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Religious Films in Zimbabwean Contexts

Film Reception Concerning Representations of Jesus

In: International Journal of Public Theology
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Adam T. Shreve University of Edinburgh UK Adam.Shreve@ed.ac.uk

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This article presents the author’s original research of a reception study of religious films amongst Shona peoples in the Gora and Chikara villages, which are located in the Mashonaland West Province of Zimbabwe. The two central questions of the author’s study are: First, in what ways might pre-existing Shona images of Jesus shape Shona responses to and interpretations of Jesus as he is portrayed in The Jesus Film (1979) and in indigenous, short, Jesus films in Zimbabwe today? Secondly, how might the viewing of these films affect these images of Jesus? This article addresses how indigenous, short Jesus films in Zimbabwe have manifested different representations of Jesus from the pervasive European image of Jesus that is perpetuated by The Jesus Film. This research is particularly relevant to current trends in media and technology, as the indigenous, short Jesus films are being distributed via mobile phones in Zimbabwe.

Abstract

This article presents the author’s original research of a reception study of religious films amongst Shona peoples in the Gora and Chikara villages, which are located in the Mashonaland West Province of Zimbabwe. The two central questions of the author’s study are: First, in what ways might pre-existing Shona images of Jesus shape Shona responses to and interpretations of Jesus as he is portrayed in The Jesus Film (1979) and in indigenous, short, Jesus films in Zimbabwe today? Secondly, how might the viewing of these films affect these images of Jesus? This article addresses how indigenous, short Jesus films in Zimbabwe have manifested different representations of Jesus from the pervasive European image of Jesus that is perpetuated by The Jesus Film. This research is particularly relevant to current trends in media and technology, as the indigenous, short Jesus films are being distributed via mobile phones in Zimbabwe.

* I would like to thank Elaine Graham and the reviewers of this article for their thought-provoking comments. I would also like to thank Professors Jolyon Mitchell, Brian Stanley and Jonathan L. Walton, and also Lee-Shae Scharnick-Udemans and Lorraine Montanari for their insight and feedback on this article and my research in Africa. Finally, I would like to thank my wife, Amanda, for her unwavering support and intellectual acuity regarding my research in Zimbabwe.

Introduction

In this article I analyse the complex and varied ways in which audiences in Zimbabwe interact with the representation of Jesus in the movie, The Jesus Film, produced by Campus Crusade for Christ,1 and additionally in indigenous, short Jesus films from Zimbabwe. Universally speaking, leading figures of Campus Crusade for Christ, also known as Campus Crusade or Cru, who were behind the creation of The Jesus Film have often made claims of the inimitable impact that the film had upon its audiences around the world.2 The organization heralds the massive viewership of the film and claims it has been seen six billion times.3 Proponents also claim that ‘more than 200 million individuals worldwide have indicated a decision to follow Jesus after viewing the film.4 The apparent mass appeal of The Jesus Film is that it has an extraordinary, evangelistic impact on its audiences, but I argue that a more nuanced understanding of the reception of The Jesus Film is needed. The empirical data from my field work in Zimbabwe, points to a reception of The Jesus Film which is more complex and heterogeneous than the film’s creators and distributors had intended and continue to claim today. I will present my field data later, but it will be helpful first of all to explain the background of the overall research project.

This article emerges from an initial reception study of Jesus films amongst Shona peoples located in the Gora and Chikara villages, in the Mashonaland West Province of Zimbabwe. In using the terms ‘Shona peoples’ or ‘Shona’, I imply a linguistic classification; Shona language speakers use a variety of different dialects. Films that centre on some aspect of Jesus’ life are part of a film genre known as ‘Jesus films’.5 The two types of Jesus films I researched were Campus Crusade’s The Jesus Film and a group of indigenous, short Jesus films from Zimbabwe. The two central questions of this study were: First, in what ways might pre-existing Shona images of Jesus shape Shona responses to and interpretations of Jesus as he is portrayed in The Jesus Film and in indigenous, short, Jesus films in Zimbabwe today? Secondly, how might the viewing of these films affect these images of Jesus? My research looks at how pre-understandings of Jesus may shape the audiences’ views of Jesus in the films, and conversely, how the films themselves may shape the audiences’ views of Jesus. Whilst there is any number of directions this study could have taken regarding the reception of the films in Zimbabwe, the research points to audience film reception as it relates to local Christologies. The project sits within the fields of religious and media studies and studies of material and visual culture. I completed the field work in Zimbabwe in 2012 and in this article I offer a preliminary analysis of some of the collected data.

While two different types of Jesus films are discussed here, the primary focus is on Campus Crusade’s The Jesus Film. The topic at hand is how informants in Zimbabwe come to understand who they believe Jesus is in response to their viewing of The Jesus Film, with a particular emphasis on reception data relating to the colour of Jesus. While the overall research project investigates film reception as it relates to local Christologies, I concentrate here on the representation of Jesus in The Jesus Film and how this representation may be active in shaping and perpetuating local beliefs and understandings regarding skin tone, race relations and religious and racial superiority in Zimbabwe. The article also deals with the religious beliefs of public leaders and current topics of race and religion in a post-colonial context.6

