• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, September 29, 2011

    Doubt in the Gospels

    I've been reflecting a little bit on the subject of doubt in the Gospels, and I thought I'd share some of what has been going through my mind.

    In my experience at least, doubt is not often something that is welcomed in church contexts. It's sometimes accepted, but often a cause for concern. Occasionally someone makes the point that we need to have doubt in order to have faith.

    There are at least four passages in the canonical gospels where they record someone/some people doubting in the face of the miraculous. I suppose there are far more if you count the enemies and opponents of Jesus, but in most of these cases the doubt is a result of their predetermined decision not to believe in Jesus.

    The most famous one is, of course, the disciple Thomas in John 20. I don't want to dwell on him too much. Firstly because being the obvious one I am sure that everything that can be said about him has been somewhere by someone. But secondly, some scholars suggest that this is actually the author(s) of John trying to smear the growing sect springing up around the (emerging) Gospel of Thomas. From a Bible films point of view however, it's noticeable that he nearly always gets a raw deal. If this scene is to be included then you can bet your bottom dollar that Thomas will express some doubts earlier in the film as well.

    It's possible that this incident is also referred to in passing by Matthew. The second passage I want to cover comes from Matthew 28:16-17
    Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them and when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted
    Matthew's "some" suggests that Thomas was not alone. Perhaps John focussed in on him to increase the drama of his narrative (though I suppose Thomas's doubts were before he had seen the risen Christ). What I find interesting though is the way the comment is casually thrown in and remains without comment. These people are seeing the risen Jesus, and yet still they doubt. But there's no shock horror, no rebuke. They were there, they saw everything everybody else did, they just still had their doubts.

    What's also interesting is that the suggestion is that these people worshipped in spite of their doubts. Furthermore the next verse is even more telling because Jesus includes them in his commissioning. They have their doubts but Jesus still values them and their contribution. It's significant that these other doubters never appear in a Jesus film.

    The third passage I want to look seems to be evading me for the minute. I think it is also in Matthew, and as it's the one that I noticed most recently.

    Lastly there is John 12:27-30. Jesus asks God to glorify his name, and God replies "I have glorified it and I will glorify it again". We're told the crowd heard it but whilst some attributed it to an angel some said it was just thunder. Again this is intriguing because it seems like the kind of occasion when it should have been easy to draw a consensus. And yet some heard the voice of God or an angel; others just heard thunder. This passage appears in 2003's "Gospel of John" but nowhere else as I recall.

    What's I find intriguing is firstly the way that Jesus seems to be fine with the doubts, at least on these occasions. But more striking is that the case is often made by atheists today that people in Jesus' day were likely to misattribute unusual natural occurrences to the hand of God. But the Bible provides evidence several times that people were both willing and able to suggest alternative explanations for supernatural events. Scepticism isn't new, but significantly, in the latter two/three cases it also doesn't seem to be a barrier for following Jesus and being included by him.

    Thursday, September 08, 2011

    The Sermon on the Mount in Film

    Next weekend I'm due to do a talk on "Blessed are the poor in spirit" which has got me thinking about portrayals of the Sermon on the Mount in film. The different films emphasise different parts of the sermon, although obviously the Beatitudes get a good showing in a lot of different films. Anyway, I thought I'd list some of my favourite portrayals and give a brief explanation.

    King of Kings (1961)[Pictured above]
    In contrast to Matthew's arrangement, Ray uses the Sermon on the Mount as the climax of the movie's first half. The buzz has been building about Jesus so everyone gathers to hear him preach and check him out. It's a spectacular build up and the idea of Jesus moving through the crowd is good, if lacking in realism. Sadly the post-production overdubbing of Jeffrey Hunter's original vocals leaves this feeling stiff and forced. But the build up and the colours are spectacular.

    Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
    Pasolini's filming of this part of the gospel is perhaps the most interesting, certainly from a scholarly angle. Most scholars believe that rather than their being a single key sermon Matthew 5-7 is a compilation of Jesus' teaching. Some films reflect this by simply splitting up the sermon into different parts and placing them throughout the film. But Pasolini stays true to the gospel by leaving all the material, but also acknowledges the scholarly angle by changing the setting, weather and background Jesus is speaking against as well his clothes and hair. Sadly whilst it's clever, it's also a little dull.

