Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 19, 2008

Jesus, Science & Archaeology In Fiction & Film

I read a little satirical piece in The Onion this morning about the accidental washing of the holy relic the Shroud of Turin with a red t-shirt, which as we all know would stain the shroud slightly pink. While the writing there is not the funniest I’ve seen in The Onion, it did get me thinking about holy relics, archaeology, and the odd place they hold in post-modern popular culture.

Remember the Big Flap about The DaVinci Code when it came out, first in book form and then as a film? Or the Slightly Smaller Flap about the recently discovered Gospel of Judas  in 2006 (actually found in an Egyptian cave in the 1970s, but that’s another story…)?

It seems that the tricky-sticky-icky “evolution/intelligent design” debate is not the only subject area where scientists have been squaring off with theologians and historians in this decade. That’s just the most politically-charged area, because it impacts public schools and millions of kids from the primary grades right up through college. And lucky us, we get to watch the sparks fly every time a new nonfiction book stirs up the debate in a new thematic area. And maybe we learn something, about ourselves and what matters most, every time a new book or scholarly journal on other biblical or scientific issues (like Mary Magdalene, Judas, genetic engineering or string theory) leads to a dramatic, fictionalized interpretation of those themes in fiction or on film.

When I finished that Onion article, I found myself thinking back to a certain long-forgotten 1970s miniseries starring David Janssen, in which a newly discovered gospel by Jesus’ brother James turns the religious world on its ear. That Jansen movie involved Irving Wallace’s The Word (1972), a popular novel made into an eight-hour miniseries in 1978.

[Side note: Wallace was the father of author David Wallechinsky, who co-authored 1977’s The Book of Lists with his pop. I think BOL is Wallace’s only published nonfiction work, but his son David has gone on to quite a career also, as an Olympic historian and socio-political journalist. He currently writes for Parade magazine, and he does a cool blog on The Huffington Post which you can link to here  (including an extended article on his recent undercover visit to North Korea).]

I was 13 in 1978 when The Word was broadcast, with a brain ripe and ready to ask the tough questions about philosophy and identity.  So I think this miniseries may have been the beginning of my long-running fascination with theology and science, and Western ideas about how each informs the other. I remember how the film’s concepts captured my young, developing imagination. Though I had not yet heard about linguistic deconstruction or postmodernism, I was fascinated to suddenly see that our history was not in fact some rock-solid, unchangeable thing, but was formed by various interpreters from various fields! I was further intrigued at the thought that all these interpreters had an agenda in determining the wider public view of historical “fact”. Political agendas. Social agendas. Scientific agendas. And, of course, religious agendas.

It helped that I was Roman Catholic, the part of the church that, even then, was the most fun for our secular society to poke and prod and try to scandalize. I was not a old-style Catholic, though. Vatican II happened from 1962-65, when the Church softened some of its nuttier theological stands on things like the Latin Mass, Purgatory and fish on Fridays. By the late Sixties, it seemed almost all the rules were changing in Europe and America. Therefore many of the taboos about what was impolite to write or speak publicly about were already crumbling by 1972 when The Word came out.

I didn’t know any of this at the time, though. In 1978, watching The Word, all I knew was that here was a great story, an adventure. Better still, it didn’t involve pirates or cops or some other foreign or implausible character, but a regular Joe, a P.R. guy that looked like my dad and traveled the world to find the truth about, of all people, Jesus!  Janssen (an underrated actor) was like Indiana Jones in a three-piece suit, three years before Lucas and Spielberg stumbled onto the same formula.

A bit of fun trivia: the miniseries featured a very young Chistopher Lloyd (of Taxi and Back to the Future) and an equally young Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway on the Star Trek: Voyager series — and one of the sexiest voices ever dropped onto magnetic tape). And it has John Huston, the Oscar-winning director, who acted very infrequently but is a highlight of any film in which he appears. Such gravitas.

I’m going to have to see if there’s a DVD version of The Word out there for rental, maybe even for purchase, as I occasionally teach a series of classes for adults called “Faith on Film” and could use a snippet next time I teach the class.

[Warning: Shameless self-promotion ahead — Email me at if you want to sponsor a single or multi-session Faith on Film course for your church or school. I’ll give you a good rate, ’cause I just LOVE talking about God and the movies. I’ve done portions of the course for Catholics, mainline Protestants, conservative evangelicals, Mennonites, secular students, … you name the group or age range, I can teach ’em, and better yet without ticking them off. I can even work with home schoolers. Pass the word…]

One of the best treatments on film of this subject (the changing historical face of Jesus) was done in the Oscar-nominated 1989 film Jesus of Montreal. It portrays a troupe of mostly non-Christian actors and actresses, who’ve been hired by a present-day Catholic diocese to put on a Passion Play. Writer/director Denys Arcand clearly knew his stuff, including the linguistics, literary criticism and semi-scientific methods that have been used by historians and theologians in the past 50 years to shed new light on the biblical text. But JoM is a great drama, too, in which the actors really become a sort of religious community unto themselves, and make their version of Jesus into someone we really care about. I know that film is available for rent all over the place, so if you’ve never seen it, check it out. {Disclaimer time: I am not endorsing all the theology in this film, just the creative approach taken by the filmmaker, and the terrific acting by the cast.}

So this Holy Week, go rent a Jesus movie. If you haven’t seen it, Last Temptation of Christ —directed by High Priest of Cinema Martin Scorsese and adapted by the great post-Calvinist screenwriter Paul Schrader (who I met once), is another terrifc film. Harvey Keitel’s powerful Judas and Willem Defoe’s weak, hesitant Jesus are performances for the ages. Again, the theology is hit-and-miss, but the overall film is exquisite.

And then there’s The Passion. But we won’t go there. Mel Gibson’s too hot a topic still… I love him, I hate him, I don’t know what to do with him — which is probably pretty much how God feels about all of us.



  1. “Last Temptation of Christ” is indeed an excellent film, but I must quarrel with calling the screenwriter Paul Schrader “post-Catholic.” He certainly is that, in the sense that John Calvin was post-Catholic, but it might be more accurate to call him “post-Calvinist.” He grew up in a strict Calvinist family and community and attended Calvin College (where I was a year behind him). That intense religious background has colored most of his writing and film work.

  2. Thanks, Jim, for that correction. I’m going to go back in and edit that right now.

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