Christians sometimes complain, especially this time of year, that Jesus is being taken out of everything. We bemoan the lack of traditional Nativity scenes on public property. We lament when people wish us “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Last year, Starbucks was lambasted for serving up a plain red cup for the holidays instead of one festooned with Christmas trees and candy canes. (A strange thing to protest, to my mind, but hey, that’s just me.)
But if Jesus is being pushed out of some corners of society, He’s finding His way into the movies at near record levels.
By my count, four high-profile films prominently featured Jesus in 2016, and all had something pretty interesting, even challenging, things to say about the Christ. While none are predicated on Jesus’ birth, all are available (or coming soon) on video on demand, Blu-ray and/or DVD, which means they’re available for viewing this Christmas season.
But would you want to view them? Well, that depends. Read on and see. And, of course, click the links to see our full movie reviews.
Ben Hur: The 2016 movie that gives us our most traditional look at Jesus is, ironically, the most secular flick of the bunch. When Paramount poured an estimated $100 million into its lavish Ben-Hur remake and rolled it out in August, the studio hoped to have a blockbuster on its hands. Alas, it was not to be. Ben-Hur struggled to find an audience and earned just $26.4 million in North America, and $94.1 million worldwide. Perhaps folks thought that the 1959 Charlton Heston version was still just fine. And, of course, it was. It’s hard to argue with a flick that wins 11 Academy Awards.
But the new version has its own strengths. Jesus takes a far more prominent part in the remake—a living, breathing, active presence here (instead of the largely unseen, faceless role He plays in the 1959 version). Moreover, the video version (it came out on Digital HD Nov. 29 and will be released in Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 13) is being marketed, it seems, directly to Christians. The Blu-ray cover is dominated by a picture of Jesus giving Judah Ben-Hur a much-needed glass of water, with the famed chariot race being relegated to the lower part of the box. Moreover, a special “Christian” version (available at a variety of faith-centric outlets) features 55 minutes of special content, including a discussion among Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren and Ben-Hur executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. It also includes a feature that unpacks Jesus’ role in the story even more deeply.
Last Days in the Desert: We move from one of the most positive depictions of Jesus on screen this year to, perhaps, the most challenging. Last Days is a quantum leap away from the crowd-pleasing spectacle of Ben-Hur. The story—quiet and taut—brings us to an interesting moment in Jesus’ life, just as He’s transitioning from the testing in the wilderness and beginning His real work on earth. On the way back, Jesus comes across a small family trying to eke out an existence in the wilds of Judea: a dying mother, a stern-but-loving father and a boy longing to see the world beyond his family’s hovel. Satan, still tempting Jesus, challenges the Son of God to help this family—to untie this “Gordian knot”—to the satisfaction of all.
While many of our stories about Jesus focus on His divinity, this focuses on His humanity. He struggles with insecurity. He debates with Satan (who, like Jesus, is played by Ewan McGregor). Watching this provocative movie can make us, as Christians, feel deeply uncomfortable at times. We might not agree with everything we see here. The fact that this is a fictional story may be a non-starter for some. And yet—as long as we remember that Satan is the Prince of Lies and that not everything he necessarily says here is true—the film is a haunting rumination on Jesus’ nature, and one that may trigger questions, introspection and, most importantly, discussion.
Risen: We’ve seen plenty of depictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But have we ever seen it play out as a detective story? That’s what Risen gives us. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a dutiful-but-weary Roman commander tasked with tracking down the missing body of Jesus. Someone clearly stole the corpse of this so-called prophet to further his own agenda, he figures. But as he investigates, Clavius begins to understand that something much stranger is afoot.
This may be my favorite Christian movie of the year. Admittedly, it’s pretty gritty in spots: Watching Clavius inspect a bunch of fly-ridden corpses is not a scene for the squeamish. But this resonant, well-acted quasi-suspense story works on nearly every level—a movie that you can show your picky secular friends without a hint of embarrassment. As a bonus, it gives us one of the most strangely joyful, most realistic depictions of Jesus I’ve seen on film.
The Young Messiah: Like Last Days in the Desert, The Young Messiah imagines a fictional chapter in Jesus’ life. But rather than seeing Christ prepare for His ministry, this film gives us Jesus as a little boy, just coming to understand His own divine nature. But He must do it on the run: Another Roman commander, played by the always excellent Sean Bean, is hot on his heels. And he has orders to kill the boy should he find Him.
Not many people saw this movie in theaters. For some, the construct (based on Anne Rice’s 2005 novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt) was just too much. But the story, while certainly not biblical, stays true to the character of Jesus and asks of us a provocative question: When did Jesus understand His divine lineage? Did He know it from the very beginning, when He was just a crying baby in Bethlehem? Or was the truth unpacked, bit by bit?