[Including a consideration of Au Hasard Balthazar]

I’m No Superman

When I was, oh, seven or eight years old, my parents bought me The Comic-Strip Bible for Christmas.

My interest in the Bible jumped about 85%. I think I read the whole thing through twice before New Year’s Day. And some of those images are still vivid in my mind . . . especially that full-page illustration of Moses dramatically raising the Ten Commandments, ready to smash them to pieces.

Comic books can bring a text to vivid life for young imaginations. And that particular Bible “translation” played a big part in embedding Bible stories in my mind. Similarly, “Christian comic books” like adaptations of Through Gates of Splendor and Hello, I’m Johnny Cash captivated my attention with vivid drawings that told the story of a brave, selfless missionary, and a celebrity who found consolation in Christ after the foolishness of vanity.

The Comic-Strip Bible focused primarily on the adventure stories of the Bible. It kept to the list of favorite stories. I don’t remember any comic-book lineage lists, nor do I remember the Psalms, Proverbs, or Song of Solomon receiving any illustrated treatment. The artists knew their audience, and wanted to give youngsters like me just enough to spark our curiosity in the basic moral lessons and spiritual revelations of the Bible.

But if you ask young Christians today if comic books are meaningful, you won’t be likely to find many who talk about “Christian comic books.” Instead, you’ll find a lot of chatter about how Superman is a “Christ figure.” And when Spider-man 2 was released, Christian film critics, myself included, were talking about a particular scene that reminded us of Jesus’s courage… in fact, it even echoed iconographic depictions of our savior being brought down from the cross.

There are whole books published on finding the gospel in comic books, and in Star Wars, and other popular popcorn franchises. Watchful moviegoers are finding a wealth of resonant scenes that can be used as handy sermon illustrations. And I say, more power to them! It’s great that young people are being introduced to the idea that even our simplest, most elementary form of storytelling cannot help but remind us of the Gospel.

But how many of these Christian pop-culture adventurers are interested in growing past that, and intensifying their discernment? Are we going to stick to pointing out obvious Christ figures, exploiting every Spandex-clad hero for our own evangelical advantage? There comes a point, I’m certain, where I should stop turning cartwheels whenever I see someone in a red cape carry the weight of the world quite literally on his shoulders.

I want to venture higher, deeper into territory where challenging and affecting revelations of Christ can happen. Is that possible? That depends.

It depends on how closely we’re looking at art. And it depends on how well we know this Jesus who we claim is revealed there. And I’ll be frank with you — I’m finding that a lot of those believers most passionate about finding Jesus in popular culture don’t know much about their subject. In fact, they know little more about their savior than I can learn about you from your MySpace profile.

With that level of understanding, the rewards of meditating on art and entertainment will be meager indeed. I don’t want to stay in the “first grade” of art interpretation. I want to go deeper than “Superman = Jesus.” There’s so much more we can glean from the big screen than simple parables about good guys overcoming bad guys.

Breakdown at the Jesus Film Seminar

Fifteen years ago, I was invited by a fellow student involved in campus ministries to address an assembly on the subject of portrayals of Christ in film. I had contributed a couple of film reviews to the student paper – reviews so shoddy and pretentious that I would never show them to anyone now – and these somehow qualified me as having something to say on the subject.

I knew right away that this would be a challenge. After all, there are few direct cinematic depictions of Christ worth sharing with an audience. Many have been little more than big-screen versions of my old Sunday school teachers’ flannel-graph storytelling – simplistic, innocuous, and unconvincing, lacking any kind of artistic vision or anything that would challenge us to think.

I knew that a presentation including a series of familiar, traditional, “safe” pictures of Jesus – the films that tell us what any Sunday school students already know – would bore the audience within five minutes. If this was to encourage attendees to think about Jesus through his appearances on film, the presentation would have to rattle them. In other words, it would have to suggest the kind of scandalous, astonishing influence that the flesh-and-blood Jesus really possessed.

And these were university students, so surely they were ready to think things through.

