The Young Messiah (2016)

Posted: October 19, 2018 in Sabbatical
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This is an odd film that doesn’t really go anywhere. It based upon a novel written by Anne Rice entitled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (she is probably better known for writing a series of books called The Vampire Chronicles, the best known of which is Interview with the Vampire).

The film is set in Jesus’ early life between the gospel accounts of his birth and the visit to the temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve. This means that the film is based upon non-canonical and fictional accounts of Jesus’ early life.

The narrative of the film begins in Egypt, where Jesus and his extended family have fled after Herod the Great seeks to kill all the boys born in Bethlehem. The rest of the film shows the family on their journey home to Nazareth following Herod’s death, and then another journey to Jerusalem. Indeed, much of the film consists of people walking along dusty roads. All through this time, the new King Herod seeks to have Jesus found and killed because of the threat that he causes him.

The twin themes of the film are the hunt to find and kill Jesus, and the desire for knowledge that Jesus has about who he is. Jesus, at this time in his life, does not know who he is, nor where he comes from. As the film progresses he gradually learns parts of the story, but his parents are unwilling to share the truth with him until just before the film drifts to its end. As for the hunt for Jesus, the Roman soldiers are always just behind Jesus until the last few scenes of the film when the centurion, played by an unusually living-until-the-end-of-the-film Sean Bean, finds him but cannot bring himself to kill him, despite the willingness to follow orders and act in brutal ways that he has shown previously, including being part of the massacre of the innocents.

This Jesus is, obviously, a child. He is all sweetness, light, naivety, and ignorance. The actor plays the part that he is given as well as he can, but there is no real depth to the character itself. However, this is not really surprising because the film doesn’t have any depth to it either.

While one can understand the desire to explore ideas about Jesus’ early life and how and when he came to know who he was and what his Father wanted of him, this story does not make a good job of doing so. Jesus really does come across as far too naive and it is not easy to believe that Mary and Joseph would have kept so much from him, even if he didn’t know it for himself.

One of the recurring motifs in the film is that of Jesus’ divinity and how that manifests itself in the outworking of miracles. We see a few throughout the film. The bringing back to life of the boy who bullies him; the bringing back to life of a dead bird; the healing of his uncle; the giving of sight to a blind rabbi. None of these miracles are attested to in the gospels, and indeed they run contrary to the gospel accounts where, in John, we read that the miracle at Cana was, “the first of his signs” [John 2:11].

One point of interest in the film is the personification of the devil. Interestingly, this character can only ever be seen by Jesus, and he performs a variety of roles. When we first see him he causes the death of the bully of Jesus, but directs blame towards Jesus; he is often seen whispering into the ears of those who then turn against Jesus; and he even appears directly to Jesus to challenge him.

He is an interesting character and is portrayed well, which enables the viewer to consider how Jesus may have been challenged, tempted, and threatened by the devil throughout his life and ministry, even while this film dwells on unrecorded events.

However, even despite this, my overwhelming feeling about this film is that it is poor. Even if one is able to move beyond the idea of basing the entire film on non-canonical accounts, the reality is that the film itself is generally dull and uninteresting. Indeed, if I hadn’t been watching it for a particular reason, then I’m not sure that I would have stuck with it to the end,


Mary, Mother of Jesus (1999)

Posted: October 16, 2018 in Sabbatical
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This is a curious film in many ways. It was released with the tag line, “See Him Through Different Eyes.” Those eyes are the eyes of his mother, Mary, and because the film focuses on her, her role in Jesus’ life and mission, and what she witnesses, she is in almost every scene of the film. This means that we don’t see very much of what is recorded in the gospels simply because she wouldn’t have been there to see them.

Because of this strong focus on Mary I began watching the film assuming that it might have a particularly Catholic view point to it. However, this does not seem to be the case as, in particular, we see that Jesus has at least one brother, James.

There are a number of scenes in the film that are well done:

