Film and Religion

This site contains studies and comments by professors Robert Torry and Paul Flesher about the portrayal and use of religion in film. See their new book, Film and Religion: An Introduction (Abingdon, 2007) for a textbook on this topic.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Jesus Christ, Superstar

On the face of it, Jesus Christ, Superstar (1972) is a Passion Play. It depicts only the last week of Jesus' life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey to his crucifixion. But given how different this film is from every previous Jesus film, even from every previous filming of a Biblical story, we should beware the notion that this is a simple depiction of the Passion.

When you think about Superstar, it is clear that it is a love story. The three main characters are Jesus, Mary and Judas. From the start, Mary looks after Jesus, cares for him, anoints him, and watches over his sleep. She sings about not knowing how to love him. When Judas attacks Jesus, she defends Jesus. As Jesus is led away and it is clear that Jesus’ tale will not have a happy ending for Mary’s love, she sings him a good-bye song, “Could we start again.”

Judas plays an interesting role in the film. He is the first to sing, talking about his close relationship to Jesus and how he is worried that Jesus’ actions are going to bring destruction down on the movement. From that point onwards, he acts more like a jilted lover than a worried deputy. He attacks Jesus for not seeing what is happening. He attacks Mary for anointing Jesus and then attacks Jesus for letting Mary close to him. When he receives Jesus’ disapproval, he retreats to the back of the disciples group, casting longing looks in Jesus’ direction.

Fast forward to the end. Judas’ last song before he hangs himself begins, “I don’t know how to love him,”—a reprise of Mary’s song. His last sung words before his death are about Jesus, “Does he love me, does he love me too? Does he care for me?” Clearly, the words of a lover.

It is possible even to see the three main figures as a love triangle. As Mary moves closer to Jesus, Judas is pushed out and acts with jealousy. Of Jesus’ first three stints singing, two of them are defending Mary against Judas’ verbal attacks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Melito of Sardis and The Ten Commandments (1956)

In the book’s chapter about The Ten Commandments, we drew upon the Pilgrims’ use of typology exegesis that presented the Jews’ Exodus and crossing of the Re(e)d Sea as a type for the Pilgrims’ own anti-typal action of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The Pilgrims were not the first to use typological interpretation on the Old Testament. Indeed, typology was used by some of the earliest Christian writers. Melito of Sardis and other writers were already using typology in their exegeses of the Jewish Scriptures in the second century. Indeed, Melito’s Paschal Homily (=”Sermon on the Passover”) makes extensive use of typology. Moreover, it seems that The Ten Commandments made use of the interpretation found in that work. (While the film’s introduction explicitly cites its use of Jewish sources for authority, it also drew from Christian sources.)

Whereas the Pilgrims’ emphasized the Jews’ journey through water and into the wilderness, Melito’s typological interpretation emphasizes the final plague, in which God killed all the first-born sons of the Egyptians. Melito’s characterization of the killing is picked up by the film. His physical description of the “darkness” that moves across Egypt and kills the firstborn as they come into contact with it (##22-27) becomes Ten Commandments’ mode of representing the way this wide-scale killing was accomplished. Other descriptions, such the angel of Death or even Exodus’ reference to God Himself, are not used.

Melito also makes a big point concerning the blood of the sacrificial lamb (in Melito’s terminology, “lamb” is stated in the singular) that was placed on the lintel of each Jew’s doorway to differentiate them from the Egyptians. (See Exodus 12.) Melito argues that the sacrifice of the lamb is the type which foreshadows Jesus own anti-typal death on the cross (##30-33). Just as the lamb died to save the Israelites from death, so Jesus died to save all people from death as sinners. More profoundly, Jesus suffers as the Passover sacrifice; Melito links the two through a Greek pun indicating that the verb meaning “to celebrate the Passover” echoes the verb “to suffer” (##46-47). Christ suffered for the peoples’ salvation as the lamb suffered for the Jews’ deliverance.

The Ten Commandments picks up on this link between Jesus and the Passover and transforms Moses into a Christ figure. Before Moses can lead the Israelites from Egypt, he is arrested, tried, and bound to a cross-bar, which he carries to the execution of his sentence in a manner that renders his body into a cross. Banished into the desert wilderness, the film emphasizes how Moses suffers and is purified. In this way he is prepared, suffering in a Christ-like manner, to lead his people to salvation from slavery.