So I decided to broaden the definition of the assignment. I would show a traditional portrayal of Jesus, and then I would show scenes from other films that directed us to think about the person of Christ through daring and controversial interpretations of the gospel. I would invite the viewers to address the differences in the way Jesus is portrayed. I’d ask them what each scene revealed to them about the artist’s perception of Christ. And together we would compare these interpretations to the Gospel accounts, to get a stronger grasp on what we really believe about this man. This would stir the pot and bring interesting things to the surface for discussion.

Instead of learning more about Jesus, though, I’m not sure we learned anything at all, except how unprepared we were to talk about him.

*          *          *

On the day of the event, I stood in front of a packed lecture hall, pushing tapes into a VCR.

By way of introduction, I talked about how traditional European portraits of Christ are probably quite misleading – the Jesus onscreen usually looks like a European man with pale skin, blue eyes, and handsome features, dissonant with the scriptures that suggest our savior was less than handsome. “Our society’s portrayals of Christ have molded him into a shape we’re comfortable with,” I remarked, “rather than illustrating the dusty, rugged reality of the man.” I went on to explain that Jesus’s physical appearance was just one of many ways in which artists reveal their attitudes and ideas about him.

“Please watch carefully,” I said, “and think about the Jesus you have imagined while reading the Bible. Is the Christ portrayed in this movie anything like the Jesus of the Gospels?”

I began with a scene from the Jesus movie that most people have seen, at one time or another, on television – Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ is seated at the table with Pharisees, who are lobbing challenges at him about the law. The prostitute hurries in, interrupts them, and bows down to smear perfume over the Messiah’s feet with her hair, softly weeping. The Pharisees are appalled, of course, just as they are in scripture. Christ blesses her, further infuriating those religious know-it-alls.

No problem. This was a fairly straightforward representation of the scripture. Best to start with a safe one, since my upcoming selections were more controversial, and likely to step on a few toes.

The pause button freeze-framed the scene in a jittery tableau. “So,” I began, “Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zefferelli. This is a big-screen Jesus you’ve probably seen before. But ask yourself, is this Jesus as you imagine him? Is this the Jesus of scripture?”

A long silence ensued. A couple of people cleared their throats.

Of course, I thought, my fellow students would nod and say, “Yes, I remember this chapter from the Gospels.” Or perhaps they would say, “Yes, this is what Jesus said, and that’s the way he debated the Pharisees… that’s the kind of love he showed Mary Magdalene.” Perhaps someone would find this blue-eyed Jesus a little too European.

I waited. I began to wonder, had they heard me clearly? I repeated the question, louder. And added, “Do you remember this scene from the Gospels? Is this a reasonable depiction?”

Finally, a young woman raised her hand, shook her head and said, “Jesus didn’t look like that.”

I nodded, not at all surprised. She was probably expecting a more Middle-Eastern Jesus. “So, you picture a Jesus differently?”

“Yes. He would have been much cleaner. And stronger. This Jesus… his hair is messed up, and he’s awfully pale.”

“Uh-huh.” So, she was not bothered that Jesus was Caucasian. The student was upset that this Jesus didn’t look like a movie star.

I could feel the sharp retorts piling up in my head, and I tried to restrain myself. Let’s remember, Jesus was always on the move. He would go out into the desert for forty days at a time. Do you think that, perhaps, he might have been a bit rough around the edges?

A lot of evangelical culture in America reinforces the idea of a Jesus who looks like a Chuck-Norris-style action hero with long brown hair and a white bathrobe. I decided not to dwell on this point. I moved on.

“Let’s get past Jesus’s appearance. What would you say about his behavior in this scene? His quiet conversation with the Pharisees… does he sound like the Jesus you imagine?”

The reply surprised me. A young man shook his head vehemently. “Jesus seems very disagreeable in this scene. He would not have argued with those men.”

No one raised their hand to argue with this observation . . . in a packed lecture hall full of Christians.

Most of these students had been raised in Christian homes and gone to church all of their lives. Did they find it impossible to imagine that Jesus would argue with Pharisees?

“Does anyone else here think that Jesus would have avoided a disagreement with the Pharisees?”

