When the film Jesus was released in 1979, there was little fanfare and even less profit. But the man who had conceived the movie, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, was more concerned with winning souls than winning Oscars. In 1981 the Jesus Film Project began translating the film into hundreds of languages, giving missionaries a uniquely powerful way to go into all the world.
Three decades later, Jesus has been seen over six billion times (including repeat viewings) and has reportedly sparked a staggering 221 million decisions for Christ. Meanwhile, staff have been tackling not only new translations (Jesus is now in more than 1,000 languages), but also recut versions of the original. Campus Crusade has revised the introduction, spruced up the special effects, and created a children's version. The newest and most radical effort is Magdalena: Released from Shame (3 stars), which combines footage from the original Jesus film with new material emphasizing Christ's compassion for women.
The film opens in A.D. 40, with Mary Magdalene telling some skeptical friends about Jesus. In flashbacks, she recounts her own healing from demon possession and describes several of Jesus' miracles and interactions with women. At the end of the film, Mary leads a friend in prayer to accept Jesus and his salvation.
Magdalena not only speaks a "feminine" language, but also reaches out to cultures in which honor and shame are more powerful paradigms than guilt and innocence, a sensitivity sometimes lacking in Western presentations of the gospel. Particular care has also been given to appeal to Muslim audiences. (For example, the film's characters refer to Jesus as Prophet and Teacher as well as Messiah.)
Although technical limitations may shorten Magdalena's reach in cultures accustomed to contemporary movies (it still feels like a 30-year-old independent film), anecdotal reports suggest it's still effective. After a recent showing in Israel, one viewer emotionally expressed her appreciation for the way Jesus "dealt with women in respect" and "released them from fear." In every culture, in every language, that's a story women need to hear. See more at MagdalenaMovie.com.
Carolyn Arends, film critic and CT columnist
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