WE'VE HAD A RAINY AFTERNOON here in Narnia, and Cailean is recovering (very well) from his leg injury, but still only having short walks, so I decided to watch some television. I don't watch the telly in the daytime very often unless there is some news story that demands attention (there might be a gay elephant in a Polish zoo, or PETA wanting the Pet Shop Boys to change their name to The Animal Rescue Shelter Boys, or the British Home Secretary being caught charging her husband's porn DVD rentals to the taxpayer) as the room tends to be too bright to comfortably watch the screen. However, on this grey-skied day the front room has been quite dark and I was able to get a nice, clear picture.
I switched the telly on and the between-programmes filler had a voice saying: "This being Good Friday, you'd expect to find a film featuring Jesus. We've got one…" And it was to be "The Greatest Story Ever Told", originally released in 1965.
I saw TGSET back in 1967. How is it that I recall that? Because it was the first movie I ever went to with a friend I met back in the late spring of 1967. And what did I remember about the film? That it was long, that Jesus had blue eyes (of course, and he always wrote in red ink, don't you know), and that the scene where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead was extraordinarily moving, even to a teenager.
Somehow, over the past 42 years since seeing TGSET in the Rosebank Theatre in Bermuda (curiously, the Rosebank site is now a bank, complete with financial worries in 2009); I've actually not seen the film apart from the briefest of glimpses when it has run on the television.
Today I decided to stay with Channel 4 for their Jesus Feature … a bit for Old Time's Sake, a bit out of complacency … and I pulled a rug over my feet (and over the top of Cailean, who prefers to sleep under covers) and set the BT Vision Box (this is a broadband feature I subscribe to) so that the film would be recorded if I wanted to pause it and take a toilet break.
TGSET begins with the production information one might expect at the end, and everyone (and his dog) was in this film. The dog barked when Lazarus was raised and Sal Mineo went running through his dusty desert neighbourhood crying out: "Jesus has raised the dead!" I imagine the credits rolled early on because the viewers, after three hours of the film itself, might not have stayed to see who the grips were.
A great deal has happened in what might be termed my Spiritual Life over the past forty years. I suppose the major event would have been my conversion to Mormonism in the early 1970s. More recently I have wandered off into Outer Darkness. I have read a great many books with a spiritual or religious message or content, I have taught Sunday school, preached sermons, given a few obituaries and presided at my mother's funeral. I've had highs and lows to the extreme. Sometimes, at night, this year, I wake up (or I've been awake, unable to get to sleep) and I've said aloud: "Father, are you there?"
One of the Mormon General Authorities told his personal story of feeling disconnected from God and how he asked that question: "Are you there, Father?" And his Father, his God, did respond. Mine hasn't. If he does, I trust it will be gently, perhaps in a dream, rather than having a prophetic angel beam down through my ceiling in laser-lights and scaring the Bejesus out of me.
As it is, I remain in a state of disconnection. Waiting. Sometimes posing the question. Perhaps hoping. And why should I be caring at all? I guess it is because I have unfinished business with dead family and friends. I'd rather like to see my mother again, my father too, and to have the seven dogs and one cat of my life running around my feet. If just for a few minutes. Is that odd? Unusual? Am I human after all?
I was surprised at how curiously constructed TGSET is. The scenes are like so many moving paintings hung next to each other in some dusty (well, sandy) gallery. Backdrops are peculiar, almost unnatural at times (and I have lived in the wilderness of the desert in Southwest Utah), and features are overstated. It's very artistic. There is some effort to stick to Bible dialogue, even to the King James Version which is the only one I subscribe to (if it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me), though the Pauline scriptures appeared as we neared the end, with Jesus preaching that Hope, Faith and Charity discourse which I think really does belong on Saint Paul's page.
