Book Review 

Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film
Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, Intl., 2003.
ISBN: 1-56338-387-X. 

by Richard Walsh
Reviewed by Dan Clanton

Reading the Gospels in the Dark:
Portrayals of Jesus in Film

Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, Intl., 2003. 
ISBN: 1-56338-387-X. 

by Richard Walsh
Reviewed by Dan Clanton

[1] Richard Walsh's new book on Jesus films is a welcome addition to the fairly rarified field of studies on Bible and film.  In this work, Walsh puts forth several conversations "in the dark" between Gospel and sayings literature on the one hand, and Jesus films on the other in which he finds an analogous representation of either Jesus or an important interpretive device.  These conversations allow Walsh to examine "American mythology and self-identity, if not self-understanding" (ix) as well as to wrest Jesus from the control of the church and the academy by demonstrating the vacuousness of Jesus as a signifier.

[2] Walsh's first chapter, entitled "Telling Sacred Stories in Cathedral Cinemas" (1-19) examines "the cultural and ideological location of the Jesus films" (1).  He first summarizes a brief history of the treatment of religion in American film prior to delineating four (and an emerging fifth) eras in the history of American religious film.  Walsh then locates Jesus films within this historical scheme, and connects the historical settings and traditions of these films with the ideologies of both the times and the filmmakers.  His goal, as he states it, is to "deny essentialist views of religion, modernity, and Jesus films"; in other words, to "denude their 'natural' status and to disclose their cultural and ideological locations" (14).  This disclosing will be programmatic for the rest of the book, in that Walsh utilizes various cultural and literary-critical methods to expose the constructedness of Jesus films as well as to illuminate the various relations between these cinematic texts and the first-century C.E. texts with which he compares them. 

[3] In Chapter Two (21-43), Walsh considers the difference between Jesus and the hero, or in terms of cinematic narrative, between "the relatively sparse Jesus story," and the "Christ-figure films" (23).  He argues that since postmodernism and pluralism have replaced the grand metanarrative of Protestant America, multiple stories have emerged that have stripped Jesus of any singular, predetermined, extra-cultural meaning (25).  "Now, his 'meaning' is a matter of ideology, context, and genre" (26).  Because of this permutation, Walsh claims that now, "most Jesus films are Christ-figure films.  Their Jesuses are not characters" (32).  In place of this significantly absent Jesus, the Jesus films create story by investing other characters with narrative development.  Walsh uses the examples of Judas (34-37) and "the institutional Christ," (37) but one also thinks of Lucius and Barabbas in King of Kings, as well as Brian Cohen in Life of Brian.  The chapter concludes with Walsh reiterating his earlier claim that, "In film, as in Western culture and gospel, Jesus is sign, not character.  Apart from Christianity, Jesus is a blank upon which anything (even Brian or Judas) can be written.  The Jesus films, then, are films without heroes" (39).  Thus, Walsh continues his previous emphasis on disclosing and "denuding" the ideological and hermeneutic underpinnings of the Jesus films in order to reestablish the parabolic nature of Jesus (which he discusses in his concluding chapter).

