John the Baptist in Various Faith-Traditions and Art

Last night's final class for the SoL Center was a fun one! I ventured outside of my expertise regarding John the Baptist into other areas of interest: namely, John's representation in other faith-traditions and art. I chose to talk about John's meaning in Islam, Mandaeism, and Mormonism because (1) these groups have holy writings other than the New Testament and (2) they mention John. Quick word of clarification: I did not deny that the LDS are a Christian group. Their inclusion in this final talk has to do with their writings that aren't shared by other Christians, especially the Doctrines and the Covenants. 

The second half looked at John's representation in music, film, paint, and sculpture. The class seemed to have enjoyed the content immensely and I enjoyed teaching it! For those who are interested, here are my notes and the ppt from last night: LePort. SoL Center. John the Baptist Then and Now Wk3 (Word) (PDF). (All the pictures were accessed via a Google search.)

Celluloid John the Baptist: Zeffirelli's 1977 Jesus of Nazareth (abbreviated)

Mark Goodacre has inspired me. As you may know he enjoys watching Jesus films. (His list can be accessed here: Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Films Web Pages). We can learn a lot about how people have read and interpreted the Bible and Christian tradition by observing what is included and excluded from these films, how characters are portrayed, etc. Well, I've decided it would be fun to do what Prof. Goodacre has been doing, but with an eye on how John the Baptist is portrayed. Since Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth is on Netflix I began there.

English actor Michael York plays John. The first mention of John is an adaption of Luke's gospel. Mary visits Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps, Elizabeth bless Mary as the father of the messiah, etc. Then the child John is presented as being circumcised and named. We don't hear of John again until there is a scene of a scribe reading Isaiah 40, which serves as the transition to John's preaching along the river.

He is shaggy in appearance, especially his hair. His preaching is a mixture of rage and compassion, warning against a coming judgment while gracefully offering forgiveness to participants of his baptism. John warns the people against relying on "rituals" such as going to the temple and offering sacrifices. This feels a little bit Protestant in its polemic, though John as an anti-temple prophet is an interesting, and possibly historical, interpretation of his preaching.

John's preaching focuses on the hearts of the people. Crowds rush to him, evoking visually what Josephus and the Evangelists suggest when they present John as being wildly popular with the people. John's baptism washes away sins as he says, "Let this water wash away your sins," while baptizing.

The best scene is the one when Herod Antipas' train is passing through the region. John begins to yell at Antipas, rebuking him for his marriage to Herodias, Herodias is depicted on a couple of occasions as trying to convince Antipas to do something about John. Antipas replies that John is harmless, he's been in the wilderness all these years, and he doesn't want anything (as made evident by his poverty). Antipas mentions the inability to arrest John until he is back in Galilee, suggesting that the reason for the delay had to do with jurisdiction. When John screams at Antipas there is a shot of spit flying out of his mouth. Either he is unstable or extremely passionate and angry! 

 John the Baptist in  Jesus of Nazareth  (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

John the Baptist in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

John's preaching focuses on the hearts of the people. Crowds rush to him, evoking visually what Josephus and the Evangelists suggest when they present John as being wildly popular with the people. John's baptism washes away sins as he says, "Let this water wash away your sins," while baptizing.

The best scene is the one when Herod Antipas' train is passing through the region. John begins to yell at Antipas, rebuking him for his marriage to Herodias, Herodias is depicted on a couple of occasions as trying to convince Antipas to do something about John. Antipas replies that John is harmless, he's been in the wilderness all these years, and he doesn't want anything (as made evident by his poverty). Antipas mentions the inability to arrest John until he is back in Galilee, suggesting that the reason for the delay had to do with jurisdiction. When John screams at Antipas there is a shot of spit flying out of his mouth. Either he is unstable or extremely passionate and angry! 

  John the Baptist and Jesus in   Jesus of Nazareth   (1977). Source:   excerptsofinri.com

John the Baptist and Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

He yells "God led you back from Babylon to serve him, but you betrayed him. Now you're warned: flee! flee!" Again, John wafts back and forth between judgment and mercy (much like the Gospels). Men and women respond to John coming to him for baptism. Eventually Jesus arrives in a very Matthean/Lukan way: John says Jesus should baptize him, but Jesus says the baptism must be done. The words "This is my beloved son in whom I'm well pleased" comes from John's mouth after he looks into the sky and sees a dove flying. Then the Johannine version of the story is integrated with John pointing out Jesus to Andrew and Philip saying that Jesus is "the Lamb of God." John tells them they need to follow Jesus: "It is him you must follow now, not me. He must increase and I must decrease." 

