According to media reports, the BBC is soon to air a dramatisation of the crucifixion of Jesus. The series will run throughout March, and according to an organisation called the Churches’ Media Council, “There’s no need to debate whether or not the Christian community should welcome this production or not.” They want the Christian community to “celebrate the fact that the story of Jesus is being retold” and welcome it unreservedly, remembering that it is a work of drama (not an evangelistic effort) and recognising that it will get millions of viewers talking about Jesus.
Without wanting to be needlessly curmudgeonly about it though, I can’t say this position is one that I share.
There are, of course, serious concerns about how having an actor play the role of the Saviour is blasphemous. I wrote on this before:
“Films are favoured as teaching tools because of the way they can convey their message much more powerfully than conventional media. But when you present someone with an actor attempting to play the role of Jesus, the message that that conveys is wrong from start to finish. It’s wrong ultimately because it contravenes the second commandment, but it’s wrong too in the sense that it gives the viewer a fatally distorted idea of what this person Jesus Christ is really like.” (Full post here.)
However, even that aside, the goal of a Christian witness is not simply to ‘get people talking’ about Jesus and his life. Clearly it’s better for people to be acquainted with the facts about his life, death, and resurrection than to be completely in the dark about these things. But getting people talking is really only worthwhile to the extent that the information they base their conversations on is accurate, complete, and well-motivated. (In the education system many of us are sadly only too familiar with scenarios where discussions are based on a mistaken and partial grasp of the material under discussion and the point of the exercise is more or less entirely missed.) I’d suggest that even without the problems about the second commandment, it’s odd to think that the Christian community would unreservedly welcome a production made by contemporary scriptwriters with no particularly obvious commitment to the doctrinal interpretation of the death of Christ (the atonement) or the intended purpose of the history being recounted in the gospels (so that people would put their faith in the crucified Christ for salvation from sin) – a production made more with an eye to portraying iconic stories than providing people with what they need to know about the person and work of the Son of God in human nature.
Might I also suggest that the eagerness of some sections of the Christian community to identify this kind of production as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” is not only somewhat naive but also a missing of the real opportunity that arises. It’s naive in the sense that one-off instances of major publicity for some aspect of the contents of scripture don’t seem to have any long-term positive benefit for the church at large, whatever the immediate impact might have been in terms of people reporting being profoundly moved and inspired to greater emotional devotion. The event itself takes place once in a generation, perhaps, but the generation is not shaped by it in any significant way. And although there are website resources made available specifically for people who want to ‘find out more about Jesus’ after watching this series, these are not really the resources which genuinely equip the church to deal with the opportunity itself. Rather than providing a safe starting point for people to develop an ‘interest in Jesus’, dramatisations like this need to be critiqued from a Christian perspective, so that the doctrinal and practical nuances are exposed for Christians to either guard against or make use of, as appropriate. Even if people find it a positive emotional experience, or can appreciate good acting in a historical drama, it’s surely irresponsible to treat it as an off-the-shelf evangelistic tool unless and until it has been openly evaluated in terms of respect for the global message of the scriptures and a clear presentation of the relevant doctrinal truths.
Links are as follows, purely for the purposes of traceability. Anyone who is reluctant to look at pictures of actors playing Jesus and other bible characters should click with caution.
The report in Christian Today; the guidance notes from the Churches’ Media Council; the BBC page, including video clips; the resources linked to the programme for people with further questions.