[4] Walsh begins his investigation into specific Jesus films by comparing and contrasting Mark and Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal (45-68).  The ensuing conversation revolves around five main themes: apocalypticism; heroes; the confusion of boundaries; imperialistic texts; and typological hermeneutics.  First, while Mark is generally considered to be the most apocalyptic of the Gospels, Walsh argues that Jesus of Montreal can also be read apocalyptically, in that it views the "world and its institutions [as being] corrupt" (47).  Arcand, unlike Mark, sees no hope of redemption in an apocalyptic God, but rather places hope in art.  Similarly, whereas Mark's Jesus spouts an apocalyptic sermon in Mk 13, predicting the devastating future of his disciples as well as what will occur "after that suffering" (13.24), Arcand's Daniel delivers a delirious, yet secular discourse in the subway that "is more damning of the surrounding world than its Markan precursor" (49).  Because of its omission of any "God-talk" and its scathing critique of society, Jesus of Montreal is both less hopeful for the future and less nostalgic for the past than Mark (49-51).  Secondly, Walsh claims that while both Jesus and Daniel are somewhat heroic (the former for accepting his fate and the latter for being killed while upholding his artistic integrity [52-53]), Daniel's death is "neither theologically purposeful nor redemptive" (52).  This lack of purpose and redemption, Walsh argues, can also be read into Mark due to the absence of a triumphant ending to the gospel, thus lessening the apocalyptic heroism of Jesus.  Third, both the gospel and the film confuse boundaries.  In several places, Mark implies that the presumed insiders, i.e., the disciples, are actually outsiders (and rather moronic as well), while the film transgresses accepted structure by vacillating between and eventually merging its initial focus (Daniel's life) and its subsidiary focus (the Passion Play).  Thus, Mark makes an ironic point regarding insider/outsider assumptions regarding the Kingdom through critiquing the disciples and showing outsiders understanding; whereas Jesus of Montreal critiques both organized religion(s) as well as the depravity of art in the modern world by morphing Daniel-the-actor-playing-Jesus into a Christ-figure for his troupe.  Fourth, Mark and Jesus of Montreal contain programmatic stories that imperialistically provide different kinds of exhortation for both audiences.  In Mark, Jesus tells several stories that foreshadow both his own fate and how the Kingdom is to be perceived.  Thus, Mark's readers/hearers would be conditioned to accept Mark's apocalyptic worldview through their consumption of the story, but the reader is also prodded by the gospel to become an active participant in the construction of that Kingdom.  Similarly, in the film, the opening play and Daniel's Passion Play condition the viewer to accept the film's more humanistic apocalyptic view of society and in so doing, "consumes the imperial Gospel, deals with its threat, and renders it palatable to modernity" (59).  Finally, typology plays an important role in both Mark and Jesus of Montreal.  Walsh claims that, "Mark's primary typology . . . connects the death of Jesus with the fate of the Jerusalem Temple and that of the gospel's early readers" (60).  The film, however, undercuts and exposes this typological association by dismissing any sort of typological connection between Daniel and Jesus.  Walsh notes that the film leaves the connection(s) between Daniel and Christ "wonderfully unexplained" (61).  The result is a profanation of the Jesus story in film, due to the typological rupture between Christ-figure and Christ.  Walsh concludes this chapter by ruminating on the effect(s) Arcand's film has on Mark, and notes that the former ultimately makes the Jesus in the latter more ambiguous.

[5] In his fourth chapter, Walsh constructs a conversation between "Q" and the Gospel of Thomas, and the 1973 film Godspell (69-93).  His major concern within this conversation is to address the issue of context and the contextual meaning(s) of words and sayings.  In contrast to the early church's use of canon that "changed Jesus' language game," the sayings gospels, as well as the Jesus films, "liberate Jesus' teachings from the canon" (70).  More specifically, Walsh argues, Godspell not only gives special emphasis to Jesus' sayings, the film also "enacts Jesus' parables, locating his teaching: 1) in sacred discontent; 2) in sacred play; and 3) in affective symbol" (73).  First, the film exhibits a sense of sacred discontent through its portrayal of urban life (specifically New York City) as a force that crushes individuality, stifles creativity, and as abandoned.  If the city is to have any meaning, then it is only the meaning Jesus' troupe creates for it, what Walsh terms a "city of man" (73).  Similarly, "Q" demonstrates discontent through its wisdom sayings dealing with the Kingdom, which will be a place that relaxes religious norms and stresses social and ethical norms.  Furthermore, in both the film and "Q", these discontents are consumed and rendered appetizing by, on the one hand, the incorporation of the "Q" sayings into an essentially apocalyptic framework (Matt & Lk); and, on the other, the consumption of the film into mainstream culture.  Second, the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and Godspell both display a sense of "sacred disorder" (77) through play, or what Walsh defines as comedy.  The sense of comedy in the film is obvious, and Walsh does an excellent job delineating the role of comedy in the film.  However, even though GosTh does not contain any apparent comedy, Walsh argues that since Jesus' goal in this text is to "change people's perception of the world and their role in it," (quoted on 81), then it "could also represent a comic view askew" (81).  Third, Walsh points out that the film highlights the performative and communal aspect of Jesus' sayings by enacting them, in song and scene.  Thus, the film's "enactment of Jesus' teaching provides, like festival, fantasy, and comedy, an alternative reality (of the Kingdom of God?).  By contrast, reification of Jesus' teaching-whether into cynical philosophy, apocalyptic vision, Gnostic revelation, or canonical pronouncement-misses the experience of hearing Jesus' sayings" (84).  Thus, the vaudeville and slapstick in the film accomplishes, at least in part, Walsh's goal of liberating Jesus from both academic and ecclesiastical confines.  In sum, then, Walsh argues that the sayings of Jesus and Godspell remind the reader/viewer of the contextual nature of not only the sayings, but also language itself.  Even though both the sayings and the film have been subsumed by culture, they can still "provide imaginative vistas suggesting the boundaries of our world.  If they are not (traditional) revelation, they are postcards from the edge" (88).

