‘Hail, Caesar!’ — A Tale of the Christ?

Alissa Wilkinson | "Hail, Caesar!" is both a romp through Hollywood's Golden Age and an unlikely Passion Play. (image George Clooney in 'Hail, Caesar!' – Universal Pictures)
Rating: PG-13
Category: Drama film/Musical ‧ 1h 46m
Release date: February 5, 2016 (USA)
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Budget: 22 million USD
Narrated by: Michael Gambon
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Look, I know there’s no bigger cliché than a Christian critic sitting around identifying “Christ figures” at the movies. But in their latest, Joel and Ethan Coen show their hand so obviously—the subtitle for the Ben Hur-like film-within-a-film, also called Hail, Caesar!, is “A Tale of the Christ”—that I’m either being trolled or baited. I’ll bite.

Among many (many, many) things, Hail, Caesar! is a passion play: a canny bit of work on the Coens’ part, given this year’s proliferation of biblical epics both remade and reimagined. In just the next few months, that includes Risen, The Young Messiah, Last Days in the Desert, the Tyler Perry-hosted The Passion Live, and the ABC show Of Kings and Prophets—and, yes, a Ben Hur remake.

Watch Hail, Caesar trailer
The Coens (being Coens) come at it as a farce, with about 18 different things rumbling beneath the surface. On its basic level, Hail, Caesar! is an affectionate celebration, mild critique, and winking pastiche of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when studios owned actors’ contracts and shot everything from swashbuckling song-and-dance numbers to sword-and-sandal epics on the back lot. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the executive in charge of production at Capitol Pictures (that name becomes important later). He goes to confession a lot (“too much,” his priest says wearily) for infractions like smoking a few cigarettes, answers to the never-seen studio head Mr. Schenck (pronounced "skank"), and is being wooed by Lockheed Martin in a job that might involve H-bombs but would still be easier than wrangling the cast of characters he’s stuck with.

Those characters feel like what would happen if Turner Classic Movies accidentally left the door unlocked at night. Scarlett Johansson is a mermaid in a synchronized swimming fantasy picture; Ralph Fiennes helms a high-society Broadway adaptation in which America’s favorite lassoing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is being forced to star so the studio can “change his image”; Channing Tatum is a deceptively mild-mannered singing and tap-dancing sailor; there’s a Carmen Miranda-like sweetheart (Veronica Osorio)—and George Clooney is a centurion among slaves in the sword-and-sandal Hail, Caesar!

That last production is in full swing, and Mannix is watching the dailies (“DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT,” the subtitles announce at opportune moments—the film is still in production) when he discovers its star has been kidnapped.

In one subplot, in a nod to the Communist writers who were blacklisted, a disciple-like cadre of Communist acolytes following their leader—suggestively named Dr. Marcuse—kidnap Clooney’s genial star and educate him in the ways of “direct action” and “accelerating the dialectic” while holding him for ransom (a startlingly common plot point in the Coens’ films, by the way). Everything can be explained by economics, they say, quoting Marx, and so certainly the concept of rendering to Caesar—either through Capitol Pictures, Das Kapital, or capitalism—is part of this title.

But mostly it’s about the meaning of life by way of religion, with which the Coens have always fiddled, sometimes dancing around the edges and sometimes diving straight into the middle. Hollywood’s Golden Age gives them the perfect excuse for a hysterical scene straight out of a joke: two priests (one Catholic, one Orthodox), a Protestant minister, and a rabbi sit in a boardroom with Mannix, debating whether the depiction of Christ in an upcoming picture “cuts the mustard” or is offensive. As the rabbi points out, for Jews it’s forbidden to portray God, but luckily for them Jesus isn’t part of the godhead. One of the ministers explains that technically Jesus is the Son of God. (The conventional disclaimers at the end of the credits explain that “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.”)

Such a scene would in fact have happened regularly at the time, when clergy were called in to consult on both religious movies and others, as part of a partnership between Hollywood and the nation’s ministers to promote the moral health of the nation. It’s worth nothing that in today’s religious movie boom, the same thing often happens—this time to gauge (as in the film) the potential reaction from religious leaders and congregations.