The overall research project contributes to the study of Christianity in Zimbabwe and in other parts of Africa, as these films are used by local Christians in Zimbabwe to inform Shona people about the person of Jesus. There is a growing interest in studies of Christianity in Africa that centre on popular African theology with an emphasis on Christology. This is exemplified by the work of Diane B. Stinton and Robert J. Schreiter.7 The reception of the different Jesus films reveals certain elements of local Christologies that exist in Zimbabwe today. Scholarship on Zimbabwe and Christianity in Zimbabwe is well represented by Terrence O. Ranger, Zvakanyorwa Wilbert Sadomba, Michael F.C. Bourdillon, and David Maxwell.8 It is my aim that my study will provide new insights for the various disciplines within Zimbabwean studies, with a particular emphasis on research of Shona peoples and religion. I have gleaned insights on audience reception of religious media from prominent scholars, such as Lynn Schofield Clark, Stewart M. Hoover, and Clive Marsh.9

Cultural anthropology, religious studies, and media studies scholarship relating to Christian video films in Africa, is prevalent in locations such as Ghana and Nigeria. This is demonstrated in the works of both Karin Barber and Birgit Meyer.10 One of my goals is that this research helps to inform scholars who are focused in other parts of Africa, of how different Jesus films are received in Zimbabwe, and that it will enable other scholars to make comparisons with their own research in their respective locations in Africa.

Overview of The Jesus Film

It is helpful to understand some of the background of The Jesus Film before addressing its reception in Zimbabwe. British producer John Heyman’s 1979 movie, The Jesus Film, has garnered an immense amount of support by evangelical Christians, which is evident by the variety of different Christian organizations that have promoted the film over the years.11 By 1999, over 815 Christian denominations and mission organizations were using the film, and it was even being used by some Catholic affiliations.12

Arguably, no other group has done more to promote The Jesus Film over the last thirty-five years than the evangelical, interdenominational organization, Campus Crusade. From the film’s inception, Bill Bright, founder and former president of Campus Crusade, intended The Jesus Film to be translated and distributed around the world for evangelistic purposes.13 Not long after The Jesus Film was completed in 1979, Campus Crusade created a ministry called The Jesus Film Project. The focus of the ministry is the translation and distribution of The Jesus Film around the world.

By 2014, Campus Crusade claimed that over the last thirty-five years, The Jesus Film had been translated into 1,200 languages and the film had been viewed six billion times.14 Bright claims that The Jesus Film is the most viewed film in history.15 While sounding impressive, in reality this specific viewership figure is impossible to prove. It is worth considering that most viewers of The Jesus Film do not pay admission to see the film, making it much easier to amass a larger audience than other Hollywood films. An independent appraisal of the size of the film’s audience over the last thirty-five years is not available, but it is probable that the film has attained a tremendously wide viewership.

The Representation of Jesus in The Jesus Film

John Heyman, the British producer of The Jesus Film, chose the British actor Brian Deacon, known as a Shakespearean actor, to play the role of Jesus.16 The paradoxical choice of a white, European actor to play the role of the Galilean Jesus is at odds with Campus Crusade’s claim that the film is visually authentic, in line with the first century context of the New Testament gospels. The choice of lead actor cannot be trivialized, as the casting of the role of Jesus has become the visual representation of the Christian Messiah that Campus Crusade has distributed around the world for the last thirty-five years to potentially billions of people for evangelistic purposes. In their review of the film, Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts point out Deacon’s noticeable English accent throughout the English language version of the movie.17 In his treatment of the film J. Stephen Lang makes the indubitable observation that Deacon is ‘not very Semitic looking’.18 Deacon looks awkward and misplaced amongst the Yemenite actors cast as Jesus’ disciples. Deacon looks more like the white, British settlers that colonized Zimbabwe than most of the other people in The Jesus Film.

Paul Eshleman of The Jesus Film Project claims that Deacon was chosen for the role because he ‘effortlessly portrayed Jesus on the screen. His mannerisms and delivery were excellent, his speech impeccable’.19 Film producer Heyman offers a more telling explanation for the selection. In a 2005 interview with then University of Edinburgh Ph.D. student Dwight Friesen, Heyman explains the reasoning behind choosing a white, European actor to play the role of Jesus. Friesen relays Heyman’s explanation that ‘despite all his efforts to make the film historically authentic, his reason for using English actor Brian Deacon was that he would be easier to work with’.20 The contradicting aims of achieving historical accuracy in the film and of working easily with an actor who speaks English well could not be clearer. Heyman intentionally chose a white, European actor who did not look like the other cast members simply because he was, ostensibly, easier to work with in completing the film.21

The characterization of Jesus in The Jesus Film could lead audiences to induce historically inaccurate interpretations about the ethnicity of Jesus, and could cause confusion regarding the nature of Christianity and its connection to a particular skin tone. When looking at the history of Christian art, it is common to see Jesus depicted in an ethnicity other than that of his Jewish heritage.22 In spite of this fact, it is controversial for the Jesus of this specific film to be a white, European actor. This is due, in part, to Campus Crusade’s claims of visual authenticity for a film it created for evangelistic purposes, but also, more importantly, due to the historical relationships between black Africans and white Europeans in some African contexts.23 This production decision and visual anomaly potentially has enormous negative repercussions regarding the reception of the film around the world.

