By Cade Campbell
A few weeks ago I shared some thoughts about seeing the movie “Risen.” This week I want to share why I don’t plan to go see “The Young Messiah.”
We genuinely love origin stories. We want to know the background facts before the facts that are famous. We want to try to understand why a character or historical figure became the way they were. My wife Amy and I went to see Batman v. Superman last night (a movie I really enjoyed by the way), and once again we couldn’t avoid having another interpretation of Batman’s origin story paraded out to set up the plot. We’ve seen it over and over and over. His parents are killed in front of him. He’s traumatized. He vows to lash out at the senselessness of injustice by cloaking himself in darkness to traumatize criminals. That’s Batman’s origin. Every time.
But we saw it again, this time setting up some future plot points for the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent (and their alter-egos). The writers reached back into the past to recycle where our hero came from.
That’s not uncommon in the cookie-cutter process of story development for big-screen movies. And it’s not uncommon for readers of the Bible either. Since the early centuries of the church inquisitive readers have imagined and invented story scenarios revolving around Christ’s “lost years” of childhood and adolescence. The Bible doesn’t give us much information to go on. We’re told about his birth. We know he spent some time in Egypt, and then we briefly see him living in Nazareth and on one family vacation to Jerusalem (where we get the original basis for Home Alone). That’s it. The gospels fast-forward to Jesus in his early thirties in the years leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection.
So believers sometimes find it fun to fill-in the blanks. That’s what the new movie The Young Messiah attempts to do. Based on the novel Out of Egypt by Anne Rice (a novel I enjoyed reading for what it’s worth), the movie tells the story of the seven year old Jesus who moves back with his family from Egypt to Nazareth. What follows is a dramatic, angst-filled narrative of the young Jesus coming to terms with his true identity and power.
As movies go, that’s pretty harmless. If anything it’s pretty formulaic. We know what’s coming, and considering the type of fare that Hollywood typically puts out, a movie that is based on biblical themes and stories is a breath of fresh air. I’d much rather believers watch a movie like Young Messiah rather than some of the movies they have to choose from.
With that said, however, I think movies and novels and stories of this specific genre all fail on a fundamental level, even those that go back to the early church (and probably especially those). In attempting to explore the “lost years” of Jesus, they end up building a narrative of speculation that sacrifices the very nature of the incarnation. In trying to satisfy the curiosity for answers the Bible doesn’t provide, they (unintentionally perhaps) subvert the very truth that the Bible does provide.
This happens not because the storyline is irreverent or explicitly blasphemous. Nor is it a result of developing a biblical storyline into a fictitious historical drama. It happens because these stories always do what the Bible itself doesn’t – focus the lens of the camera on the little boy named Jesus. The glory of the incarnation is the mystery that the God who created the cosmos grew up into adulthood in mundane anonymity in the backwoods of a nowhereville named Nazareth, and he did so amazingly pretty much like everybody else (except without sin).
That’s a problem with a movie that focuses on the childhood of Jesus – It focuses on the childhood of Jesus. In trying to create an exceptional story, it shows Jesus to be exceptional. And he was. And he is. But he wouldn’t have looked like it as a seven year old. In a movie like The Young Messiah, when the camera focuses on a group of kids playing and walking down the road, the viewer knows which one is Jesus. But if we could indeed get in a TARDIS and plop down in the muddy main street of Nazareth, and if we looked out the door at a crowd of school kids we wouldn’t know which one was Jesus. He looked just like the other kids. There’s nothing to indicate that he stood out in primary school.
Every attempt to add to Jesus’ origin story beyond what the gospels give us presents us with a Jesus that is manipulated into being anything but an actual little boy. The Jesus they portray just isn’t ordinary enough. It misses the beauty of the incarnation by inadvertently treating him like one of Charles Xavier’s mutants. In portraying Jesus “struggling to understand his identity” or “coming to terms with his true power” (usually through portraying some fun miraculous shenanigans like raising a bird to life) we are tricked into adding Jesus to the list of the many “meta-humans” in the pantheon or superheroes that we see portrayed in the newest Marvel movie. But that’s not how Jesus is portrayed. His divinity is cloaked in the common. The marvel of his majesty is masked by the mundane.
In the movie Man of Steel we’re given another take on Clark Kent’s origin story from Krypton to the Kansas farmhouse. And it doesn’t disappoint. We see young Clark rescue his schoolmates after a school bus accident. We watch as Clark is terrified by his uncanny ability of x-ray vision. We feel empathy with the young child being weighed down with the responsibility of his powers, and that makes us feel a connection with him later when he swoops in to save earth by defeating Zod.
But Jesus isn’t Superman. He isn’t a superhero. He’s the Son of God. We’re not meant to be entertained by fabricating a pubescent Jesus who learns to tame his supernatural abilities only by taking them out for a joyride. That’s not the nature of his submission to his Father. And that’s why we ultimately don’t need fictional origin stories for Christ. They don’t help us know him better. They can only aid in knowing him wrongly. The Jesus we find in the gospels is the supreme revelation of God. Any attempt to add to the story only detracts from it by making him too much like a comic-book character. The Greek letter “X” (chi) may indeed be the first letter in the word “Christ,” but that doesn’t make Jesus an X-Man.
Cade Campbell is a native of Mississippi, a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div), and serves as the Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.