As Jesus departs and Andrew and Philip scurry behind him soldiers from Antipas descend upon the area to arrest John. His final words are "My time is over." He is arrested and Jesus is told, but that's the final scene with John in the abbreviated version (according to Goodacre the full version is 382 minutes while the version available on Netflix is 269 minutes). John "appears" twice more: First, Jesus uses his "brood of vipers" comments and later as the Sanhedrin debates what to do with Jesus one person lumps Jesus in with other failed prophets saying, "We've heard it all, from John the Baptist and others."

Although I don't have access to the extended version, I did find this clip from it where John and Antipas have a Jesus-Pilate moment. Antipas is distraught that he has imprisoned John. He wants to buy off John, to give him power. But, of course, John says he's come to announce the one who will be King. Most interesting here is when Antipas asks what John would do if set free. He says he'd follow Jesus.

John plays an important role in Zeffirelli's film. He is the forerunner to Jesus. He is wildly popular among the crowds. He haunts Antipas. Overall, not a bad cameo. 

 

 

Last Week Today (recommended reading for 03/08/2015)

Selma

Last night I went with my wife and a couple of her friends to see Selma. I don't have words sufficient to describe the beauty and power of this film. I do know that the snub from the Oscars is a damn shame. It is an indictment on those who nominate, not the film itself. Ava DuVernay has created a masterpiece. Frequently, David Oyelowo's portrayal of Dr. King drew me into feeling like I was watching a documentary rather than an reenactment. Carmen Ejogo played a powerful, strong queen Coretta Scott King whom she resembles. I won't say anything that would be a spoiler. Readers know the history behind the film (with debates here and there over the resistance from President L.B. Johnson), so that cannot be spoiled, but I will say that DuVernay included several scene that were just jarring. The film was humanizing and it didn't feel like we were watching something that told us mere lessons about the past, but also about the present, as Selma mirrors Ferguson in the tactics used by protestors, the debates over those methods, and the response of our militarized police. Go see this film. See it for the history. See it for how it speaks to the present. See it for what it tells us about our future.

[image source: selmamovie.com]

Five Favorite Films of 2014

My five favorite films of 2014 are as follows:

(5) The Fault in Our Stars: Gut wrenching, emotional roller-coaster of a film, but quite insightful as regards how we humans approach death and dying.

(4) The Grand Budapest Hotel: It's a Wes Anderson film. That's about all I need to say.

(3) Gone Girl: Creepy, disturbing, but unique.

(2) Noah: I'm interested when Hollywood tries to retell stories from the Bible. This one was done quite well. Far better than Exodus: Gods and Kings.

(1) The Book of Life: Beautiful story regarding death, memory, ancestors, and tradition with amazing animation. The narrative invites children younger and older into a world of colorful imagination.

Top honorary mention: The Giver. Films I didn't get to see, but that I imagine may have been added to this list include Birdman, Dear White People, Interstellar, Selma, and I'm sure a handful of others. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if there is a film or two I watched that I forgot, but the fact that those listed came to mind easily says a lot about their impact. 

New at BSCL: Did Noah Fail Humanity?

My second post on Bible Study and the Christian Life (BSCL) went live today. It is titled, "Did Noah Fail Humanity?". Here is an excerpt:

Aronofsky’s interpretation of the story of Noah forces us to ask, “What if Noah would have challenged God’s decision to destroy the earth? What if Noah would have allowed people onto the ark? Would God have honored Noah’s decision?” Now, Aronofsky’s movie is an interpretation of Genesis and Genesis traditions, not Genesis itself, but did he have good reason to tell the story as he did? I think so. This is why in my last post I presented the idea that Torah itself presents Noah as an inferior mediator to Abraham, who bartered with God, and even more so Moses, who was willing to sacrifice himself with the nation rather than give God the opportunity to start afresh with Moses.

To read the full post go here.

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