During the first round of interviews with my informants in Zimbabwe, the colour of Jesus was discussed. Because of the historic relationship between black Zimbabweans and white British colonizers, and because of land ownership issues in Zimbabwe in recent years, the topic of race relations is one of the most significant for this country in Africa. I asked the informants, ‘What colour was Jesus’ and ‘What makes you believe he was this colour’? Sixty-six per cent (sixteen out of twenty-four) of the informants said that Jesus was ‘white’.24 Of these sixteen respondents, eight made reference to films as contributing to this belief. The influence of still images was also significant as eight of the sixteen interviewees cited pictures as playing a role in how they came to believe Jesus was white. It is clear that images, whether moving or still, make a significant contribution to how interviewees envisaged the physical appearance of Jesus.

When answering this question about the colour of Jesus, one informant referenced some of the issues regarding skin colour and Jesus films, which exist in Zimbabwe today. During my initial interviews in the Chikara village, a woman named Confidence Makaye shared what she describes as how some ‘Africans refer to Jesus’ with regard to skin tone. This initial interview included no questions about Jesus films. Makaye brought up Jesus films on her own. I asked Makaye, ‘What colour was Jesus? What makes you believe he was this colour’? She responded:

I don’t know because some Africans refer to Jesus as the Jesus of the privileged white. I don’t believe this! I don’t know his colour. I don’t know because of the films I’ve seen in colour or black and white, in the films it seems he is white. But I don’t know because I wasn’t there when he was born.25

Makaye does not make the direct statement that some Africans believe that Jesus is the colour of the ‘privileged white’ because they see Jesus as white in different Jesus films, but she does raise both points in her answer. She points out this perspective of the privileged white and she emphasizes that Jesus seems to be white from the Jesus films that she has seen. By making this connection in her answer, she adds credence to the theory that Jesus films that portray a white Jesus can reinforce the belief in certain African contexts that Jesus is the Jesus of what Makaye calls the privileged white. The example of Makaye is revealing of perspectives that exist in the Mashonaland West Province of Zimbabwe.26

Literature on the Reception of The Jesus Film in Africa

I am aware of three significant pieces of scholarship that concentrate on the reception of The Jesus Film in specific contexts in Africa. The first is a Master’s degree thesis based on research from Zambia.27 The second is an article by Hannes Wiher on the film’s reception in Guinea, West Africa.28 The third is an article by John Merz, which is partially based on the reception data in Wiher’s article from Guinea, West Africa.29 These sources show a similar conclusion about the film’s reception: to some degree, some audiences received the film differently than the film producers, missionaries, and Christian nationals screening the film had intended.

Merz’s article highlights the reception of The Jesus Film by an audience located in the forest region of Guinea, West Africa. The audience was comprised largely of people with African traditional and Islamic faith backgrounds, and some of those in the audience interpreted the film as depicting Jesus as a Muslim holy man.30 They deduced from the film that Jesus used a leather bag to keep his fetishes. They believed that Jesus received the power to perform miracles from his fetishes and that he was able to transport them around with him in his leather bag.31 Merz’s article is a fascinating piece of research regarding the reception of the film; however the reception research does not go much further. The limitation of prior research in this area is one of the main reasons for conducting my research on Jesus films in Zimbabwe.

Defining Indigenous, Short Jesus Films

The second type of Jesus film I researched in Zimbabwe is an indigenous, short Jesus film. This is a film that local Christians in the villages create and distribute, which features oral presentations of New Testament gospel stories. While I was in Zimbabwe local Christian Shona people in the Gora and Chikara villages created fourteen unique indigenous, short Jesus films. Local people directed the short films, chose their cast, content, structure, and performances. I offered technical assistance to the local people in making the films. The directors of the films, Lameck Marozva and Teresa Makaye, were from the Jerusalem Christian Church and the Chikara Christian Church, respectively. These churches were not established by Christian missionaries, but were started by Zimbabwean nationals.

The content of all the indigenous films are based on passages from the New Testament gospels. The films include passages on the birth of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, the prodigal son, the parable of the ten virgins, the Garden of Gethsemane and doubting Thomas. Each of the fourteen unique indigenous films feature a cast that is comprised completely of Zimbabweans with black or dark brown skin tones. This includes the casting of Jesus. The reference to the skin tones of the actors in the indigenous films is important when comparing them to The Jesus Film. The short films are distributed and viewed in the Gora and Chikara villages primarily on mobile phones. People in these villages transfer the indigenous films from phone to phone via Bluetooth. I use the term ‘indigenous’ for the short films as they compare to The Jesus Film. While Christianity is not indigenous to southern Africa, the usage of the term ‘indigenous’ to describe films made by Zimbabweans is in line with Gerhardus C. Oosthuizen’s usage of ‘indigenous’ to describe specific examples of Christianity in Africa. Oosthuizen refers to what he calls ‘African Indigenous Churches’ as being forms of indigenous Christianity.32

Similarities and Differences in the Jesus Films

It is important to briefly discuss some of the similarities and differences between The Jesus Film and the indigenous, short Jesus films. Both types of movies are based on aspects of the life of Jesus from the New Testament gospels, but they present the stories in different ways. The Jesus Film is a Hollywood-style production and was shot in the Middle East.33 The indigenous films are movies produced in rural villages in Zimbabwe and feature performances that utilize indigenous storytelling styles and methods of communication. While both types of films are in the Jesus films genre, the two types of films are in different subgenres. The Jesus Film is approximately two hours in length and is a feature film shown in cinemas upon its original release in 1979. The indigenous films are short, between one and six minutes in length, and are distributed primarily on mobile phones in Zimbabwe.