But as I said earlier, this is a passion play, one with Eddie Mannix at its center, our Man of Sorrows, the savior of the (movie) world. Lest we miss that, the film opens on a long establishing shot of a crucifix before moving to Mannix in the confessional booth, where he’s confessing the most banal of crimes before moving on to his work day.

Note: from here on, there are some mild spoilers, though it's hard to spoil a narrative so established.

Unlike every movie executive we’ve ever seen in a film, Mannix is a thoroughly decent guy who speaks nicely to his wife and tries to do his best. But he has reached a crossroads—a point of temptation, if you will. The tempter is a friendly Lockheed Martin executive, who wants him to abandon his true work in the world and come live the easy path.

All day long, Mannix suffers for his stars. He takes their verbal drubbings and deals with their indiscretions and sins and tries to keep them out of trouble, tasked with the thoroughly thankless job of keeping their images squeaky clean. He is dogged by twin competing gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton).

He has been tempted away from this lonely path once and is tempted twice more (in a Chinese restaurant lit like an opium den when he first walks in) by the Lockheed executive, our Satan stand-in, folding the encounter in the desert into the film. He labors under the weight of his own conscience and the weight of the temptation before him, and encounters hazard after hazard on the road to his decision.

Near its end, we catch him in Gethsemane echoes deep in prayer, rosary in hand, as he contemplates what to do—and in a neat trick made possible by the existence of an actual set for a crucifixion scene being shot on the studio lot, he even approaches three crosses on Calvary.

The Coens are too meticulous to not have intended all that. What’s so fun about Hail, Caesar! is that it lets all the characters (played by your actual favorite movie stars) and sets and images from films made both during and about its time, from comedies to noirs to political dramas, come together in a grand mash-up that is then structured like one of the most enduringly popular genres: the biblical epic, the “Greatest Story Ever Told,” the archetypal tale of suffering and redemption.

But they don’t spring for an easy analogy. These are the Coens: nothing serious ever happens without a wink or a joke. Mannix isn’t the actual man of sorrows; he’s just in the movie business, which is always at its end a bit (or more than a bit) absurd. A speech given by the centurion at the foot of the cross seems like the stand-in for his epiphany—but later he gives a different confession, one that rings more true, about feeling that what he’s doing in the movie business is right and important.

So in a bit of in a bit of cyclical storytelling that recalls the repetitive structure of their last film about a soul tortured by his work, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mannix returns to the confession booth and talks about his cigarette habit. In classic Coen fashion, meaning in life comes down to the love that individuals share with one another, not the absurdity inherent in fate or big ideological systems. Mannix loves his wife too much to not feel bad about quitting his habit; other characters love their ridiculous dogs more than money, or make unlikely matches in unlikely offices. Every day is a fresh set of trials and temptations for the man of sorrows, but he never really faces crucifixion—just another day on set.

Caveat Spectator

Hail, Caesar! is rated PG-13 for suggestive situations and smoking. Most of what’s uncouth about it is done by implication rather than seen on screen. The sailors’ song-and-dance scene is innocently (or not) homoerotic, and the mermaid one seems rather obviously phallic, but that will sail right past plenty of viewers. A character talks about another one engaging in “sodomy” (that is the word used) to get a job; another character is pregnant without being married, which provides a plot point for the film. It’s possible that some religious viewers might be offended by the film-within-a-film giving occasion for a few situational jokes in a religious context, but it certainly isn’t done irreverently. And neither Communism nor capitalism is outright condemned by the film itself, which I suppose some people may find offensive.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World(Eerdmans, April 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.


Living the Christian Life

It's all About Following Jesus (ECWA Archive)

What does the Bible say about how to live the Christian life?

How to live the Christian life is a topic that is discussed in many Bible passages. One of the most notable discourses was between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish council, went to Jesus during the night to discover how to live the Christian life. Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be born again: "…I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3). Salvation is the beginning step in living a Christian life. In John 14:6, Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Jesus encourages all believers to grow in relationship, commitment, and obedience to Him. This is the essence of how to live a Christian life. Our relationship, commitment, and obedience are done out of love, not constraint. John 14:21 says, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him."

