Thursday, May 28, 2015

Summer Series on Religion & Popular Culture Month 1: Jesus and the Biblical World

Enough serious stuff! It's time for some summer reading & watching. Over the next few months, I'll be posting weird and wonderful television and film recommendations for those interested in religion & popular culture. This month's subject? Jesus and the Biblical World.

These days, it seems like everyone wants to make a movie or television show about Jesus or the early church. Some of my favorite representations of Jesus and the ancient world come not from the 2010s, but from the 1970s! Before you watch The Bible, or A.D. The Bible Continues, you really ought to watch these gems.*

Jesus Christ Superstar
Based on the 1970s rock opera of the same name, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's classic just gets better with age. The music! The vocal performances! The hippies! The film has been often imitated, and the musical has been revived again and again, but no other version offers such a heady blend of American 1960s-1970s counterculture, religion, and media. You'll come for the iconic theme song, but you'll stay for a truly compelling version of the final days of Jesus told from the perspective of the tragic anti-hero Judas Iscariot. Here's a video of the first few minutes of the film, wherein Judas warns Jesus that his ministry will have dire consequences for all involved. And, if you can make it through listening to the song John Nineteen: Forty-One without crying, you are a lot tougher than me!

Did I mention hippies? If Jesus Christ Superstar is the cynical apology for why hippies were into Jesus, then Godspell is its sunny sister. And, if you are looking for a daily dose of the Jesus Movement, this 1973 adaptation of the 1971 Stephen Schwartz classic is for you. Check out this video of John the Baptist "preparing the way of the Lord." Have you ever seen such a delightful group of disillusioned young people finally finding the charismatic leader they've been hoping to follow?

Monty Python's Life of Brian:
This film is actually technically not about the life of Christ... it's an unfortunate tale of a man born just one stable away from him: Brian Cohen. Poor Brian just cannot catch a break. Through a series of unfortunate events, Brian inadvertently founds a messianic movement - and we all know what Rome did with those! If you are looking for something truly off the wall and if satire doesn't offend your religious sensibilities, the 1979 masterpiece Life of Brian is for you. If you know anything at all about the first century, there are in-jokes galore. It's actually more historically accurate than most television or film about the life and times of Jesus. Consider the following clip wherein we get an inside view of a meeting between Jewish zealots complaining about what it was like to live under the colonial thumb of Rome:
Any time I teach a Bible or church history course, I show this hysterical summary of why living in empire is so complex.

Do you have any recommendations for representations of Jesus and/or the ancient world in popular culture? Send them my way! And stay tuned for next month's entry....

*N.B.: Unlike most films or television shows on network television that deal with biblical subject matter, not all of these films are child-friendly.