retelling the story

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.

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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.

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10 thoughts on “retelling the story

  1. I suspect your concern about not portraying Jesus may be too broad. In principle, it is hard to see how it wouldn’t also apply to any portrayal of Christ whether visually or by words. Any way of speaking would be a portrayal and “it gives the [viewer] a fatally distorted idea of what this person Jesus Christ is really like”. That really applies to any preaching or speaking of Christ. Or if you want to lean heavily on the ‘fatally’, then it may be hard to determine. On the one hand, clearly a Mormon presentation or possibly a JW presentation might be (though I think there are examples where even these have had enough in them, by the Grace of God and the power of the Spirit to lead someone to life), but isn’t all our portrayal partial and likely to mislead without the grace of God?

    I suspect the insights are important about gospels written in and to communities are important in reminding us that humility in presentation and openness to discussion and questioning so as to have the effect of constantly causing us to update and revise our own mental portrayals and so avoid mental idolatry. That’s another value of Christian community. It’s not infallible either, but less likely to let us get away with our private idolatries.

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  2. I accept that it’s broad, but I’d draw a distinction between visual and spoken presentations.

    Re speaking/preaching, humans are of course always to a greater or lesser extent prone to partiality and inaccuracy (and even outright heresies like many Mormon and JW teachings), but the church is mandated to take the truths conveyed in scripture and (on the authority of scripture and sticking closely to the contents of scripture) to preach them. The possibility that we might not manage to do it perfectly isn’t a reason not to do it so much as an incentive to keep scripture in view constantly as our guide and warrant.

    On the other hand, visual presentations are not mandated in scripture. Scripture gives us no guidance about the content of visual representations – no standards to judge visual images by, no instructions for how to create them. And since images of God himself are unequivocally prohibited, the question about whether it’s acceptable to have images of Jesus surely hinges only on the question of whether he is himself to be recognised as God.

    (‘Fatally’ might be a bit excessive, in the sense that the damage done can be overcome, but in principle, the inevitable failure of human creations to convey the divinity of the man who they attempt to portray means that the most important thing about the person of Christ is hidden from view – and I don’t really hesitate too much about saying that mistaking the divinity of Christ is fatal to the soul.)

    See also here :)

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  3. I guess I’m questioning, problematising even, the distinction between visual and verbal when it comes to idolatry. Given the cultural backgroud of the Pentateuch the emph on the visual is understandable and important, but I wouldn’t see it as, of necessity, a stopping point. In the same way as I don’t see the fourth commandment as literally binding on Christians (I don’t take Saturday off …) and that the tenth should be extended to include women (and not as property) and a wider range of covetousness. On that kind of basis, I think that the fulfilment of the second commandment lies in heart-idolatry which would include the ‘pictures’ in our minds that we take for God and worship. God is always greater, and we forget that at our cost. The danger I see in the distinction between visual and verbal is that the latter’s idolatries are elided, even sanctioned tacitly.

    Then there’s the incarnation which throws it all into a spin anyway. The fact of God becoming human problematises the whole thing and there were many years of the iconoclasm controversy to witness to the fact that there are no easy answers on this one. See http://www.theandros.com/iconoclast.html
    Where the heart of the response is stated thus (I think that this is relevant): “the icon represents neither Christ’s divine nature nor his human nature, but his person which unites in itself these two natures, and (b) the fact that Christ assumed all the characteristics of a human being (except sin), including describability, thus making images of him possible…. “to say it is improper for us to see images of Christ is the same as to say it was improper for his disciples to see him”. ”
    I’m not endorsing all of that, but I am saying that I don’t think it is as simple as your position seems to make it, given also the reflections I offer my opening paragraph above.
    There’s a more nuanced ‘iconoskeptic’ approach among the contributions here http://p092.ezboard.com/fabettercountryfrm4.showMessage?index=17&topicID=49.topic
    And I think that I probably should note that I broadly agree with the approach here and note the links might be worth your own following-up.
    http://mattstone.blogs.com/journeysinbetween/2008/01/calvin-and-icon.html

    and

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  4. Whoops, left a triling conjunction unneditted on that last post. Sorry. It was not quite clear, either, that I was identifying with Matt’s approach, broadly speaking, rather than all the views on the BB.

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  5. Thanks Andii! I’ll get back to you. (I’ve got a book at home which I’m planning to qutoe from, once i manage to get book and laptop in the same room at the same time)

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  6. Well, it was never going to be definitive was it, but at least I’m no longer ravenous.

