Friday, August 26, 2011

What Would Jesus Say?

“Martha?” he said, “how often have you repeated the Psalm, The Lord is my Shepherd? Well, think of me as your good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. A hired hand, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and runs away. he leaves the sheep to be snatched and scattered by the wolf. He flees because he cares nothing for the sheep. I will never do that to you.”

Jesus in “The Book of God” by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Yes, it is Homeboy Jesus!

My friend, Chan, came up with a killer idea for an opening illustration for his speech. His audience would be a group of teachers and he was assigned the job of discussing the new classroom guidelines for correcting student misbehavior. His idea: recount the Sermon on the Mount speaking as Jesus with the disciples interrupting him in the same manner a student might interrupt a teacher.

The illustration was masterful and incredibly funny. I almost fell out of my chair and I will not share the specifics of the speech with you other than to say he concluded it with the words: “And Jesus wept!”

He received one negative critique of his presentation from our communication workshop. What would people in the audience think about him putting words in the mouth of Jesus? We should only use the actual words of Christ from the Scriptures, right?

I have often faced this dilemma in my writing, particularly if it is a historical or period piece taking place at the time of Christ. How do you handle Jesus’ dialogue? Is it appropriate to make up dialogue that Jesus might have said? Or, is doing so tantamount to blasphemy? In fact, can you even show Jesus to the audience? How do you describe him physically?

These questions are good ones and we often wrestle with how to deal with putting words in the mouth of Jesus, or for that matter, God. In fact, I have a hierarchy. God first, Jesus second, the disciples third and then it is fair game for anyone else. Certainly the author of such books as The Shack had no problem putting words in the mouth of God or Jesus. And, I just finished Imaginary Jesus where lots of dialogue was put in the mouths of various Jesuses (or is it Jesi?).

I ran across an interesting series of blog posts by Anna Lewis. In her posts, Anna discusses the challenge of creating Jesus on the stage. In her play, she wrestles with the conundrum of the silent, but visual Jesus and the visible but audible Jesus. She references the American history professor, Robert Detweiler with this conclusion:

Detweiler argues that the proselytizing nature of Christianity is at odds with writing good literature about Jesus. The religious writer, he states, “finds himself caught in an uneasy liaison: the doctrinal Jesus he propagandizes and the symbolic Christ he tries to fashion invariably get in the way of each other, so that eventually both the art and the all-important message of his story suffer.”

In her play, she chooses to demonstrate Jesus with unconventional, but modern activities such as skateboarding in order to connect Jesus to her audience. But, she never puts a word in Jesus’ mouth:

Jesus doesn’t say a word in the whole play. Ironically, after distancing the audience from Jesus as a doctrinal figure and making him seem a true character, silencing Jesus allows the audience to apply their own perceptions of Jesus to the staged Jesus. Whenever Jesus communicates, the audience cannot hear him. They are required to hear the interpretation of what he says given by the other characters, none of whom is reliable. This allows the audience a certain amount of freedom in ascribing meaning to the stage Jesus. Instead of having to reconcile the stage Jesus’s words and tone with their own imagined deity, they are allowed to interpret his actions as they may.

In the written word, authors may choose to show Jesus from a distance or to have Jesus appear in a vision or dream thus distancing the fictional Jesus from the real Jesus to achieve this purpose.

So, what is the solution? I really can’t say. I’d like to hear from other authors on this issue. Do we put words in the mouth of God as moviemakers did in “Bruce Almighty”? Can we put words in the mouth of Jesus? Here is Anna’s final decision:

So the greatest dilemma in writing my play was to keep my audience from walking out on me. I want to emphasize again, that I am not talking merely about a conservative, Christian audience. Knowing my audience is imaginary makes it much larger. It’s not only that I don’t want my audience to feel I’ve betrayed their beloved image of Jesus, but I also don’t want them to think that I have turned him into the saccharine-sweet, happy-ending-maker that will be predictable to them.

How do we “keep the audience” from putting aside our stories and walking away? How do we handle depicting Jesus or God in our fiction?


Caroline said...

Some good tho'ts to think about. thanks for bringing up the subject.


Beth Shriver said...

Bruce, I appreciate your thoughts on this. Because we are Christian writers writing our faith into our stories is part of what we do but I agree that we have to be mindful of not being preachy etc. Interesting post:)

Jillian Kent said...

Thanks Bruce,
We've got to keep it real. I've never dealt with having to put words in the mouth of Jesus. If it's fiction, then it's fiction and you do the best you can to portray what you feel and think is important. Very thought provoking post.