Living the Christian life is not abiding by an agenda or following a set of strict rules. Instead, the Christian life is characterized by:

  • Understanding that you are a new creation! 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
  • Transforming and renewing your mind. Romans 12:2 says, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will."
  • Treating others with love. Philippians 2:3-4 says, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."
  • Living out the teachings of Christ. Jesus taught: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3-10).
  • Sharing your faith. Matthew 5:14-16 says, "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

Living the Christian life does not mean enjoying a life of ease and never experiencing problems. 1 Peter 5:8 says that there is an enemy who wishes to destroy us: "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." But we also read that Jesus has overcome the world!

No matter what opposition you face, living the Christian life is worth it! Enjoying a relationship with God and His Son Jesus, being confident of where you will spend eternity, and living in day-to-day fellowship with Him is far greater than any opposition you may face.

What is your response? For the Original article, visit All About God, PO Box 507, Peyton, Colorado 80831, AllAboutGOD.com

Help Children Deal with Fear

It's our job as parents and guildiance to help our Children deal with fear whatever it may be (forchild.org.ua)

Tragedy is all around us. It’s on the news every night — and all throughout the day. We talk about it at the dinner table. And, as fun and engaging as it can be, we can thank social media for keeping us constantly informed of all the bad things happening in our world.

Evil is rampant — and, because of this – fear is rampant.

And, it doesn’t impact only us.

Our children are not immune from fear. In an Information Age — they know what we know, filtered, of course, with their childlike mind.

Violence even happens in school — in malls — in churches — places children go regularly.

Childhood can be a scary time of life naturally, but especially these days. We should never diminish a child’s fear or the impact the news of the day is having on them. It may be totally irrational fear – something you know is completely impossible — but it’s very real to them.

How does a parent or teacher address this fear?

Here are 7 suggestions to help children deal with fear:

1. Don’t assume their thoughts

Don’t assume just because your child doesn’t mention what happened they don’t know about it or care. Fear is a normal reaction, especially for a child. Watch for unusual behavior. Be aware of mood changes or extreme sadness. Make sure they know it’s okay to talk about it and there is no shame or disappointment from you when they are fearful. Maybe tell them of a time you were afraid — even a recent time.

2. Limit their exposure

You’re curious, so the television may be on news stations. What are they covering right now? Remember children process information different from how you do. They may not appear to be watching, but they probably are more than you think. Fill their minds with things to encourage them not perpetuate the fear. This is a time to turn off the television and simply play with your kids. They’ll get no better assurance than their time with you.

3. Ask them questions

You may think children are afraid of one thing, but it is something completely different. Many times children, especially young children, are simply confused or have misinformation. You can better address the fear if you know its roots. Getting them to talk about what they are afraid of can help them learn to better rationalize and seek comfort and assurance from you.

4. Assure them they are safe

Let children know they are safe. Don’t lie to them or give them false assurance, but remember the chances of the same thing happening to them is rare — very rare. Remind them you will do anything to protect them. Show them ways you’ve already provided for their safety. Let them help you lock the doors at night. You may need to help them process for weeks to come. Don’t rush them to “get over it”. Pray for and with them often.

5. Live a normal life as much as possible

As much as possible, live a normal weekly schedule. Their routine is part of their “security blanket.” Don’t allow their fear to cripple them or the family for long. In spite of our fears, we have to move forward.

6. Be calm around them

Especially during this stressful time, don’t let your children see you in panic. Watch what you say in front of them. Discuss the world events – and especially your fears of them – outside of their listening ears. Let the home be their “safe place”. Parents shouldn’t fight in front of kids anytime, but especially during a time of uncertainty like this. Renew your faith. Renew your commitment to each other. Children often get their faith through parents.

7. Read them Scripture

Children need something they can cling to as permanent and dependable. What better place than the Word of God, which will never fade? Recite Psalm 56:3 to them. If they are old enough, write it down somewhere they can see it often. Memorize some verses of strength and share with them often. Help them memorize some. (When our boys were young we played Scripture music appropriate for their age. Steve Green’s “Hide ’em in Your Heart series was great for this. You can find them online.)

