The Book of Clarence (Christian Movie Review)
About the Film
As a mash-up between a grandiose biblical epic and an unconventional faith-based drama, The Book of Clarence provides audiences with a unique cinematic perspective on faith, Jesus, and the gospel. In this fictional tale, Clarence is the unbelieving twin brother of Thomas, Jesus’ disciple. Down on his luck, Clarence sees the “Messiah business” as his ticket to wealth and success, ultimately setting him on a path of spiritual searching as he comes to recognize Jesus as the true messiah. It’s a delightfully rich premise, providing an intriguing opportunity to tell a fictional story of faith that runs parallel to the true biblical events. Unfortunately, some problems begin to emerge when those parallel lines intersect.
There is an almost surprisingly earnest heart beating at the core of this film, but the story frequently veers off the path into places that will make some Christians uncomfortable. Opinions on this film will likely vary greatly. Some will embrace it as a refreshing picture of the gospel that has the potential to resonate with audiences that may not be drawn to a more conventional telling like The Chosen. Others will be offended by a perceived blasphemous, irreverent tone and dangerous creative license. I don’t presume to tell anyone where they should land on that spectrum. Personally, I found that there are some powerful components that made me really want to like this movie, but there are also enough problematic elements that made it hard for me to do so.
There is a lot going on in this film. Director Jeymes Samuel tosses different tones, inspirations, ideas, and styles at the wall with seemingly reckless abandon to see what sticks. The Book of Clarence is a film of extremes and contrasts. The lofty, bombastic cinematography evokes classic Hollywood films like The Ten Commandments, and it is infused with jarringly anachronistic elements. At times, the movie is surprisingly earnest and serious (such as an unexpectedly somber, emotional climax), while at other times it is a bizarre comedy that has characters floating around in zero gravity while getting “high” on hookah pipes and literal lightbulbs appearing above their head to indicate they have had an idea.
When it comes to the faith/religious elements, the movie is equally as unorthodox (in more ways than one). It works best as a comedy set in biblical times, delivering some effective humor and endearingly charismatic characters. When the fiction begins to intersect with the gospel, things become muddy. The Book of Clarence saw the playful/irreverent tone of last year’s faith-based musical Journey to Bethlehem and said, “Hold my Roman honeyed wine.” It takes creative license both in expanding on the canonical narrative and in the sometimes-spoofy way it renders familiar characters and events. To that end, we have John the Baptist slapping people in the face (admittedly, not that far-fetched), Joseph calling someone a “dumb a—,” and Mary Magdalene street racing in a chariot.
More concerning than the silly tone is the film’s portrayal of Jesus. On one hand, Christ is unwaveringly acknowledged as the true messiah and Son of God (that’s good news!). On the other hand, his characterization is informed mostly by apocryphal texts like The Gospel of Thomas (that’s not good news). In fact, we are shown Thomas writing that false gospel. Jesus appears almost as a magician, magically transforming clay birds into real ones on a whim or causing coins to spring from a beggar’s hand. In the narrative of the woman about to be stoned (in this telling, that lady is Mary Magdalene), instead of writing in the sand and convicting the hearts of the accusers, Jesus stops the stones in midair like a force-wielding, messianic Jedi.
In the end, The Book of Clarence is as intriguing and fresh as it is complicated and flawed, and people’s opinion may depend on whether they see the trees or the forest. For example, when Clarence finds himself on a cross (and even uttering the familiar words of Christ), is it blasphemous imagery that diminishes the true gospel, or is it a powerful picture of his spiritual growth and a both literal and figurative acceptance of Christ’s command to die to self, pick up one’s cross, and follow him? Perhaps it is a bit of both, which is what makes The Book of Clarence a confounding experience. Taken loosely for its big-picture ideas, there are certainly elements to appreciate and affirm. But as the unorthodox creative liberties and decisions begin to add up and the film strays further adrift from the biblical truth, it becomes a bumpy ride that may cross the line from offering a fresh perspective on the gospel to presenting a different gospel entirely.
Engage The Film
Knowledge, Belief, and the Gospel
While playing the part of a fraudulent messiah, Clarence’s catchphrase is “Knowledge is stronger than belief!” Initially, the slogan represents his atheism and skeptical mindset toward God, miracles, and faith. His search for knowledge leads him to “investigate” Jesus (ala Lee Strobel and The Case for Christ). By the end of the film, when he once again echoes this slogan, the words have taken on a new meaning. No longer are they presented as an either/or dichotomy. By finding belief, Clarence has finally discovered the truth about the Messiah, which leads to a more steadfast belief.
The investigative, coming-to-faith aspect of Clarence’s spiritual journey is commendable. Less so is the substance of Clarence’s newfound belief. Although he accepts Jesus as the Messiah, there is little of the gospel message evident. The need for “growth” is affirmed, but there is no clear understanding of the need for repentance or even of sin (although the sin or “reckless lifestyle” is perhaps implied). In fact, the central message is that of “growth” instead of “change.” Yet the Bible speaks about being “born again” and being made into “a new creation.” Salvation is not merely about cleaning up our act but about repenting and being transformed.
Without a clear gospel presentation, the catalyst for Clarence’s faith seems to be his experience of miracles. When he commits a miraculous deed beyond his (or any human’s) power, he rightfully attributes the act to God. He is drawn in by Christ’s power, but it is not evident that he understands Jesus beyond that he is a miracle worker. At the end of the film, when Jesus and Clarence finally interact, Jesus points to Clarence’s selfless willingness to free a collection of slaves as a sign of his changing heart. That deed, while obviously noble, is an encapsulation of The Book of Clarence’s gospel, one of “becoming a better person” rather than submitting to the Lordship of Christ, of liberating the oppressed from their earthly oppressors rather than freeing sinners from their bondage to sin.