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'Killing Jesus' takes up middle ground on question of Christ's divinity
Haaz Sleiman as Jesus in "Killing Jesus." - photo by Jeff Peterson
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis famously argued what is sometimes known as the Lewis trilemma basically, that the one thing people cannot say about Jesus Christ is that he was a great moral teacher but not the Son of God.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher, Lewis wrote. He would either be a lunatic on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg or else he would be the Devil of Hell. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.

Agree or disagree with Lewis argument, it is exactly that sort of middle ground that National Geographic's adaptation of Killing Jesus tries to find, portraying a Christ whose divinity is left ambiguous, at best, in an effort to make him a more relatable, human figure.

Killing Jesus is not without value, but in order to present this version of Christ, the filmmakers are forced to take some pretty major liberties with the gospel texts including with what Jesus did and didnt say that may alienate some of the films core audience.

This Jesus, played by Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman, is not the miracle worker of, say, Historys The Bible miniseries. In fact, the filmmakers are careful never to show him doing anything that could be called miraculous. He doesnt heal the sick or raise the dead, and when Peter cuts the ear off of the high priests servant in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10), it stays cut off.

On the other hand, scenes like Jesus washing his disciples feet are included in full.

On the overall spectrum of how Jesus has been portrayed in film through the years, Killing Jesus falls closer to The Last Temptation of Christ. He is conflicted, prone to anger and profoundly unsure of himself.

Moreover, his preaching is watered down to little more than calls for religious and political reform couched in simple platitudes. In other words, whats missing is the gospel itself: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6).

Based on whats shown on screen, at least, its difficult to believe that this figure could have been the originator of a movement that has grown, as mentioned in the films epilogue, to include more than 2 billion people worldwide.

Of course, Killing Jesus may be worth watching for other reasons. It incorporates some welcome historical details and, overall, does an effective job of portraying the political backdrop that in part led to Jesus crucifixion the infighting among the Jewish leadership, the tension with Rome, etc.

Oddly enough, many of the other characters are handled more effectively than Jesus himself, including side characters like Pilate (Stephen Moyer) and Herod Antipas (Eoin Macken), who are given moments that make them relatable. Even Caiaphas (played by perennial bad guy Rufus Sewell) becomes somewhat sympathetic after his specific reasons for targeting Jesus become clear.

While not all of these creative liberties work as well as others, they at least provide a fresh vantage point for a story that, when put on film, sometimes runs the risk of feeling too familiar.

Shot on location in Morocco, "Killing Jesus" looks nicer than most TV movies. The predominantly Middle Eastern cast is also a welcome change of pace after so many whitewashed depictions of Jesus as some kind of Norse demigod.

All in all, Killing Jesus is neither the best nor the worst portrayal of the story of Christ in recent years. There are a lot of elements that will undoubtedly rub Christian audiences the wrong way. The choice to leave the question of Christs divinity open-ended, while not inherently problematic, here feels too much like a compromise designed to appeal to everyone at once. Unfortunately, it could end up having the opposite effect.

Other elements, though and other characters are handled much better. For people able to look past some of the liberties taken with the gospel texts, Killing Jesus might be worth watching if for no other reason than as a different perspective on the greatest story ever told.

"Killing Jesus" premieres Sunday, March 29, on the National Geographic Channel. It is rated TV-14. Due to some violent imagery, including brief scenes of torture, it may not be suitable for younger audiences.