If you’re looking for a film to watch with a nonchristian friend this Easter you don’t have turn to an adaptation of Gospels to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Christ figures are literally everywhere on the silver screen.
Unlike the figure of Jesus portrayed in a gospel film, a Christ figure is any character who parallels the life, death or resurrection of Jesus. Depending on the similarities, the reference may be painfully obscure or glowingly transparent.
John Coffey, for instance, in the Green Mile is most certainly a Christ figure. Did you catch that his initials are J.C! And if that doesn’t convince you, he also heals, raises the dead and is executed by the state for a crime he didn’t commit.
But Christ figures also play central roles in films like
My goal here though isn’t just to point you to films that make an implicit reference to Jesus. For that we would need a little more time. Instead I want to narrow the focus to films that also allude to His resurrection.
Here’s a list of ten, plus an extra thrown in for good measure.
I love the movie Groundhog Day! And not just because it’s the first movie my wife and I ever saw together. This movie is funny as well as profound.
What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
This isn’t just the question Bill Murray as the self-obsessed Phil Connors must ask. It’s the question the filmmakers want us to ask ourselves. Who hasn’t felt like they were stuck repeating the same day over and over again?
stuck in a mortgage that’s underwater
stuck in an economy that won’t pay
stuck in a job that pays too much to leave.
Stuck. Stuck. Stuck.
As Ralph replies, “That about sums it up for me.”
So what’s the films answer?
After recovering from the initial confusion of finding himself the only person reliving the same day over and over again, The narcissistic Phil Connors is eventually transformed by his unexplained set of circumstances.
Warning: Spoiler Alert
Freedom from Consequence
Phil at first finds in this repeated day the freedom to indulge himself. Immune from any lasting consequences, He does what he’s always wanted.
He drives recklessly
punches an annoying salesman
stuffs himself with junk food
robs a bank
manipulates a woman for sex
But what Phil Connors really wants is Rita, his coworker and producer. He spends countless days using his power to get her into bed.
But Rita won’t budge.
No amount of manipulation will make Rita go all the way.
Prison of Emptiness
Downcast by Rita’s continued rejection, Phil begins to feel the loneliness and ultimate meaninglessness of his situation. The day has become a prison. What good is an eternity without judgement when it produces no lasting results?
Phil somehow gets it into his head that he won’t be free until the groundhog ceases to see his shadow.
He steals the groundhog and leads police and town leaders on a high speed chase. Stuck between a literal rock and hard place, a quarry and a cliff, Phil drives himself off the cliff, killing himself and presumably the groundhog as well.
But death is no release for Phil. He’s resurrected the next morning to once again relive the same day.
Phil isn’t through though. He feels he must die. He
drops a toaster in a bathtub
steps out in front a bus.
leaps from a church steeple
And still the day goes on.
An End to Self
At last he confesses to Rita.
“I’m a god.” He says matter-of-factly.
“You’re not God.” Rita says.
This isn’t a belief Phil’s simply derives from his unique situation. It’s the faith he’s had from well before he ever set foot in Punxsutawney.
Phil thinks he’s greater than everyone else. He thinks only of himself.
But when he gets Rita to in part “believe in him,” he’s taken back. “Maybe it really is happening. I mean how else could you know so much?” Phil replies, “there is no other way. I’m not that smart.”
Rita determines to stay with him for the day.
Later that night, the two sit on his bed tossing cards into a hat. Rita asks, “Is this what you do with eternity?” But Phil finds something more hollow in the way he spends his days.
Phil: The worst part is that tomorrow you will have forgotten all about this and you’ll treat me like a jerk again.
Rita: You’re not.
Phil: It’s all right. I am a jerk. It doesn’t make any difference. I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.
Though admitting he’s a jerk is important the final line is just as telling. We don’t typically speak of our existence rather we speak of God’s.
As the night wears on Phil reads the line “Only God can make a tree” from “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.
Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.
Through Rita’s friendship, Phil has begun to doubt his deity.
As she sleeps, he whispers to her his prayer of confession and repentance.
I’ve never seen anyone that’s nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you something happened to me. I never told you, but I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.
I don’t believe its coincidence that Rita’s name comes from both the Latin and Greek word for “pearl.” She is the “Pearl of Great Price” for which Phil must relinquish everything.
