Friday, April 14, 2006

Jesus Movies?

Are you looking for a good Jesus movie this Easter?

Today is Good Friday, one of the holiest days of the year for Christians. Today the weather outside in Chicago is a bit unpredictable. It hailed earlier today. It's expected to rain from noon through 3 p.m., according to the Weather Channel. It might also be sunny later. It seems even the weather knows it's Good Friday.

If you're like me, Good Friday and Easter weekend mean pulling out a "Jesus movie." So I thought I would give my recommedations for the best or the most popular "Jesus movies" out there, and what each film might say to you if you watch it. Feel free to comment on this post if you have any other movie suggestions.

King of Kings, 1961
(staring Jeffery Hunter as Jesus)
This pious film is actually one of my favorites. It captures the inner workings of the religious, zealot, and political systems of first century Judea and how each of them encountered the Jesus movement. If you like politics and history, this is a decent overview of the Gospels. The best part of this movie is the inspiring Sermon on the Mount.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965
(staring Max Von Sydow as Jesus)
This even-more pious film is not nearly as captivating as King of Kings, and almost twice the length. What makes this movie stand out is the multitude of guest appearances of 60s celebrities, with Sidney Poiter as Simon of Cyrene, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Claude Rains at King Herod, and my personal favorite, John Wayne's cameo as the Centurion. The thing that inspires me about this movie is that all celebs come together in honor of Christ, which makes quite a statement in and of itself.

Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973
(staring Ted Neely as Jesus)
The film version of the musical gives the passion story from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, who here is presented as a conflicted, thinking disciple. Slightly but enjoyably irreverent at times, this movie is most inspiring through the song "Can We Start Again Please?" sung by Peter and Magdalene and during the final trial before Pilate concluding with "Superstar," sung by Judas coming from the clouds of heaven. A unique, but fun, take on the traditional story.

Jesus of Nazareth, 1977
(staring Robert Powell as Jesus)
Probably the best version of the life of Christ. Like Greatest Story, this film is very long (over six hours) and has a lot of guest stars (Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn, James Earl Jones, among others), but unlike it, it presents a realistic view of Jesus' ministry. What makes this movie stand out is its historical accuracy and realism, and better treament of the teachings, parables, and miracles than most other Jesus films before or since. The interaction of Jesus with the apostles from their calling to Gethsemane are the best parts of this movie.

The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988
(staring Willem Dafoe as Jesus)
The most controversial Jesus film ever made, due both to its positive treatment of Judas (similar to the current Gospel of Judas, it poses the betrayer as Jesus' confidant) and the relationship of Jesus with Magdalene (similar to the current Da Vinci Code, it poses Jesus had special, romantic feelings towards Mary). Despite these issues, Temptation gives an ultra-realitic look at John the Baptist and the ministry of Jesus, and one of the most historical looks at the crucifixion. It is a movie that probes the human side of Jesus, even to his last breath on the cross. (special note: the temptation in this film is not Jesus dreaming of having sex with Mary, but rather his temptation to live a normal, first-century Jewish life as a married man with children; too often this is overlooked and the movie is disregarded for this misconception).

The Passion of the Christ, 2004
(staring Jim Caveziel as Jesus)
What makes this film stand out is its use of the actual Aramaic language that Jesus probably used in the first century. This Mel Gibson-directed treatment only covers the passion experience from the garden through the burial, and gives the bloodiest version of Jesus' punishment and death ever captured on film. Its historical accuracy is suspect, and much of the script comes from extra-Biblical sources, but if you are looking for a powerful punch on Good Friday, this movie might be for you.

There are many others where Jesus is regulated to a supporting character such as The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and Barabbas (1962), and others with little recognition (therefore harder to find at your local Blockbuster) such as From the Manger to the Cross (1913), The King of Kings (1927), The Gospel According to Matthew (1966), Godspell (1973), Jesus/Jesus Film Project (1979), Jesus of Montreal (1989), Jesus (1999), and The Gospel of John (2003). Even comedies such as Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) gives a light-hearted look at this infamous story and would be an excellent choice to watch.

Regardless of what you choose, finding Jesus on film is a great way to experience the Easter story in your home this weekend or anytime. Happy Easter everyone!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Benchwarmers

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Matt. 5:5

We know them well. Nerds. Geeks. Whatever they are called, we know them. These are the people who are bullied, humiliated, and segregated by others because of their looks, their popularity, their athletic ability, and their intelligence, among other reasons.

They are the "meek" of our day. The "meek" that will inherit the earth, as Jesus says in the beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Benchwarmers is a film about these bullied individuals, and their quest to inherit the earth (or at the very least, a place on the baseball diamond). It follows three grown-up friends (Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Jon Heder) who take a stand for the little kids who are regularly humiliated and picked on by the popular kids. They take their stand to the baseball field.

Motivated and funded by billionare nerd Mel (Jon Lovitz), the three of them take on little league teams in a tournament where the winner gets a brand new stadium for the kids.

In the film, children around the country tune into podcasts and web sites to watch this tournament. They are inspired and moved by these three "heroes" as they defeat the popular kids' little league teams one after another. Right in front of them, they see the meek inheriting the earth, the dream of those who are humiliated, isolated, and disregarded.

When the beatitudes were first offered in the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus, I imagine there must have been a few laughs thrown at him. Widows joyful? The persecuted happy? The poor become powerful? Who would think of such silly, impossible things? But the beatitudes were signs of hope for people who had none. In Jesus' day, the meek were the lepers, the beggers, the outcasts and unclean, and those who lived in fear of almost everyone else. The Benchwarmers offers a similar hope for those who feel hopeless in our day.

"If you build it," Jon Lovitz's character says with a nod to Field of Dreams, "...nerds will come." And come they do, inheriting a stadium that was never theirs before.

Jesus offers us hope in a world where hopelessness is the norm. Advertising and marketing play on our hopelessness these days. They tell us we are nothing, we are hopeless people... unless we buy their products and find an empty hope there. But God gives us hope even in the most impossible, improbable, and unattainable ways. Because with God, we know that all things truly are possible.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Perhaps life is meant to be a mess?

The 1996 movie Twister has gotten such negative reviews over the years, but I don't care what the critics say. I actually really enjoy this film despite some continuity errors (there's a whole list of them at, and around this time of year when spring thunderstorms start appearing throughout the Midwest, I usually go back and watch it again. Call me crazy.

In the film, we meet Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) trying to emerge from his messy life with his ex-wife Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) by solidifying the divorce and marrying a more organized career woman.

Bill is trying to rid his life of the messiness that comes with a life of chasing after tornadoes, driving through cornfields, always eating on the go, and sleeping in vans or cheap motels, not to mention a marriage to a wife who lives life on the edge. He craves some stability, clean clothes, and an organized life. He sounds like many of us, and as a perfectionist, he sounds like me.

Twister reminds us that mess is okay from time to time.

In fact, messiness is probably what life is all about. In his book, Messy Spirituality, author and pastor Mike Yaconelli tells his readers that God doesn't expect us to live perfect, sinless lives, and if we try to accomplish that, we might become more obsessed with trying to live that perfect life than trying to live a real life. When Christ said, "I came so that you might have life, and have it more abundantly," (John 10:10), he wanted us to live our lives to the fullest, not to become a sinless, lifeless, joyless person.

Bill wanted order and stability, but was truly unhappy trying to live a life that wasn't his. Often times, we forget to live a real life when we are trying too hard to live a perfect life, and we become unhappy too.

We are called to live a life of responsible happiness. And each spring, despite the critics and the naysayers, I sit back and watch Twister to remind me of that valuable lesson.