  • The annunciation is, refreshingly, set outdoors, rather than the typical small room that it tends to occur in. Mary’s encounter with Gabriel is also well portrayed without being overly twee or fantastical.
  • Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy is good, as is his return to her and protection of her following his dream encounter with the angel.
  • John the Baptist is a rather wonderfully wild and strident character as he preaches in the river Jordan and calls people to a baptism of repentance. His encounter with Jesus is also well portrayed as Jesus comes to him for baptism.
  • Equally, there are some scenes that generate questions. Some of this will be down to the need to fit everything in to the time limit of the film, and some of it will be due to artistic and directorial license.
    • When Jesus is a young boy Mary tells him a story as he goes to bed. That story is what we know as the Good Samaritan, and Mary introduces it as if it is a well known story.
      Again, when Jesus is a young boy, he is surrounded by the other boys of Nazareth and bullied. The biggest boy challenges him and strikes him. Jesus does not respond and the other boys eventually give up and go away. As Jesus talks to his mother he asks why he is the only one to see that violence is pointless and only breeds more violence.
      Mary Magdalene, Peter, Andrew, James, and John are all in the scene where John the Baptist baptises Jesus in the River Jordan. In particular, although no specific mention is made of her background, Mary Magdalene is somewhat garishly dressed and this is commented upon later when she begins to dress more respectably.
      Just before John the Baptist is beheaded, Mary, Elizabeth, and some others go to the palace in Jerusalem to try to get to see him. They are refused and subsequently make there way into a courtyard where Barabbas is inciting revolt. Mary steps forward and challenges him on the futility of violence.
      After the crucifixion Mary returns to the Upper Room and berates the disciples for abandoning Jesus.
      After the resurrection and Mary Magdalene’s proclamation that Jesus has risen, Mary goes to the tomb and encounters Jesus. Then we see her as the disciples seek to return to Galilee wondering what to do. Her response, as she looks into the camera, is that we must act like Jesus, live like Jesus, and love like Jesus. At this point the film ends.
  • With respect to Jesus, Christian Bale actually plays the part well. He is convincing as Jesus, and my main disappointment with the film is that the focus was on Mary and not Jesus. This meant that we did not see as much of Christian Bale’s portrayal as we could have, and I think we, as viewers, miss out because of that.
  • At the end of the film I was left somewhat disappointed and wanting more. I would have preferred the film to focus more on the life of Jesus with him as the focus, rather than through the eyes of his mother. I also didn’t particularly appreciate the extra influence that Mary was given in this film. At times she seemed to dominate and direct Jesus’ life more than God the Father did. All in all I feel that there were missed opportunities here as well as a distracting focus.
  • This film, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini and shot entirely in his native Italian, is highly regarded. It is listed in the book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. In its trivia section of the film, the web site IMDb states that, “It is generally considered the most faithful cinematic adaptation of the Bible ever made.”

    The film was shot without a set script, but all of the dialogue was taken from the gospel of Matthew. The cast were not professional actors, and while this does give the film a certain natural aspect it is all too obvious that the cast are trying too hard to act at certain points. This is most obvious in the scene where John the Baptist baptises the crowds who come to him and respond to his preaching.

    Pasolini himself claimed to be an atheist and he was considered to be a Marxist. Thus it is that he seeks to portray Jesus, and the gospel message, from a Marxist perspective. While the film certainly focuses on the poor and needy, it is not particularly clear to me, on first viewing, that this is a specific drum that Pasolini is banging.

    As for Jesus himself, he has fairly ‘classic’ looks, but has curiously styled hair that is more reminiscent of the 1960s than what one assumes was the norm in first century Palestine.

    He has a piercing look and, like many of the films, much of the atmosphere and emotion is heavy and sombre. However, there are a couple of moments where the atmosphere lightens a little and a slight smile plays on Jesus’ lips while his eyes shine with humour or fun. In this regard, I think that this Jesus carries a good balance between the different aspects of emotion without leaning too heavily on one or the other. The approach of the film does not allow for much joy, but at the same time it is good to note that it is not ignored completely.

    While I would not, at this point in time, consider this to be one of my favourite “Jesus films” I do think that it is worth watching, and I hope to return to it before too long.

    Mary Magdalene (2018)

    Posted: October 6, 2018 in Sabbatical
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    This is one of the most recent films to depict some of the events of the gospels. This one, as the title suggests, makes Mary Magdalene its focus and follows her from a troubled and unhappy life in her home village of Magdala to becoming a disciple of Jesus.

    The first thing to note is that it is refreshing to encounter a portrayal of Mary Magdalene that does not depict her as either a prostitute or a woman of loose morals, and this common misconception is something that is commented on at the end of the film. In the gospels she is described as a woman who had been freed from demons, and there is a nod to that in the film as her family attempt to drive what they perceive as demons from her. However, when she encounters Jesus there is no acknowledgment or recognition of any demons, only acceptance of who she is and an offer to be baptised and follow him.

    Then the disciples are an interesting group. We do not see many of them in any great detail, but Peter is clearly a leader and curiously the main enthusiast for Jesus to be the one who will lead the people to victory over the Romans and end the oppression that they bring. In contrast to this, Judas is a quiet and thoughtful character who, while supporting the idea of revolution, tends, for the most part, to stay in the background. We see no part of his betrayal, but it is clear that he has handed Jesus over to the authorities from a conversation that he has with Mary after Jesus’ arrest. Following the crucifixion and a claim that he is now going to return to his family, he hangs himself from a first floor window and not in a field.

