Might ‘Zealot’ Spark a New Wave of Christian Movie Controversy?

By  · Published on December 13th, 2013

Jesus was a pretty controversial dude, having appeared on numerous slices of burnt toast, tortillas, and misshapen Cheetos worldwide. He may also have done other things I’m forgetting (although somehow I doubt it). Either way, it comes as no surprise that someone’s stepped up to translate Jesus’s story for the big screen- it’s happened many times before, and now it’s happening again. The newest, Christ-iest film now comes from Lionsgate, who just snapped up the rights to Reza Aslan’s book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

“Zealot” differs from the usual Jesus-lit in one key area: it portrays Jesus as just one of many Jewish zealots preaching in ancient times- a political revolutionary, but by no means the most popular zealot around (and considerably less popular at the time than his contemporary, John the Baptist). In a statement, Aslan spoke of himself and Lionsgate as two peas in pod, both excited to “illuminate the life of Jesus in a humanistic, as opposed to religious, context.” What that translates into, essentially, is a Jesus movie that’s not so much about Christianity or any specific faith, and more about a guy just trying to preach at people in ancient times.

This comes on the heels of about a billion other Biblical films all jostling for a spot in the public eye. You’ve got your epics like Noah and Exodus, and on top of that are a few other films specifically about Jesus – Resurrection (coming from the same director as Hatfields & McCoys) and Son of God, the 135-minute recut of Mark Burnett’s The Bible miniseries. At this point, Zealot is single sheep in a very substantial flock. But unlike all those other Bible flicks, Zealot has the chance to launch people into angry, screaming controversy.

Look, it’s no secret that religion and show biz make an uneasy combination (and if, to you, it is a secret, I recommend taking a look at a recent piece by Brian Lowry about religion in the media). Hollywood gives people the opportunity to reach a humongous audience; say the wrong thing to that audience and you’ll quickly find yourself being burned in effigy by an angry mob. Yet the recent influx of Biblical films seems to prove that the Bible, on its own as a piece of source material, doesn’t generate all that much controversy. Sure, maybe people were up in arms over The Bible’s Obama-looking Satan, but that’s more a coincidence than anything else. The actor in question (Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni) is known primarily for roles in religious films, which seems far more likely a reason to cast him then the fact that he vaguely resembles our current president. An average Bible film, it seems, doesn’t really do a whole lot one way or the other.

But divert even a little bit from that source material and suddenly the whole game changes. Early tests of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah found troubles with the third act of the film – specifically, whether it will divert from the story’s original ending (wherein the Earth is flooded over and everyone dies except the Ark’s inhabitants). The Hollywood Reporter has the film being “well received” by the Tweets of a Christian conference in Texas (and who knows how much that’s really worth), but more outspoken critics are claim that Aronofsky should “not veer off into directions that go against the core audience’s beliefs” or state outright that this new Noah is an “environmentalist wacko.” The smallest perceived slight can stir up the hugest media outcry – especially with the easily combustible mix of religious folk and Hollywood folk.

That’s where Zealot comes in. Not only does the film mimic what Noah has threatened to do – serve up a non-traditional take on a Bible story – but it’ll do so with Jesus. And I’ll bet you ten bucks right now that the majority of Christians (especially those who’re easily offended by this kind of thing) feel more strongly about Jesus then they do about Noah. It’s happened before. Martin Scorsese changed a few things around and gave Jesus a sex scene in The Last Temptation of Christ. The film was protested, banned in more than a few countries and a theater playing it in Paris was burned down by a fundamentalist group. It’s doubtful Zealot will be different enough to incite people to arson, but it also won’t be the same Jesus that people are used to seeing in theaters, burnt toast and pretzel crumbs.

But who knows? Maybe Zealot, despite its totally historical, non-traditional Jesus, will manage to slink around the content police by forgoing the steamy messiah sex or Passion of the Christ-like Biblical torture porn. Even if it does, keep in mind that the man behind the book, Reza Aslan, is himself no stranger to outrageous news stories. He’s gone viral on Fox News. He’s openly criticized the faiths of high-ranking conservative Republicans. Today he took another shot at Fox News- the guy is a headline-generating machine.

It may be the content or it may be the creator, but either way, Zealot seems prepped to make everyone temporarily lose their sanity (if it gets that green light, that is). For now, the best course of option would be to wait… and if Zealot moves forward, to start investing in torches and pitchforks.