MANY years ago, David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham, landed in trouble for apparently saying the resurrection was “a conjuring trick with bones”. It didn’t help that he had actually said the resurrection was not just such a magical act, designed to get rid of the body. Jenkins recognised that the resurrection had to mean something as well.
This is a problem for popular culture, and especially for cinema, where things have to be depicted: “show, not tell” is the film-maker’s mantra. But how does one show something like the resurrection without its becoming a matter of finding somewhere to dispose of a body?
And if the film-maker is not clear what resurrection is supposed to mean, how can it mesh with God’s purposes for either humanity or creation as a whole? The result is to make resurrection seem peripheral.
The solution escaped Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ. The resurrection sequence is beautifully photographed and choreographed, the camera following the spinning sunlight inside the tomb as the stone is rolled away, coming to rest on the grave clothes just as they lose their contents (Jesus’s body), and deflate.
Critics, who hated Gibson’s emphasis on the suffering of Jesus, and the anti-Semitic tendencies that could be read into his depiction of Pilate and the Jews, were not mollified by this sequence: it feels tacked-on, with Jesus’s resurrected body represented by a good scrub and hair-brushing. In a film, too, which revelled in the physicality of Christ’s suffering, Gibson’s depiction of Christ’s resurrected body, by contrast, literally lacked substance: it felt unreal.
Mark Dornford-May’s Son of Man updates and translates the Chester Mystery Plays to the townships of southern Africa. Jesus is a freedom fighter, murdered, and “disappeared” into a shallow grave by the ruling junta.
The resurrection here takes the form of his dead body displayed to the whole world on a hill-top cross, as a form of civil defiance led by Mary, his mother. Next the film-maker depicts Jesus, alive and climbing a steep slope, followed by crowds of angel-children, then turning to face the world and raise his fist in a freeze-frame call for rebellion. The resurrection, if that is what it is, comes before, or instead of, the crucifixion.
Scripturally and biologically, it makes no sense: emotionally, it is profoundly moving. Christ’s resurrection, we sense, will mean something for us, for the world, and for the powers that be.
Perhaps it is easier today to create a stronger theology of resurrection outside an explicitly Christian framework. The recent animated film The Song of the Sea takes up several strands of Irish folklore, in particular those surrounding the figure of the selchie or selkie, the grey seal who can be trapped in human form — usually in marriage — if separated from her sealskin coat.
The film goes well beyond tradition, however, in a number of ways. In this story, the selchie has a song that she must sing or die, a song that will restore the connection between the magical world of legend and the ordinary world, and which will bring back to full life various magical creatures who are turning slowly, inexorably, to stone.
It is interesting, here, to see the power of resurrection conveyed primarily through music, as creation often is depicted in film. In this particular case, too, the music is not abstract, but a song incarnated and communicated through the body of a unique singer, which brings about healing, restoration, connection, and new life.
We can see the effects of resurrection. The process itself is much harder to depict, especially in a medium such as film, which uses photographic representations of reality. The resurrection cannot be shown within such a material form. But we need resurrection; we need it more than ever, and we need it to matter.
If, in that endeavour, we find ourselves trying to imagine the unimaginable, depict the undepictable, then that is precisely why art and music become, not options, but necessities.
The Revd Dr Justin Lewis-Anthony is Associate Dean of Students and Director of Anglican Studies, and Dr Hannah Matis is Assistant Professor of Church History, both at Virginia Theological Seminary.