    Following the resurrection Mary is asleep near the tomb when she hears a voice say, “Mary”. She wakes and turns to see Jesus sitting, dressed in bright white clothing (in contrast to the muted colours worn prior to the crucifixion) a short distance away from her. There is no confusion about him possibly being the gardener, nor any conversation. Instead, Mary simply goes to the rest of the disciples and tells them that she has seen the risen Lord and proceeds to explain how they have previously misunderstood his teachings. The male disciples, and Peter in particular, are disturbed and distressed by the possibility that Jesus could have shown himself to Mary first and are unwilling to accept her story. She states that she will not stay silent and leaves them. We then see her meet Jesus again. They have a brief conversation, and the film ends with her travelling on her own to communities previously visited earlier in the film. With this, it seems that we are left to assume that she goes out proclaiming the gospel as a solitary apostle from now on.

    But what of Jesus in this film? How is he portrayed, and what do we see of him?

    Firstly, he is played by Joaquin Phoenix, and this is an interesting choice and probably not someone that most people would choose for the role – after all, one of his best known roles is that of Commodus in Gladiator, a character of very different morals and lifestyle.

    Secondly, the first thing that strikes as you watch is that he is a much older and more rugged looking Jesus than any other I have ever seen portrayed in film. And there is an interesting mix of divinity and humanity on display. The divinity is not really emphasised, but it is there in the healings and raising from the dead that we see take place as the group journey towards Jerusalem. However, the humanity is very evident in the physical exhaustion and tiredness that overcomes Jesus as he is overwhelmed by people wanting to be healed, or when he gives of himself to bring back someone from the dead.

    Jesus exhausted following many healings

    But, by the time I reached the end of the film, the one thing that stayed with me was that although Joaquin Phoenix is, in many ways, a compelling Jesus – shown through his speech and seen in his eyes – there is still something missing. That something has already been commented upon in previous posts, and is evident in other films. It is joy. This is a Jesus who has no joy. There is no levity, no fun, no pleasure; there is only sadness and a feeling of carrying a burden. And while, clearly, there was a burden to be carried, ultimately, for me, there needs to be joy, for a Jesus without joy is a Jesus who is incomplete.

    The Shack (2017)

    Posted: October 6, 2018 in Sabbatical
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    This is the film adaptation of William Paul Young’s best-selling novel of the same name. It depicts the tragedy that befalls the family of Mack, the protagonist, when his youngest daughter is abducted and murdered, and then how he has an encounter with God when invited back to the shack of both the title and the tragedy.

    The story is powerful and moving and has been well adapted onto the screen, although as with any such adaptation there are some alterations when the two are compared together.

    From left to right: Jesus, Mack, Papa, Sarayu

    The main point of challenge and controversy that both book and film throw up is the fact that God the Father (or Papa as Mack’s wife, Nan, refers to him) is depicted, for most of the time, as a black woman. This one aspect of the story has a tendency to dominate the focus and is a major issue for those who are utterly wedded to the possibility that God can only viewed as a male figure.

    While I have enjoyed reading the book and also enjoyed watching the film, finding that both are able to move me and challenge how we look at God, I didn’t find it the most helpful film to watch in her context of my sabbatical.

    This is because although Jesus is clearly one of the characters in the story, he doesn’t dominate in any way and the focus is turned much more on Mack, Papa, and Sarayu. Of course the fact that Jesus doesn’t dominate at all does, perhaps, speak in some way about how he lives in submission to the will of his father.

    While, in this film, Jesus is clearly much more of the ethnicity one would expect, I found him to lack the sort of charisma that I expect Jesus to have. I think that this comes, in part, because both Papa and Sarayu exude charisma at every moment they are on the screen and so Jesus pales slightly in comparison with both of them. Then again, because the story is much more about Mack, his relationship with Papa, and his incorrect view of Papa, it is, perhaps, necessary that Jesus does take a slightly more background role.

    Out of the collection of films that I’ve gathered together to watch during my sabbatical I decided to start with these two. Being the film versions of musicals they are fairly easy watching, and so a good way to ease myself into the task. As a set of fascinating (or not) facts, they were both released in the same year, and that year also happens to be the year that I was born. If that isn’t reason enough for starting with these films, I don’t know what would be!


    This is a film that is very much of its time, and in many ways it hasn’t aged particularly well. However, as a film version of the original musical, it is still worth watching. It has a very small cast of only ten, and yet it manages to cover a lot of the ground found in its source material, the gospel of Matthew. While it is not as well known as Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell still has a number of good songs in it, with John the Baptist’s ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ being a particular highlight.

