April 30, 2010
SSP DISCLAIMER: As much as we do not necessarily condone the effects of Playboy on American culture, to say the least, you have to admit that this is a pretty fantastic piece by Christopher Napolitano on Paul Verhoeven’s Jesus of Nazareth:
Why is it that, with the exception of The Life of Brian, all films about Jesus are turgid, dull affairs, yet the dedicated armchair scholar can point to dozens of fascinating books about the same man? The truth is mainstream moviegoers aren’t ready to experience the astonishing discoveries of the past 100 years of Biblical exegesis. Decades ago director Paul Verhoeven made a commitment to change all that, and thankfully he has given up (somewhat) making a film to instead write Jesus of Nazareth, an interpretative concatenation of modern New Testament theory.
On the surface, Verhoeven is an unlikely person to advance the pursuit of Jesusology (my term). The director of such thrillers as Basic Instinct, he has no formal training in the high academic arts. He is the only voting member of the 77-seat Jesus Seminar—a group of New Testament scholars who try to find consensus on authentic material in the gospels and letters—who does not have a scholarly background. But his insights are masterful.
Rashomon has nothing on the NT, and there will be no end to interpretative fireworks in our lifetime. There will always be new books and arguments to establish that Jesus was a radical seditionist, or a remote Cynical mystic, or a new-age pacifist, or magician. The genius of Verhoeven’s book is that he doesn’t take a one-dimensional approach to Jesus. Instead, he develops him as he would any other character he’d bring to the screen.
Verhoeven may rely solely on secondary sources, but no matter—not being committed to a particular school of thought (revolutionary! Cynic!, etc.) allows him to take a particularly innovative approach. He sees Jesus as man, a Jew caught up in all the eschatological pressures of the 1st Century Roman occupation, whose personal search for God and meaning lead him to see himself as having various purposes during different stages of his life.
In other words, Jesus goes from being a follower of John the Baptist to inspired exorcist to peace-loving proclaimer of the Kingdom of God to a messianic rebel, forced by the authorities and Romans into a radicalized corner to fight for his developing and somewhat desperate beliefs. Rather than forcing himself to throw out major portions of the story to make his sense of Jesus fit a given thesis, Verhoeven manages to pull together all the major threads and make narrative sense of it all. Until his work gets picked apart by next season’s offering of Jesus books, I’m sticking with this sensible framework next time I corner some poor inquisitive soul at a bar after I have a few too many.