Killing Jesus: A Movie for Progressive Christians

I finally got to watch the movie Killing Jesus which debuted on the National Geographic station on Sunday.

I think many progressive Christians would balk at the movie because it is based off of Bill O'Reilly's book (with Martin Dugard) Killing Jesus. But here's my assessment.

I think Killing Jesus just became my all-time favorite Jesus movie.

Here are three quick reasons why progressive Christians would like Killing Jesus:

First, the movie (and the book) attempt to portray the historical aspects of the gospel story. The theological, supernatural and miraculous aspects of the story are downplayed. What this means is that Killing Jesus is about the cultural, historical and political reasons Jesus was killed. Jesus's confrontation with "the principalities and powers" makes Killing Jesus a whole lot more attractive to progressive Christians than a movie like Gibson's The Passion with its emphasis upon penal substitutionary atonement. If you think Jesus was killed because of his conflict with Empire then this is the movie for you.

Second, finally we have a Jesus movie where Jesus isn't a white guy of European descent. In Killing Jesus we have a Jesus that looks like a Palestinian Jew. Haaz Sleiman, the actor who plays Jesus, was born and raised in Lebanon. We finally have a movie where we can say, "I think Jesus might have actually looked like that guy."

Third, progressive Christians like a low Christology. Given its focus upon historical events, as mentioned above, Killing Jesus downplays the supernatural. There are a few miraculous moments in the movie, but there are also "miracles" of a more human sort. Specifically, the scene with Jesus and the lepers is one of the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen in a Jesus movie. Jesus's healing of the leper isn't supernatural but I think it's miraculous. That scene with the lepers captures everything I was trying to say in Unclean.

And a final note about the low Christology. The most theologically fascinating aspect of Killing Jesus is how Jesus comes to gradually discover his identity and vocation as the movie progresses.

For example, Peter's confession of Jesus is a moment of discovery, for both Peter and Jesus. Who am I?, Jesus asks. Jesus isn't quizzing his disciples, Jesus is asking the question for himself. Who am I? And when Peter confesses, "You are the Messiah," Jesus's suspicions about himself are confirmed. Through Peter's confession Jesus's vocation comes fully into view. Peter's confession is preformative, the confession makes Jesus the Christ.

This aspect alone will make Killing Jesus a theological case study for decades to come. The movie explores some interesting Christological ideas.

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19 thoughts on “Killing Jesus: A Movie for Progressive Christians”

  1. Hmm. Sounds to me that really embracing the Incarnation requires us to have BOTH a high Christology AND a low Christology, held in paradox. ...

    Also: "Who am I?" "24601!!!"

    A blessed Triduum to all, and all the joy of the Resurrection.

  2. Is my Christology high or low? If by low you mean a Christology which evacuates Jesus of his divinity, no way. In fact, to hell with it, and were it the case, I'd cease to be a Christian. Maybe a fan of Jesus, but not a Christian. But it isn't the case, for not only is it not credal, it is refuted by the entire New Testament.

    My Christology, then, is high. I believe in the divinity of Jesus who is the Eternal Son and Second Person of the Trinity. But this high Christology of mine includes the humanity of Jesus -- and radically so. For (a) I follow the Barthian position that the Logos assumed not only flesh but sinful flesh (which is not to deny the sinlessness of Christ but to frame it in the context of his utter and unbroken obedience to the will of the Father by the power of the indwelling Spirit rather than on the basis of some given ontological status; and (b) I also the follow the arguably Barthian position (the Barthian Bruce McCormack being its most notable and cogent proponent) that there is no so-called Logos asarkos, that is, there is no Eternal Son who is not identical with Jesus of Nazareth.

    I realise that (a) and (b) open up a can of worms, but I don't want to go on a fishing expedition in this thread (the issues have been well-rehearsed, not least at "Faith and Theology" [google Logos asarkos]). I mention them only so as to insist that an absolutely human Jesus, and indeed a God who has humanity hardwired into his deity, is not alien to but intrinsic to a high Christology.

    Btw, to talk sense about "miracles", I think we have to define exactly what we mean by the term, and, further, we have to look at each of the "miracles" of Jesus on a case by case basis in order to determine their historicity; but we should certainly not identify them as events which presume or establish the divinity Jesus (as theologians were once inclined to do), no, they fall well within the orbit of his true humanity.

  3. Oh, and I meant to say that the film looks very interesting, and coming with your 5 star recommendation, Richard, for me it's now a must-see. Gibson's The Passion gets a black hole - and 5 moons. The only really good Jesus film ever made -- and, indeed, it is excellent -- is Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). And Pasolini was a gay atheist Marxist! As sure as (Easter) eggs are eggs, the more evangelical the agenda of the director, the worse the Jesus film is going to be.

  4. I could be wrong but I thought High Christology refers to Jesus' divinity and Low Christology refers to Jesus' humanity. So, low christology isn't stripping Jesus of his divinity. Someone correct me if I way off base.

