The Jesus Seminar Goes to Hollywood

By Tim Kelleher

Who says Hollywood doesn't get religion?

There's a new Jesus movie in the works right now -- a pet project of Showgirls director, Paul Verhoeven. This one even has an exciting new twist: Jesus is the product of a rape. It's free of agnosticism too -- in this telling, his Lordship is certainly ethical, and certainly not divine.

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He's the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, with an edgier back-story.

For rubes outside the loop, this is a bold thing to attempt in Hollywood -- up there, for example, with raising questions about the founder of Islam.

Wait, sorry, I was thinking of a different Dutch filmmaker, savagely murdered for that brand of insouciance. Upon review, this new project looks to involve all the risk of skydiving from the edge of a dime, but with a better chance of copping a Palm at Cannes.

Of course, never say, never, right? It could prove to be provocation with purpose. Just because I got burned defending Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation against the demand for a boycott before anyone had seen it, doesn't mean history is bound to repeat itself.

Unfortunately, there are indications that history will be bound -- held hostage and forced to say what its captors require. Nothing new. The "quest for the historical Jesus" is a grey bearded curiosity. The Jesus Seminar is but the latest, best-known iteration of it, and Mr. Verhoeven is a member -- in fact, the only one without a PhD in biblical studies.

But, let's not get snooty. I don't recall Jerome and Augustine racking up any doctorates.

If I had to, I'd guess the Oscar-nominee dwells somewhere in the "progressive" hemisphere -- probably with a balcony and a great view. It intrigues that within those breezy coordinates one finds both the insistence that Jesus never existed and the certainty, not only that he did, but of the very specific, in this case, very ugly, circumstance that occasioned it.

In staking his particular claim, the director relies on an event that appears, neither overtly nor implicitly, in the sources. Conjecture? Invention? What's the difference? I mean, what about the jaw-droppers the sources themselves extrapolated? Virgin birth, Son of God? By comparison, Verhoeven could start to look restrained.

One sharp difference is that the sources are at pains to locate the experience of Jesus where that experience told them it belonged. Namely, at the center of salvation history. The agenda of the "birthers," on the other hand, is to pull the story down from that lofty context and peg it firmly to the earth. If some pegs need to be invented along the way, so be it.

It is not surprising then that Verhoeven would reduce Jesus to a teacher of ethics, albeit an admirable one. There is an assumption within currents of so-called liberal Christianity that the ethical can precede the ontological, or emerge independently of it. The latter is a familiar secular claim. Neither is true to scripture.
I hope it's not unfair to suggest that their lack of experience in what the sources attest to may help us understand the "birther" project.

The Church is an indispensable locus in which to receive that gift of that experience. And it's no coincidence that it is the Church, reflecting on its experience, that has provided the treasure of those sources.

It's not just cranky cons that take a dim view of the Seminar either. No less progressive scholars than Luke Timothy Johnson and Gary Wills, to name but two, find fatal flaws in both its aim and method.

I haven't seen the script Mr. Verhoeven intends to shoot, so hope holds fast. He is, however, on record regarding his take on Jesus' conception. Given that he seems intent to replace the highly suggestive source narrative on this point with an extremely specific conjecture that is bereft of both evidence and experience, it's understandable that concerned observers would brace themselves. After all, we've been here before.

I am sincere when I say I view these things as "teachable moments." The more popular they are, the more fertile the "moment." But, we don't seem to like these moments much, maybe because they disclose the degraded state of teaching that often leads to them.

So, we shall see. Will Hollywood respond to the proven appetite for religious themes without ridiculing or patronizing? On a certain level, it shouldn't matter. We ought to be well advanced in weaning ourselves off the cynicism that regularly passes for entertainment, creating our own popular art.

In the meanwhile, who'd like to wager on the title? The Bashin' of the Christ? Bastard Out of Palestine? Or will they come up with something worthy of the subject?

Here's hoping.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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