Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for The Book of Clarence.
In 2020, I wrote a Think Christian article about Black Jesus, an irreverent sitcom that reimagined Jesus as a blunt-smoking messiah based in the predominantly Black and Brown city of Compton, Calif. In response, one reader commented, “People can say what they want about this series. I think it's an awesome way to expose nonbelievers to the Word.” The Book of Clarence, from writer-director Jeymes Samuels, may do something similar.
The film, which takes place in Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry, centers on Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), a street hustler searching for his next score. As described by his twin brother, the Apostle Thomas (also Stanfield), Clarence is a “nobody” who “lacks honor.” When Clarence finds himself in debt to “the village terror,” Jedidiah (Eric Kofi Abrefa), he embarks on a plan to leverage the popularity of Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) for his own profit and protection.
Clarence reinvents himself as “the new Messiah,” mimicking Jesus’ oratory and falsely replicating his miracles (or, as Clarence derisively calls them, his “tricks”). In doing so, he hopes to glean enough donations to clear his debt. And while Clarence enters this scheme as a nonbeliever, he emerges with a new and profound faith in God. He fashions himself into a disciple of Christ and a witness to Christ’s works—his story a new chapter, of sorts, in the chronicles of Christianity. In this way, The Book of Clarence functions as a work of biblical apocrypha.
“Apocrypha” refers to any number of texts that are adjacent to Scripture but, for various reasons (questions of authorship, dating, compatibility), have been excluded from the biblical canon. Examples include an extended version of the book of Esther, as well as the “gospels” of Thomas and Mary. While I make no claim about the authenticity of such texts, they further reinforce many of the ideas espoused by Scripture, even while challenging what we know about the canonical Bible.
The Book of Clarence certainly challenges popular visions of Christ and his times. The film presents a pan-African Jerusalem whose citizens speak in modern vernacular and slang. A flashback scene recalling young Jesus animating clay birds is not found in the synoptic gospels, but rather originates in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. As with Black Jesus, there’s plenty of weed-smoking on display in the film. But, like Black Jesus, such controversial, creative choices remove Christ’s story from the confines of history and orthodoxy, highlighting the timelessness of his message and its applicability to people of all backgrounds.
Apocryphal texts reinforce many of the ideas espoused by Scripture, even while challenging what we know about the canonical Bible.
There is also the issue of Clarence’s atheism, which is crucial to his message as this new messiah. “Belief,” he sermonizes, “will be the undoing of all mankind.” What we should do, he insists, is focus on what we can see, what we can prove, and what we “know” to be true. Clarence doesn’t see the value in worshiping “a man in the sky that doesn’t exist,” while “children die in the streets.” What’s more, he makes for a successful false prophet, garnering plentiful handouts for his “tricks,” while delivering his message of nonbelief.
One could see this as blasphemous: the claim that you don’t need Jesus, that all it takes to be the Messiah is charisma and a faithful following. But what Clarence doesn’t expect is that his practicality would eventually feed his spirituality. Indeed, his concern for humanity is more in line with Jesus’ ministry than he thought. After he’s collected more than enough money, he chooses to use his ill-gotten gain to free a large group of enslaved gladiators. It’s a move that could mean his death at the hands of Jedidiah, but he chooses to risk his life if it means ending the exploitation of others. He makes the same choice later, when he refuses to give Jesus up to Roman governor Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy). It’s a decision inspired not only by Clarence’s growing faith, but by his rejection of Roman oppression and by his support of Jesus’ insistence on the equal dignity of all human beings. This decision results in Clarence’s crucifixion, a sentence he bravely, willingly accepts. Clarence is not the Messiah, of course, but his life reflects the conditions in which the Messiah and his message were formed, even if The Book of Clarence appears unfamiliar, at first, to those wedded to a singular vision of Jesus.
There’s value in expanding that vision. While Clarence, or Black Jesus, may not reflect the messiah we typically picture, they work together to broaden our appreciation for Jesus’ message and its scope. Indeed, the choice to situate the film in a working-class Black community under the heel of a white Roman police state props up Clarence’s role—a messiah’s role, thus, Jesus’ role—as a champion for the people, employing a social dynamic all too familiar to contemporary audiences. That’s not to say that The Book of Clarence, or any apocryphal text, is meant to replace canonical Scripture. But such works may well contain words of wisdom that further illuminate our understanding of Scripture.
Early in the film, while Clarence derides the piety of his brother, Thomas, their mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) encourages him to “be the shadow, not the body—hold space.” For atheist Clarence, she means for him to challenge what he knows and to open his heart to belief in God. For people of faith, it may mean not to ignore what we know—what we see on the streets, on the news, and in our own backyards—in favor of our belief alone. Yes, read Scripture and adhere to its word. But don’t forget about the world that exists beyond the text. For if the Word is to have any meaning, it must exist beyond those bound pages and the limitations of our own personal experiences. And if a “nobody” like Clarence can give his life for the people, as Jesus did, then any of us is capable of continuing Christ’s work.