One informant named Chenjeri Joseph Munkaka states that The Jesus Film shown in the Gora and Chikara villages features ‘a version of the Shona language that was a mixture of Kalanga, Ndau, and Manyika’.34 Munkaka continues to share that the usage of multiple versions of Shona throughout the film causes a breakdown in communication for people who do not speak all of these versions of Shona. The indigenous films feature the Zezuru dialect of Shona, which is spoken by the informants from the Gora and Chikara villages. Similar to the producers of The Jesus Film, the directors of the indigenous films created the movies for evangelistic purposes. Nevertheless, they did not create the films with the motive of presenting accurately historical depictions of a first-century context regarding costumes, set design, or locations. The producers of The Jesus Film had historical accuracy as one of their top priorities.35

Apart from the differences in the Jesus films, both types of movies are used by local Christians in the Gora and Chikara villages to learn about Jesus and to share stories about his life with others. While The Jesus Film and the indigenous, short Jesus films differ in their length, set design, and costumes, they are all films about the life and teachings of Jesus based on the New Testament gospels that are viewed in Zimbabwe today. All of the informants easily compare the two types of Jesus films and offer several points of connection between the movie types.

Methodology for the Reception of Jesus Films in Zimbabwe

When considering the methodological approach of this research and the field work, both qualitative and quantitative research principles have been utilized in measuring audience reception of the Jesus films. Methodologically, ethnographic principles are employed with this study. The research can be referred to as a focused ethnography, which M.A. Muecke described in 1994.36 In their book on qualitative research, Lyn Richards and Janice M. Morse describe this type of research, stating: ‘Focused ethnography is used primarily to evaluate or to elicit information on a special topic or shared experience’.37 The shared experience of this research is the viewership and reception of different Jesus films. A complete ethnography of the informants in Zimbabwe has not been developed. On the contrary, the emphasis is specifically on the informants’ reception of the two types of Jesus films and how the interviewees interact with representations of Jesus in the movies. The main focus of my research is limited to the Gora and Chikara villages and it may be referred to as a focused ethnography study.

The field work consisted of three rounds of interviews of twenty different people in the Gora and Chikara villages, where I interviewed the same twenty people three different times.38 The interviews were centred on the person of Jesus and on the informants’ reception of the two types of Jesus films. The interviews were made up of a mixture of predefined and unstructured questions, which were based on the responses of the informants. The interviewees all volunteered to be a part of the study and the Zimbabwean government granted permission for the research. The informants were made up of both males and females, with ages ranging from the twenties to the eighties, and with religious backgrounds which included Pentecostal, Christian Church, Catholic, Baptist, African Independent, Methodist, Seventh-Day Adventist and people who did not identify with any particular religious tradition.

All interviewees identified themselves as Zimbabwean in nationality and the skin tone of each informant could be described as dark brown or black. A description of the skin tone of the interviewees is significant in relation to the subject matter of the field data connected to the colour of Jesus that will be presented later in this article. All but two of the interviewees had attended secondary school, with some attending college and receiving higher education degrees. All of the informants were literate except one. English and the Zezuru dialect of Shona were the languages used during the interviews, with English spoken the majority of the time. Regarding my own context as a researcher, I am not Zimbabwean and do not have any specific leadership role in the Gora and Chikara villages.

It is significant to note that the methodology of this study was predicated upon both qualitative and quantitative methods for analyzing the data from the twenty informants. Sweeping statements about the reception of the Jesus films by all Zimbabweans or all other Africans are not included. I was most respectful of the Shona people, who worked with me on this field work, and my aim was to accurately capture their perspectives on the subject matter of the research. I listened carefully to the local people I worked with, and I have honoured and represented their perspectives as clearly and articulately as possible.

Audience’s Views of the Actors in The Jesus Film

Of the myriad points of interest that emanate from the reception study of the Jesus films, what the audience believe about the different actors in each type of Jesus film, is one of the most fascinating and enlightening. I encountered a diverse response amongst the informants relating to whether or not the people featured in The Jesus Film were believed to be actors or the real people from the New Testament stories. One of the interesting aspects about this topic is that it is not something that I had anticipated asking the interviewees when preparing for my field work. As I began conducting the interviews that specifically focused on The Jesus Film, I discovered that some of the viewers of the film believed that what they were seeing in the movie was actual footage from the real events. They believed that the person on the screen in The Jesus Film was the real Jesus and that he was not an actor.

Regarding the indigenous films, the informants personally knew the actors in these films. They recognized the locations in the indigenous films from their villages and they could see that the people in the movies were simply acting out passages from the New Testament gospels because they were the interviewees’ neighbours. In fact, some of the informants were actually in the films themselves. In light of this, I did not want to offend the interviewees by asking them if the people in the indigenous films were actors.

However, when looking at The Jesus Film, there were variations in the informants’ responses regarding the actors. Most of the audience believed that the people in The Jesus Film were actors. Even so, three interviewees believed they were not actors and that they were the real people. The question I asked was, ‘Did The Jesus Film have actors playing the different roles in the film, like an actor playing the role of Jesus, or was the film showing the actual people from the story that lived about two thousand years ago’?

