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Thinking Anthropologically about Media: Is Jesus Angry or Impassive?

Emotions are not simply emotions. Emotions are powerful, and there can be subtle but significant differences in how people around the world understand, express, and handle them. When we express our emotions, they can trigger further emotions in those around us, who may express empathy or react against us. Sometimes different social groups are expected to deal with emotions differently. There can be different expectations between children and adults or men and women. People with different religious backgrounds may also have specific ways of dealing with emotions.

How have you been brought up to deal with emotions? Were you told to suppress them or show them freely? Which are the emotions you show or suppress? When and how do you do this? How do you recognize emotions in others? Such questions are important when creating and adapting media, especially when you work with media content destined for people in cultural environments different from yours.

Let us look at how filmmakers portray the emotions of Jesus. We know that Jesus had emotions and that he showed them. We know there were many occasions when he was happy and that Jesus was sad and wept when Lazarus died. There were times when he was frustrated and angry, for example when dealing with the Pharisees and when he cleared the temple. Finally, he expressed his agony to his father before being arrested. But how do we actually portray these emotions in pictures?

In the JESUS film (1979, John Heyman), Jesus appears calm and relatively unexpressive, giving the impression that he does not have many emotions, or that he hides them well. How does this come across to you and how might this be perceived by others? How does Jesus’ seeming emotionlessness hinder or facilitate identification with, and relation to, him?

In India, for example, holy men who could be compared to Jesus are expected to suppress their emotions, which demonstrates a mastery of the world and the self and thus closeness to nirvana. Just watch an Indian film about Jesus, such as Karunamayudu (1978, A. Bhimsingh) or Shanti Sandesham (2003, Chandra Shekar Reddy), and see how they, too, avoid portraying Jesus’ emotions.

Or take The LUMO Gospel of John video (2014, David Batty), in which Jesus shows his emotions much more, for example when he argues with the Pharisees. He raises his voice, appears agitated, and his gestures become more pronounced. How does this come across to you? I found that Europeans watching the film with me read his expressed emotions as frustration and often appreciated his humanness. But Americans tend to question why Jesus does not smile more and why he seems so stern throughout the movie. They do not really feel that it is appropriate to show such an angry Jesus. Would he really have been like that?

It is worthwhile to think anthropologically about the complexity and variety of emotions, and how we express them. Different media portray them differently. What emotions mean to people further depends on their own cultural environments. How we portray emotions can facilitate or hinder how people identify with the characters and thus affect both a viewer’s understanding and the media’s acceptability.

 — This article first appeared in the IMN, Issue 128, October 2022, © SIL International, all rights reserved, and is used with permission. For future inquiries, please write to

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