Creative Liberty in Christ

Why more “Jesus” films should be like Last Days in the Desert

Christianity Today’s said of the 2014 movie Son of God, “Watching Son of God is a bit like listening to a pretty good tribute band doing a set list of Top 40 hits you have heard most of your life.” This is not likely a compliment, as the 21% score on Rotten Tomatoes attests. To be compared to a tribute band doing Top 40s is not most film makers’ ambition.

I agree with Christianity Today. Here’s why: Son of God is just the most recent (mainstream) “Jesus” film to commit the sin that all Jesus films commit: They don’t take any creative liberty on the character of Jesus.

Half of Son of God is fantastic. I’ve never seen a Jesus film flesh out characters like Nicodemus and the High Priest, giving them major roles in the overall story. Nicodemus’s journey as secretive Pharisee-turned-covert-disciple is quite interesting, and relatable. The High Priest’s conflict of interest between duty at the Temple and appeasing Rome is nuanced, and really speaks to the issues powerful people face when Jesus shows up. The film’s contrast of the Passover sacrifices with Jesus’ crucifixion is so, so good, a parallel I’ve never seen another film make. Of course, the ending portrayal of resurrection and Great Commission are wonderful as well.

The other half—the part that has to do with Jesus’ life and teaching—is less fantastic. Virtually none of Jesus’ dialog is not in the Gospels themselves. That is, everything Jesus says in Son of God is lifted straight from the pages of Scripture. Whereas they flesh out Nicodemus and the High Priest, they take virtually no creative liberty on the character of Jesus.

You can understand, right? I mean, giving Jesus added dialog not found in Scripture is risky. You may not capture Jesus’ heart very well; you might offend audiences; heck, you might make Jesus sin! Then of course some films do take too much liberty (e.g. Last Temptation of Christ). So, I get it.

But the Gospels were not written as a screenplay. Most of Jesus’ teachings take two minutes to read; his longer Sermon on the Mount takes ten. These are only summaries of Jesus’ teachings, essential points distilled down for brevity by the New Testament writers. When these lines are lifted to the screen, they come off as badly forced “mic-drop” moments. (Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up.” No one responds. Cut to next scene. Lame-sauce.) If you want a compelling Jesus character—a worthy goal—you gotta give him some more lines; you gotta take some creative liberty.

Enter the 2015 film Last Days in the Desert. Shot by my new favorite cinematographer (who did Tree of Life, The Revenant), this gorgeous film tells the story of Yeshua (Jesus), called “Holy Man,” during a 40-day journey in the desert, where he prays and fasts, ministers to a struggling family, all while being tempted by the Devil. (See Matthew 4) The Devil takes the form of a gnarly-looking old woman with a dragon’s tail, who then becomes various manifestations of people, primarily Yeshua himself. Yeshua, then, has to battle this temptation, see to the needs of this wayward family, and gain confidence in his Heavenly Father, as he prepares to go back to Jerusalem (“the city”), to begin his ministry.

Creative liberty abounds in Last Days in the Desert. We see Yeshua tempted to anger, tempted sexually, struggling to hear from his Father, and wrestling with his ability to minister to hurting people. This portrayal inspires awe of a God who would enter into our world out of love for it.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

Ultimately, the reason why most “Jesus” films like Son of God don’t take liberty with the character of Jesus is because they have a picture of Jesus that is inhuman. He’s “Son of God,” but not “Son of Man.” He endured temptation, sure, but seemingly only for our benefit; he didn’t actually struggle. (At least that’s how it seems.) He tells his parables, then moves on to Caesarea where he tells them again. Jesus always has this stoic, unemotional personality with barely any smile or frown.

But Jesus in the Gospels is a man who was tempted, who got angry, who cried, who joked around, who rebuked people, who comforted others, who got tired, who bought food, who made food—all while fulfilling his mission, going to the cross as perfect example and sacrifice. The Jesus in the Gospels is become-flesh, dwelling among us. While I would never look to any film to give me an exact representation of Jesus Christ, I do appreciate any creative liberty that reminds us that Jesus was tempted yet without sin, and that he sympathizes with our weaknesses.