In response to the question, one informant named Emelina Shumba asserts The Jesus Film showed the actual people and not actors.39 In fact, when asked about the differences between the two types of Jesus films, Shumba says that the ‘indigenous, short Jesus films had actors, but The Jesus Film had the actual people from the Bible’.40 When addressing differences between the Jesus films, another interviewee named Patience Mudimu states that, ‘The Jesus Film shows the real Jesus, not actors’. Mudimu also shares that the indigenous films were ‘proven to be a drama’.41 Musindo Ephraim Tafira, the chief of the Gora village, also shares the perspective that The Jesus Film features the real people and not actors. Regarding Jesus specifically, Tafira also says that the colour of Jesus in The Jesus Film was ‘white, European’ and that the real Jesus himself was a ‘white, European’.42

This reception data regarding the identity of the people in The Jesus Film demonstrates that the film is making an impact on how some people in the Gora and Chikara villages are interpreting the Jesus of the New Testament gospels. For the chief of the Gora village, The Jesus Film is actually perpetuating the myth that Jesus was a white European. It is possible that the limited exposure to films that some viewers had, led to and resulted in their interpretations about what was happening on the screen. Shumba said that she had only seen about ‘six or seven films’ in her life before she viewed The Jesus Film or any of the fourteen indigenous films.43

With only viewing six or seven films, one may theorize that the limited number of films Shumba had viewed directly contributes to her interpretation of the actors in The Jesus Film as the real people from the New Testament. However, this hypothesis is more difficult to support when considering the other two interviewees. Mudimu had seen between sixty and seventy-five films before seeing The Jesus Film in 2012 or any of the indigenous films.44 Tafira said that before viewing the films of this research, he had seen ‘more than one hundred films’.45

With a film-viewing background of sixty to over one hundred films for Mudimu and Tafira, respectively, the lack of exposure to film does not explain their interpretation of the actors in The Jesus Film. It is also possible that The Jesus Film’s use of a Middle Eastern setting and costumes based on first century décor lead some viewers to think what they were seeing in the film was actual footage from the events which are told in the New Testament. Since the setting was in the Middle East, the viewers may have believed they were viewing a documentary.

Scope, Limitations, and Assumptions on Jesus and Skin Colour

When addressing this topic of Jesus and skin tone, it is constructive to cite the scope, limitations, and assumptions of this article. I am aware that there may be complexities that could cause the interviewees to experience a blurring of perceptions of the identity of Jesus in The Jesus Film. First, it is imperative to point out that a historical Jesus discussion is not addressed in this article. All of the people I interviewed had some type of religious affiliation in their lifetime that involved Jesus and it was assumed that the man Jesus that was spoken of about two thousand years ago in the New Testament was a real person. I simply asked my informants if the people in the two types of Jesus films were actors or the real people from the Bible who lived two thousand years ago.

Furthermore, it is possible that the informants were not forthright in their responses. They may have said what they thought I wanted them to say instead of what they actually believed. I did not perceive at any point, from any of my informants that they were doing this. I was careful not to express my perspectives or tell the interviewees how they should respond to the questions. Therefore, I am working from the assumption that the informants were accurate with their answers.

It is noteworthy that the arguments presented in this article are about minority perspectives of the informants regarding the representation of Jesus in The Jesus Film. While these perspectives are in the minority, they do represent fifteen per cent of the respondents (three out of twenty informants). When doing qualitative research, one is often working with a smaller group of informants and investigating its perspectives on a deeper level than that of a study that is exclusively quantitative in nature. As with other forms of qualitative research, the perspectives of each individual are important, and these perspectives may represent those of others in these communities as well.

Change in Chief Tafira’s Response Regarding Jesus

During the first round of interviews that were focused on the informants’ perspectives on Jesus, with no reference to Jesus films at all, the Gora chief had a different response to the question about the skin colour of Jesus. I had asked Tafira what he had thought the colour of Jesus was and how did he arrive at that conclusion. The chief states, ‘Jesus was a white person. He was born being white. From the history, we understand that Jesus was Jewish. Jews were white people’.46

Before viewing The Jesus Film, the Gora chief shares that Jesus was white and Jewish. After viewing the film, the chief chooses to describe Jesus as white European. This difference in description could be the result of Tafira’s conflation of ethnicity and skin tone. But if this is the case, why would he change his description to European? Why does he not mention the words ‘white, European’ when first describing the colour of Jesus without the reference of a Jesus film that features a white, European in the role of Jesus?

It could be argued that the film influences Tafira’s perspective on Jesus as European since he saw a man who was obviously of European descent in the role of Jesus. Local Christologies may be fluid and a change in the chief’s perspective on Jesus is tenable. It is also possible that the chief already had this perspective on Jesus as a white European before he saw The Jesus Film. It is conceivable he has come to believe this over the years, because of the type of Christianity which proceeded from the United Kingdom, which he may have been originally introduced to at a younger age living in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Whilst it is not definitively known if the film persuaded Chief Tafira to believe that Jesus was a white European, the film at the very least reinforces this myth that already existed in Zimbabwe.47

This leads back to the central questions of this research. Those questions could be summarized by asking in what ways are pre-existing local Christologies shaping how the audiences view the different Jesus films and in what ways are the films themselves helping to shape local Christologies. If The Jesus Film is leading Tafira to change his belief that Jesus was white and Jewish to white European, then this may demonstrate that the film is active in resulting in change as it reflects this aspect of Tafira’s local Christology. If the chief actually believed that Jesus was white European before viewing The Jesus Film, he chose not to describe him in those terms in the initial interview. It would then be possible that the movie reminds him of his own belief by showing a white European in the role of Jesus and the film simply reinforces a pre-understanding of Jesus that Tafira already has as part of his local Christology.