    The film is given a contemporary setting in 1970s New York and each of the disciples are called from out of their daily lives within the city. One particularly poignant note for modern viewers is that the then under-construction World Trade Centre is often seen in the background and the song, ‘All for the best’, is performed at the top of one of the towers.

    We only meet Jesus, John the Baptist, and Judas as named characters from the Bible and, interestingly, John and Judas are played by the same actor. The rest of the characters have the same names as the actors playing them and therefore, I assume, seek to portray the everyday people who may have heard the call and decided to follow Jesus.

    Jesus himself is not typical of the sort of character you would expect to see him portrayed as in a film. While he is, as in most western depictions, a white man, he does not have what we might describe as the ‘classic looks’ of a Jesus character such as we meet in Robert Powell’s famous portrayal. Instead, he is a rather weedy and ungainly looking man with a wonderfully permed hairstyle. This is shown here in this clip, where we see him coming to John for baptism. Following his baptism Jesus is then clothed in stripy trousers with red braces and a superman shirt, no doubt symbolic of his mission to save people.

    Alongside the physical attributes of this Jesus are the characteristics that come into focus. I was struck by how he is portrayed with a joyful lightheartedness. This doesn’t seem at all out of place – it certainly fits in with the setting of the film, and is a facet of Jesus’ character that often gets ignored when we think about him. I think this is why the well known image of The Laughing Christ is so powerful.

    The second characteristic that struck me was that of the pathos shown by Jesus in the poignant moments of the film. This is particularly demonstrated in the song ‘By my side’ and in the crucifixion scene of the finale.

    Jesus Christ Superstar

    This is the more well known of these two films. Although made at the same time as Godspell this film is set in the Holy Land and the actors take on the roles of the Biblical characters while dressing in clothing that can be suggested to be an attempt to be authentic.

    The Jesus in this film has the more classically described look of a Western Jesus with long hair and beard, and, in a similar way to Robert Powell’s incarnation, he has powerful eyes.

    In the main this Jesus portrays a gentle side to his character, but there are moments when he shows sparks of anger. One instance is during the song ‘Strange Thing Mystifying’ when he becomes annoyed at Judas’ attitude to how he treats Mary Magdalene. Another is at the cleansing of the temple, as shown here, which takes a number of liberties with the Biblical account but, nevertheless, does show the righteous anger that Jesus displays at the cleansing of the temple.

    Although I rather like the portrayal of Jesus in this film, it is fair to say that not everyone thinks the same way. Indeed the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) cites this piece of trivia in relation to the film:

    In the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards by film critics Michael Medved and Harry Medved, Ted Neeley was given the award for “The Worst Performance by an Actor as Jesus Christ”.


    Posted: September 30, 2018 in Sabbatical

    After having been in ordained ministry for twelve years now (I was ordained on 17 September 2006), I have finally got around to taking my first sabbatical. In the URC, as with many other church denominations, sabbaticals are gifted to ministers every ten years, so I am late in taking this one. However, that doesn’t mean that the next one will come around early!

    Although in many ways it can appear to be so, a sabbatical is not a holiday. Rather, it is an opportunity for a minister to take a break from what may be described as the ‘normal routine of ministry’. This means taking a break from the regular preparation for, and leading of, worship; it means stepping back from the direct pastoral care of the church fellowship and community; it means not having to attend the relentless routine of meetings.

    A sabbatical is meant to be used for refreshment and as preparation for the next stage of ministry. The form and direction that a sabbatical takes can vary. Some use it for academic study, some for travel, some to do voluntary work, whatever one may have an interest in.

    For my sabbatical I am focusing on the portrayal of Jesus in film. I plan to watch a number of different films in which Jesus is specifically set as a character, whether major or minor, and reflect upon how he is portrayed and what aspects of his character are picked up upon. I don’t quite know where this will take me, nor what I will get out of it or do with it in the future, but I hope that it will be an interesting journey, and I hope that I will be able to share some of my thoughts in this blog.

    Top 10 Games Published in 2008

    Posted: January 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

    Once again I’m following the lead of the latest Top Ten from the Dice Tower podcast. Once again it was relatively easy to create the list. However, this time it wasn’t because most of them were also included in my top 50 Games, but simply because there were only ten games from 2008 that I could find that I had actually played. Thus, all I had to do was rank them.

