If you want to make a tidy sum, short Paul Verhoeven’s stock:

I’m told that Muse Productions’ Chris Hanley, whose credits include American Psycho, has stepped up to finance development of a film about Christ. It will be based on Jesus of Nazareth, a book that director Paul Verhoeven co-wrote after immersing himself in the history and researching the subject for nearly two decades. Verhoeven plans to direct the film, which will be written by Roger Avary. Avary shared the Academy Award for Best Original Script with Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction.

Verhoeven’s take on the life of Jesus Christ discounts all of the miracles that inform the New Testament. That includes the immaculate conception, and the resurrection. Verhoeven doesn’t believe any of them happened. I wrote about Verhoeven’s ambitions in spring, 2011 as he and his reps at ICM first tried to find funding, no small feat given some of the theories he put forth in the book. The most controversial: that Jesus might have been the product of his mother being raped by a Roman soldier, which Verhoeven said was commonplace at the time, and that Jesus was a radical prophet who performed exorcisms and was convinced he would find the kingdom of Heaven on earth, and did not know he would be sentenced to die on the cross by Pontius Pilate. That, and the discounting of the miracles that pepper the New Testament, has made this a daunting project to set up. But while Verhoeven’s film credits include Showgirls (as well as hits like Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct) he isn’t trying to tantalize here. He is fixated on Christ not for the miracles depicted in the blockbuster film The Passion Of The Christ, but rather in the enduring power of the message Christ preached which have kept him first and foremost in the minds of Christians for 2000 years. Verhoeven feels too many take Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins as a free pass to misbehave, because they think they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. He feels that the value of Christ’s journey is the opportunity to emulate his life and the values he held dear, like forgiveness.

“If you look at the man, it’s clear you have a person who was completely innovative in the field of ethics,” Verhoeven told me last year.

Just so you’re clear: from the director of “Showgirls” and the team that brought you “Pulp Fiction” and “American Psycho,” comes a new cinematic life of Christ that claims the Virgin Mary was raped and that Jesus was no miracle worker, but rather the world’s greatest ethics guru.

This is too funny to be offensive, at least to me. The hilarious hubris of these people, thinking that anybody outside of progressive seminary teachers, Episcopal bishops, and radical nuns would pay cash to see something like this. It would be far more efficient just to take a big pile of money out back and burn it. Seriously, it’s amusing to contemplate the mindset of people who think this kind of project would be a good idea.

It puts me in mind of the meeting I had in 2002 with the publisher Judith Regan to talk about the prospect of writing a book about the Catholic sex abuse scandal. “Forget it,” she said. “People are willing to read about that in the newspaper, but nobody wants to spend $27 to read about priests screwing boys.” The way she put it was crude, but she was exactly right, from a commercial point of view. Similarly, who wants to spend $10 to watch a feel-bad movie in which their most sacred beliefs are shat on for two hours? How many unbelievers really want to spend $10 watching a movie about a delusional moralistic nut who thought he was divine? I’m not asking as a theological or artistic proposition; I’m asking as a commercial one.

Though I suppose it does come down to a theological proposition, after all. Socrates was a great teacher of philosophy and ethics, and his teaching endures to this day. But nobody built temples to Socrates, and nobody built a hospital, much less a civilization, out of love of Socrates. If Jesus was not God, but only an ethical teacher, he wouldn’t have had nearly the power he does. Or, to be precise: if people hadn’t believed Jesus was God, he wouldn’t be “Jesus.” Either he was God, or he was a tragic fool. Jesus the Ethical Rabbi? Meh.

And, come to think of it, there is something of an artistic question here. I allow for the possibility that one could make real art out of the belief that Jesus was merely an ethical rabbi. Anything is possible. But film is a mass medium, and depends on communicating artistic truth to a relatively broad audience. It is not the case that the artistic success of a film can be judged wholly by its box office receipts. But I think it’s also wrong, and horribly conceited, to say that the commercial success or failure of a film has nothing to do with its commercial performance. If nobody wants to see your movie, at some point, you have failed as an artist. You have to make that connection.

In his speech accepting the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, Walker Percy said that any story must “first, last, and always give pleasure to the reader. If it fails of this, it fails of everything.” Contrast this view with that of a celebrated young French director whom I interviewed in 1998. Having noted that his films to that point had all been financed to a significant degree by the French state, and that none of them had been commercially successful, I asked him about the filmmaker’s responsibility to connect with the audience. He told me he didn’t care, that the only people he made films for were his friends. I thought: that’s the kind of attitude you can have when you can count on those friends and their connections at the Ministry of Culture.

Again, I do not believe that the commercial success of a work of art is a precise gauge of its merit. Van Gogh, recall, died poor. But when the work of art is in a mass medium, the artist and his production team cannot be insensitive to the receptive capabilities of the audience. Well, they can, but they’re going to lose a pile of money, as Paul Verhoeven’s Jesus movie will once again demonstrate.

 

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