[6] In his comparison of Matthew and Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (95-120), Walsh argues that both gospel and film are best seen as "late texts."  He writes that both "depend on an earlier text, which they reproduce and interpret for their own meaning.  Their interpretations find hidden meanings in their precursors that allow them to create a portrait of an angry Jesus protesting an oppressive institution and advocating a worldly Christianity" (96).  Thus, both gospel and film utilize intertextuality to fashion new significance in their respective contexts.  Pasolini's film, by focusing on one particular gospel, as well as by the use of editing, casting, and setting, has the effect of defamiliarizing Matthew for the audience (97).  Thus, the viewer is left in the position of having to draw upon previous knowledge of the gospel in order to render the film intelligible.  Similarly, the gospel "revels" in its dependency on the Hebrew Bible, which it analogously defamiliarizes through its use of the "fulfillment formulas."  Further, both the gospel's and the film's reliance on target texts engenders a specific interpretation of those texts, i.e., Matthew "remythologizes" the Hebrew Bible by removing its "natural" meaning, and applying its symbols to Jesus (101).  Pasolini, on the other hand, "demythologizes and politicizes Matthew" (101) through his transference of Matthew's message to modern Italy's peasant classes.  As such, Walsh claims, both Matthew and Pasolini create their precursor texts insofar as they inaugurate a new way of reading and consuming them in different contexts.  These contexts are remarkably different.  For Pasolini, Matthew is inserted into a political environment, wherein "Christ's demands to leave work, follow him, and love your neighbor are revolutionary calls to political reform" (103).  Ironically, this politicizing of Jesus allows Pasolini to make greater sense of Jesus' condemnation: "Doing away with a social revolutionary is far more understandable than dispatching the Son of God, an ethicist, an apocalyptic seer, or a cynic sage" (104).  In Matthew's case, the new context is the Matthean community itself, seen as the bearer of religious truth.  Thus, for Matthew, politics are not emphasized, but rather authoritative truth and the transmitting of that truth.  As Walsh notes, this is almost the opposite of Pasolini's institutional critique, and even sounds "like institution (empire) building" (106).  Through this community building, as well as his muting of Mark and "Q"'s eschatological emphases, Matthew is endorsing a more worldly Christianity.  Pasolini's reading of Matthew is similarly worldly, but primarily because of his characterization of Jesus as a solitary critic of the social order.  However, because Pasolini provides no solution to the social order, due to the omission of much of Matthew's language regarding disciples, his text is paradoxical, as is Matthew's gospel via an almost contradictory combination of eschatology and pragmatic preparation for the building of an institution.  Walsh closes this chapter by considering the effect(s) these paradoxes have on the anti-Jewish nature of the gospel and film, as well as the results of the consumptions of precursor texts by Matthew and Pasolini.