One of the reasons Chief Tafira’s perspective on Jesus is important to understand relates to public theology and the Gora village. Sebastian Kim states that ‘Public theology is an engagement of living religious traditions with their public environment—the economic, political and cultural spheres of common life’.48 Chief Tafira is a political figure in the Gora village and, from the data that has been presented in this article, is a representative of living religious traditions in this village. The local Christology of a person of influence, such as a chief, is critical to my thesis when considering its potential impact on public issues in his village. One such public issue is the topic of race and privilege within the Christian communities of the Gora village. What the chief of this rural village in Zimbabwe believes about Jesus has the potential to impact significantly others in his village. If a Jesus film is active in shaping or reinforcing the chief’s perspective on Jesus, then this can demonstrate an impact of the media on public theologies in his village.

One of the complex issues with the representation of Jesus in The Jesus Film is that the producers profess that their film is historically accurate in how it presents the people in the movie.49 By using a white European man to play the role of Jesus in The Jesus Film and then distributing the movie to places in the world where there is a history of white European rule over the indigenous peoples of the area, the film may then be interpreted as linking the Christian faith to a group of people who ruled over the indigenous peoples in places like Zimbabwe. The film may encourage white European rulership to convert to white European divine rulership in the character of Jesus.

For the specific people I interviewed in the Gora and Chikara villages, it is clear that The Jesus Film is leading some of them to believe that what they are seeing is actual footage from about two thousand years ago. The Jesus Film is even reinforcing the myth that Jesus was a white European. In comparison, there was no audience confusion amongst the people I interviewed in the Gora and Chikara villages about the actors simply being actors in the indigenous, short Jesus films.

An Interpretive Postcolonial Study

One of the aims of this research is to make a theoretical contribution to how people may interpret Jesus in post-colonial African contexts. It is tenable to consider my research as an interpretive postcolonial study. Robert J. Young writes in his seminal work, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction,

Postcolonial critique focuses on forces of oppression and coercive domination that operate in the contemporary world: the politics of anti-colonialism and neocolonialism, race, gender, nationalisms, class and ethnicities define its terrain . . . It constitutes a directed intellectual production that seeks to articulate itself with different forms of emancipatory politics, to synthesize different kinds of work toward the realization of common goals that include the creation of equal access to material, natural, social and technological resources, the contestation of forms of domination, whether economic, cultural, religious, ethnic or gendered, and the articulation and assertion of collective forms of political and cultural identity.50

In taking an ethnographic research approach in Zimbabwe, considering the audience reception of both a Hollywood-styled Jesus film created by an evangelical, interdenominational organization, and of indigenous, short Jesus films created by local people in rural villages in Zimbabwe, I was able to identify key differences in how the two types of films are assimilated and interpreted in the Gora and Chikara villages. Hyper-mediated forms of missionizing activity like The Jesus Film may be considered a conduit of neocolonialism. By having the power, resources, and freedom to create their own films about a key figure of their religion, the Zimbabwean people who created the indigenous, short Jesus films, have embodied what Young describes as the aims of postcolonial theorists.

In the last round of interviews, when I asked the informants which type of Jesus film they preferred—the indigenous, short Jesus films or The Jesus Film—over eighty per cent of the informants said they preferred the short films. One informant says of the indigenous films, ‘I felt really proud of my own people’.51 Another says of the films, ‘It’s good to know that as locals we can do such a great thing’.52 In some ways, the indigenous, short Jesus films flip the power structures upside down, helping to liberate the local people in the Gora and Chikara villages to dictate and control how their religion and religious figures are represented.

Conclusion

Campus Crusade claims that The Jesus Film has been viewed six billion times in its over-thirty-five-year history.53 Notwithstanding that declaration, to my knowledge there has been no published extensive, independent, academic analysis of the film’s reception in Africa. My research is a catalyst for change in this area.

The audiences I interviewed in Zimbabwe interpret the identity of Jesus in The Jesus Film in different ways, and not necessarily in the ways that the filmmakers intended. From the data I have presented in this article, it is clear that something dynamic is happening with how the audiences in Zimbabwe interpret the representation of Jesus in The Jesus Film. The identity of Jesus is interpreted in significantly different ways and the diversity in interpretations is consequential. Some interpret the people in The Jesus Film to be actors and some do not. In the eyes of the chief of the Gora village, The Jesus Film depicts a white European Jesus, which he believes to be the real Jesus from two thousand years ago. At the minimum, The Jesus Film is perpetuating the myth that Jesus was a white European. There is plausible evidence that this film is persuading Chief Tafira to believe that Jesus was white European.

Whilst Campus Crusade and other evangelical organizations herald The Jesus Film for its viewership, it is the reception of the film that actually needs to be spoken of and addressed. The data that has been presented in this article shows a much more diverse understanding of The Jesus Film by its audiences in Zimbabwe than has been offered by Campus Crusade over the last thirty-five years. From my field work, I have found that the reception of the film in Zimbabwe is divergent and heterogeneous. It is not the straightforward evangelistic missionary tool that Bright and Campus Crusade had planned it to be.54

1 John Heyman, The Jesus Film, (San Clemente: Inspirational Films, 1979, 2003).

2 Paul Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1985), p. 7.

3 The Jesus Film Project, ‘35th Anniversary Jesus Film Blu-Ray Disc’, Campus Crusade for Christ, (2014), para. 1, <http://www.jesusfilmstore.com/35th-Anniversary-JESUS-Film-Blu-Ray-Disc/productinfo/ZBRD-35TH-BLU-RAY> [accessed 13 November 2014].

