Bad History and Poor Choices in the New Jesus flick

Several years ago when Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ hit theaters, I was a sophomore at Wabash College, and there was a riveting discussion panel about the film particularly concerning whether or not the film was anti-Jewish. Average churchgoing folks felt strongly that the film portrayed anti-Roman sentiment but wasn’t in any way anti-Semitic. Those of us who had studied the text more carefully knew better. We could see there were dangerous extra-biblical, artistic choices that – whether intentional or not – gave credence to the notion of Jewish deicide. That’s the charge that the Jews and their ancestors were responsible for the death of God. And it’s precisely that charge that’s lead to an untold amount of violence against Jews over the past two thousand years.

So, when Son of God, the newest crucifixion flick, hit theaters, I was excited to watch it not only to see how the past decade or so has changed how evangelicals approach the story but also to see iconic shots of Morocco where the movie was filmed. In fact, most of the movie was filmed outside of Ourzazate in southern Morocco, a ten-hour bus ride from where I lived two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. As such, watching the movie was, to me, less a leap back to the first century and more a leap back to two years ago, and in that sense, I very much enjoyed the film.

So, too, I was pleased to see that there have been some serious strides made in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, nearly praises the film even calling it an “anti-Gibson” film. The producers and directors went out of their way, he says, to consult Jewish and Christian scholars, though Foxman still worries that the film had several historical inaccuracies that were “unfortunate,” and I couldn’t agree more on that point.

Other bloggers have been even kinder. Paul Anderson, a professor at George Fox University, writes that the film has a diverse cast and furthers inter-religious sensitivity (emphasis mine):

First, I was impressed by the interracial presentation of characters within the narrative. Indeed, many of the main characters were British actors, largely because many were recruited among London’s theater district, and were thus Caucasian, but other races were also represented. In the brief overview of Jewish history, Samson is presented as an African, as is Balthazar — one of the wise men. Joseph of Arimathea is black, and as the filming was done in Morocco, the presentation of Mediterranean townspeople worked very well in service to a sense of realism in the narrative. I also liked the way that inter-religious sensitivities are shown. In one particularly gripping set of sequences, Jesus is praying to God in the Garden, Caiaphas and Jewish leaders are blessing the Lord during the Passover, and the wife of Caiaphas is praying to her gods in her own way. All are sincere in their faith, yet they also come at the issues from different perspectives.

For whatever positive strides this film makes in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue, I felt that it raised new concerns as a film shot in a Muslim country with Muslim actors but with the intention of being sold to a largely Islamaphobic audience. With such a large number of evangelicals bemoaning that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” (as if having a Muslim president would be a terrible thing or as if being secret about your faith weren’t an oxymoron), is it not absurd to see those groups packing stadium seating to watch a film about Jesus where at least half of the cast are a racial group these people fear or despise?

If that’s not bad enough, the character of Satan, played by the same Moroccan who played Satan in the miniseries “the Bible”, was completely cut from the film because of concerns that he “looked like Barack Obama.” So, let me just get this straight: You have a film being made for an evangelical Christian audience. The evangelical audience, by and large, despises Muslims (and those who they think might secretly be Muslims). The person you cast as Satan is Muslim. Most of the other major characters in your film are Westerners. You shot the film in Morocco and used Moroccans as your extras because you wanted to portray something historically accurate to your film, but history was less important when it came to Jesus’ skin tone or that of his disciples?

I’ll grant you that the Mediterranean was a diverse place, but I also found Mr Anderson’s choice of referring to Joseph of Arimathea as “black” somewhat strange given that the actor is a Moroccan man named Noureddine Aberdine (it’s possible Prof. Anderson was intending to refer to the actor who played Simon of Cyrene who was of darker complexion; however, that actor was also Moroccan). North Africans are most often considered Caucasian and more specifically are usually of Arab, Berber, or Arab-Berber descent, so I do wonder whether there might be some need to change the race of minor actors or actresses to feel better about claiming the film offers an “interracial presentation of characters.” That it does. But it places minorities in lower roles, or as Satan, and then delivers it to an Islamophobic audience. That’s troubling to say the least.

So maybe this film is, indeed, one step forward for Jewish-Christian relations, but if that’s true, I fear it might be two steps back at the same time.

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