all of creation by which He not only won’t but can’t fail to redeem all the world to His purpose, glory, goodness and beauty. The story of the film is as confused as the disciples ACTUALLY were all the way right up until Pentecost! Of course, in the film, when Bartholomew is asked if he believed Jesus would rise again after he was crucified, he – not without a naively, cheerfully, and warmly smiling – says, “Well, he said that’s what would happen, but I did doubt it a little bit.”

NO! When Jesus was crucified, the disciples’ world was utterly shattered. When Jesus died, to them it meant he wasn’t who he said he was. It meant that everything in which they had placed their hopes had just been cast into the sea attached to an anchor the size of Leviathan. Jesus’ death meant they were nothing and no one. Jesus’ death was, as far as they were concerned, their own.

The ONLY way you get from that complete shattering into infinite depths of inescapable darkness to the kind of crystallized joy depicted of the disciples in “Risen” within a couple of days of the resurrection is by a mighty work of the Spirit that shook the very foundations of the building in which they prayed at Pentecost!

Again, my basic point here is that there is no contextually embodied and coherent story told of the mighty work of God in the world. Of course, that very much means that the film itself is not an embodiment of such a story, either.


The reason I don’t hail “Risen,” then, is because I couldn’t participate in the action. There was no real action in which to participate. Despite its being a story (supposedly) about Jesus, I found myself sitting on the bench on the sidelines of whatever other story it was that was being told.

I would think that if you wanted to make a story about the confrontation that occurs when the arm of Caesar is confronted by the powerful presence of Jesus but, in the end, can’t take Him seriously, then you would want to write “Hail Caesar.“ Instead, “Risen” manages to write the same story while avoiding the confrontation and still not taking Jesus seriously.

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