Ron Edmondson is the senior pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. For the original article, visit ronedmondson.com.


Evangelism: The Neglected Gift

Jay Lowder, founder of Jay Lowder Harvest Ministries, shares the gospel with multitudes of people during a four-day evangelistic gathering at Sagemont Church in Houston, Texas. (Jay Lowder Ministries)

"Mass evangelism doesn't work in today's culture."

I have heard or read this statement countless times. It is the exact statement people were making decades ago as the then-unknown evangelist by the name of Billy Graham was preaching on the sawdust trail in small tents across the U.S. Doubters were silenced when multitudes met Christ as a result of Mr. Graham's dedication to delivering the gospel in city after city all across the globe.

Not only has the act of evangelism been put out to pasture, so has the use of the office of the evangelist. While some like to talk about evangelism, the evidence proves that when all is said and done, that is all there is—talk with little to no action.

During a time in history when there has never been more uncertainty, moral and spiritual erosion, and quest for truth, it is unnerving that Jesus mandate to "go and tell" has been so grossly dismissed.

While many churches wait for the unsaved to come to church, the unsaved are waiting for the church to come to them. The real issue is not that non-believers are unwilling to believe the gospel; the problem is that believers are unwilling to share it and churches are reluctant to deploy those whose spiritual gift is evangelism.

New Testament evangelism takes on numerous forms and should be done by individuals on a one-on-one basis as well in large gatherings. Proof of the need for mass outreach is found in Acts chapter 2 where the original converts to Christianity were not the result of small groups: rather they were reached by large scale public evangelism. Peter preached the Good News, 3,000 received Christ, and the church was launched.

The office of the evangelist is found in Ephesians 4:11-12 and is a specific gift given to the church by Christ. He never gives any gift unless it is a needed one; therefore, it is safe to say this gift should be utilized.

While many do not understand the benefits of using those with the specific calling of evangelism, the Bible gives abundant examples. Evangelists fulfill numerous roles such as training and encouraging the church to bring the unsaved to Christ, calling believers to repentance, and uniting denominations. Additionally, evangelists possess a unique anointing to proclaim the salvation message to others who have yet to trust Christ.

A number of books have been written and formulas have been given with the best way to reach current generations for Christ. While many of these programs have merit, Jesus isn't confined to men's methodology—He is the same today as He was yesterday or will be tomorrow. Christ has ordained to seek and save many through the gift of the evangelist, which He has placed on certain individuals to aid in His harvest.

I am a full-time evangelist and have been for more than 20 years. I also know several people who also have been anointed with this gift and are in full-time evangelistic ministry. All of us could give numerous examples of God transforming churches and entire cities that prove evangelism is not dead.

Just last week, I was in a megachurch in the metropolitan city of Houston, Texas. In four days, more than 400 individuals from the community made commitments to Christ and multitudes were baptized. This is astonishing considering reports continue to show a decline in church attendance and baptisms.

Crusade evangelism still works … not just in the small cities and churches but the larger ones as well.

God's purpose is to merge the gifts of the evangelist and the church to synchronize together for the edification, strengthening and building of the church. For both to attain their mission, they cannot function independently of each other: like an eagle with clipped wings, they become vulnerable and unable to reach intended heights.

Pastors tend to, understandably, look inward at their congregations, while evangelists tend to look outward at the community. But when both are looking at the cross, they can move forward in an even greater way with fulfilling God's call.

When combined, the church becomes spiritually combustible: people are inspired, the church is strengthened, and believers become soul conscious and reignited in their mission. Often, the God grieving divisions and jealousies that exist between churches is broken down through partnering to evangelize the community. 

Often, the best way to witness the supernatural is to run straight toward what many others are running from and do what most are not willing to do. In many cases this may be putting a focus back on God's call to do the work of an evangelist and use the office of it.

The need has never been greater. 

Jay Lowder is an evangelist and founder of Jay Lowder Harvest Ministries.