"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Monday, September 15, 2014

Son of God: Comparative Religion in Film

The 2014 film, Son of God, follows a familiar trajectory well-known to viewers who had seen films such as George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Watching the Passion story yet again, I could not help but take note of the repetitiveness from sheer likeness. Yet one scene sticks out among the usual denouement—that scene in which Jesus in the wilderness, the high priest in the Temple, and the Roman Pontius Pilate with his wife in their chambers pray in their own ways and with differing assumptions about divine intent toward a petitioner. The interplay of petitions plays like a tutorial for the ears and eyes on comparative religion, found here even within a religion.


“Father, I know it must be as you will it. Father, take this from me; spare me,” Jesus implores in a quiet voice nearly breaking in the emotionality of the intimate petition. God’s Will is here not in line with Jesus’s immediate comfort; indeed, following that Will would mean severe upcoming suffering and even death.

“Lord I know you are pleased with me, for you sustain me in sincerity,” the Jewish high priest announces as he looks upward, flanked by his fellow priests, in the stone Temple. In stark contrast to Jesus’s approach, an air of formality characterizes the Temple-centric relation. The chief priest finds himself benefitting from God’s Will, thanks to the sincerity the man finds in himself. Such sincerity, he assumes, must surely be based in a foundation beyond himself—namely, God.

In this back-and-forth film-making technique, the viewer is presented with polar opposites within Judaism. The mode or style of discourse with Yahweh and whether the Godhead’s will is convenient or to be grudgingly accepted are each pushed into two camps. Can organic creatures approach the source of existence intimately without dismissing the abyss between Creator and Creation? On the other hand, is formality nothing but puffed up human artifice? Furthermore, does divinely sanctioned suffering represent self-mortification writ large or is the existential angst a reflection of the dearth of pathos in a canyon so wide? On the other hand, is not the presumption that perfect being is so well pleased (and so conveniently) in a hardened heart in actuality an eruption of arrogance? With such questions boiling just below the surface, the viewer is then thrust out of Judaism, if only for a few seconds, and even out of monotheism.

“We thank you, our ancestors, for watching over us,” Pilote’s wife prays as her husband looks on. Ancestors in ancient Roman religion are like saints in that they can intervene to protect if petitioned. Unfortunately, the film overlooks the Roman pantheon of gods, such as Jupiter and Mars, that are roughly equivalent Yahweh. Even so, the petition to the ancestors presents the viewer with the suddenly odd combination of intimate relation and convenient alignment of wills.

“Father,” Jesus implores, whispering intimately. Coming off the convenience of the priest and Pilote, the viewer is suddenly confronted with a very painful misalignment---Jesus’s flesh being weak.

“Praise the Lord, God of Israel, everlasting and everlasting. Amen. Amen.” the high priest shouts. Coming on the heels of Jesus’s soft cry, the distance in the priest’s formality is transparent. Praise the god that is well-pleased in me. Were the priest in Job’s place, would he still praise the everlasting source that can allow for such unjust pain?

“If you will it, Father,” Jesus says in a quiet voice as a tear streams down his left cheek, “if you will it, your will is mine.” The congruence of wills even in the midst of still so much suffering to come severs Jesus from the high priest, and hence the fabric of Judaism would be ripped apart.

In short, this rather unorthodox scene-analysis demonstrates how an entertaining feature-film can present comparative religion in a very effective way. Even within a religion, comparative religion can be done. Perhaps the major pitfall to avoid is that of reductionism. The mature screen-writer and director bracket their particular preferences rather than cast all of the options but one as straw men designed to fail. The multiplicity teeming in human nature naturally manifests itself both in the myriad approaches to the divine in worship and the assumptions that we have regarding alignments and clashes of Will with will.