The New Man
Phil wakes up the next morning a new man. The significance of the radio’s repeated song “I’ve Got You Babe” is at last revealed. Though he once was all alone, obsessed with himself, Phil’s now has Rita. And it makes all the difference in his world.
He gives all his cash to the homeless man he’s ignored.
He serves his coworkers
Takes up piano and ice-sculpting
greets people with a smile and a warm embrace
But there’s still a little of the old Phil that has yet to die.
Late one night he finds the homeless man shivering in a back alley. Phil takes him to the hospital where the man suddenly dies. The new Phil is upset but like the old Phil think’s he has control. Despite doing everything in his power, however, day after day, the man still dies.
As Phil performs CPR on the man one last time, we hear the man exhale and the breath leave the body. The dead man’s spirit is surrendered to God. And so is Phil. At last he looks away from himself up towards heaven.
And with that the cycle of days is broken. The last Groundhog day Phil experiences in Punxsutawney is way he was always met to experience it. Free of self.
The fact that Phil is covering a groundhog also named Phil is clearly intentional. The Groundhog is a symbol for Phil himself.
Legend has it that if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Feb. 2, winter will last six more weeks but if doesn’t spring will come early.
I always thought it strange that the legend said the shadow indicated a continuation of winter. Perhaps its just my Washington state bias but clouds have always represented winter while sun the summer.
So why would the clouds and not sun represent the end to winter? Phil had it right. It’ not the clouds or the sun its the fixation upon the shadow. The shadow of self.
Only by looking away from ourselves to God and others will will we find true freedom and an end to the cycle of empty and meaningless days.
One of the major themes of this blog is Christ in film. Studying the gospel of John has opened my eyes to the presence of Jesus in many movies. I used to think a Christian film must be blatant. The story must promote Jesus directly.
But as I studied John’s use of symbols, irony, double entendre and allusions, I found that the power of the Gospel is often displayed in mystery, riddle, and ambiguity and not just in blatant advertisement.
The Example of Jesus
Jesus taught in parables. He offered the kernel of truth in the form of a mystery which left His listeners to question, ponder and solve. Jesus offered His parables to those who had “ears to hear.”
It is often believed that Jesus taught in parables as a way of illustrating his message. Jesus used parables so people would get his point. But this isn’t what the bible says.
And as soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables, in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12 see also Matthew 13:13 ;Luke 8:10)
Jesus taught in riddles so only those who were prepared to see would see. He was the Sower, as in the parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-10), whose scattered seed would only produce in the ground prepared to receive it.
John may not record Jesus’ parables but he does quote the same passage from Isaiah. It comes at the end of Jesus public ministry.
But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him; that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke, “LORD, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this cause they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes, and He hardened their heart; lest they see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and be converted, and I heal them.”John 12:37-40
Instead of parables, John offers Jesus and his actions as the mystery to be solved. This is why John calls Jesus miracles “signs.” The miracles of Jesus aren’t simply powerful acts they are coded messages to those prepared to receive them.
Christians films should follow the example of Jesus in the way he used stories. They should provide answers without necessarily spelling out what those answers are. Christian storytellers, like Jesus, must become comfortable with ambiguity.
Why We Don’t Follow
Evangelical movies (not to mention novels and songs), have tended towards absolute transparency in large part because of the nature of our worship services.
Our leaders primary method of communication is through the direct interpretation of the Word. Teachers and Preachers appear not to like mystery and therefore they train congregations to hate it as well.
While I was putting together the Longing of Man someone asked me if I was going to use clips from the Passion of the Christ? When I told him I wasn’t he looked at me as if I were failing to proclaim the gospel.
Catholics it seems to me have tended to be better storytellers because of the the mystery of the mass. For years the Catholic Church performed all of their services in Latin. Partitioners were left to either interpret the signs and symbols all around them or walk away in frustration.
Surprisingly this on some levels follows closer to Jesus’ teaching style then the teaching methods of the average Protestant churches.
We as Evangelicals in particular refuse to accept such mystery because we don’t want to acknowledge that no matter what we do some will go away empty handed. Some won’t be saved.
Only when we begin to accept God’s sovereignty will we begin to follow the example of Jesus and truly become great storytellers.
