After watching The Son of God, one could quibble with the film’s interpretive liberties/inaccuracies. One might poke fun at the fake looking computerized images of Jerusalem. One might even cringe at the choice of Roma Downey to play Mary the mother of Jesus – a fair-skinned Irish woman who appears to have had a rather conspicuous facejob. the son of God: a worthwhile failure?
But, for this viewer at least, what was most implausible about The Son of God was Jesus himself, that is, the attractive Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado’s portrayal of Jesus. To be fair, it’s hard to know what a compelling portrayal of Jesus might “look” and sound like. Hannah Arendt (a non-believer) described Jesus as the “only completely valid, completely convincing experience Western mankind ever had with active love of goodness as the inspiring principle of all actions.” Moreover, the film seems to volunteer a subtle criticism of its own project when it quotes Jesus’ words to Thomas: “blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have believed.” Still, The Son of God aims precisely to let us see Jesus, and we judge that the “Jesus” we “see” comes off as neither fully God nor fully human, with too many far-off gazes and too much breathy effort in his weirdly accented words. Morgado’s Jesus is a disappointment.
Still, however unintended, perhaps this is the most authentic, redeeming quality of The Son of God. After all, we know how Jesus’ ministry ended. Jesus was betrayed, abandoned, and killed for his subversive teaching and practice. After his hero’s welcome into Jerusalem, he was viewed as a disappointment and dangerous, neither revolutionary nor religious enough for the factions of his society. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “God became a poor, wretched, unknown, unsuccessful human being” for the sake of nobodies and sinners. People didn’t want that kind of “God.” Iron ically then, perhaps The Son of God is at its best when it reminds us with its “Jesus’” very disappointing implausibility of the radical faith required to follow Jesus, then or in any other age.
Two other aspects of the film deserve recognition for their historical integrity.
First, after Peter meets the resurrected Jesus, he doesn’t go home and think thoughts or write a creed. Instead, Peter runs back to the other disciples (including Mary Magdalene) and immediately breaks bread and drinks wine with them. That is, he leads the community feast that Jesus taught them as a sign of God’s kingdom on earth, a meal symbolizing self-giving love to the point of a broken body and shed blood that promises everlasting life. This is accurate: the impulse of the first Christians was not simply to “think” or “believe” differently but to practice a new way of life with and for others centered around their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Second, the movie ends where it begins with Jesus’ disciple John exiled on the Isle of Patmos for his loyalty to Jesus. Rather than a far-off gaze, we see pathos and concern in John’s eyes. He admits, “In the Light, there was darkness,” telling us that the other ten disciples of Jesus were killed for their loyalty to him. Yes, at last, Jesus appears to John and gives him his final Revelation with the promise, “I am making all things new,” to which John says, “Amen.” But The Son of God doesn’t end with Christian triumphalism. Instead, it offers a sobering reminder that in the centuries before Christianity was co-opted by the Empire (Roman or otherwise), actually following ‘the Way’ often required what it did of Jesus: sacrifice, suffering, and ultimately one’s life.