A hand went up. I nodded in desperate hope.

“I don’t like this portrayal,” another woman said assuredly. “When the prostitute kneels in front of him, Jesus is looking at her very lustfully. He would never really do that.”

I looked back to the screen. Lust? Where? Christ offers the prostitute a blessing, just as he does in the Bible. But there was nothing in this scene to suggest any kind of attraction going on.

I then looked at the stack of other films I had brought to discuss, and I began to feel a faint panic.

The next selection was Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

*          *          *

Python comedian Eric Idle admitted in the video collection called Life of Python that, while he had a penchant for trouble-making back then, he and his fellow comedians researched Christ’s life and realized that it would be wrong to make fun of someone who spoke so much wisdom.

Rather, it was only effective to make fun of those whose behavior was inappropriate. This, of course, shifted the focus of their comedy to the bickering and misguided crowds and their misinterpretations of Jesus’s teaching.

Thus, the film is not about Jesus, but about the way that crowds become hysterical, confused, and prone to irrationality. In their zeal to find, embrace, and lift up a hero and a messiah, they are accidentally convinced that an ordinary young man named Brian is the promised deliverer. And they pursue him, welcoming Brian’s every cry of dismay as if it is sacred and revelatory. Brian is disgusted by the attention and cannot get the crowds to listen to his clear objections. He’s a fool, and his mother is infuriated by him; but his followers ignore these details.

The humor in Life of Brian is typical of the Pythons: clever, absurd, full of wit and wordplay, and occasionally crass.

But for this occasion, I chose a scene that was accessible and inoffensive. At least, I thought it was perfectly safe.

I chose the famous “Beatitudes” scene, in which we briefly glimpse Jesus himself teaching in the distance. The masses have not yet begun to pursue Brian. They stand around arguing about what Jesus’s teachings meant. In that memorable moment, as the listeners fall into petty disputes, one of the comical fools in the crowd quips, “What did he say? Blessed are the cheesemakers?”

I let the tape run, as the foolish crowd mistakes Brian for Jesus and begins to pursue him. Brian flees for his life, while the followers snatch up the things he has dropped along the road. They immediately divide into denominations, bickering over which is meant as a sign and a symbol. Should they worship Brian’s gourd, or his sandal?

When I asked the students what they thought this film was trying to say to us about Jesus, Christians, and the church, there was a general consensus in the room. “The movie is mocking Jesus!” “It’s blasphemous.”

I can’t remember if I made any effort to clear up the students’ interpretations. All I remember is determining to soldier on, as though signing my own death warrant.

I charged on ahead into scenes from Jesus of Montreal and The Last Temptation of Christ.

*     *     *

In Jesus of Montreal, in which a group of actors find themselves inspired, moved, and changed by the characters that they play, I found that the actor playing the man cast as Jesus was “too pale” and “wimpy” for the university students to accept him as a “Christ figure.” And when a woman gave him a thank-you kiss on the cheek, a couple of students agreed that “Jesus would never have lusted after a woman.”

And The Last Temptation of Christ? Admitting to the students that the film does contain some rather heretical ideas, I told them that I had chosen a scene that did not include any blatant heresy. I chose the scene in which Christ turns over the market tables at the temple and reprimands the moneychangers.

But when the VCR refused to accept my VHS tape of the film, there were sounds of celebration in the audience. Apparently, students were convinced that The Last Temptation of Christ was utterly devoid of value, and that God was intervening, refusing to let this movie be shown on campus.

When the VCR finally got the upper hand in this perceived God-versus-technology battle, I showed the clip, and was resoundingly rebuked for presenting such a “blashphemous” scene.

I was lucky to get out of there alive.

*          *          *

And as I fled the scene, I was distraught. And the experience still haunts me. If we do not learn to know the Christ of the Bible well enough to know how he interacted with people, how will we have a relationship with him? If we cannot watch him in the company of women without perceiving some kind of lust, what does that say about us? And do we really believe in a Jesus who would not debate those who sought to destroy him?

