The American film Jesus (1979) is not only the most watched film in history, but has also become a global tool for evangelism. The reason it remains so popular is not because of the film itself but rather what evangelical Christians have made of it.
Religious films gaining popularity in West Africa
Since its invention, film has always had a touch of magic. This seems all the more evident for religious films that depict divine intervention and other things not usually accessible to the eye, whether they come from Hollywood, Bollywood or Nollywood. Across West Africa such films have become popular thanks to affordable digital technologies, which have now reached even remote and rural areas, such as Cobly in the Republic of Benin. In my PhD thesis A religion of film I study this phenomenon, focusing on Christian films, such as the American evangelical film Jesus (1979, John Heyman) and the Pentecostal Beninese video film Yatin: lieu de souffrance (2002, Christine Madeleine Botokou).
Jesus film loved by all
Both of these films remain popular in the Cobly area. I wasn’t surprised to find that people were interested in Yatin, since the film is part of the Nollywood phenomenon and thus directly and culturally relevant. In spite of the film’s popularity, however, I also found that people were ambivalent towards it, since by visualizing witchcraft and other powers of darkness it renders a potential threat more manifest. When it comes to the film Jesus, everybody I interviewed liked it and most viewers, including a Muslim, claimed that it was their favorite among the films I researched. I didn’t expect this level of interest in an American film that film scholars usually consider mediocre. This motivated me to find out more about it.
'The Word of God on film'
The USA-based evangelical JESUS Film Project, a subsidiary of Cru, continues to push their 1979 film as a tool for global evangelism. Part of their strategy has been to raise the film to the status of Scripture itself, claiming it to be 'the Word of God on film'. As a result, in 2003 the BBC and 2004 the New York Times designated Jesus the most watched and most “translated” film in history. Maybe more interestingly, the JESUS Film Project reports that billions of people have viewed the film and claims that over 200 million people “indicated decisions for Christ following a film showing”, according to their statistics website (for November 2014). Such statistics are crucial to their distribution strategy, since they reduce the supposed evangelistic efficiency of the film to neat and impressive numbers, thereby raising the interest of many evangelicals. In more secular circles, on the other hand, the statistics may at best raise eyebrows and prompt questions of appropriate media usage and cultural imperialism.
'Just a man doing good things'
Back in Cobly, people who watched the film Jesus like it simply because of the drama of a man who does interesting and good things and is nevertheless put to death. For Christians it’s clear that the white guy is Jesus, the Son of God. Seeing him in the film, some claimed, helped them to gain a better understanding of who he is, thereby deepening their faith. Viewers who had little or no knowledge of Christianity equally liked the film for the good deeds of the protagonist, even though for some it wasn’t even clear that the film was Christian in nature. Some interpretations went well beyond what its promoters hope to communicate. Seemingly purposeless stones, for example, turned into shrines, and Roman soldiers became their priests.
Entertainment vs. evangelisation
I found that people always draw on their prior experience and knowledge to interpret film. Due to the marked cultural distance to its Beninese audiences, the film Jesus allows for much more variety of interpretations than the Benin-made Yatin. This implies that Jesus is not actually a particularly good evangelistic tool. People can watch the film and simply enjoy it. In response to the inevitable and perhaps rather puzzling question posed at the end of the showing – would they like to accept Jesus into their lives – they raise their hand politely to express their appreciation for the free film. I agree with many researchers that one viewing of the Jesus is hardly enough for conversion.
While the film Jesus enchants its viewers in Cobly due to the magic of film, the rhetoric surrounding the film adds more to this magic, raising evangelical expectations as well as secular fears of its supposed impact. For me, what distinguishes Jesus from other religious films is not the film itself, but rather what evangelical Christians have made of it.