Angelic choirs hum as calligraphic titles fill the screen. As the choir soars, an authoritative voice begins a tale that may be both alien and familiar: the coming of a heavenly visitor whose story bears repeating. Even if you have never watched a “biblical spectacular,” you are likely to recognize its style and structure. With soaring music, “casts of thousands,” and no small amount of sentimentality, these films exert a seminal influence over the dialogue between Christianity and popular culture.

This article explores the christological and hermeneutical significance of Hollywood’s New Testament, focusing, in particular, on two seminal films within the genre: Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927) and Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961). Beneath their surge and splendor, both films retell the Christian story against the anxious backdrops of secularization, cultural pluralism, and moral skepticism. DeMille, arguably, establishes the stylistic contours of the genre through a reassuring yet melancholic vision that appeals to scriptural fidelity and the traditions of Victorian religious art and music. Replete with title cards in the authoritative tone of the King James Bible, Henry B. Warner’s portrayal projects authority, virility, and reassurance in a time of flux. Ray’s cinematic savior, meanwhile, destabilizes the genre’s stylistic and theological assumptions. Playing on themes of doubt and unbelief, King of Kings offers a more humanized and ambiguous Jesus in the form of Jeffrey Hunter’s youthful and idealistic “messiah of peace.” Embedded in a series of melodramatic subplots, Ray’s Jesus is an indeterminate character, mediated through the speculations of those he encounters.

The biblical epics are just one example of Jesus’s continued popularity in cinema. Since the first movies of the late nineteenth century, well in excess of 120 films have been produced on the theme. Despite the decline of institutional religious practice in western societies, this trend remains buoyant. The success, too, of recent films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) or Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) suggest a revival of the appeal of the biblical spectacular. Beyond mimetic re-presentation or thematic inspiration, however, what does this popularity mean for theological reflection? The multimedia character of the Christian tradition might offer one way of thinking through this question. The literary gospels emerge from the oral traditions of early Christianity and inspire an expansive landscape of visual, literary, and musical interpretations. The Christian story, then, is itself an interpretive process and encompasses a variety of media. Projected on the silver screen or those more permeable screens of the imagination, Jesus’s story continues into the cultural and social settings within which it is received and reinterpreted. In this sense, perhaps, cinema echoes the lyrics of the British band Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. In the darkness of the auditorium or the privacy of the LCD screen, the flickering shadows of the motion picture illuminate and expand Christianity’s moving texts, providing each generation of viewer with their “own personal Jesus.”

Get free access to “Moving Texts: A Hermeneutics of the Gospel According to Hollywood” from Harvard Theological Review until September 7th, 2018.


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