For me, the most frightening passage in the Bible comes when religious men approach God’s throne and say, “Look, Lord, at the many things we’ve done in your name.” God replies, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

A new generation of zealous young Christians are rushing about declaring that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is their Homeboy, Jesus is the “true” Lord of the Rings. But ask them to talk about the way that Jesus lived, and watch them fumble for words.

The Gospels are not just a quick reference guide for handy Jesus quotes. We are supposed to know them intimately, meditate upon them, and discover the dusty, humble, not-so-handsome, troublemaking Christ who was so scandalous. We are supposed to do more than read the book, take notes, and use Bible verses cleverly in cultural arguments. We are supposed to “Eat this book “- as Eugene Peterson reminds us in a book of that very title.

By Chance, a Donkey Named Balthazar

It is oh so easy to point to Christ figures at the movies . . . to identify the brave, appealing hero who sacrifices himself to save the world.

We like to admire incredible heroes, and to watch them bravely vanquish the villains. And we can say, “Jesus did the same thing. He triumphed over evil and death.”

But some of us become so swept up in the thrill of the glorious victory that we lose track of who Jesus really was, how he really behaved, and what it was like to be around him. He wanted us to learn from his example. And more, he wanted us to know him . . . personally. And that can be humbling and painful. We can get so caught up in the glory of what he did that we excuse ourselves from what he shows us about ourselves.

When we meditate on Christ will be moved by more than his heroism . . . which was, indeed, the greatest ever demonstrated. But we will also see ourselves in the failures of everyone who surrounded Christ. We will see our inability to remain humble and selfless.

We need to to outgrow this simple glamorization of the hero. We need to think about the fact that Christ’s sacrifice is best appreciated in contrast to the behavior and character of those he came to save.

The path of following Christ is not so much about our quest to oppose cultural enemies as it is about our call to “put on Christ” and deny our own selfish impulses. That is a story short on superhero glory. It’s about our weakness, and what God can do with it.

Films like Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and A Man for All Seasons, in which the Christian heroes serve God through humble service rather than inspiring and militant efforts, are often overlooked. The path of Christ sometimes calls us to become fools, and fools are rarely sexy. Christ-like foolishness can lead us to obscurity, if not invisibility. Thomas Merton has written about how most of Christ’s most devoted followers will probably never be recognized on this side of glory. True imitators of Christ tend to become unknowns, avoiding spotlights, working quietly and anonymously, uninterested in recognition. That’s not the kind of material that turns into blockbuster movies.

And even those characters who do earn our admiration for their courage should never convince us that good behavior somehow redeems us. No amount of good behavior is enough to open heaven’s doors for us. Like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, we’ve disobeyed, fallen short, messed up, and deserve the consequences. Like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, even the best of us has failed in our quest. If we really know Christ, we will have a powerful sense of our own sins.

I’m grateful for art that reminds me of this as I fumble my way along.

*          *          *

More than any film about Christ, I find myself humbled, even devastated, by the way that director Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar draws me to meditate on the savior’s suffering.

Be warned: Robert Bresson is not interested in entertaining you. His films boil storytelling down to its barest essence. Things happen without romantic swells of soundtrack, without glamour, without fancy lighting or special effects. We see events happening with the haphazardness of everyday life. And characters interact with so little emotion that it can be quite frustrating.

But Bresson scales back drama intentionally, because he wants us to lean forward and pay close attention to the most ordinary of details.

And in Au Hasard Balthazar, he wants us to notice the donkey . . . an animal who quite naturally just blends into the background.

When Balthazar raises his voice, he is anything but appealing. In fact, he clashes with the music that opens the film so harshly that audiences have been known to burst out laughing.

Balthazar differs from most “holy fools” in that he does not get to speak to us about his understanding or his plight. He is silent for most of the film, quietly doing what is asked of him, receiving affection, suffering abuse, performing hard labor, and living out his life with very little appreciation or reward. But everywhere he goes, his gentle, dutiful demeanor shines like a light that illuminates the natures of all who come near him.

*     *     *

How can a donkey communicate anything about Christ?