4 The Jesus Film Project, ‘About Us’, Campus Crusade for Christ, (2014), para. 5, <http://jesusfilmhd.com/about-us> [accessed 13 November 2014].

5 Jolyon P. Mitchell, Media Violence and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 146.

6 I follow John McLeod’s spelling of both post-colonial and postcolonial. McLeod states that ‘the hyphenated term ‘post-colonial’ seems better suited to denote a particular historical period or epoch.’ McLeod also states that the form of the word, ‘postcolonial,’ more precisely represents ‘disparate forms of representations, reading practices, attitudes and values’. (John McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism, Second edn., (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), pp. 5–6 (original italics)).

7 Diane B. Stinton, Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004); Robert J. Schreiter, Faces of Jesus in Africa (London: scm Press, 1992).

8 Michael F.C. Bourdillon, The Shona Peoples: An Ethnography of the Contemporary Shona, with Special Reference to their Religion, Third edn., Shona Heritage Series (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1987); David Maxwell, Christians and Chiefs in Zimbabwe: A Social History of the Hwesa People, c. 1870s–1990s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999); Terrence O. Ranger, Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, 1896–7: A Study in African Resistance (London: Heinemann, 1967); Zvakanyorwa Wilbert Sadomba, War Veterans in Zimbabwe’s Revolution: Challenging Neo-Colonialism, Settler and International Capital (Oxford: James Currey, 2011).

9 Lynn Schofield Clark, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Stewart M. Hoover, Religion in the Media Age (London: Routledge, 2006); Clive Marsh, Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2004).

10 Karin Barber, ‘Preliminary Notes on Audiences in Africa’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 67:3 (1997), 347–62 at 347; Birgit Meyer, ‘“Praise the Lord”: Popular Cinema and Pentecostalite Style in Ghana’s New Public Sphere’, American Ethnologist, 31:1 (2004), 92–110 at 92.

11 W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1997), pp. 155–6.

12 Bill Bright, Come Help Change the World, Second edn. (Orlando: NewLife Publications, 1999), p. 148; John G. Turner, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), p. 228.

13 Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, pp. 30–1.

14 The Jesus Film Project, ‘35th Anniversary Jesus Film Blu-Ray Disc’.

15 Bright, Come Help Change the World, p. 143; Campus Crusade for Christ, ‘The Jesus Film Project’, Campus Crusade for Christ, <http://www.ccci.org/ministries-and-locations/ministries/the-jesus-film-project/index.htm> [accessed 20 May 2011].

16 Bright, Come Help Change the World, p. 145.

17 Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts, The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897–1980 (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1981), p. 184.

18 J. Stephen Lang, The Bible on the Big Screen: A Guide from Silent Films to Today’s Movies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), p. 223.

19 Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, p. 59.

20 Dwight H. Friesen, ‘An Analysis of the Production, Content, Distribution, and Reception of Karunamayudu (1978), an Indian Jesus Film’ (PhD dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 2009), p. 84.

21 Ibid.

22 J.L. Houlden, Jesus: The Complete Guide (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 63–100.

23 Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, p. 46.

24 I did not offer specific choices of skin colours to the interviewees. When discussing the colour of Jesus, the informants mention specific colours such as ‘black’ and ‘white’ on their own without prompting. When discussing these colours, a large majority of informants specified that they were referring to skin tone with only a few stating they were describing ethnicity.

25 Confidence Makaye, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 14 August 2012, Initial Interview 11, transcript.

26 While other interviewees do not directly mention the idea of the ‘privileged white’, this does not mean that the other respondents deny its existence in this area of Zimbabwe.

27 Cathy Lee Mansfield, ‘Cognitive and Attitudinal Changes Following Viewing of The Jesus Film Among the Gwembe Tonga of Zambia’ (Master’s thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1984).

28 Hannes Wiher, ‘Der Jesus-Film: Sein Gebrauch bei der animistischen und islamischen Bevölkerung Westafrikas unter Berücksichtigung von Erfahrungen in der Waldregion Guineas’, Evangelikale Missiologie, 13:3 (1997), 66–74 at 70.

29 Johannes Merz, ‘Translation and the Visual Predicament of the “Jesus” Film in West Africa’, Missiology, 38:2 (2010), 111–26 at 111.

30 Ibid.

31 Wiher, ‘Der Jesus-Film’, 70.

32 Gerhardus C. Oosthuizen, ‘Indigenous Christianity and the Future of the Church in South Africa’, Dialogue & Alliance, 11:1 (1997), 51–65 at 51.

33 Campbell and Pitts, The Bible on Film, p. 184.

34 Chenjeri Joseph Munkaka, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 19 September 2012, Third Interview 7, transcript.

35 Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, p. 46.

36 M.A. Muecke, ‘On the Evaluation of Ethnographies’, in Janice M. Morse, ed., Critical Issues in Qualitative Research Methods (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994), pp. 187–209.

37 Lyn Richards and Janice M. Morse, Readme First for a User’s Guide to Qualitative Methods, Second edn. (Thousand Oaks California: Sage Publications, 2007), p. 58.