    1. Pandemic
    2. Dixit
    3. Dominion
    4. Strozzi
    5. Say Anything
    6. Snow Tails
    7. Stone Age
    8. Formula D
    9. Mow
    10. Ice Flow

    Having just listened to the latest Dice Tower podcast, where they started their usual look back at games from previous years, I thought that it would be interesting to follow their lead and see what my own top ten from 2013 would be. It turned out that making this list wasn’t particularly difficult as the first seven games in the list all appear on my recently published Top 50 Games. I imagine that there will be some greater variation in future lists should I manage to keep following the pattern.

    Anyway, without further ado, my top ten games published in 2013 (according to Board Game Geek) are:

    1. Viticulture
    2. Concordia
    3. Lewis & Clark
    4. The Little Prince: Make Me A Planet
    5. Bang! The Dice Game
    6. Hanamikoji
    7. Rise of Augustus
    8. Forbidden Desert
    9. Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition
    10. Sushi Go!

    Top 50 Games 2018

    Posted: January 6, 2018 in Games

    As we begin this new year, the final regular post is that of my top fifty games of all time. The idea of ranking my favourite games is still in its infancy, as I’ve only really been doing so since 2015. This means that there is still a lot of flux (not Fluxx) in the list. I would expect that once I’ve been making such a list for a number of years that there will be fewer dramatic changes as there will possibly be less for me to discover.

    For information, let me tell you that this year I had help in the making of the list, in that I used the Board Game Ranking Engine that is freely available on the Pub Meeple web site. This enables you to input a list of games and then proceeds to offer you one-to-one comparisons for you to pick your favourite from. It continues to do this until, by some clever mathematical computer wizardry, it has worked out the order of all the games in your list according to how much you like them. Thus it was that after more than 1400 comparisons, my initial list of 247 games were ranked in order.

    And so, I present you with the top fifty:

    1. Five Tribes (unchanged)
    2. Viticulture (new)
    3. Dominare (new)
    4. The Castles of Burgundy (new)
    5. Whistle Stop (new)
    6. Fresco (up 12)
    7. The Prodigals Club (new)
    8. Castles of Mad King Ludwig (down 5)
    9. Concordia (new)
    10. One Night Ultimate Werewolf (down 8)
    11. Suburbia (down 5)
    12. Small World (down 7)
    13. Agricola (returning – it was #20 in 2015)
    14. Power Grid (up 13)
    15. Great Western Trail (new)
    16. Elysium (up 30)
    17. Pandemic (down 8)
    18. On the Underground (down 5)
    19. Lewis & Clark (new)
    20. Dead of Winter (down 16)
    21. Mission: Red Planet (up 9)
    22. Viceroy (new)
    23. Medieval Academy (down 2)
    24. Firenze (up 2)
    25. Die Macher (down 9)
    26. Airlines Europe (down 4)
    27. Bohnanza (new)
    28. Automania (new)
    29. The Little Prince: Make Me A Planet (down 14)
    30. Dice Forge (new)
    31. Bang! The Dice Game (down 11)
    32. Takenoko (returning – it was #42 in 2016)
    33. Roll for the Galaxy (down 16)
    34. Adrenaline (new)
    35. Thurn und Taxis (returning – it was #34 in 2015)
    36. Istanbul (down 29)
    37. Vikings (returning – it was #39 in 2016)
    38. Innovation (up 7)
    39. KeyFlower (down 3)
    40. Hanamikoji (new)
    41. Deep Sea Adventure (new)
    42. Puerto Rico (returning – it was #19 in 2015)
    43. Pandemic Iberia (down 35)
    44. Mysterium (down 34)
    45. Steampunk Rally (new)
    46. Evolution: Climate (down 8)
    47. Freedom: The Underground Railroad (down 36)
    48. Burgle Bros. (new)
    49. Courtier (down 35)
    50. Rise of Augustus (new)

    Overall, one game remained unchanged – Five Tribes remains my favourite. Six games climbed up the list, which was two more climbers than last year. The greatest climber was Elysium, which claimed a total of thirty places. On top of that, there were fewer games falling down the list – 20 in total, which was eight fewer than last year. Four games, Mysterium, Pandemic Iberia, Courtier, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad, fell the most – 34, 35, 35, and 36 places respectively. Then there were a total of eighteen new games on the list. This was almost the same as the previous year’s total of seventeen. But the most interesting thing was that there were five games that returned to the list after having dropped off for one, or two, years.

    As I’ve already mentioned, I’m still discovering games; some new, and some simply new to me, and this is borne out by the number of new entries that hit the list each year. But, it seems that there is also some consolidation going on, with the resurgence of the five games that had slipped off the list over the last couple of years. Will these returning games be a one-off, or will they be the first of many that will find their way back onto the list as some of the newer games lose a little of their lustre? Only time will tell, and next year’s list may start to provide the answer.