Could three upcoming Jesus films signal a new cultural openness to Christian spirituality? – ABC Religion & Ethics

Autor: ABC Religion Ethics

This week on Soul Search, you can hear Meredith Lake and Adrian Rosenfeldt discuss the significance of the anticipated films on the life and teachings of Jesus by Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and Mel Gibson.

In January, the acclaimed American filmmaker Martin Scorsese told The Los Angeles Times that he would soon begin working on a new film about Jesus based on a book by Japanese novelist Shūsaku Endō. This would, of course, represent Scorsese’s second such effort — his first was the polarising 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Whereas many Christians thought Scorsese took too many liberties in Last Temptation, even to the point of blasphemy, fans of Mean Streets (1973), GoodFellas (1990) or Casino (1995) found the film altogether too pious. So why is the 81-year-old Scorsese returning to this subject matter now?

As if that question wasn’t interesting enough, fellow octogenarian and visionary American filmmaker Terrence Malick has been taking his customary time editing his own film about Jesus, The Way of the Wind, since shooting it in 2019. And Mel Gibson, for his part, is working on a two-part sequel to his 2004 blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ. What is notable is that each of these directors has an abiding Christian faith at a time when the West is either indifferent or outright hostile to Christianity.

Scorsese evidently embarked on this project after attending a conference in Rome on “The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination” in May of last year, organised by Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica and Georgetown University. During that conference, Pope Francis delivered a speech in which he addressed contemporary artists:

This, then, is the challenge facing the Catholic imagination in our time. It is a challenge entrusted to you: not to “explain” the mystery of Christ, which is ultimately unfathomable, but to enable us to touch him, to feel his closeness, to let us see him as alive and to open our eyes to the beauty of his promises. Because his promises appeal to our imagination: they help us to imagine in a new way our lives, our history and the future of humanity … Continue to dream, to be restless, to conjure up words and visions that can help us interpret the mystery of human life and guide our societies towards beauty and universal fraternity. Keep helping us to open wide our imagination so that it can transcend our narrow perspectives and be open to the holy mystery of God.

Scorsese, who had a private audience with Francis while in Rome, said he is “respond[ing] to the pope’s appeal to artists in the only way I know how: by imagining and writing a screenplay for a film about Jesus.”

Notice that Pope Francis’s language appeals neither to dogma nor to history, but rather urges a visceral, evocative, literary exploration of what might best be described as the mythos of Jesus. Mythos is a term used by the ancient Greeks to refer to those characteristics of a culture that are imaginatively transmitted through mythic and symbolic stories and the arts. Hence the pope’s appeal to contemporary artists not to “explain” the mystery of Christ, but rather “enable us to touch him, to feel his closeness, to let us see him as alive and to open our eyes to the beauty of his promises”.

The language that Scorsese uses in the interview with The Lost Angeles Times speaks directly to the prevailing perception of religion in the West:

Right now, “religion”, you say that word and everyone is up in arms because it’s failed in so many ways. But that doesn’t mean necessarily that the initial impulse was wrong. Let’s get back. Let’s just think about it. You may reject it. But it might make a difference in how you live your life — even in rejecting it. Don’t dismiss it offhand. That’s all I’m talking about.

He is doubtless correct in pointing to the conspicuous modern failings of religion, and of the Christian church in particular — from complicity with Fascism and Nazism during the Second World War to the epidemic of clerical sexual abuse, from the discriminatory attitudes of religious fundamentalists toward LGBTIQ+ persons to the unprincipled evangelical support for Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

But what of Scorsese’s reference to getting back to an “initial impulse”? Any suggestion that it is possible to return to a pristine beginning can come across as misguided and can reek of desperation. Some may even suspect that Scorsese is simply revealing himself as a man who has run out of ideas, and is the product of a religious generation that is on its way out. But can his call to “get back” be so easily dismissed?