John the Baptist performed a complete dunk. That pleased me from a Mormon point of view: I don't think people clambered down into the River Jordan (so deep and wide, alleluia) to get sprinkled. Baptism symbolises rebirth, and you've got to get right into it. If baptism is just a cross on the forehead or a splash of blessed water, why not just fill in a form on the Internet and get a certificate in the next post if you want a hard copy? Like those instant preacher certifications; start your own church. No. Get wet! Just like in TGSET.
The miracles (magic!) were understated in the film version, and that was probably a good idea before computer generated images. No throngs of angels overhead; no water into red, red wine; no bread and fishes for the masses; no mud in the eye for the blind man; no strolls on the Lake. The second most appealing miracle happens when someone touches Jesus' coat and cries out: "I'm healed!" We don't know what her problem was. Jesus just whispers: "Your faith made you whole." I don't think the Church of England, in which I was raised, really believes in Jesus' miracles (or in the Old Testament miracles and peculiar happenings with UFOs and the like) … preferring to just say that things happened in the spirit of a miracle. Perhaps the wine was there in the jugs all along, but nobody knew.
In TGSET, the Last Supper was laid out like the famous paintings. Do we really know that these folks sat along one side of a trestle table, not around something so as to be more intimate? There was no sign, in this film, of Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper, so Leonardo da Vinci's vision was ignored. Sorry about that, Dan Brown. At the Last Supper, bread was broken, wine was served. The Mormons performed a miracle with the water and the wine: Water is mandated at the Mormon sacrament, though they originally did use red, red wine. A word from the Prophet and it was changed to clear, clear water. Perhaps he feared the wrath of grapes; perhaps they just couldn't get enough of the good stuff.
Concerning Mary Magdalene: In TGSET Mary is cast as the prostitute. I think that if one carefully reads the gospels, there is no suggestion at all that Mary of Magdalene had been, or was, a prozzie. This unpleasant character flaw has become traditional (and convenient if you're looking for a name for laundries forcibly employing unwed mothers), as have many other Bible names, events and places. Can anyone give me the Bible verse which names the Three Kings? In fact, were there three of them?
To my delight, the raising of Lazarus was the highlight of the film almost 42 years after I was last much-moved by it. There's no hocus-pocus, no industrial light and magic, no secret prayer or handshake. Rather, Jesus in the entrance to Lazarus' tomb bidding the dead man to come forth, and then startled people in the crowd reacting when he does. And Sal Mineo running, running, running, the dog barking: "He has raised the dead!" I was very nearly overcome, and flung back to 1967. I'll probably telephone the friend I saw TGSET with back then with tonight and tell him all this.
I'm not sure that I believe the Bible to be a true history, or that the words are the unalterable word of God, or even that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The Old Testament is weirder than Harry Potter, but with more Mean Guys (starting with the LORD). Jesus is credited with any number of predictions and the only one that really holds up is that he came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. And some monk might have dreamt that up when there were Romans hacking at people outside his hut.
There is an extraordinary book by James E Talmage called "Jesus the Christ" (first published in 1915, still available from Deseret Press) that explains what the New Testament accounts of Jesus are about. The whys and wherefores. Apart from an opening chapter that mentions Mormon doctrinal belief that there is a Pre-Existence and that Jesus, an individual separate from God the Father, existed there (along with you and me), the book is very nearly Mormon-free. The events are discussed, the parables explained, the story is placed in context. It is one of the finest books I have ever read. (And very readable.)
Another afternoon that I trust I've not frittered away. My thoughts after watching TGSET include wondering if Judas was, in some way, the hero of the story. He is certainly the scapegoat (everyone blames the scapegoat, as one wit put it). Without Judas' "betrayal" there would have been no crucifixion, no resurrection, no atonement, no eternal life for you and me (assuming we believe). The poor man had that terrible job to do. Imagine the love he felt for his Master, so great that he could play the part he did. Peter was prevaricating and lying, but Judas spoke the truth: "This is the man!"
The life of Judas might be the second greatest story ever told.