    Son of Man (1969)
    Dennis Potter's take on the Sermon is to excise the Beatitudes and focus on the "Love your enemy" part of the Sermon. The previous scene is critical here: a group of Roman soldiers have just attacked a local Jewish village and there is a seething contempt in the crowd Jesus addresses. Potter plays fast and loose with the wording, but certainly stays true to the spirit of the text. And Colin Blakely delivery is incredible. One of my favourite clips from a Bible Films ever.

    Life of Brian (1979)
    Life of Brian's take on the Sermon on the Mount is so well known that I knew all the best jokes before I'd even seen it. Still the timing and delivery are so perfect that even after all the times I've seen it, I'm still amused by "Blessed are the cheesemakers". It was perhaps the first time that anyone had ever considered what it was like to be someone at the edge of one of Jesus' sermons. We often wonder how he would have been able to address such a large crowd, but never consider what it was like for those on the edge. What's also impressive about the scene is how it nails so much of biblical interpretation: "obviously it applies to all makers of dairy produce". Of course if you missed it you may very well not understand the whole film. Not normally a problem unless you're about to be interviewed about it on national television as happened to Malcolm Muggeridge.

    Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
    Like Potter before him, Paul Schrader plays a little loose with the original wording, and gets brilliant results, again thanks to the lead actor's delivery. Last Temptation opts for Luke's Sermon on the Plain rather than Matthew's Mount, and it fits well with the confrontational prophet that Scorsese portrays in certain parts of the film. The spontaneity of this portrayal has a real vitality about it, and the ending, which makes it a little controversial for church use, nevertheless highlights the issue that occurs again and again in the gospels of Jesus' original audience failing to understand him.

    The Miracle Maker (2000)
    The Miracle Maker makes little attempt to depict the Sermon on the Mount although it does include a few extracts of some of the less famous passages, at least two of which are animated. The "why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye?" is played for great comic effect with the audience laughing in the background. But the best part is Jesus' twin similes contrasting the wise man building his house upon rock with the foolish man building on sand. It's a nicely stylised piece of animation, and rather memorable.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that Rossellini's Il Messia also includes a segment of Jesus teaching the disciples the words from the sermon whilst they go about their everyday tasks, but I haven't got the time to check it out just now. Does anyone else have any favourites that I've missed?

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    And I'm Back

    Thanks to all of you who have been in touch over the last few months to offer your condolences or ask me if I was OK. It's certainly the longest I've ever gone without posting since I started this blog, and I appreciate the emails, comments and Facebook posts.

    A lot has been going on for me. Obviously the death of my mother-in-law has been hard, both in terms of my own grief but also the need to be available to comfort my wife, and the headspace required to do that. I also started a new job the day before Jane died, and so that has also been taking headspace, as well as raising the question as to whether I still want to do this now that my vocation seems to be pointing in a different direction. I think I do, but my enthusiasm has waned somewhat over the last few months. We'll see how it goes.

    The other thing with the new job is a new routine to get used to, and that's been tough as well. Hopefully I'll be able to work something out with this to find the time to keep writing about and watching Bible Films and pass my thoughts on for what they're worth. That said, I do really think the Facebook page is a really good development, and I've been really pleased to see a greater number of people posting there over the last few months. If you're thinking about posting something up yourself, please do. There are a lot of people interested in this area and I'd much rather be facilitating a wider ranging discussion / flow of information than just boring people with my own chatter.

    Anyway that's enough of that, except to add that I'm afraid I probably won't be able to reply to everyone who has contacted me over the last 4 months. Sorry. And what's that? You want me to tell you about my job? Well I'm the Church Relationships Manager for the Church Urban Fund in the Central Region. The Church Urban Fund do a fantastic job tackling poverty in England by funding and resourcing activist from the poorest 10% of communities. It was a job I really wanted working for a fantastic organisation. If you'd like to find out more there's plenty of into on our website, and one of my side projects has been our new Facebook page. And if you're a vicar in the Midlands then I'd be keen to meet up to talk to you about what we're doing and how you can get involved. Don't worry we can talk about Bible Films to.

    And now, on with the show.