    I definitely agree that ‘mental idolatry’ is included in what the second commandment forbids, and I also agree that it’s perfectly possible for a person to slip into idolatry in the heart even while they react with abhorrence to visual images. But because we have access to scripture (and by prayer to the Holy Spirit who inspired it) there are ways of diagnosing these things and correcting them. It may well be true that it’s easier to overlook or condone these kinds of idolatry than the visual kind, but because the understandings which we should have of God are provided for us in scripture, there’s no real excuse for it and ways of avoiding it can be made use of.

    For me, I’m afraid the ten commandments should still be regarded as binding. Ie the 2nd commandment and the OT as a whole give essential guidance on the methods how God should be worshipped and how we are to relate to him, and i take it v seriously that it rules out both the worshipping God by means of images of any thing and the creating of any image which is supposed to represent God himself.

    And i’m not sure that the fact of the incarnation has exactly the bearing that the excerpts you quote indicate. He was of course a real man, and as such it’s clear that images of a real human being are possible, but the question is whether images of even his real humanity are legitimate. (The quote from St John Damascene includes the suggestion, ‘When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form’ – if this means it’s possible that’s fair enough, but what are the grounds for saying that it’s permissible?) Also, I certainly wouldn’t say that it was improper for the disciples to see him – he was there among them, a real man, in just the way that he wanted to reveal himself. But that again is a separate issue from whether or not it’s permissible for us to make or to use images of him, especially considering that we have no information as to how he could be accurately and appropriately represented, and anything that we do have is a product of our own creativity rather than the reception of his own self-revelation.

    But crucially I suppose the fact that he was a real man has never altered the fact that he is a divine person – he took a human nature into union with his divine person, and never ceased to be God when he became man. So if (as indicated in the links) it’s accepted that we can’t make images of God the Father, it should also be a point of principle to treat with the same reverence the deity of God the Son – even though he was incarnate.

    (Btw, re this excerpt – “the icon represents neither Christ’s divine nature nor his human nature, but his person which unites in itself these two natures” – I don’t accept that an icon or anything else can represent the person of Christ [and i’m not really sure about the accuracy of saying that his person unites itself in these two natures]. Surely the key point about the person of Christ is that he is a divine person (always was/is/will be), and that he took a human nature into union with his divine person. To claim that an icon can represent his person is to claim that it can represent the divine essence, which it clearly can’t, and which I seriously believe shouldn’t be attempted. The very, very most that an image can represent is his humanity (ie even though we have no guidance whatsoever for judging whether it’s an accurate or appropriate representation etc) – and even the most flawless representation of his humanity could never convey the fact that he is divine. He is hardly worth knowing at all if he isn’t known as divine (I hope it’s reverent to say that) – and the value of anything that seeks to make him known while intrinsically failing to convey this truth about him must be surely negligible at best.

    Quote from said book coming up in separate post.

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  7. There’s a lot there, Cath, to comment on. Re the bindingness of the 10 commandments. Interesting one, but unless you are doing no work on Saturday, you’ve probably already given ground on that and we’re really talking in what way and to what extent and on whom. And as for the OT giving guidance on how God should be worshipped, I really doubt that you’re sacrificing cattle or pigeons and I wonder whether your church has the level of visual and decorative art that the temples in Jerusalem had. I note, in any case that graven images are carved images…
    I mention these things not to be disparaging, but simply to highlight that it’s not as straight forward as some traditions make it look.

    With regard to John Damascene saying representations of the Incarnate are possible, you ask “what are the grounds for saying that it’s permissible?” In context it would seem the answer that God’s incarnation by representing God in human form gives permission by projecting God’s image into human form (I won’t go into Gen 1 on that in relation to Incarnation, here). I can’t see why the question has to assume impermissibility rather than permissibility of giving expression to that graphically as well as verbally.

    I think your strongest argument is “that again is a separate issue from whether or not it’s permissible for us to make or to use images of him, especially considering that we have no information as to how he could be accurately and appropriately represented, and anything that we do have is a product of our own creativity rather than the reception of his own self-revelation.”

    I guess that I’m not convinced that verbal image-making can be distinguished sufficiently from graphic image-making to make that much more than arbitrary when we consider the spiritual dynamics of idolatry as distinct from the material symptoms -as mentioned in your second paragraph. Also, I’m not really convinced that it is possible to maintain a ban on any representation of Jesus that involves some element of our own creativity. To do so would outlaw much preaching that would otherwise be considered orthodox even in a strict Reformed context. And that’s before we consider the constructivist nature of human knowing! If the important thing is the reception of God’s own self revelation, then this is applicable in principle also to graphic representation. We are in danger of losing sight of the real issue here: it is the human reception of verbal or visual representations that is idolatrous or not.