Why We Should Follow?
A teacher is never successful unless the student first forms the question in his own mind. But all too often we teach with unstated assumption that others are interested in what we have to say. All great communication begins with addressing the concerns of the audience.
Evangelical preaching has assumed for far too long that people are asking the right questions.
At one time we might have assumed this because the culture was largely Christian. But no more. People no longer operate under the same basic belief systems. And therefore when non-Christians come to our services we find ourselves unable to communicate with them.
More and more we find ourselves preaching to the already convinced as fewer and fewer people come to our services looking for answers.
Christian propaganda films simply push our answers on the culture. “You won’t come to us so we’ll come to you,” is the basic motto of most Christian filmmakers. But without wrestling the same issues, the answers in Christian films become obnoxious to the nonbeliever. And again, even the movie theater, we find ourselves preaching to the choir.
This is why the Christians use of ambiguity and mystery in film is essential.
By offering answers in the form of a mystery we cause people to ponder the questions that our evangelistic efforts were designed to address.
By becoming less transparent in our message we open the doors to a wider audience. Christians and non-christians alike can watch our films without feeling exploited.
By embracing ambiguity and mystery we can begin to realize that non-Christians sometimes get it right. The best Christian films I have ever seen have been made by non-Christians and were rated R. Films like the Shawshank Redemption and Magnolia surprisingly ask the right questions and in some ways point to the right answer. They too can provide a basis for sharing our faith.
The world breaks down into two types of people, those who see signs and those who see chance.
So says Mel Gibson’s character in M Night Shyamalan’s hit movie Signs. If you’ve ever seen a film written and directed by M Night Shyamalan, you’ll know exactly what he means. Shyamalan’s films often hinge on two ways of seeing.
The Sixth Sense
In the Sixth Sense, Night takes his audience through the experience of Malcolm, a child psychologist, who needs to regain his professional confidence after being shot early in the film by an enraged former patient.
Malcolm spends the rest of the film working with the shy and reluctant Cole Sear, a child showing many of the same strange symptoms that plagued his assailant. As the film progresses Cole opens up to Malcolm more and more.
Half way, Cole confesses to his counselor that he’s afraid because he see’s dead people, walking around as if they were alive all the while not knowing they are dead. Malcolm believes Cole and helps him come to grips with this gift.
The real bombshell, however, occurs in a closing scene when Malcolm, along with the audience, discovers that he himself is one of those dead people who sought his patients help. In His moment of realization the film quickly recaps half dozen scenes in which you can see how each has been wrongly perceived. Although it appears that Malcolm has spoken to others in the film, in reality no one has spoken to him since his shooting except the young boy.
Watching the movie a second time reveals how each action in the movie is ambiguous, encouraging the audience to mistakenly grasp the significance of the story until the very end.
In Signs, Shyamalan again builds into his story this two-sided perspective. The title itself participates in the film’s double meaning.
At a first glance, Signs refers to the crops circles and other mysterious appearances that provoke the small family, around which the film centers, to believe they are being visited by aliens. Yet, as the movie progresses we find that while this may be the external situation around which the plot develops, the movie is really about Grant, the father of the family, and his loss of faith in the absence of God given signs.
Like each scene in the Sixth Sense, the title is ambiguous. Although the audience doesn’t see it at first, Grant’s statement that, the world breaks down into two types of people those who signs and those who see chance” mirrors Cole’s confession to Malcolm. It is the statement upon which the film will hinge.
Just like the title, evidence for God’s presence is often itself ambiguous. In the end, Shyamalan reveals in the ordered assembly of the numerous quirks in the story, the young daughter’s inability to finish a glass of water, the son’s asthma and the brothers desire to swing a bat a benevolent God.
Although God is never seen in the film, the order in the films closing reveals that he is in fact present to those who have eyes to see.
The Village, while not as popular as the Sixth Sense or Signs, still trades on the concept of sight.
The film centers on a group of families living in small colonial community and in particular two youths a quite boy and Ivy, a girl who is out going but blind. Throughout the film, the town is dominated by the fear of a wild beast – he who must not be named – that roams the forest, keeping the villagers confined to their tiny world. But when the quiet boy is wounded, the blind girl must confront the forest and seek help from the outside.
