I am a few days behind (it’s been a busy eight days!) but this past week our class watched the 1998 Jesus film, The Book of Life. Prior to preparing for this class, I had not been exposed to this film. My colleague suggested that we watch it because it provides a much different angle than the other films we’ve been watching and discussing. Admittedly, this film is a little campy, the writing is mediocre, and the acting leaves a lot to be desired. There is also a hazy, purposeful disorientation in the cinematography, so this one was a little more difficult to watch–though it is shorter than most other Jesus films (66 minutes). Nevertheless the film raises questions that are important to certain Christian understandings of Jesus.
The film is set in New York City on the eve of the new millennium. Jesus, a handsome, well-coiffed, suit-wearing, white guy with a chiseled jaw has come to the Big Apple with “Magdalena” (played by British rocker, P.J. Harvey) to consummate the plan of God–APOCALYPSE! Specifically, he has come to open the Book of Life (which is playfully presented as an Apple laptop computer), and either save or damn all of humanity. Anyone who was around back in the late 90s remembers the various strands of Christian apocalyptic speculation, often accompanied by the idea that Jesus was going to return at midnight on January 1, 2000 (Eastern Standard Time of course, because the world supposedly revolves around the east coast of the US). A lot of that thinking is present in this film, though it was lost on our students, most of whom were not quite 10 years old during that period.
This film muses playfully with the idea that God intends to destroy the world and that this is the primary idea presented in the book of Revelation. The film assumes a somewhat unsophisticated acceptance of one narrow reading of Revelation alongside an equally narrow interpretation of Christian theology. Still, the film raises questions that are useful for helping students think about how Jesus is presented in various theological systems: Did Jesus have a human will? Could he have been “disobedient” to the Father? Was it possible for Jesus to be tempted or sin–questions that approach modern, mainly evangelical discussions of peccability v. impeccability. As you can imagine, some of our more traditional students thought the film was borderline blasphemous in that regard. We also planned to watch this movie during the same time the new Left Behind movie was released, for the very purpose of talking about apocalypticism in modern western Christianity. However, the new Nicholas Cage vehicle has been so universally panned that we decided it would not be useful to mention it.
Today we going to discuss Marcionism and the ways in which the film raised issues related to judgment of a vengeful God and the love of a gracious Jesus. Our fall break is next week, after which we will move on to Jesus of Montreal and then the Life of Brian.