“Jesus figures” are easy to define: they are depictions in film of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. A little harder to nail down is the “Christ figure,” by which I mean fictional characters whose life or story reflects in some way the story of Jesus. Harder still is pointing to a particular character and saying, “there; that’s a Christ figure.”
Why is that? For one thing, you have to figure out what it means to be Christlike. Does it entail extraordinary wisdom, kindness, or love, and if so, isn’t that the same thing as being an especially good human being? Or does it require a particular action, usually one of self-sacrifice? And if that’s the case, does every cinematic act of sacrifice qualify a character as a Christ figure?
Much of the answer lies in the eye of the beholder, of course; someone I would include in my list of examples might never make it on to yours, and vice versa. One of my professors in college talked about those Christians who want to see a foreshadowing of the Cross in every stick of wood in the Old Testament. In much the same way you can discover a reflection of Christ in any film character if you look hard enough.
In what follows I want to look at some different kinds of Christ figures in the movies. First, though, let me lay out some rules for how to find them:
• The best Christ figures are the least obvious ones. Luther talked about Jesus as the “deus absconditus,” the hidden God. Christ figures are often similarly hidden from our sight, which is why the title character from Cool Hand Luke is a better choice than Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, largely because the latter is just so unceasingly noble.
• Conversely, the more a writer or director intends to create a Christ figure, the less authentic and effective that portrayal often becomes.
• The best way to recognize a genuine Christ figure is to look for transformation. Whether it’s one person or an entire community, Christ figures change the lives of others decisively.
• Oh, and one more thing: No. Star Wars. Ever.
Types of Christ Figures:
A. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”: Movie Messiahs
I’m using the term “messiah” here in a specific sense, as a figure with a particular destiny to fulfill. Often when somebody violates my second rule above a movie messiah is the result. Sometimes the movie messiah just shows up out of the blue, as in Superman and Superman II. Other times the character is much anticipated, as happened with Neo in the Matrix trilogy. In both of these cases the focus falls on the characters’ special status or extraordinary abilities; these are what render them messiah figures.
But the gospels don’t focus that much on Jesus’ special status as the Anointed One (although, to be fair, they do mention it); rather, their first concern is to tell the story of his exemplary life, sacrificial death, and miraculous resurrection. The gospel writers make it clear that everyone who focused on Jesus as the “promised Son of David” pretty well missed the point of his ministry because they brought along a lot of false assumptions of what that ministry should look like. Likewise, when movie makers set out to portray a “Chosen One,” they do a lousy job of pointing to the Jesus story.
B. “To lay down one’s life for one’s friends”: Sacrificial Christ figures
Perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of cinematic Christ figures is a sacrificial death. This brings up the problem mentioned above of whether any act of sacrifice makes a character a Christ figure. It’s often a hard call to make; laying down one’s life that others might live is the supreme act of charity, and it stands at the heart of the Jesus story. But a difference exists between purchasing another’s continued existence at the expense of one’s own, and doing so in a way that the other might “have life, and have it more abundantly.” The key is redemption; does the sacrifice renew or transform the lives of those who are left?
One of my favorite Christ figures is the title character from The Iron Giant, a story about a huge robot who falls to earth and befriends a young boy and others in a small Maine town. Set during the Cold War, the robot’s presence inspires an escalating fear and paranoia among many in the secluded community and beyond. At the climax, the giant machine chooses his own destruction in order to save the humans from the consequences of their fear, opening their eyes to that fear’s pointlessness. I see in this story an echo of one of the classic explanations of the Atonement, in which God must become incarnate and die in order to shock us out of our frozen indifference to the divine love.
C. “The substance of things hoped for”: Hopeful Christ figures
In spite of the fact that prisons are the last place you want to be, directors like to make prison movies because “life inside” reminds us that life itself can become a prison, a place where hope goes to die. When Christ figures show up in these hopeless little worlds they do so as incarnations of hope. Such is the case with Luke Jackson in Cool Hand Luke and Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Both characters refuse, in their different ways, to give in to the prison’s despairing world view; both remain free in spite of their chains and walls. More importantly, both communicate that sense of freedom and hope to their fellow inmates: Luke through his death, and Andy through his “resurrection” in the world outside the prison walls.
D. “This is my body”: Sacramental Christ figures
If you were paying attention that day, at some point in a high school English class you learned that most of the world’s stories can be boiled down to a handful of story “types.” One of these is known as “A Stranger Came to Town,” in which someone from the outside shows up in a community and, for good or ill, changes the social dynamics of the place forever. The Jesus story bears resemblance to this story type (“he was in the world . . . yet the world did not know him”), so it’s no surprise that a couple of cinematic Christ figures show up as strangers coming to town. In Babette’s Feast and (the better known) Chocolat the main characters are women who arrive in small communities, each bringing along a mysterious past and extraordinary culinary skills. Both wind up using that skill to prepare marvelous gifts of food for their new neighbors, many of whom start off as deeply suspicious of the extravagance and self indulgence of these meals. Yet in the end the food serves as a powerful means of grace, breaking down barriers and creating fellowship among those who partake. These Christ figure cooks remind us that the Jesus story is not simply in the past, but continues in Christ’s sacramental presence throughout the world, most especially wherever we accept his invitation to table.
So, did I miss your favorite Christ figure? Did you see one of mine and say “No way!”? Let me know about it in the comments.