The Young Messiah

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Q. Have you watched any good movies lately?

A. Actually, I have. I watched the movie, The Young Messiah, on Netflix.

Q. What’s it about?

A. It’s based on Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Both the book and the film are fiction, trying to imagine what it was like for Jesus as a child to come to understand who he was.

Q. What do you think about a made-up story about Jesus?

A. Well, I suppose you need to approach the subject cautiously. And this one does. The gospels are mostly about Jesus as an adult. They give us a brief look at Jesus as a baby and a very young child. But then there is no record of anything until he is twelve, attending Passover in Jerusalem. You can understand why someone would want to fill in the details.

Q. What did you like about the movie?

A. For starters, it’s a movie I can recommend without reservations. It’s short. I don’t have to warn anyone about language or tell them about a bad scene. It’s pretty well made.

Q. Anything you didn’t like?

A. I guess in general I don’t like movies about Jesus. The production quality is often low, which is disappointing. And then I don’t like the specificity of one particular actor trying to represent the Son of God. There are too many interpretive issues involved.

Q. What do you mean by interpretive issues?

A. Well, we tend to think of the gospels like a modern biography—where we’re given all sorts of information about a subject’s appearance—their height, weight, hair and skin color, personality, what they were wearing, etc. But the gospels don’t give us any of that sort of information.

And in the gospels we get the words of Jesus and not much more beyond that. We don’t get a lot of characterization—was he smiling when he said that? Did he sound angry? And so the actor that plays Jesus is making decisions in terms of the tone of Jesus that simply aren’t in the text. He is interpreting the text. I prefer having to use my imagination and to think deeply about the words—not see the representation of someone else’s imagination.

Q. So what was different about this movie that you don’t seem to have those objections?

A. This movie is dealing with a subject that has always interested me—what was it like for a young Jesus to come to terms with who he is? Obviously, he was human and didn’t arrive speaking complete sentences. But he was God, which means he had the power of God. And somehow he was an eternal being. Presumably he would not (or could not) sin. How did he relate to other people? The gospels don’t say anything about this. I don’t think it’s wrong to wonder or to try and fill in some of these details.

Q. Were there any surprises in the details?

A. Yeah, I think there were two. One was the presence of Satan in the life of the young Jesus. Satan isn’t always visible to the other characters in the story, but he does influence them. And so this brings a deeply spiritual emphasis to the film. It’s not creepy or spooky, as in a horror film, but we are made aware that there are spiritual realities that we tend to deny in our modern world. Jesus as an adult would be doing battle with evil. His presence in the world as a child was not unknown to dark powers. So I loved that this film represented a reality the Bible presents.

The second surprise was how dangerous the world was for Jesus and how much anxiety his parents felt. Obviously, the danger is represented in the gospel story. God appears to Joseph in a dream and warns him that he needs to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The threat is real and they live with an understandable level of pressure. They are living with both the normal anxieties of parenthood as well as this extra mission of keeping God alive until he is old enough to care for himself. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like. Jesus was a little kid who needed protecting. God speaks to them and gives them a general instruction—”Go to Egypt”—but then all the details are on them. There’s so much of life that Joseph and Mary have to figure out. This, too, feels real.

Q. There’s the age-old question: the book or the movie? Which is better.

A. The book always wins. I’ve seen some enjoyable “based on the book” films, Sully, Remains of the Day, Pride and Prejudice, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the first Harry Potter. In this case, it’s been a long time since I read the Anne Rice book. My memory is that I really enjoyed it. Rice’s research was impeccable. She comes from a Catholic perspective, which has some traditions associated with the child, Jesus—but these so-called “infant narratives” aren’t historical accounts. For example, the scriptures tell us that the first miracle of Jesus was at Cana of Galilee, while the book (and the film) have Jesus performing miracles, although not consciously.

So maybe the fact that it’s been so long since I read the book made this film so much more enjoyable. Something I liked about both the book and the movie—while they are both fictional accounts, they are out to present a historical Jesus. I am behind any enterprise that tries to make the real Jesus known to the world.