“False Christs shall arise,” warned our Lord, “insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” Christians of any other era would apply this admonition to the Christ of CBS’s Jesus, the April miniseries that captured a general endorsement from evangelicals and Catholics both here and abroad. On Italian television, the film received the highest ratings of any show this year. Here in the land of capitalism, the film has been accompanied by not one but three soundtracks, which include songs by both “secular” and “Christian” rock superstars, including Hootie & The Blowfish, D.C. Talk, and Leann Rimes.
Rimes has a breathy ballad dedicated to Jesus entitled, “I Need You”—no doubt an instant classic in churches with video monitors and “praise teams” who delight in Jesus-is-my-boyfriend choruses. But this should be of no surprise to anyone who has seen the miniseries. The Lamb of God is played by Jeremy Sisto, formerly of the hit movie Clueless. Save for a few key moments, such as when he is crucified, he can’t seem to wipe the smarmy grin off his face. He performs miracles in a “Dude—I told you so” manner. He struggles to fight off the advances of both Mary of Bethany (?) and Mary Magdalene (“Grace” of NBC’s celebration of sodomy, Will and Grace). Still shots of Sisto have him staring, hip-cocked, effeminate but macho, with his hair blowing in the wind. God elected the Man of Sorrows; CBS would rather he be sexy.
But this is the Jesus of American evangelicalism, not the invention of studio executives. Hollywood has simply answered the question, “Whom do men say that I am?” Evangelicals have made large profits for CBS on Sunday nights by devouring the fluffy gnosticism of Touched by an Angel. So it only made sense that a film about the life of Jesus, if endorsed by the right evangelical leaders, would be a formulaic success capable of blasting ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Fox’s Beverly Hills 90210 series finale out of the water.
It is easy to take shots at this film—the muddled Arianism, the altered details of the Gospels, the degenerate actors chosen to play Jesus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. But American Christianity has become so market driven that it cannot see the glaring problems with this film; instead, it chooses to overlook them all, in the hope that, by being “all things to all men,” they might “win some.” Jeremy Sisto is simply every church’s dream youth pastor. He shows us the playful side of the Judge of Heaven and Earth. He is, in the words of the Joan Osbourne song, “just a slob like one of us.” But more than that, he gives pastors and priests a video to show to young people during youth hour. After all, catechisms and sermons are so boring.
All this points to a deeper problem associated with any “Jesus” movie: Salvation is “good news,” and that news comes to us in words —words preached, and words (sacramentally) under water, wine, and bread. That news is of Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our salvation—not the “Christ” who came to “teach us how to love” (in the words of Mr. Sisto).
But many evangelicals will overlook major theological and moral faux pas (as well as terrible acting and a wretched script) because they see a good “Jesus” movie as a conversion tool—indeed, for some, the only effective conversion tool in our sensate age. Of course, the bait-and-switch technique usually stops with the bait, and converts to hip Christianity often quickly grow weary of this faddish, pseudo-religion. Serious Christians should challenge their ministers if they engage in these tactics, remembering that “he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”