Screen Jesus: book review

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A book review by Richard Leonard

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is a visiting professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film

130717 Screen Jesus
Author: Peter Malone
Published by: Scarecrow Press
Country: UK (12 October 2012)
Format: Hardback, 348 pages
ISBNs: 10-digit: 0810883899; 13-digit: 978-0810883895

Book review

Many of us have probably heard a lecturer say ‘there is a library written on that, but this will do for now’, by way of defending an incomplete but time-efficient summary of a big topic. Peter Malone’s excellent Screen Jesus is the summary of the library of discography on the portrayal of Jesus Christ in television and film. It is an exhaustive work that rightly takes its place among studies on what we have seen on screen about Jesus, not just about what we have read.

First I must write a disclaimer. Not only is Peter a renowned author in the area of theology and the cinema, he also works for me as film reviewer in the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting. Indeed he head-hunted me to take over from him as director of this Office in 1999, when he was elected as the international president of the Organisation Catholique Internationale du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel (OCIC) and moved to London. However, I assure you that if I genuinely did not like Screen Jesus, I would say nothing about it at all: I would not be writing this review. In fact, I found the book to be a fascinating and stimulating work that I think would also to a more general audience.

To give you a sense of the scale of his undertaking, in the first of three helpful appendices, Peter lists 80 major films specifically about Jesus Christ from 1898 to 2008. Each one of these movies is summarised in depth in the body of the work. Then there are hundreds of other films and television programmes to which he alerts the reader; he and summarises these as well.

Previous books on Jesus in the cinema have tipped their hats to the existence of most of the mainstream releases, and then focused in depth on a few of the major ones. They rarely ever look at that ‘upstart medium’, television, considering it to be too low-brow. Rightly, Peter knows that television is now the major former of opinion within many cultures, for better or worse: the medium is ignored at religion’s peril.

After an introductory essay on the ways in which Jesus has been portrayed in film as redeemer, saviour, liberator, ‘holy fool’ and priest, prophet and king, Peter unpacks the thousands of titles chronologically. This is a helpful navigation tool, not only to see the development of the genre, but also to trace the development of the theology, the social contexts and – in the English-language world at least – the eventual ignoring of the oldest film censorship law in the world, from the British Board of Film Censors in 1916: no depiction of Christ. As Peter demonstrates, this prohibition stayed in force until the late 1950s.

Screen Jesus does not just concern itself with English-language and Western portrayals of Jesus, but also examines French, Mexican, Italian, Spanish and Indian presentations as well. It is equally important to bring the work on Jesus in African media to the world’s attention, as it is to showcase the ways in which Jesus is seen in films emerging out of Islamic countries. The interview with the Iranian director of the television series Jesus, the Spirit of God (The Messiah), Nader Talebzadeh, broadens the reader’s horizons even more.

Chapter 17 comes as a perfect foil to the seriousness of the task up to that point. Entitled ‘The Bizarre’, Peter explores how Jesus has been given top billing in South Park, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, Stripping for Jesus and Jesus Christ Supercop. I suppose someone had to watch these shows, and I am pleased it was Peter Malone.

The only presentation of or about Jesus I could not find anywhere in the book was from the 11th season of The Simpsons in 2000, ‘Missionary: Impossible’, where Homer goes off to a Pacific island to become a Christian missionary.  It is a very rare omission among the 300 pages of this handsomely produced work.

In 2008 Australia’s leading centre for theological research and teaching, the MCD University of Divinity, bestowed upon Peter Malone the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology (honoris causa) for his work in the interface between theology and the media. This book proves how right they were to recognise the importance of Peter’s scholarship in detailing the way in which film and television shape people’s images and perceptions about Jesus.

Screen Jesus deserves a very wide readership, especially those interested in Christology, cinema studies, media studies, theology & culture, art history and religious education.

Product links: Screen Jesus (UK only)

Book: Peter Malone, Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film (2012), Scarecrow Press, hardback

Kindle: Peter Malone, Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film (2012), Scarecrow Press

Note: These links lead to product pages at Amazon.co.uk. Six per cent of any sales made via these links is paid to the Insight Film Festival.

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