He does so by revealing the characters around him. He makes no virtuous choice. He’s just an animal. But his innocence seems to bring out the worst in everyone around him. And if we’re honest, we can see ourselves there.

I don’t mean to say that the donkey is an arbitrary element of the film. We’re all familiar with the role of the donkey in the Nativity, bearing the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem. We know that when Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as a king, surrounded by joyful people who expected that he would overthrow the Roman empire, he chose to ride on a donkey. The donkey is Christ’s transportation of choice. The animal patiently plays his part when the savior needs him . . . and then he disappears from view without further mention.

Bresson knew what he was doing in choosing this animal to awaken the viewer’s conscience.

But there’s more to Bresson’s choice of the donkey than just Biblical significance. The donkey has a strange quality that makes us think about humility.

And Bresson emphasizes this by starting the film with graceful, idyllic moments between Balthazar and Marie, the young girl who cares for him.

In one night scene, Marie walks outside and spends some quiet, sacred time with the animal she loves, draping flowers over his head. There is an Edenic quality to this scene, as Bresson emphasizes Marie’s pale, bare feet in the grass. Her bare feet emphasize her vulnerability, and the grass makes me think about the snakes that might be lying in wait. This makes Marie’s abandonment of Baltahazar that much more painful to behold.

Later, when Balthazar suffers through a time as a circus animal, we see him introduced to the other caged animals. Bresson juxtaposes shots of the other creatures’ faces with close-ups of Balthazar, and this mysterious sequence has the strange effect of further strengthening our awareness that Baltahazar is somehow different, somehow lacking in the pride and ferocity of other creatures.

I can’t go so far as to say that I believe Balthazar represents Christ to me. He is, after all, a donkey, and not someone making choices between good and evil with a human intelligence. Rather, he is an element of grace that casts into sharp relief all who come near him. He represents the suffering brought about by our sins. He is all that we have hurt, betrayed, abused, exploited, and taken for granted.

We come to see the holiness that we lack by looking at the many and varied ways in which the characters of this story fail Balthazar. In a sense, Balthazar is creation, still glimmering with God’s intent for it, suffering at the hands of sinful humans. No, he is not Christ, but he reflects the light of innocence and blamelessness in a way that confirms for us the worst about ourselves.

*          *          *

Marie is the central human being of the film, and she embodies the conflict at the heart of so many films that tell us to “seize the day.” Marie is kind, gentle, and beautiful, and when she is around Balthazar these qualities seem to have the upper hand.

But as she grows, her attraction to the rebellious, impulsive spirit of a dangerous young gang leader named Gerard lures her off of the path of wisdom. Gerard is a liar, a cheat, a big bad wolf in a leather jacket. He charms Marie, and she follows her heart. He may as well be Titanic‘s Jack, luring Rose away from respect for her elders.

In the story of Marie, I hear echoes of the story of Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which illustrated the story of a girl’s innocence lost. And the deeper we investigate the mystery of her fall, the more we become aware that there is an evil enslaving the human beings of this small community, luring them into the darkness, tempting them to play with fire.

That same sinister spirit haunts the shadows of Au Hasard Balthazar. (The title translates, “By Chance, Balthazar.”) The downward spiral of her journey into darkness is heartbreaking to watch, especially since she seems to accelerate her plunge by her own misguided will. The influence is especially sharp when Marie dances with Gerard at the local bar, caught up in the chaos, losing all control.

As Marie is baited from innocence into sin by a child of the devil, the camera frequently emphasizes the difference between two worlds – that of natural beauty and that of machines and technology – a contrast also prominent in Lynch’s work. One world is like a garden, the other is energized by the human will. One seems almost too dreamy to be true, the other excruciatingly familiar and corrupt.

And through it all, Balthazar presses on, silently suffering harsh and punishing masters, perhaps wondering what ever happened to the girl who once crowned him with flowers and loved him.