    When you write “if …. we can’t make images of God the Father, it should also be a point of principle to treat with the same reverence the deity of God the Son – even though he was incarnate.” you miss the point of what is being said. And you do so in a way that starts to looks disturbingly like monophysitism or even docetism. And, relatedly I suspect, I’m not sure if you are understanding terms like ‘person’ and ‘nature’ as technical terms in Christological debate. So, for example, to write “To claim that an icon can represent his person is to claim that it can represent the divine essence” is to misunderstand very fully to the point of attributing to Orthodox theology something that they would strongly deny. They would entirely agree (I think) with your next clause; “it clearly can’t, and which I seriously believe shouldn’t be attempted.” I could give examples but for brevity will leave it for now.

    It’s intriguing that you write “even the most flawless representation of his humanity could never convey the fact that he is divine.”. Because, of course, that seems to apply to the incarnation itself. It is interesting also, that traditional eikonography actually by the use of conventions actually does try to ‘say’ that the figure ‘spoken’ of via the eikonography is divine.

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  8. Thanks Andii for this thoughtful reply. Maybe we should leave the first paragraph to one side at the moment – these are points I’m aware of :) although I think they can be dealt with (I follow the Westminster Confession here, ch 19)

    Your comment that the incarnation is an instance of projecting God’s image into human form seems to echo what Aelianus has been saying in the other post (I hope I’m not misunderstanding). I have to say that up to now I wasn’t aware of this view as a possible interpretation of the incarnation, and unless I’m mistaken I don’t think it sits all that easily alongside the doctrinal statements that I’m most at home with. To resort to the Westminster Larger Catechism again, the purpose which it seems to indicate lay behind the assumption of humanity was mainly so that the Mediator could act in the nature of both the parties he was mediating between. I accept of course that the incarnation was a revelation of God as Saviour in the fullest and most glorious way (- perhaps this is more particularly true of the atonement, but of course the incarnation was an essential step in the way to the atonement) – but I’d understand that as a revelation of the nearness and accessibility of the Saviour to sinners, the readiness of the holy God to be reconciled to sinners, goodwill toward men, and so on, – ie, rather than as a representation of God (- the Son?).

    This ties in with the question of permissibility in that, if the incarnation is not an example of God giving us a representation of himself, that undermines the claim that it gives us an example to follow. It is also, however, important to be sure of the legitimacy of our representations because of how seriously the scriptures treat the question of how we relate to God and what counts as acceptable worship and the reverence we should have for him. Whether we may treat God’s revelation in one way or another is necessary to know – this wasn’t a rhetorical question, but a search for real authorisation.

    In terms of the reception of God’s own self-revelation, I agree that in principle this would apply to graphic representations – but I suppose the main point is that what the man Christ Jesus looked like hasn’t in fact been revealed to us in scripture, and the absence of graphic representations is something we have to accept and be submissive to. Idolatry induced by means of words without visuals is a grave sin itself, but in the absence of any provision of visual information, it’s the visual route that we’re more likely to commit this sin by. It’s not an arbitrary distinction, but one that follows from the scriptures themselves, which are God’s provision, in verbal form. (I suppose I’d also add that preaching isn’t (from a reformed perspective) a representation of Jesus so much as the proclamation of a message – and creativity there is, well, a different question :) )

    It would obviously be disastrous to fall into monophysitism and docetism 8-O It probably doesn’t help matters that I wasn’t sure how exactly the terms ‘person’ and ‘nature’ were being used in the statement, “the icon represents neither Christ’s divine nature nor his human nature, but his person …” either. What I believe is this:

    The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fulness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

    But there’s still a problem with the quoted statement, it seems to me. If the quote is representative in claiming that icons represent Christ’s person, and if it is accepted that Christ is a divine person, then simultaneously adhering to the position that deity can’t be represented would seem to involve a contradiction. As I said above, since images of God are unequivocally prohibited, the question of whether or not it is acceptable to have images of Jesus hinges only on the question of whether he is himself to be recognised as God. I take your word for it that Orthodox believers do not intend to blasphemously reprsent divinity, but I don’t see how this intention can be borne out in practice, if it is accepted that Christ is divine. To me, it would be less bad if icons were claimed to represent his humanity, but that’s not what the quote says, and your last sentence also seems to indicate that some attempt is being made to convey something other than mere humanity.

    PS – I should apologise for misreading part of that quote to start with, which also reeeally doesn’t help matters – I took it to say ‘his person unites itself in’ rather than ‘unites in itself’ – so I retract the quibble in square brackets!

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