Dennis and I tagged along with the youth group last Sunday to see the movie, Risen. I recommend seeing it: it’s well above par the usual fare for religious movies. And this blog is not a spoiler.
I have to admit I’m generally skeptical about movies about Jesus. I’ve seen too many overly-solemn, woodenly-acted, emotionally-manipulative or just-plain boring ones. Risen manages to avoid these pitfalls. Brian Edwards led the group in a discussion afterward. One of our youth noted how the disciples seemed “real” – “they had emotions, were even funny sometimes.” Another observed approvingly that the characters appeared appropriate to their Middle Eastern setting—they did not appear to be native Norwegians with blond hair and blue eyes.
Perhaps the film works so well because the focus of the story is a step removed from the actual text of the Gospels. The movie does not try to focus on the story of Jesus; rather, it tells the story of Clavius, a Roman military tribune (played by Joseph Fiennes) charged with locating the missing body of the “crucified Nazarene.”
You could say that it’s a made-up story: the Bible gives no evidence of such a search, nor am I aware of any historical text of the era recounting this. And yet it is a plausible story: scenes from the Scriptures (especially the Gospel of John) are sprinkled through the film; the characters accurately reflect conditions and political tensions of the time. The film effectively “puts you there” and makes you think.
And for doing that, I admire Risen for being an impressive example (as I understand it) of the ancient Jewish genre known an Midrash. A Midrash is a “flight of interpretive imagination,” in which a rabbi (or poet) would fill in settings, thoughts, motives, and conversation not given in typically terse biblical narrative, all to answer a question, such as “Why did Lot’s wife look back?” or “When Jacob, on his wedding night, discovered he had Leah in his bed, and not Rachel, what did he say? What did Leah say?”
In a Midrash, one looks for three characteristics: (1) it is a response to a specific biblical text, (2) it is imaginative, and—and this is the key—(3) it has a point. Well, Risen clearly is a response to a biblical text: the Resurrection of Jesus. It is thoroughly imaginative. Not only does it create a new story, it brings to life in an inviting way the familiar men and women of Easter story. So the question is: what is the point the film is trying to make? (Sidebar: it’s always a good idea to ask this question of a movie—sometimes the answer is profound, sometimes…well, not so much.)
I’ve been thinking about it since Sunday: what point(s) was the screenwriter trying to make? Perhaps to make the biblical personalities more real? Perhaps to feel more keenly the struggle to believe the unbelievable? Perhaps to feel the change of outlook the Resurrection gave to the disciples? Perhaps to ponder the power of confidence that there could be a “day without death”? The answer to this question may be unique to each viewer, as unique as each of our journeys of faith. If you see the movie, I’d love to know the point(s) you see. And if you see it as a family, Brian has a discussion guide he can share.
Reflecting on Risen, one of young people asked Brian: “Is all that in the Bible?” Great question, especially for a Presbyterian. One strength of our Reformed Tradition is that, when considering a message about our faith (drama, art, music, even sermon!), we go to the text, the Scriptures. “Let’s look it up.” We do this to be sure that our flights of imagination take off from the sure foundation: God’s Word.
So perhaps one “point” of Risen is to send us to our Bibles: to read the story again of God’s love for us shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. You can do so at home (especially the last three chapters of the Gospel of John). You can also join us in worship for Holy Week, and we can share together in the drama and wonder of God’s love for us. I hope to see you.
Grace and peace,
Julia Wharff Piermont
© Julia Wharff Piermont 2016
Introduction to Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology, Edited with introduction by David Curzon, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1994, pp 3-5.