‘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.
on 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 explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Jason Brown says:

    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.

    • This film actually has more Jesus in it … in surprising yet very biblically faithful ways. Some Christians simply felt the movie didn’t have enough exposition about what the Gospel is. And that is both unfair to expect of a movie, and inconsistent because the biblical accounts of Christ’s death and resurrection themselves don’t give that exposition! We find it later in the epistles. And we, personally, provide that ourselves.

  2. Lisa says:

    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. 🙂

  3. Paul Lee says:

    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.

  4. dmdutcher says:

    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.

    • You seem to have not read the article (or the review at Christ and Pop Culture). Risen is not just “another Bible movie.” It’s biblical historical fiction.

      I think at some point we must make a kind of peace with the “Christian culture” we already have (even as we rightfully critique it) before we expect those cultures to reflect better the things we like. In the meantime, put your money where your mouth is — like with this The Wingfeather Saga animated series Kickstarter. Which, I will happily note, has easily hit well over its $110,000 goal (for its first phase of funding) in just a week or so.

      • dmdutcher says:

        That’s the same thing! XD. It’s not like Demetrius and the Gladiators or the Robe weren’t using original characters either. Bible movie = movie set in Biblical times, focusing around the events of the Bible. Not like we have a scarcity of those kinds of subjects in Christian art.

        I can’t really make peace with it, because I’m watching my tribe get completely ignored by it. If you’re a geek or like any kind of culture, you are almost always on the outside of Christian culture, even worse than it was while I was growing up. People can’t exist without a culture that speaks to them, and the endless stream of Bible movies and TV shows really don’t speak to anyone but the mainstream faithful.

        The kickstarter thing…look, I’m not funding some guys demo reel, which he will shop around for a couple of years hoping some producer will bite. If he made the short already, and was kickstarting for the film, yeah I’d consider it. But the amount of money he’s asking for means at best, it’s going to be a five to 8 minute short, and kickstarter-related fees eat up 20% of the cost! For some perspective, if he wanted to make an animated series on the caliber of My Little Pony, he’s going to need around $3 million US. He’s going to need a lot of funding for it to become anything more than cool added content he can use to market his books.

        • To me “Bible movie” means a straight-up adaptation of a biblical story, with key biblical figures (Jesus, Paul, Moses, Noah) as the central characters. Risen is biblical fiction. Whether you personally like this genre or not, it represents a break from Christian movie tropes and genres that are limited to “contemporary miracle” or “straight-up adaptation of a biblical story.”

          Methinks you could be less “tribal. ” The Bible takes a dim view about that kind of partisanship, whether it’s about denominations or “celebrity apostles” (1 Corinthians 2) or Geek Christians versus other Christians. This approach is both ineffective for your hopes, and far less joyful.

          I think you confirm this when you refuse to actually support a seriously proposed project by experienced storytellers and animation directors. There will always be people who, for all their complaints, would not know either what “victory” looked like or what they would need to do to help it happen. It starts small, with efforts like this. Let us quit looking for a “deus ex machina” twist in the real-life story of seeking better fantastical stories for (and by) Christian fans. Instead it takes hard work, money, actions that may look like “artistic compromise,” and a value of others and their interests — yes, even Christians who don’t like what we like, and vice-versa — over one’s self!

        • LM Burchfiel says:

          I think Risen is more Christian-adjacent than Christian, which is why the story isn’t preachy enough to suit the purists. But it does make me curious on what criteria it hits to make all the church-peeps glom onto it rather than Christian-adjacent things about….I dunno, monks/nuns.
          Random thought: what was the budget for RWBY? They made that in short installments with questionable CG, but they really had to overcome that hurdle with good story and characters and really cool fight scenes.

          • dmdutcher says:

            IMDB doesn’t have numbers, but they use a custom version of Miku Miku Dance, which is a freeware animation tool designed for Vocaloid music videos. You can search for MMD on youtube and find pretty good looking animation using it made by single hobbyists. Most of the cast and crew are rooster teeth regulars and amateurs.

            I think Video Game High School cost roughly $700,000 to make, and I don’t think RWBY would be anywhere near as expensive.

        • dmdutcher says:


          It’s not really a break though. It’s a slightly different framing device to look at Biblical events. I guess I don’t see much difference between
          “portraying the Resurrection directly” and “portraying the Resurrection indirectly” I guess. From what I understand you still have the apostles, etc.

          The tribe thing…

          I’m not sure how you expect me to be joyful watching Christian culture ignore geeks. It feels odd that no one at all is even worrying about us. I mean, they even aren’t bothering to find out what we’re doing in order to condemn it any more. They just ignore us and keep on MOAR BIBLING. I guess this is being tribal by your eyes.

          Oh, and I gave reasons why I didn’t support it. If he does another kickstarter for the actual pilot episode, or tells me he has found a production company, or other things, let me know. I need some assurance that it’s going to be the animated series he wants it to be, not an eight minute short that serves as a book trailer on his web site.

What do you think?