The initial impulse of Christianity

It is important to remember that the baby boomers were the first generation to reject organised religion en masse in the late 1960s. Since this countercultural revolution, successive generations in the West have followed in their footsteps. Popular culture has, unsurprisingly, followed suit: from The Simpsons to the comedy of Ricky Gervais, religion in general and Christianity in particular are depicted as antiquated forms of mean-spirited madness. The spirit of the age was probably best captured in a line from Robert Pirsig’s 1974 novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.”

But then there is that telling exchange from the British sitcom Peep Showcreated by Jesse Armstrong, of Succession fame. In this scene Jeremy (“Jez”, played by Robert Webb) taunts a theologian with whom they share a rival love interest:

Jez: To be honest, I’ve never really got it about Jesus. Apart from all that Christian stuff. What did Jesus actually do?

Angus: What did Jesus do apart from Christianity?

Jez: Yeh, put that aside.

Angus: The moral universe we all live in.

Without too much of a stretch, Jez sums up the way most of young Westerners feel about Jesus. And yet Angus’s reply to Jez’s questions about Jesus has a sting in its tail. We may laugh, but then we worry whether this could be true? Is Jesus responsible for constructing the moral universe that we live in?

If you wanted to sum up the influence of Christianity on Western morality, you could point to Jesus’s teaching that an individual’s spiritual nature transcends their race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, and age. This facet of Christianity is best represented by the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In this story, it is a Samaritan, who belonged to a despised minority, one who acts with conspicuous compassion by coming to the aid of a man who has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The Samaritan does not see the desperate individual in terms of his particular (Jewish) identity, but as a fellow suffering human being. The victim here represents Jesus as the universal stranger who needs to be fed, clothed, and attended to. In this way, Western morality is informed by the Christian notion that all human individuals are equal, they are all made in the image of God, and have the capacity to be guided by love and indiscriminate compassion.

In his interview with the Times, Scorsese explains why he believes Western culture still needs to be grounded on the spiritual sense of morality that the Christian church once provided:

Are we decent and then learn to become indecent? Can we change? Will others accept that change? And it really is, I think, a fear of a society and culture that’s corrupted because of its lack of grounding in morality and spirituality. Not religion. Spirituality. Denying that. So for me, it’s finding my own way in a … if you want to say the term “religious” sense, but I hate to use that language, because it’s misinterpreted often … I’m trying to find a new way to make it more accessible and take away the negative onus of what has been associated with organised religion.

The idea of transformation is at the heart of Christianity: those who are lost are found, the dead come to life, the water is turned into wine. Scorsese is obviously very taken with the transformative aspect of the Christian religion and hints that he believes that a culture is corrupt when it does not allow individuals to repent and be redeemed. It is also evident that he is acutely aware that organised religion is to blame for Western society’s rejection of the spiritual nature of human beings.

The disjunction between the spiritual religious sense and organised religion is longstanding one. In the nineteenth-century, three of Christianity’s most incisive critics — Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fyodor Dostoevsky — all believed that the initial impulse and spiritual mythos of Jesus became corrupted and doctrinal when it became institutionalised. Nietzsche famously stated that there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross. Kierkegaard argued that the greatest enemy of Christianity is “Christendom” — the cultured, respectable faith of his day. And Dostoevsky presented us with the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which contends that the Christian church was doing much better without Christ and his teaching.

I like to think that Scorsese is standing in the same tradition, insisting that the “initial impulse” of Christianity cannot be properly contained in a large institution — for when that is attempted, the result is a rigid form of morality and a system of suffocating doctrine. That is what makes Pope Francis’s challenge to Christian artists so timely, and why Scorsese evidently took it to heart:

Art is an antidote to the mindset of calculation and standardization; it is a challenge to our imagination, our way of seeing and understanding reality. The Gospel itself represents a challenge to art; it has a revolutionary “energy” that you are called to express, thanks to your talent, with a word that protests, appeals and cries out. Today the Church has need of your gifts, because she needs to protest, call out and shout.

