Cinematic Jesus: Are Visual Depictions of the Bible Harmful or Helpful?
Scripture has inspired storytellers for centuries. Occasionally, the Bible itself is the focus of our storytelling. Influential shows like The Chosen and The Bible have become megahits and reached massive audiences. Many Christians celebrate these achievements. After all, in a Hollywood culture that regularly spews out filth, having Jesus grace the silver screen is a welcome alternative. Other believers have voiced concerns. For example, this recent social media post sparked debate within Christian circles.
Christian artists were quick to rush into battle against this thinking. For the most part, I sympathize with them. Nevertheless, I wonder if the issue is more complicated than we’d like to think.
The biblical prohibition against “graven images” (Exodus 20:4) is arguably best interpreted as a warning about idolatry, not a wholesale ban on creating religious art. At the same time, Christians should not be too hasty to discard that command. If nothing else, it should cause us to approach the question with thoughtful humility.
Let’s look at potential concerns or advantages regarding visual portrayals of biblical narratives.
Power of the Visual Medium
As the cliché goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The concern that “Bible movies” will lead Christians to base their understanding of a biblical text on a movie or television show rather than on the inspired words of scripture is valid. An example is the “three” wisemen that came bearing gifts for baby Jesus, a number cemented by Christmas nativity scenes rather than scripture. That detail may seem insignificant. But if we believe that every word of scripture is inspired by God, then details matter. More importantly, if visual interpretations can alter our understanding of small details, then they can presumably impact our perception of the big things too. A more egregious example is the prevalence of visuals depicting a white Jesus with lush, flowing hair. That many Christians’ mental picture of Jesus is false demonstrates the potential danger.
The same visual power that can make movies dangerous can also make them valuable. At their best, visual depictions don’t replace our understanding of the text; they enrich it. They can allow Christians to experience the stories in a visceral way. Whether the wonder of God parting the Red Sea, the horrors of the Egyptian plagues, or the brutality of the crucifixion, cinema allows the Bible to come alive. Visual adaptations can lead to deep, powerful experiences with scripture.
Interpretation & Creative License
Biblical adaptations are also biblical interpretations. The process is never as simple as putting the text onto the screen. Much like Bible translators, filmmakers must make important decisions about tone, setting, character development, etc. When Jesus says, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26), is he gently chiding the disciples or scolding them? The tone will impact the way audiences imagine Jesus and his relationship with his imperfect disciples, and by extension, ourselves.
Even more concerning is the creative license a work takes. For a narrative that takes 5 minutes to read on the page to fill a 30-minute TV episode, material is inevitably invented and added. At its worst, this is a form of biblical “fan fiction.” Christians should not confuse imagined narratives with the true, inspired words of scripture.
The idea that we must guard our minds from cinematic depictions to allow scripture to shape our own imaginations sounds spiritual, but it also reveals some pharisaical arrogance. It places a high value on our own imagination. But every person has biases and blind spots.
The potential power of a visual interpretation is not that it replaces our own imagination but that it offers a new perspective that can expand the scope of our imaginations. We should be careful not to allow any one visual depiction to shape our understanding of the text, but a diverse library of perspectives is a valuable tool.
There are some significant limitations to how visual art can depict spiritual realities. For example, the Holy Trinity cannot visually be depicted with theological accuracy. In a strict sense, every attempt falls into one heresy or another, either depicting the Godhead as three separate persons or as one indistinct person, never as truly three-in-one, one-in-three. Another example is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which settled for a human, earthly portrayal of the crucifixion, ignoring the spiritual realities (2 Corinthians 5:21). As a result, some Christians have come to understand the crucifixion merely in terms of physical suffering.
Artistic mediums are limited, but so are our imaginations. Like visual depictions in movies, our finite minds often fail to grasp spiritual realities. Visuals may be limited, but they can provide a foundation for our imagination. Consider Jesus himself, who came to earth as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also visual depictions of spiritual realities. That visual possibilities are limited does not mean they are without value. Jesus often spoke using metaphors or similes to help his listeners comprehend the spiritual realities of the Kingdom of God.
Even in an increasingly visual culture, the sacred words of the Bible are Christians’ primary guide. God gave us words, but he didn’t just give us words. At the heart of those words is the gospel story about how a loving God took on a human form so we could come to know Him more: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Christians should be wise and prayerful when adapting biblical narratives, but sometimes a visual can go a long way.