THE THEOLOGICAL ENGINEER
By Jeff Laird
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The promise of eternal life is a "great recruiting tool." That cutting remark, delivered by the skeptic Clavius in the film Risen, sums up Hollywood's complicated relationship with faith.
In Risen, Joseph Fiennes portrays this cynic, a Roman officer serving under Pontius Pilate. Clavius is tasked with disposing of Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. First, he's sent to speed up Christ's death on the cross. Second, to secure the tomb so the body can't be stolen. Then, to find the body when it comes up missing.
After warring with Jewish zealots and bickering with the Sanhedrin, Clavius is a thorough and content skeptic. At the same time, he's a "true" skeptic: a man committed to reason and evidence. As he investigates the disappearance of "the Nazarene's" body, he pursues more than just the politically correct answer. What he wants is the truth, no matter what it is. That pursuit of reality leads him to consider ideas he'd rather not. It forces him to ask questions he'd never thought needed asking. And, eventually, it leads him to a crisis over the direction of his own life.
The movie industry's general contempt for (and ignorance of) the Bible is hardly a secret. If you learned everything you know about Christianity from Hollywood, you have a low, warped, and unpleasant view of the faith. Not coincidentally, guess where the vast majority of people get their information about the Bible.
That explains a lot, doesn't it?
Even attempts to "recruit" the pocketbooks of believers can fall flat. For every example like The Prince of Egypt, both reasonably accurate and entertaining, there are many more like Noah, or Exodus: Gods and Kings, managing to be both insulting and terrible. On the other hand, there are plenty of specimens such as Fireproof and God's Not Dead, which come across well enough, but are clearly meant to cater to the believer's palate. Conventional wisdom seems to be that there's a border between films believers can embrace, and ones nonbelievers can enjoy.
Risen hits the bullseye and manages to do both. Telling the story of the resurrection through the eyes of a hostile non-believer means it isn't preachy, pious, or filled with insider jargon. In fact, the film does an excellent job of outlining exactly why so many people in and around Jerusalem were willing to believe the impossible: that Jesus of Nazareth came back from the dead. As an apologist, I saw dozens of opportunities to discuss resurrection evidence featured in the film.
Acting is well-done all around, particularly by Joseph Fiennes, cast as the lead character, Clavius. Fiennes gives his Roman officer a good balance of depth and strength, making his character arc all the more interesting. While Jesus — referred to on-screen by the more historically accurate "Yeshua" — actually has little to say, his portrayal by Cliff Curtis strikes just the right level of warmth, without being overwrought.
Other characters are up and down in terms of impact. Female characters have some poignant scenes, and are involved in the plot, but feel secondary to the main narrative. Audiences will definitely appreciate the personalities of disciples such as Bartholomew and Peter, whose limited screen time manages to flesh out Jesus' followers as three-dimensional people.
Risen maintains a much lighter, story-based tone than other religious films. And, thankfully, it isn't afraid to portray the vivid realities of faith and belief. The disciples are presented as fallible, limited, faulty people. And yet this gives their faith precisely the ring of truth which engages both Clavius and the audience. In one excellent sequence, Clavius peppers Simon Peter with questions about God, Jesus, and the resurrection. Peter's flustered response is not only honest, it's one even the most knowledgeable believer can sympathize with: "I don't know! I don't know! I don't know!"
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