I know; the title of this blog sounds like another of those distinctions without a difference. Stick with me a minute, and maybe I’ll convince you there’s more to this business than meets the eye.
First, the term Jesus figure refers to a portrayal in film (or literature or theatre) of the actual, historical person of Jesus. Since pretty close to the dawn of the movies, film makers have been trying to depict the life of Christ; a short series of French films showing scenes from the gospels were made in 1902-1905, for example. Dozens of these cinematic portraits of Jesus exist, but over the years a few have stood out. Cecil D. DeMille’s last silent picture was King of Kings, in which the director brought his love of big-budget excess to the story of Jesus’ life (this film is not to be confused with the 1961 movie of the same title, sometimes known as “I Was a Teenage Jesus.”) 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told starred Max von Sydow as a calm, perhaps even slightly boring, Jesus. And in 2004 Mel Gibson wanted to make certain we all really understood the concept of blood atonement in his movie The Passion of the Christ.
Now, the term Christ figure is a little harder to define. Christ figures are not intended to dramatize the actual life of Christ, as Jesus figures are. Instead Christ figures are characters within a movie (or novel or play) whose lives reflect in some way the life and character of Christ. Usually, Christ figures are not overtly religious, nor are the films in which they appear. The best Christ figures are flawed and fallen creatures like you and me, and hence don’t represent Christ’s fully loving life. Yet something about their story–often the way they die–mirrors Jesus self-emptying, self-giving love, and this is what makes them Christ figures.
Some examples of Christ figures? Ah, well, that’s where things get tricky, because the best Christ figures are sometimes the less obvious ones. Throughout June and July, as I teach a Sunday School series at Christ UMC in Franklin, TN on Jesus figures and Christ figures in film, I’ll post some of my thoughts on which characters in film are Christ figures and why. This time I’ll leave you with the most obvious recent example: John Coffey, the gentle giant wrongly convicted of murder in The Green Mile. This movie is based on a novel by Stephen King, and like every other one of King’s attempts to discuss religious themes, it’s kind of heavy-handed. Yet the movie is a great introduction to the idea of the Christ figure, and we’ll be discussing it, along with several others, in the weeks to come.