Throughout 2,000 years of Christian history, the story of God’s salvation through Jesus of Nazareth has been interpreted and re-interpreted many times for the many different cultures and worldviews that have embraced it. From South African celebrations to Catholic Mass in Rome, from underground house churches in China to button down casual non-denominational America, there have been many and varied expressions of Jesus Christ, each with its own peculiar and particular focus and interest.
The Jesus Experience: Christianity Around the World is a celebration of eight different unique expressions of the Christian Gospel. Originally aired on the Hallmark channel, The Jesus Experience is a world-class documentary now available as a double DVD set. The DVD includes eight volumes, each with a different historic focus that includes The Roman Empire, Early Europe, Modern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Each segment is full of authentic artwork, music and images from each cultural milieu, as well as commentary by a diverse group of scholars and experts. Strongly ecumenical, no one voice of Christianity is under-represented here.
The best feature of The Jesus Experience is the stories it tells. Each segment explores the personalities and the biographies of those whose lives are intimately intertwined with the story of Jesus Christ in each specific culture. From the stories of the early Church fathers to stories of men and women as diverse as the Prince of Kiev, Hildegard of Bingen and Desmond TuTu, the DVD focuses on each life in order to tell the broader story of the work of God in entire cultures.
The stories are, of course, also meant to be entertaining. Frank Desidirio, the documentary’s producer, said that the stories themselves help open The Jesus Experience to a broad audience: “I do want the feature to be addressed to the non-believer or skeptic,” he said. “I’m hoping that the stories themselves would help open up the skeptical mind, so that skeptical viewers at least have to start thinking about Christianity seriously.”
Desidirio certainly acccomplishes this through the richness of the stories. Of particular interest to North American audiences who may not be familiar with non-Western expressions of Christianity are the sections on Asia, Africa and South America. Each of these features showcases cultural expressions of Jesus that are surprising and exciting because of their unfamiliarity. The African section, for example, brings to life the vibrancy and exuberance of the sub-Saharan articulation of Christianity through the music, the history and the images of the African church.
While The Jesus Experience is a celebration of Christianity in some of its many forms, it is also a stark reminder of the failures of Western European Christianity. From the forced conversions of the South American natives by Catholic Conquistadors to the blatant racism of the British Anglicans in Africa, the monuments to the continuing injustice of humanity are hard to ignore. However, the documentary does provide a ray of hope as it notes the successes of missionaries who, despite having stumbled over the tremendous barrier of the cultural differences of non-Western continents, managed to take the message of Jesus’ salvation to distant lands. And they did this by learning how to translate the Gospel into the native culture. Desidirio gave the example: “In the culture of the Cherokee Indians, it’s meaningless to talk about Christ being a shepherd. These people don’t know sheep, so you have to change the image in order to capture their imagination. I think the best missionaries have been the ones who have gone in and found the resonant notes in the culture so that they could accurately portray Jesus.”
Desidirio’s statement about missiology brings up the other strong point of The Jesus Experience, which is its celebration of the incarnational aspect of the Gospel—in other words, the idea that Jesus can and should be incarnated into every different culture. Desidirio commented, “Jesus, the eternal son of God, took on human flesh, and He came as a first century Jew. But every century and every culture after that has given Him a different face so that they could relate to Him … which I think is okay because He is the universal Christ, as well as the Jesus of history.”
Possibly the most important aspect of The Jesus Experience, however, is its big picture look at Christianity. Desidirio certainly hopes so, saying that: “For the individual, what it says is that we’re not just a part of our local churches but that we’re a part of this universal family of 2 billion believers. And from an ecumenical standpoint, I would hope that the documentary would build bridges between different Christian groups. Finally, I would hope that The Jesus Experience would help Christians to appreciate their heritage, the 2,000 years of Christian experience that can help us understand our own place in that story.”
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