[7] In Chapter Six, Walsh compares and contrasts Nicholas Ray's King of Kings and the Gospel of Luke (121-146).  As with his previous chapters, Walsh not only discusses the two texts, but focuses on hermeneutical devices as well; here they include "history," empire, and myth.  As Walsh notes at the outset of this conversation, both gospel and film "locate Jesus in the politics and history of first-century Palestine.  This historical move secularizes Jesus and creates the problem of his 'pastness,' but the histories-both gospel and film-connect us with this past.  In the process, they also universalize Jesus.  Not surprisingly, the past and universal Jesus lacks specificity and presence.  He becomes an archetypal pattern authorizing a triumphal Christianity" (122).  These messages delineating a "triumphal Christianity" lead to an irony, according to Walsh: "In the midst of oppressive empires, their universalizing message is itself a form of empire building" (125).  The message of the film and the gospel is disseminated in an historical context that both distances Jesus and removes his uniqueness.  The film achieves the former effect by the use of the narrator, the historical storyline into which Jesus is thrown, and the character of Lucius.  According to Walsh, the viewer has access to Jesus mainly through the narrator and witnesses like Lucius, and as such the specificity of Jesus gets lost in the historical mix of events, especially the parallel story of Barabbas, the alternative "Messiah of War."  Likewise, in Luke, the narrator is so intent on presenting an "orderly account" (1.1) of the historical events preceding and engulfing Jesus' life, as well as situating Jesus as the first in a line of succeeding Christian personalities, that Jesus' uniqueness is sacrificed in the name of apostolic tradition.  Further, while both Luke and King of Kings envision a triumphal Christianity, the processes by which this is to be achieved differ widely.  Walsh argues that Luke, for all his emphasis on history, is "covertly mything" (140) in that he is not only creating an apology for the Jesus movement(s) for the Romans, he is also inaugurating the reality of the apostolic Church.  On the other hand, Ray demythologizes Luke by removing all the miracles and healings, as well as providing a rational, dispassionate explanation for Jesus' activity via Lucius.  As Walsh notes, the end of King of Kings leaves us with only a shadow of Jesus, nothing more.

[8] Like most investigators of Bible and film, Walsh notes the parallels between John and The Greatest Story Ever Told (147-171).  In what is his strongest chapter, Walsh argues that both gospel and film offer their consumers an alternative reality that can be arrived at through Jesus, whom they both imagine as a stranger and reveal as familiar.  He first notes that the means by which this alternative reality is pictured is not through conflict or plot, but rather through the unveiling of character (148).  The characters in John are "caricatures expressing and providing lessons in Johannine ideology," i.e., "They induce Johannine faith (insight)" (149).  In a similar vein, the figure of Lazarus in Greatest Story provides Stevens' middle-class American audience an entry into the ideology of the film, because even though he is wealthy and cannot fully follow Jesus, Jesus accepts him and comes to his aid via resurrecting him at the fulcrum of the film.  In Walsh's view, the heart of this alternative reality lies in the message(s) of Jesus.  For John, Jesus' message deals with the revelation of a "life from a God above" (151), but Stevens' Jesus is concerned more with " 'internal' matters, with the care of the soul" (151-2).  Stevens' emphasis on the interiority of Jesus' message is due, according to Walsh, to Stevens' view that "modernity has robbed us of some essential part of ourselves"  (153).  Thus, Stevens "nostalgically mythologizes the Jesus story" (154) in order to make it palatable to American viewers.  The means by which he does so, Walsh posits, include "modernizing dialogue (his characters do not speak biblical English), . . . enlisting a cast of Hollywood stars, and by setting the story in the American West" (156-7).  This last technique is especially important, as it draws upon the cultural memory of American moviegoers in order to render Jesus as a typical Western hero, if not in form then in content.  By so doing, Stevens "renders the Jesus story as a new frontier, a site for power, identity, and rejuvenation.  It becomes our 'from whence'-our romanticized past-if not 'our whither' " (159).  Thus, for Walsh, "John and The Greatest Story Ever Told create stories, alternative (mythic) realities, which they use to critique the audience's normal reality.  Where Stevens uses the medium of the Western frontier to transmit the Jesus story to the audience, John uses the medium of the Jesus story to suggest a mystic's transcendent world above.  In one case, the Jesus story is the mythic goal.  In another, it is the mythic means" (159).  Walsh wraps up Chapter Seven by noting that Stevens' film illustrates the remarkable perseverance of John in American culture by alerting us to the gnostic meaning(s) implicit in John.  These gnostic meanings resonate with our American emphasis on individualism and self-awareness.  Because of this, Walsh can conclude with the observation that "Reading John in the dark with The Greatest Story Ever Told intensifies John's gnostic and American potential.  As this John is about the mystic's deification, the gospel becomes difficult to distinguish from the Gospel of Thomas and from American popular religion (and film) . . .. [Thus] John lives on in America because American are gnostics (or immortals), not because they are orthodox (or evangelicals)" (164).