  5. Why can't we get a movie that contains the supernatural spookiness of the Gospels, full of exorcisms and mysteries, and a Jesus who is a Jew, wise in an applauding chess-master sort of way, and a politics that runs against the Empire of Rome, Herod, and the Sadducean temple-complex?!

    !!!! (frustration)

  6. Quick clarification. I wouldn't give Killing Jesus five stars. I'd give it three out of five stars. It's my favorite Jesus movie, but it's not a five star movie, theologically or cinematographically, by any means. Being my favorite Jesus movie is a pretty low bar to clear as they are uniformly poor and/or problematic. To date my favorite Jesus movie has been Jesus of Nazareth (1977 TV mini-series), but head to head I think I'd go with Killing Jesus.

  7. "But what is Christology from below? The first point to be made is that except in very general terms there is little agreement about what is meant." That's Colin Gunton citing Nicholas Lash (in Yesterday and Today: A Study of Continuities in Christology [1983]).

    Gunton himself goes on to suggest that "the general concern of Christology from below [as he understands it] is to begin theological inquiry "primarily in the anthropological, or, more generally, in that which has to do with time rather than eternity. But [he insists] it is, in the theologians we shall examine, a ground: there is every intention and indeed expectation to leave the ground, to speak theologically as well as anthropologically, and not to remain stranded on earth." The theologians that Gunton them examines include Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg -- so with your good self, JR, no "stripping of Jesus of his divinity" here.

    My own comment-intervention took flight from Richard's linking of low Christology with feeling uncomfortable with the "supernatural" in the ministry of Jesus. My concern was that this discomfort might entail (if you like) a fear of heights (i.e, Gunton's "intention and indeed expectation to leave the ground"). As long as low Christology is, ultimately, robustly Chalcedonian, I have no problem with it as a point of departure in thinking about Jesus.

  8. American conservative evangelicals hated Zeffirelli's Jesus, some calling it blasphemous -- which. of course, is to the film's greatcredit! I saw it in England right around the time I became a Christian. I must say it didn't do much for me -- Robert Powell's Jesus rather bland and stained-glassy.

  9. I prefer a bottom-up Christology, where you start with a human Jesus, and in his weakness and by the power of the Spirit, his divinity is manifested. A Jesus that is fully human in every way (Heb 4:15) and yet portrays the God incarnate. Unlike a modern form of docetism, an incarnated Christology starts in the place of powerlessness.

  10. A bit of levity here. Your second reason reminds me of when I was a child when most paintings had Jesus with the long hair. Granted, most of them also had him with fair skin and blue eyes, but his hair was very long.

    The funny part of that was when the Beatles arrived on the national scene and parents, churches and schools went into a panic about teenage boys letting their hair grow. Preachers were stuck on 1 Corinthians 11:14, "Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?" So what did the churches do? They printed new Bible and Sunday School literature in which they gave Jesus a hair cut and a style. His smile was from ear to ear with perfect teeth, and he was always shaking hands. No longer was he a revolutionary...he was an American politician.

  11. Yes, too clean and shiny. But the interpretation of the prodigal son I found very touching.

  12. This is funny. I'm certainly no "progressive," but every single one of the reasons you cite for loving this film is a reason I am now drawn to see it...precisely because I agree with every single one of those reasons. Odd.

  13. "the more evangelical the agenda of the director, the worse the Jesus film is going to be."

    I'm a bit confused by this statement, because I didn't see Gibson's agenda as evangelical. Yes, he was happy to take the evangelical dollar, but his own Christian faith (as I understand it) is a very conservative branch of Roman Catholicism.

  14. Reviewing the review, of the reviewer's review is another "snipe hunt" in the search for the cultural and spiritual impact of this latest Jesus pastiche'. The visual and script embedment of "Cross & Sword" ideology is obvious -

    Bill O'Reilly Throws Temper Tantrum Over Negative Killing Jesus Reviews

    The Young Turks‎ - 2 days ago
    An adaption of Bill O'Reilly's “Killing Jesus” brought in record numbers of viewership on National Geographic; however, it was met with some ...

  15. How about The Last Temptation of Christ? It's based on a novel, and it doesn't pretend to be anything other than that, but I found it incredibly moving. (And it has a pretty low Christology, too!)

  16. How could they have found Powell's Jesus blasphemous? As you said, he was quite stoic and otherworldly. If I remember correctly, he rarely blinked in that movie, giving off divine vibes.

  17. It beggars belief, doesn't it? Only someone who hadn't seen the film could say such a thing, right? Er, come to think of it -- here is Wikipedia:

    "Before its initial broadcast, Jesus of Nazareth came under ideological fire from some American Protestant fundamentalists, led by Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Zeffirelli had told an interviewer from Modern Screen that the film would portray Jesus as 'an ordinary man -- gentle, fragile, simple'. Jones interpreted this as meaning that the portrayal would deny Christ's divine nature. Having never seen the film, Jones denounced it as 'blasphemy'."

  18. Although I agree with much of what the film was trying to do Christologically, I found it exceedingly hard to watch as a matter of art. Say what you will about Gibson's _Passion_ and its PSA extremism; as art, it was far, far superior.

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