The Gospel of John (2/10)

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley

At one point in The Gospel of John one of the Chief Priests says about Jesus (Henry Ian Cusick), “If we don’t do something about this man he’ll continue to perform miracles and more people will follow him and the Romans will tear down our Temple.”  What?  Even though this is a pretty accurate telling of what John writes, this might be history’s first recorded non-sequitor.  Far be it from me to question the veracity of The Great Evangelist, “the one whom Jesus favored,” but, let’s face it, how could John know what one of the Chief Priests said during a private consultation? Clearly, he couldn’t.  It looks to me like something someone inserted to avoid irritating the Romans, who had the power at the time this Gospel was written (approximately 96 A.D.), which was after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the Jewish nation no longer existed.

 But this Priest makes about as much sense as Jesus does in this retelling of what we usually think of as the fourth book of the New Testament (the first three being Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  In fact, this Jesus reminds me a lot of Brian from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which many conservative Christians considered blasphemous, but I thought was funny.

 Instead of preaching to multitudes, Jesus wanders around here accosting people in the streets, and what he says, considering that he’s not preaching, sounds like platitudes that you have to strain to make sense of, especially when you consider that the people to whom he is speaking are not exactly the intellectually elite of history. Jesus was talking from the vantage of having the equivalent of a Ph.D. in theology (being God and all) and the people he encounters in this film on the streets are arguably illiterate. In fact, about all that distinguishes this Jesus from a Santa Monica homeless person is that Jesus isn’t pushing a junk-filled Ralph’s shopping cart.

 If Jesus says, “I’m telling you the truth” once he says it a hundred times.  It seems that every time he says anything he starts out with, “I’m telling you the truth.”  Whenever I hear anyone say “I’m telling you the truth,” I figure he’s lying.  I wonder if all those zero century Jews thought the same if Jesus really said this.  The filmmakers claim the script is a faithful “word for word” transition from the American Bible Society’s Good News Bible (which I haven’t read). I have read other versions of the Bible, however, and I can’t remember Jesus ever saying, “I’m telling you the truth.”  He said, “Verily I say to you” a lot.  But “I’m telling you the truth?”  Not in my Bible. According to historians, John wrote this Gospel in Greek. If translators centuries ago translated what was written in Greek into “verily I say to you,” how could the translators of the Good News Bible translate the same words into “I’m telling you the truth?” Maybe the modern translators think that it’s more modern lingo. But this type of discrepancy calls into question the integrity of all biblical translations.

 What this Jesus rarely does is preach anything meaningful to the people.  In three hours about all he ever says to anyone other than the Twelve Apostles is “I am He,” meaning He’s God. While John’s Gospel does concentrate on Christ’s Divinity, in this movie His claim of divinity is about His only message.  In three hours I heard very little about love and charity and kindness, which is what the Jesus in my Bible was really about. All this Jesus does is wander around the street ticking people off. Watching this movie, it’s amazing he wasn’t killed much sooner by an angry mob.

 The problem here is that by using John’s Gospel as a script, the filmmakers ignore the fact that the Gospel was not written as a play or a film, but as Scripture, to be read, to be inspirational.  Although the first three books, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are commonly called the Synoptic Gospels, that is, they are similar in form, content, and style, and meant to be read in conjunction with one another, as opposed to John, which is not a part of the Synoptic Gospels, it still seems to me that John must be read in conjunction with the Synoptic Gospels, which show Jesus as a compassionate teacher of love and charity. But by limiting the story to John, ignoring the Synoptic Gospels, and trying to remain faithful to a word for word rendition of John alone, it not only presents an inaccurate picture of Jesus, it loses its effect as a drama, causing it to appear stilted and unrealistic. Ergo, its similarity to Brian.

 But that’s not to absolve the filmmakers of clumsiness. At one point when He’s thinking about raising Lazarus from the dead, the narrator (Christopher Plummer) says that Jesus was touched (the King James Version says, simply, “Jesus wept”) and, presto! a tear rolls down Jesus’ face.  One tear!  Is that “weeping?” One tear? We don’t actually see it start in his eye, however, so I got the feeling that just before the scene, someone said, “Makeup!” and a gal with an eye dropper went over to Jesus and gave him his tear.

 And the music!  It sounded so saccharine and maudlin it occurred to me they must have used the organ sheet music for Cecil B. DeMille’s silent Ten Commandments (1923) to provide background for some of this Jesus’ claims of divinity, which seem to be his only raison d’etre.

 The Chief Priests are nothing more than caricatures of bad guys. They reminded me of the oafish, corny bad guys in Eisenstein’s soviet polemic, Alexander Nevsky (1938).

 And how about those Apostles!  These guys would be more suited to starting up a pastel dress factory than heroic missionaries who could create Christianity.  If this was the way they really were they would have been called The Twelve Wimps.  This St. Peter (Daniel Kash), heretofore thought of as sort of a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Spencer Tracy (gruff but gentle and compassionate), gives timidity a bad name. This guy is more a leaf than a rock.

 Sorry, but this isn’t the way I picture Jesus and his Apostles.  I think Jesus oozed charisma, like Jack Kennedy. He was somebody people instantly liked and were drawn to. The Jesus we see here looks like he should be institutionalized.  Instead of preaching to groups of people, he wanders around the street, mouthing his truths to anyone in the street who will listen.  This guy would be a good candidate for a straight jacket. If Jesus were this abrasive he couldn’t start a car, much less a religion.

 The filmmakers would have us believe that they got a group of “experts” together to advise them, calling them the Theological Advisory Committee, to ensure historical accuracy.  These people are never identified, but if they think this is an accurate telling of the life of Jesus, they must be out of their collective minds. “Historically correct” is what they claim.  They might have used the words of John as reported in the Good News Bible, but to think that the street people of year 33 were all this well spoken is ludicrous.  To think that they were this clean is ludicrous. To think that they were all so knowledgeable is ludicrous. To think that the Apostles were such wimpy jerks is ludicrous.

 And Mary (Diana Barryman)!  My understanding has always been that Mary was around 15 years old when she bore Jesus.  That would make her 45 when Jesus started his public life, which is when this film starts.  But the woman in this film looks a lot older than 45 to me. I wonder why they picked such a plain woman to play Mary.

 It’s not all bad, however.  John’s Gospel contains some of the most beautiful language ever written and it’s inspiring to hear it spoken again. Like, “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know mine and mine know Me.”  And “… the Father is in Me and I in Him.” And “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And on and on. Speaking as a writer these words are inspirational in and of themselves. They bring tears to my eyes when I hear them and write them.

 While faithful to The Word in the spoken word, the failure of the filmmakers to translate this into film mode and include the compassion of Jesus shown in the Synoptic Gospels gives a particularly unflattering and unenlightening picture of Jesus. Despite the beautiful language, it’s a tedious three hours.

 October 23, 2003

 The End