Son of God: heavy on atmosphere, light on sacrifice

Ron Vanderwell

Who do you talk to when you pray? When I talk on the phone, I’m usually picturing that person as we speak. Who do I picture when I pray?

The Christian faith is based on the claim that God become human on our behalf. But what would it look like if God became one of us?

That’s the question embraced by Son of God, from husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. Opening tomorrow in theaters nationwide, the film is an expanded version of the New Testament portion of the couple’s The Bible, which aired on History last March.

This project is really a study in the doctrine of Incarnation. Historically, the church has confessed that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine. The challenge is to try to form some picture of what that would have meant.

This is a difficult project. No matter how they chose to portray Christ, here played by Diogo Morgado, the figure wouldn’t come out looking quite like we might expect, since we don’t really know what to expect.

The movie never seemed to explore just why Jesus needed to die and rise again.

One of the greatest strengths of Son of God is its portrayal of first-century Israel. While the film obviously takes some minor liberties, for the most part people look like first-century Jews and Romans. They’re dusty, their streets are crowded and, apart from a few sets of perfect teeth, they reflect the first-century Palestine that I’ve studied.

In addition, the movie shows how the characters in Christ’s story felt the same pressures that we feel today. As the high priest, Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller) could simply seem cool and calculating before the Jews, but he's more layered here, often flinching like a cornered mouse when threatened by Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks). Nicodemus (Simon Kunz) put a human face on the gamesmanship of the Pharisees as they tried to corner Jesus in a public debate, realizing that the best way to undermine Jesus’ effect on the crowds was to discredit him in public. And in watching Morgado’s Jesus I could see a fascinating interplay between the sense of purpose that drove him and his emotional responses as he encountered surprises along the way.

I watched the movie with my 17-year-old son and both of us were struck by how it brought many of the Biblical characters to life. At the same time, I noticed that the movie never seemed to explore just why Jesus needed to die and rise again. Clearly the Jewish leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus, but the film showed no larger purpose for His death than, say, the death of another historical figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. They could have: there were numerous scenes shot in the temple courts with animals being offered for sacrifice, waiting for a “lamb of God” reference. 

Before seeing the film, I wondered if it would change the way I pray. It did. It helped me remember that I’m praying to Someone, not just something, and for that I’m grateful. I would encourage readers to see this film as a way to more fully explore what it means to have a personal relationship with an incarnate God. It’s trickier than it looks.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, The Bible