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Fictional and factual representations of Christ in literature and film

The passion and crucifixion of Christ is without a doubt one of the most oft-told stories in the world. Congregations all over the world hear this account every Easter; and in many places, the crucifixion and the toil of Christ’s staggering journey to Golgotha are enacted every Good Friday.

These enactments and the retelling we hear every year are based on the Gospel accounts and give us a witness account of the events of Holy Week and Easter. These were the sources used in Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ, which portrayed the exceptional gruesomeness of crucifixion. His visually wrenching depiction brought home the savagery of crucifixion in a way that shocked people. However there was nothing gratuitous or over-exaggerated about film. It was, in fact, a realistic portrayal of the common practice of Crucifixion, which was used as a form of punishment and state terrorism.

There are many portrayals of Christ in literature and film. In some, such as The Robe, Christ’s appearance is brief but central to the story. Others such as Mel Gibson’s film and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), emphasise the redemptive story of Christ’s passion.

Despite what some atheists say, Christ was an historic figure. Even for the non-religious he is an intriguing figure and is depicted in fictional literature, and film in intriguing ways.

The Chosen was a fortuitous find for many families this year. A dramatisation of the life of Jesus and his followers, it has run three seasons so far. It is funded through an innovative “fan-owned” funding method where viewers are encouraged to pay for the next person to watch it.

The characters are likeable. Jesus, played by Jonathan Roumie, is humble and very ordinary when interacting with people on a personal level, but is transformed when speaking to a crowd or, to his learned opponents. The inexplicable seems to just happen around him, a thing he explains as the will of the Father.

His followers act foolishly sometimes and bicker about foolish things. Unlike Mel Gibson’s film we don’t see the brutish reality of the violence that underpins Roman authority. It’s a fine program for children because the dramatising of the mundane through simple characters, dramatises Christ’s message in visual parable fashion.

Soviet Era Russian writer, Mikhail Bulgakov, gives a fascinating fictional depiction of Christ in The Master and Margarita, which despite the strictly Marxist mandates of secularist antireligion of the soviet politburo, still manages to make a convincing argument that God is real.

His novel is set in the state sponsored theatre and arts community of Moscow in the times of Stalin.  Into this scene, Satan appears in the guise of a professor and a stage magician, and he proceeds to wreak havoc. This leads to very funny situations because, as the devil does the inexplicable, the Marxist propagandists must come up with rationalisations for how this happens.

A talking cat burns a house down which was filled with KGB agents trying to arrest him. A theatre manager tries to explain, through the lens of Marxist-Leninist science, the appearance from mid-air of thousands and thousands of ten rouble notes; only to then have his head pulled off by the talking cat. The only logical thing to do here is to go mad, and so the directors of Muscovite Arts all die or go completely mad.

So if the Devil exists, surely God also must exist? Or maybe everyone is just mad?

In Bulgakov’s novel, another extraordinary, but unnoticed, thing occurs in Moscow at this time. A promising writer, known as The Master, writes a fictional account of Pontius Pilate; an account which though of fine literal quality, was censored by the communist censors of Moscow’s state publishers. The writer, in despondence, end up in the asylum where he meets the characters who are entwined in Satan’s plots. Satan learns about the book, and confirms that everything The Master had written of Pilate was accurate to what he had witnessed – including the persecution of Christ, the son of his eternal enemy.

Christ, in The Master and Margarita, is a character secondary to Pilate. Brought before the Roman Procurator he is scared but seems to read in Pilate that he suffers in ways that he has hidden to the world. Seeing that this young mendicant has an ability to heal, as Pilate’s pain goes when Jesus is in his presence, Pilate desires to have Christ spared and tries to convince the Jews to have him pardoned. We all know what happens at this point.

The Master and Margarita 1/10 ( Time stamp 19mins

Christ is an unfamiliar figure in this story. This might not be surprising, as Bulgakov wrote this story in the 1930’s while Stalin was conducting a genocidal terror on the people of Russia, and so Bulgakov might not have wished to write anything affirming of Christ’s divinity. In the end he never published the book during his or Stalin’s lifetime. It was published posthumously in 1967.

There is a comical reflection of this in his novel because when Satan, disguised as a German professor named Woland,  introduces himself to Moscow’s chief literary critics, he interrupts them in a discussion where they are talking about a commissioned poem. The poem was ostensible about Christ, but was supposed to mock Christ and disprove his existence. Woland then informs them that that premise is ridiculous because he had witnessed Christ’s persecution himself.

Bulkakov’s Christ is depicted as a sort of uncanny reader of humanity. Pilate realises that this healer might be his saviour but is compelled to have him executed nonetheless.

Pilate is then burdened with the conscience of a man who has killed the saviour and he is left in a limbo where he is eternally travelling up a pathway to the light while never reaching it. A Jacob’s ladder that never has an eschaton.

Bulgakov skirts the censors cleverly by asserting the reality of evil embodied as Satan. Satan the tempter and the father of lies exists as the destructive negation of the good; a counter to Christ and God. For Satan to exist, God must exist.

Bulgakov, it could be argued, was making a savage critique of the Godless soviets and Stalin’s inhuman world of humanist values – values defined by the will to power of people who had rejected moral good.  

This echoes the Satan of Milton: a being who encourages man to become his own God and to create his own moral order; the very antithesis of Christ.

Lorcán Mac Mathúna
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