Remarkably it is she who is blind who is shown that the beast is simply a costume, a phantom created by the elders to keep the young from leaving the village.
After groping through the forest she climbs a fence to the other side. In that moment the film cuts to Ivy’s parents back in the village. They open a box and pull out some papers and old photographs. The photographs reveal a past that is not a sepia toned pioneer world; instead it’s a colored photo of the 1960’s. The audience at once experiences a paradigm shift. In an instant, past and present slam together. The village does not exist in the past, rather it is a gated community locked away from the present.
Cutting back to Ivy on the other side of the fence, we find her confronted not by a horse and buggy but a modern SUV. In Shyamalan’s worldview the blind are the ones who are truly able to see. For unlike the audience, there blindness has allowed them not to be fooled by the external trappings of this world.
It is Shyamalan’s penchant for dazzling his audiences with things hidden in plan sight which has made his films so successful. The movies in and of themselves reveal that there are truly two types of people, those that see and those that don’t. At first the audience is completely blind, ignorant of even of their own ignorance, unable to even comprehend that they are interpreting the story wrong. When the revelation comes however it not only exposes their ignorance but gives them eyes to see.
Because his audiences have come to expect these twist ending,Shyamalan has shied away from making such films in recent years. It’s made the game of the screenwriter increasingly more difficult. But It should come as no surprise to learn that Shyamalan has named his production company Blinding Edge Pictures.
I don’t know if you happened to catch the CBS special on the birth of Jesus a few years ago. What I wanted to address in this post is the objection it raised concerning Jesus birth in Bethlehem. John Dominic Crossan, a one-time Catholic monk now turned Christian-skeptic, states,
Born in Bethlehem… nobody else seems to know anything about it in the New Testament…. It doesn’t seem, for example, that John, in John’s gospel, has any idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Crossan is referring specifically to John 7:40-44 which states,
Some of the multitude therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.” Others were saying, “This is the Christ.” Still others were saying, “Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He? “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there arose a division in the multitude because of Him.
Since John doesn’t say anything more on the subject, Crossan concludes that John, like the multitude, isn’t aware of Jesus birth in Bethlehem. And many scholars agree with him. Among them is Mark Goodacre who addresses this issue in this installment of his popular NT pod.
Does John think Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem?
But is this the point that John is making. Does John want us to believe that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem? Crossan assumes that if John knew of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem he would have corrected the people’s error. What he fail to recognize, however, is that beneath the text John is implicitly judging the people for their failure to know the scriptures.
If we continue reading John 7:45-52, we find the emphasis on Jesus coming from Galilee.
The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?” The officers answered, “Never did a man speak the way this man speaks.” The Pharisees therefore answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you? “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? “But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed.” Nicodemus said to them (he who came to Him before, being one of them), “Our Law does not judge a man, unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” They answered and said to him, “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”
Everyone knows that Jesus came from Galilee and based upon this they conclude that Jesus cannot be the Messiah – the descendant of David. The Pharisees are so bold in this assertion that they challenge Nicodemus to “search” the scriptures to “see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”
What do we actually find in scripture?
We find that Galilee is only mentioned six times in the Old Testament. And one of these six instances is the well-known prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-7.
But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them… For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.
Does this verse have any connection with John? Absolutely!! The very next verse after John 7:52 should be John 8:12. Remember, John 7:53-8:11 is a later addition which all modern Bible translations recognize. In John 8:12, Jesus declares,
I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.
On the surface, John never mentions Isaiah 9. However, if we listen to John’s contextual clues we see what John is saying.
John is building into this scene a great deal of dramatic irony. He’s reminding his informed audience of Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and as and the same pointing out the pride and ignorance of Israel’s supposed scriptural authorities.
Just as the Prophets proclaimed Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, so they also prophesied his coming from Galilee. If John points to Jesus’ fulfillment of this Isaiah prophecy, how can we suggest that John doesn’t believe Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Micah too?
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” Therefore, He will agive them up until the time When she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren Will return to the sons of Israel. And He will rise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, Because at that time He will be great To the bends of the earth. And this One will be our peace.
Sounds a lot like Isaiah 9.
John implicitly points to Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1-7. He says nothing about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Crossan, like the multitudes, however, looks at the surface and fails to recognize its true significance.