Terrence Malick’s dark stories

Fittingly, Terrence Malick has indicated that his own film, The Way of the Wind, is based on the parables of Jesus. In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode famously suggested that Jesus’s parables are “dark speeches” whose necessity derives from the fact that their hearers “are the kind of people who can take stories but not straight doctrine”. Malick, I suspect, is more likely to rise to Pope Francis’s hope that artists convey “the mystery and the beauty of [Jesus’s] promise [in a way] that transcends narrow perspectives”. After all, aren’t modern secular audiences the kind that are more amendable to “stories” than “straight doctrine”?

In many ways, Malick’s work is far more esoteric and overtly Christian than that of Scorsese. Much like Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence — about the suffering and tribulations of Jesuit priests in seventeenth-century Japan, and also based on a novel by Shūsaku Endō — Malick’s 2019 film A Hidden Life portrays the suffering and eventual martyrdom of the Austrian conscientious objector and devout Catholic, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler. Despite the weighty political context in which the film is set, A Hidden Life points consistently to a higher spiritual reality that at once transcends and relativises the political.

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Unlike Scorsese, Malick’s style of filmmaking engages primarily with intuitive, internal, spiritual, and psychological states, leaning more into mythos than linear narrative or rationality (logos). Take Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life, which portrays the grief two parents experience when their young son dies by means of a twenty minute exploration of the question from The Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” This sequence visually traces the evolution of life in the universe, from the expansion of galaxies to the fiery birth of planet earth, then to the primordial oceans and deserts and the reign of dinosaurs, up to the advent of compassion and what at one point looks to be “the tree of life”. As Bob Mondello writes, “It’s as if, to understand the death of a young man, we need to understand everything that led to his creation, starting with creation itself.”

This ambitious mythos-centric approach to filmmaking is also evident in the final sequence of Malick’s next film, To the Wonder. In a film that is almost entirely devoid of dialogue, he tries to make us feel the loneliness and alienation of a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), struggling with his faith in a diocese far from his home. Once again, Malick conveys the mythos of the faith that the priest is grappling with internally, through swirling music and an internal monologue in the form of a variation on a prayer of St. Patrick. Tim Greiving describes Malick’s distinctive use of poetry, music, and cinematography in this way:

His characters don’t stand still — they glide, they twirl, they run. His camera never rests, either. And the centre of his films isn’t story, or dialogue, or character. It’s a spiritual theme — a question — examined through motion and music.

I believe Malick’s unique approach to filmmaking places him in the best position to rise to the pope’s challenge and make the spiritual mythos of Jesus come alive — not only for Christians, but for a Western secular audience.

Mel Gibson’s resurrection

There is little question that Mel Gibson’s filmmaking is not in the same class as that of Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick. But The Passion of the Christ enjoyed considerable commercial success and Gibson’s own notoriety ensures a heightened degree of publicity for his forthcoming two-part sequel: The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection.

These films, it seems, will concentrate solely on the three days between Jesus’s trial and crucifixion — the focus of his 2004 film — and his resurrection. The question is: will this hiatus be taken up with the grief and disorientation of Jesus’s followers or will it primarily involve the descensus Christi ad Inferos, “Christ’s descent into Hell”? According to Gibson:

I have two scripts, and one of them is very structured and a very strong script, and kind of more what you’d expect, and the other is like an acid trip. Because you’re going into other realms and stuff. I mean, you’re in hell, and you’re watching the angels fall. It’s like, crazy.

Or does the fact that Gibson is splitting the sequel into two-parts indicate that he is willing to delve deeply into both aspects, thereby answering the pope’s exhortation: “Keep helping us to open wide our imagination so that it can transcend our narrow perspectives and be open to the holy mystery of God.”

The popular reception of all three upcoming Jesus films — by Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and Mel Gibson — will provide a barometer which may help us gauge whether contemporary Western culture is still uncomfortable with its religious foundation story, or whether it remains open to a new mythos-centred, creative, compassionate form of Christianity.

Adrian Rosenfeldt is a lecturer and tutor at La Trobe University and Melbourne University. He is the author of The God Debaters: New Atheist Identity-Making and the Religious Self in the New Millennium.

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