38 The first round of interviews included twenty-four informants, the second included twenty-two, and the third included twenty. The original aim was to interview twenty people three different times. Due to scheduling conflicts, some of the interviewees from the first and second rounds could not participate in subsequent interviews. While most of the informants answered all of the same questions in each round of interviews, occasionally some did not.

39 Emelina Shumba, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 23 September 2012, Third Interview 10, transcript.

40 Ibid.

41 Patience Mudimu, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 19 September 2012, Third Interview 23, transcript.

42 Musindo Ephraim Tafira, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 20 September 2012, Third Interview 8, transcript.

43 Emelina Shumba, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 12 September 2012, Second Interview 13, transcript.

44 Patience Mudimu, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 18 September 2012, Second Interview 23, transcript.

45 Musindo Ephraim Tafira, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 6 September 2012, Second Interview 5, transcript.

46 Musindo Ephraim Tafira, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 12 August 2012, First Interview 5, transcript.

47 Confidence Makaye, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, 14 August 2012, Initial Interview 11, transcript. While I do not have definitive evidence regarding Tafira’s mindset, my assumptions of what he thought about Jesus and why he changed his description to Jesus being European are based upon the field data that is available.

48 Sebastian Kim, ‘Editorial’, International Journal of Public Theology, 1:1 (2007), 1–4 at 2.

49 Paul Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus (Orlando: NewLife Publications, 1995), pp. 44–5.

50 Robert J.C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), p. 11.

51 Mary Chidau, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, September 23, 2012, Second Interview 24, transcript.

52 Hendrick Lubinda, interview by Adam T. Shreve, Zimbabwe, September 6, 2012, Second Interview 4, transcript.

53 The Jesus Film Project, ‘35th Anniversary Jesus Film Blu-Ray Disc’.

54 Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus, pp. 44–5.

  • 1

    John Heyman, The Jesus Film, (San Clemente: Inspirational Films, 1979, 2003).

  • 2

    Paul Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1985), p. 7.

  • 3

    The Jesus Film Project, ‘35th Anniversary Jesus Film Blu-Ray Disc’, Campus Crusade for Christ, (2014), para. 1, <http://www.jesusfilmstore.com/35th-Anniversary-JESUS-Film-Blu-Ray-Disc/productinfo/ZBRD-35TH-BLU-RAY> [accessed 13 November 2014].

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4

    The Jesus Film Project, ‘About Us’, Campus Crusade for Christ, (2014), para. 5, <http://jesusfilmhd.com/about-us> [accessed 13 November 2014].

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5

    Jolyon P. Mitchell, Media Violence and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 146.

  • 7

    Diane B. Stinton, Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004); Robert J. Schreiter, Faces of Jesus in Africa (London: scm Press, 1992).

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    • Export Citation
  • 9

    Lynn Schofield Clark, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Stewart M. Hoover, Religion in the Media Age (London: Routledge, 2006); Clive Marsh, Cinema and Sentiment: Film’s Challenge to Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2004).

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    • Export Citation
  • 10

    Karin Barber, ‘Preliminary Notes on Audiences in Africa’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 67:3 (1997), 347–62 at 347; Birgit Meyer, ‘“Praise the Lord”: Popular Cinema and Pentecostalite Style in Ghana’s New Public Sphere’, American Ethnologist, 31:1 (2004), 92–110 at 92.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 11

    W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1997), pp. 155–6.

  • 13

    Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, pp. 30–1.

  • 15

    Bright, Come Help Change the World, p. 143; Campus Crusade for Christ, ‘The Jesus Film Project’, Campus Crusade for Christ, <http://www.ccci.org/ministries-and-locations/ministries/the-jesus-film-project/index.htm> [accessed 20 May 2011].

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 16

    Bright, Come Help Change the World, p. 145.

  • 17

    Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts, The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897–1980 (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1981), p. 184.

  • 18

    J. Stephen Lang, The Bible on the Big Screen: A Guide from Silent Films to Today’s Movies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), p. 223.

  • 19

    Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, p. 59.

  • 22

    J.L. Houlden, Jesus: The Complete Guide (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 63–100.

  • 23

    Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, p. 46.

  • 28

    Hannes Wiher, ‘Der Jesus-Film: Sein Gebrauch bei der animistischen und islamischen Bevölkerung Westafrikas unter Berücksichtigung von Erfahrungen in der Waldregion Guineas’, Evangelikale Missiologie, 13:3 (1997), 66–74 at 70.

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    • Export Citation
  • 29

    Johannes Merz, ‘Translation and the Visual Predicament of the “Jesus” Film in West Africa’, Missiology, 38:2 (2010), 111–26 at 111.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 31

    Wiher, ‘Der Jesus-Film’, 70.

  • 32

    Gerhardus C. Oosthuizen, ‘Indigenous Christianity and the Future of the Church in South Africa’, Dialogue & Alliance, 11:1 (1997), 51–65 at 51.

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    • Export Citation
  • 33

    Campbell and Pitts, The Bible on Film, p. 184.

  • 35

    Eshleman, I Just Saw Jesus, p. 46.

  • 48

    Sebastian Kim, ‘Editorial’, International Journal of Public Theology, 1:1 (2007), 1–4 at 2.

  • 49

    Paul Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus (Orlando: NewLife Publications, 1995), pp. 44–5.

  • 50

    Robert J.C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), p. 11.

  • 54

    Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus, pp. 44–5.

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