[9] In his concluding chapter, entitled "Coming to America," (173-185), Walsh continues the line of investigation he began in his previous chapter, as well as Chapter One.  More specifically, he argues, "the Jesus movies indicate Americans have Americanized Jesus.  Jesus is the ideal American individual" (175).  He first reaffirms the centrality of the individualist ideology of America, and states explicitly what was only implicit in Chapter Eight, viz., "The Greatest Story Ever Told may be the quintessential American Jesus movie," because of its appropriation of both the American emphasis on individualism as well as its use of the Western myth to portray Jesus as an American hero (175).  Walsh continues by positing that both the apocalyptic and gnostic trajectories of Jesus films resonate with our American civil religion, and both function mythically in that the symbol of Jesus in these films "legitimates our selves and society."  That is, "For triumphant American individuals, the apocalyptic Jesus salves fears of loss, or frustration, or tragedy, and of death.  For true American individuals, the gnostic Jesus salves our fear of failing to 'be true to ourselves' " (179).  However, Walsh finds himself dissatisfied with these images, and looking for what he terms a Jesus "that stands parabolically alongside of the American myth of the triumphant, true individual (Jesus)" (180).  He sees value in the Jesus films precisely because they aid in this search via their unleashing of Jesus into culture; "They render Jesus indigestible by any particular ideology" (181).  This has been Walsh's goal as well, as we have seen.  He concludes his work with a reflection on his comparisons and conversations "in the dark": "Theoretically, such comparison protects each Jesus' rough, historic particularity and leaves open the possibility of parable, as well as myth" (182).  This parabolic potential will, Walsh implies, allow for a more unmediated and powerful encounter with Jesus, as Walsh attempts to fulfill his stated goal of freeing Jesus from the constraints of both academy and Church.

[10] Reflecting on Walsh's work, then, I welcome both his conversations and his call for a more parabolic, unrestrained Jesus.  Other religious cultural critics have issued a similar call recently, e.g., Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor's insightful A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, but the focus and methodology in Walsh's book renders it particularly helpful.  Walsh's interest in a more parabolic Jesus is particularly timely, given the recent success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but I wondered why Walsh did not examine the Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in this regard.  It seems to me that this Jesus, as well as the character of Daniel in Jesus of Montreal, would fit Walsh's definition.  In terms of evaluation, and on a more personal note, this semester (Spring 2004) I have been teaching a course entitled "The Reel Bible," in which we have screened all the films (save Godspell) Walsh discusses.  While my students and I have been reading the very helpful works by Stern, et al, and Tatum, I have been reading Walsh "on the side," and covertly testing out his claims and arguments on my unsuspecting class.  The result has been a wonderfully enriching mixture of biblical scholarship and film criticism, and I feel my class is the better for it.  Pragmatically speaking, Walsh's book is not suited for an introductory course on New Testament literature, because of the time needed to view the films.  However, in an upper-level course on the Gospels or in a Bible and Film course like mine, Walsh's book will prove extremely helpful, not only in terms of content, but also in exposing literary and cinematic features that often go unnoticed in introductory texts.  Along with this curricular limitation, there is the omnipresent problem with books on film, viz., Walsh assumes that the reader has seen all the films he discusses.  This is particularly problematic in terms of his discussions of Bronco Billy and Shane, even though he provides a good summary of the former.  Also, at times Walsh's analysis, methodological language, and literary allusions may fly over the head of the average student.  Even so, the benefits of this well-written and perceptive work far outweigh these few critiques.  This is quite simply, a "must-read" for those who work in either New Testament or religion and film.

Bibliography

Detweiler, Craig and Barry Taylor.  A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture.  Engaging Culture Series.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 

Stern, Richard C., et al.  Savior on the Silver Screen.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999. 

Tatum, W. Barnes.  Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years.  Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1997.

FILM CREDITS

Jesus of Montreal


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