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Son of Man: An African Jesus Film (Bible in the Modern World)
Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd, 2013
260 pp., $80.00
Peter T. Chattaway
An African Jesus
The story of Jesus has become so familiar to us that we sometimes fail to grasp just how shocking, disturbing, or ultimately motivating it really is. Even films designed to take us back to 1st-century Judea tend to come across as soothing or reassuring, which hardly matches how the apostles would have experienced those events. Sometimes it takes a radical reimagining to get us to really think about the implications of that story, and how it might be applied to our present-day reality. And one of the most interesting such reimaginings—certainly in recent years—is Son of Man, a South African production that depicts Jesus as a political activist working in a war-torn modern African country.
Like most independent foreign films, Son of Man has kept a relatively low profile—it didn't even come out on DVD on this continent until four years after it premiered at the Sundance festival in 2006—but it can now be streamed on Netflix in the U.S., and it has attracted a fair bit of attention in some circles. The conversation surrounding the film is now further illuminated by Son of Man: An African Jesus Film, a collection of 16 essays that look at the film within the contexts of African culture and the Jesus-film tradition as a whole.
Edited by Richard Walsh, Jeffrey L. Staley, and Adele Reinhartz, all of whom have written on Bible films in the past, the book illuminates such details as the way the film mixes the biblical baptism and temptation of Jesus with Xhosa circumcision rituals, or the way the Jesus of this film is much more interested in political activism than theology, or the way the film makes Mary a far more prominent figure than she is in other Jesus films, because it is she who compels her son to bear witness to the atrocities around them when he is still a boy, and it is she, rather than any of the disciples, who plays the primary role in shaping his community after he dies, by leading his followers in a song of protest.