SITTING down to watch the Lumo Project’s DVD Gospel series, it felt like a world première. It is amazing to think that, in a world saturated with film adaptations, this is the very first word-for-word rendition of all four Gospel texts.
In 1978, the actor Alec McCowen performed the whole of Mark’s Gospel on stage, which can still be sourced on DVD. Although impressive, it was essentially filmed theatre rather than possessing the cinematic dimensions of this current series of Gospel films. Even Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) does not include every verse. Most films conflate all four canonical Gospels, and then further condense the narrative, drawing on what best suits the dramatic conceits of screenwriters and directors. It can be a questionable business.
Yet, in the spirit of the maxim “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words,” film is usually more about showing than telling. The Lumo films, an educational resource designed to promote biblical literacy, directed by the award-winning documentary-maker David Batty, manages to pull off something quite remarkable in including all the words. Besides the DVD, the streaming service Netflix is planning to show them, and The Gospel of John was screened on BBC TV last Easter.
A SINGLE voice narrates each Gospel, and each DVD offers the choice of hearing the Authorised King James Version (AKJV), or the New International Version (NIV). There is a different reader for each Gospel and each translation, resulting in a huge pool of narrators, including Richard E. Grant, Sir Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, and David Harewood.
There are definite advantages to this approach of using a different narrator for each version. It enables us — perhaps for the first time — to recognise that each Gospel has its own distinct authorial voice, literary style, and theological preoccupations. And, of course, these are not just audio recordings, but imaginative visualisations.
Selva Rasalingam (who recently played Azad in the BBC TV drama The Missing) plays a softly spoken Jesus, conversing in what we assume is Aramaic. Hannah Leader, the film’s producer, who is also a Sunday-school teacher, told me that Rasalingam actually made up a language of his own which approximates to Aramaic. In the same way, Morocco — the filming location — approximates to Palestine, although it looks authentic enough.
MS LEADER (who worked on the film Gosford Park) had long been frustrated by the poor standard of gospel educational resources, and so vowed to bring the production values of her professional filmmaking career into the world of biblical media. “I started Lumo to bring the two parts of my life together. On the one hand, I was a feature-film professional, and, on the other, a Christian, but the two lives never touched.
“Everywhere I looked, all I found were second-rate film resources, and it was so unfair. The children I taught deserved so much better. They could go to the cinema and watch their superheroes in 3D; yet when they came to church, all I could offer them was poorly produced cartoons”.
She is enthusiastic about spreading a better understanding of the historical Jesus, and helping to dispel the stereotypical image of Jesus as a blue-eyed, fair-haired Western figure.
Rasalingam fits the role well. “What fascinated me about taking the part of Jesus was the constant struggle between man and God, between the human and the divine”, he said. “For an actor, that is an incredibly exciting challenge”. There is an argument, however, that, just as each evangelist is given a different voice, we need a different actor for each Gospel’s protagonist. After all, there may have been one Jesus, but the four Evangelists give us different Christs.
BY USING a voice-over to stand in for the character’s speech rather than hearing their words directly, the filmmakers are able to select what is shown, and also provide additional imagery. So, for example, the Lucan dramatisation opens with a depiction of an old man (the evangelist, presumably) dictating to his amanuensis.
He is seen consulting a scroll — perhaps one of the sources, sometimes called “Q” — or perhaps Mark’s account, which apparently Luke both relied on and embellished. This adds an interesting, possibly debatable element to what could have been a straightforward introduction to the Gospel.
When we reach the point of the annunciation — because of the use of a narrator — we do not expect to hear Gabriel’s own voice. This spares us from wondering what an archangel would sound like, and from disputing the actor’s attempt at it.
Indeed, the film goes even further, and denies us sight of the heavenly messenger, which is possibly a more honest interpretation, as, after all, Luke gives no description. The directors did decide to bathe Mary in starlight, and raise a little dust in the process. We may be getting an “accurate” word-for-word version of the texts, but there was still plenty of interpretative decision-making in the creation of these films.
THE same goes for the journey to Bethlehem. Joseph is shown lifting Mary on to a donkey, but you will look in vain among the nativity narratives for any mention of animals, either for Mary to sit on, or in the stable. It is a tradition that goes back to at least 1223, when St Francis imagined the first Christmas crib. This film, however, opts for the donkey but chooses not show the Holy Family in the stable.
It is also interesting, cinematically, that the films play with time through the use of flash-forwards. So, when the shepherds are addressed by the heavenly host (not a feathery wing in sight, by the way), we are immediately shown the men worshipping at the manger. Time speeds up: clouds and stars race across the night sky.
The same approach is used to demonstrate Jesus’s genealogy in the Matthew DVD; the rapid montage of shots conveys a sense of living, breathing forebears rather than just a dull list. On its own, however, this presentation of Jesus’s ancestors offers no additional insight as to the significance of Jesus’s origins in Abraham.
Similarly, the section showing the journey of the Magi fails to teach us anything about the powerful message that the God of Israel is, in Christ, for all people of every nation. One feels that some more detail is needed in these parts to pick out the nuances of what the Evangelists are implying.
PARADOXICALLY, then, the virtue of treating each Gospel separately also presents challenges. What composite portrait of Jesus do viewers obtain? This is easier to achieve without having to reconcile the differences in each Gospel narrative. After all, the Gospels are not biographies but rather written so that we may believe.
We see the problem acutely in the crucifixion scenes, specifically in Jesus’s words uttered on the cross. The creators have used the same footage in all four movies — tweaked slightly to emphasise any unique aspects in each Gospel — and the result is a bias towards Mark and Matthew’s version of events.
We see a more submissive Christ: the Jesus who utters a cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Therefore, any intentions of Luke and John to convey fresh understandings — a serene Christ, or one triumphant in the face of death who declares “It is finished” — are largely overshadowed.
Controversies over the resurrection are also minimised. Images of earthquakes, celestial light, and the reactions of the disciples take precedence. Viewers will be divided as to how well it works. But then — a neat touch in the Luke DVD — after the risen Christ “leaves” the supper party, we see that he is still with them, out of sight but always looking after them.
THE short workbooks included with each Gospel film try to remedy the occasional lack of nuance in the project. The theologian and author Ben Irwin provides a brief outline of the concerns of each Gospel, and there are half a dozen areas of discussion for individual reflection or group discussion on each.
Noticeably, however, not once in all four workbooks is there any serious attempt to compare the alternative translations of each Gospel, and to ask whether what we hear makes any difference to how we see. This seems odd, given the deliberate effort to include a choice of versions. Lion Hudson has said that it is planning more thorough discussion guides at some future date, with more attention given to translations and how they affect our perceptions.
For, indeed, if we do not ask these questions, there is a danger that we look down a well 2000 years deep, only to see our own reflection at the bottom. These Gospel DVDs go some way towards challenging our complacency, and help us to look again at the Good News with fresh eyes.
For more information visit www.lumoproject.com.