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‘Risen’ and The Power Of Miraculous Realism

The film “Risen” is fantastical, realistic, and explores Bible themes other “Christian movies” can’t or won’t.
| Mar 4, 2016 | 11 comments |
Joseph Fiennes portrays Roban tribune Clavius in "Risen."

Joseph Fiennes portrays Roban tribune Clavius in Risen.

I reviewed the new film Risen last week at Christ and Pop Culture, starting with this:

Risen is a very good film that just happens to be marketed to faith-based audiences.

Please don’t be fooled. I am a skeptic — not of Jesus’s bodily resurrection, which serves as the historical basis for Risen’s story — but of “Christian” movies. I don’t dislike their idea, because Christians should have subcultures, too, but rather, their usual execution. However, Risen does what it wants, and fulfills its own goal not only with biblical truth but with creative excellence.

Much of the time I was sitting in the theater gripped by emotion. I felt this way partly because of my personal connection to my Savior’s resurrection. Yet I was also thinking, “This is good. This is actually good. Will it stop being good? No, it’s actually staying good.”

Finally, I put away that childish thought. I found myself caught up in a simply told story based on the Story that transcends our comparatively small debates over “Christian” movies and how brilliant/terrible they are. This story subverts all that just by setting about its job: exploring one (fictional) human person’s response to the results of the resurrected Christ.

Read the rest at Christ and Pop Culture, then feel free to return for these bonus thoughts:

poster_risenRisen is fantastical and realistic

In my review I didn’t want to spoil the surprises of Risen. These moments show the power of God miraculously breaking into reality. Sometimes they are almost so careful that you miss them, but the results are undeniably miraculous.

However, the film only does this by first showing us “earthly things” we can believe:

  • Our hero, Clavius, is empathetic, competent, flawed, sinful, and real;
  • People he meets resemble universal human traits—familiar, yet transcendent;
  • The story-world is believable and gritty, though not “grit” for its own sake.

Risen explores Bible themes other ‘Christian movies’ can’t or won’t

Risen succeeds partly by ignoring other Christian movies and avoiding any of their tropes. At first this is easy because the film attempts a genre Christians have enjoyed for years—biblical fiction. But this genre has been crowded aside by two more popular genres: straight-up Bible adaptations and contemporary morality/miracle dramas.

Most of the morality/miracle dramas seem to attempt the reverse formula of Risen. They show us heroes, other people, and story-worlds that already seem miraculous. Then they try to bring in the miracles. It ends up tasting like too much dessert before dinner.

But because we quietly do not believe when these stories tell us “earthly things,” we find it even harder to believe when these stories try to tell us “heavenly things.”

Risen also works better than contemporary morality/miracle stories because it’s set in a world entirely unlike our own. A biblical fiction, tinged with “miraculous realism,” lets us forget about our own realities or projections of ideal reality (in which we are all middle-class American families just a prayer or spiritual program away from plot resolution).

Instead of thinking about the movie’s effect on non-Christian people or ourselves1, the story asks us to look at Clavius. He is a living, thinking person (portrayed by Joseph Fiennes). He has hopes and struggles and sins as we do. But as we explore his story, we’re not thinking about us. At first we’re not even thinking about the fact that This Is a Bible Story, So It Had Best Get it Right. We are thinking about Clavius, stepping outside ourselves, engaging his journey.

Great stories whose people and worlds help us forget ourselves also help teach us humility. But no one learns humility by watching moving pictures that are like himself.

Risen sticks to the Bible; do some Christians prefer otherwise?

No Christian critics I read faulted <em>Risen</em> for inserting fictitious characters Clavius and Lucius into the story. So we are getting better!

No Christian critics I read faulted Risen for inserting fictitious characters Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) and Lucius (Tom Felton) into the story. So we are getting better!

Some biblical Christians have faulted Risen for unbiblical reasons:

  • The story portrays the apostles as fearful, uncertain, and even naïve;
  • The story does not present the complete gospel of repentance and faith in Jesus;
  • The story does not explore full doctrinal implications of Jesus’s death and resurrection.2

Each of these objections is based on a few flawed assumptions:

  1. That the movie was meant to tell the whole Gospel story, rather than Clavius’s story;
  2. That the movie should have shown spiritually mature apostles, rather than portrayals that are surely closer to their actual state at the time (immature, naïve, reckless);
  3. That the movie should have gone beyond the actual resurrection account, rather than sticking close to the narrative that itself does not explain the whys of Jesus’ resurrection.

Many of these objections can be answered by exploring the highest purpose of stories. We should not expect stories first to evangelize, entertain, or morally edify us. Instead a story should first move us to glorify God. Thus, after we see a movie, what should we first want to do? I suggest we ought not first want to do anything, if by “do” we mean a moral action. Instead we ought first to be moved to thank God for this good gift through human culture.

That’s how I felt after I saw Risen, and that’s why I highly recommend you see this quiet little biblical fiction drama very soon.

To steal the evangelical movie “support zombie” rhetoric, if you pay to see this film, and truly enjoy it, then we will more likely get movies like this. And that way the genre(s) of Christian movies—which must start somewhere, so I’m not knocking them all—will be more likely able to mature.

  1. To be sure, a good story will have applications for others and ourselves. But should this be a Christian’s first response after receiving a good gift like a good story?
  2. A fourth objection is to the very notion of representing Jesus in visual form, because this is supposedly against the second commandment against making a visual image of God. This is outside my topic here. In short, such concerns are often well-meant and have a long tradition in Christianity. But I do not agree with them.
E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Jason Brown

Yeah, I know the whole issue of “Where was Jesus in this Jesus film?” One of my favorite films, To Save A Life, got accused on amazon of being unchristian because it didn’t have a single spoken reference to Him. Some want a faith-based film done with a foundation based on their expectations or else. It gets annoying, to be frank.


I loved the film. I found it refreshing to see a movie about the resurrection that wasn’t trying to explain away the resurrection but instead took as it’s premise, “Ok, this really happened. What was that like for the people of the times?” We are so used to the story that we don’t take enough time to reflect on the weirdness of the whole thing- all that popping in and out Jesus does, for example. And I loved the part where [SPOILER] Clavius confronts his subordinate and tries to convince him not to turn the disciples in, saying “These men hold the future of the world,” or something like that. That put a tingle up my spine. Great movie….reading those negative comments about it makes me grumpy so I won’t comment on them. 🙂

Paul Lee

Wow, this is great news! A little “gospel” in its own meta way, I guess.

Thanks for reviewing. I need to see this film.

“I desire only to see peace and a day without death.”

“Well then. Know Him.”

That is brilliant and wonderful.

D. M. Dutcher
D. M. Dutcher

It’s yet another Bible movie. I don’t want more movies like that.

We live in a geeky time where even the average soccer mom knows who the Avengers are. Despite this, we have virtually no Christian spec fic movies that rise above a bad Syfy film or student productuon. I feel like i have zero culture to even be a part of-its all Bible movies and Bible TV shows and Bible animated films and Bible manga adaptations and Christianmingle.