Balthazar proves to me that there is nothing essentially wrong with being “true to yourself” if you have a proper understanding of your identity. Balthazar is true to the nature he was given – he was made to be a humble and dutiful animal, serving human beings no matter how much disgrace was brought upon him. He’s a gift of grace, offered up to men who will very likely sacrifice him. He does not choose this, as Christ chose to offer himself up for our salvation. But he does remind us of the innocence is living within proper boundaries, in lacking devilish pride.

Bresson seizes one opportunity after another to remind us of Christ through Balthazar, even going so far as to surround him with a herd of white sheep in the pasture, their bells ringing while his blood is spilling. There is something transcendent in that scene. And as I think about that little four-legged beast now, I find myself thinking about the miserable and lonely death of Christ. I wonder if I would have followed him so far as that. I’m afraid that I know the answer to that question.

But Marie, when she decides to stray off the path of conscience, loses any proper understanding of herself, and follows her baser appetites, seizing a day rather than an everlasting life.

Seeing More Than a Comic Book Jesus

Watching the work of Robert Bresson is quite a different experience than watching most comic book movies.

Comic books follow the patterns of children’s stories and fairy tales, revealing truth in ways I’ve explored elsewhere in this book. But they are like fast-food meals, crafted to compel and entertain and please us. When we rise to the challenge of work like Bresson’s, we open ourselves to a very different sort of revelation. And we only discover those rewards by revisiting the work and meditating on what it shows us about human nature.

Look around at Christian bookstores and on Christian websites, it’s easy to find countless articles about how superhero movies like Superman Returns and Spiderman 2 give us Christ-like heroes who suffer a sort of “passion play” in order to save the world with their otherworldly strength. And there are several books available about “finding Jesus in comic books” and “finding Jesus in the Superman movie.”

These are not meaningless – comic books and children’s stories offer clear, simple reflections of the truth all the time.

But it troubles me to see that most Christian dialogue about finding meaning at the movies actually stops there. We seem happy to embrace comic book Christ figures. They make sweeping, violent gestures to defeat the bad guys and then – snap! – somehow dodge the curse of death. Such stories comfort young believers and help us cope with our fears, just as I was captivated by the simplistic drama of that Comic-Strip Bible. They remind us that Jesus was, indeed, super, and that Satan’s Kryptonite cannot stop him.

But are we willing to mature in what we know about Christ and where we can catch glimpses of him? Will we be able to talk about more than what he might have looked like? Are we learning enough about Jesus to recognize him in the bleak scenes of the world around us, where things are not so Technicolor, and saviors don’t announce themselves with bright red capes and bulging biceps?

Few moviegoers will make it through Au Hasard Balthazar without growing bored by the lack of glamour and romance in his story. It’s about as different from a Fantastic Four movie as a book of Alfred Stieglitz photos is different from a comic book. But I suspect that if you meditate upon it and live with this film a while, you will be humbled as you meditate upon the ways that you participate in the persecution of Christ. And you’ll be moved by his grace and drawn deeper into his mysteries. I am.

A Much More Encouraging Seminar

It is only fair for me to conclude by saying that recently, more than a decade after my rather traumatic experience projecting scenes about Jesus in front of a university crowd, things have changed.

I recently stood on the very same campus, inviting Christian moviegoers to talk about glimpses of truth and beauty on the big screen.

We watched scenes from Spider-man 2, yes.

But we also watched scenes from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. And then, we watched Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film Three Colors: Blue in its entirety. These are challenging, subtle, poetic motion pictures. And Jesus never appears in them . . . at least, not in any obvious fashion.

And yet, the audience responded with insight, strong emotion, and appreciation for the art of the film. Granted, these were adults and not freshmen. And yet they humbled me, pointing out many profound revelations in Kieslowski’s film that I had never seen before. I came away from my own seminar grateful for all that the attendees had taught me.

I’ll never “master” this subject, and neither will anybody else. God’s glory is shining through art – and shining through the world he made – in so many ways that the adventure will never be finished.

Many are beginning to see how Christ reveals himself in disguise, even in the work of those who do not believe in him. For we all have “eternity in our hearts,” and we can’t shake it, no matter how we try.

And I’ll look at how that happens in the next chapter.