It has been an informal custom of mine at Easter time to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told or King of Kings when they come on TV. This is a tradition that goes back to when I used to watch these movies with my mother, and a tradition I've shared with my own children as they were growing up. But in recent years, as I've grown to have an appreciation for the real Jesus, I've wondered if these films didn't actually do us all more harm than good.
There's little doubt that most of us pick up and retain lasting impressions from the biblical epics we watch, more so even than from our readings of scripture. And while the Jesus I came to know from these movies is good and heroic and noble and perfect, there is one attribute I never felt from either of these incarnations. Neither the Jesus from The Greatest Story Ever Told, nor the Jesus portrayed in King of Kings seemed to me particularly approachable.
The Jesus I was exposed to in these classic films, and later through Franco Zeffirelli's magnificent Jesus of Nazareth, inspired awe and admiration for sure, but something was lacking. Jesus always came off as very somber and serious. Every miracle was performed to an accompanied swell of music as though it was a very big deal every time he lifted his arm. Impressive? By all means. But where was the joy in his face, the unmistakable charisma that attracted those throngs of people to him? I just didn't see it. With these films as my guide growing up, Jesus inspired awe, but he never really clicked with me on a personal level. He seemed humorless and distant. Not exactly someone I would feel comfortable sitting with for an hour. If Jesus were to show up at my door, I was sure I wouldn't be able to think of anything to talk with him about.
As I grew into a teenage boy with all the angst and problems of young adolescence, I realized I would no more enjoy being in the presence of Jesus than I was at my yearly Aaronic priesthood interview with the bishop. And oh, how I dreaded those interviews! I knew that Jesus, like the bishop, had the ability to look into my eyes and know my embarrassing 13-year-old secret boy sins. I admired the Lord. I loved him and respected him. I even feared him. But was I really looking forward to meeting with him? Nope.
Thank goodness I wouldn't have to face him until I died. No need to die of embarrassment before that.
In recent years I have learned to let these movies go. They may have been good for one or two viewings, but I realize that repeated exposure to them may have warped my vision, and worse, warped my children's vision. The Jesus of the movies is perfect, yes, but he is also distant, unapproachable, and sometimes scary. This is not the Savior I should have taught my children about. I've learned in recent years that the real Jesus is much more a friend than I had ever imagined, and actually spending a few minutes with the real Jesus in casual conversation would be a delight.
So these days as Easter rolls around I seek other things besides these movies, something to read or listen to that actually brings Christ closer, that aids in my appreciation for His infinite love. I have elsewhere in this forum recommended Cleon Skousen's classic talk The Meaning of the Atonement, to give one excellent example. And this year I read a remarkable piece of fiction: Christ On Trial: An Easter Hymn by Paul Toscano.
The story centers on a young attorney, Clifford Harward, married with a couple of kids, who chokes on a fish bone and dies.
During his time out of body, Cliff has a near-death experience where he meets Jesus, who has an interesting request. It seems Jesus has recently been charged by Satan with the crime of blasphemy, and Clifford Harward is the lawyer Jesus wants to represent him at trial. The trial is to take place on some other dimensional plane, and the prosecutor Cliff will be going up against will be Satan himself. The trial will be completed in one day, each side will present only three witnesses each, and the defendant, Jesus, will not be testifying on his own behalf. Further, Cliff will not have the opportunity to voi dire the jury, as jury selection has already been conducted by the prosecutor. It looks like a bit of an uphill climb.
Cliff Harward is not a particularly religious man -he doesn't even attend church. On top of all that, Cliff is not a trial attorney, he's a bankruptcy attorney, which means he has virtually no experience in open court. And if Cliff loses this case, the penalty his client faces is death. Again. Only this time permanently.
So there's that.
In spite of Cliff's reluctance, the defendant persuades Cliff to take the case, and Cliff is returned to his body in the hospital. He has only weeks to prepare.
As far as I'm aware, this is Toscano's first work of fiction, and he uses the story as a framing device to explore some of the pervasive misconceptions about Jesus that are held by many who claim a belief in Christ. Although the story is not Mormon-centric, it's easy to see many of our own among those who have created a god in the image we assume him to be, such as with this exchange featuring George Hobson, one of the prosecution's witnesses. George is a modern middle class man who has had some success in life, for which he credits his strong religious beliefs. He has been asked about the benefits of his religion:
[George is asked about the blessings in his life; his good fortune, his family, and his children's successes.]“I think religion taught me the meaning of hard work. There are a lot of similarities between religion and business.”“Would you please explain this?” said the prosecutor. “I'm sure we'd all be interested in your views.”“Well,” said George, evidently flattered to find someone interested in his opinion, “the main thing is that nothing in this world is free. There's no free lunch, so to speak. What a man gets is what a man earns.”“And how do you derive this teaching from the defendant's religion? asked the prosecutor.“It's all through it,” said George, in a tone that suggested that it was obvious for anyone to see. “The whole point of it is that if you work hard and keep your nose clean, God will back you up. It’s the same kind of principle you find in the army—you work hard, you keep the rules, and the army takes care of you.”“Has the defendant taken care of you?” probed the prosecutor.“He takes care of the people who take care of themselves. I've worked hard, and I take care of my family so that we're not a burden on anybody. He takes care of people who take care of themselves,” said George firmly.“And what about people who are less fortunate than yourself?” asked the prosecutor.“Most unfortunates I've met lack initiative. If they had initiative, they'd get educated and make their own opportunities,” said George. And then he added quickly: “Don't get me wrong. I contribute to my church and give to the United Way and that kind of thing. But nothing is really going to happen for people unless they make it happen.”“How does the defendant fit into your belief?” asked the prosecutor.“I'm afraid I don't understand your question,” replied George.“Let me put it another way,” said the prosecutor patiently. “What, in your view, is the defendant doing for the poor?”“I think he encourages them to stand on their own two feet. And he gives them examples,” said George.“Examples?” said the prosecutor, as if he were confused.“Sure,” smiled George, leaning back a little. “People who are successful are examples. I don't have a college degree or professional training. And if I can do it, anybody can do it. After all, we live in America. People here can make something of themselves if they have initiative.”“And you learned this view from the defendant?” asked the prosecutor slyly.“You bet, I did,” cried George. “That's how the system works. I go to church and I make a contract. I keep my nose clean, work hard, be responsible, and I get the dividends.“I don't know exactly how other people look at it, but my view is that God wipes the slate clean. He clears all your debts, so to speak. Then, he becomes your creditor. After that, it's like insurance. You pay the premiums; and when trouble comes, you can rely on the coverage,” said George.
I think a lot of us Mormons hold the George Hobson view of the gospel, although it is not supported anywhere in scripture. We spend our lives trying our best to do everything right; we attend church, hold family home evening, pay our tithing, go to the temple. We work hard, keep our nose clean, and hold up our end of the bargain. Yet more likely than not, somewhere along the line things often fall apart. We wonder why God has decided not to hold up his end, and we feel betrayed. Reading this passage from Christ On Trial reminded me of the days when I thought this was the way it was supposed to work.“And do you feel gratitude to the defendant for all this?” asked the prosecutor.“Sure, I feel gratitude,” said George expansively. “We've worked hard, and we have a lot of things to be thankful for.”
All Things Will Work Together To Unravel For Good
As a child of the fifties growing up on Zorro, Davy Crockett, and The Mickey Mouse Club, I had one ambition in life from the time I was seven years old. When I grew up I wanted to work at Disneyland. Happily, this was an achievable ambition, because the house in Anaheim I grew up in was located exactly one mile from Disneyland, and on the very same street. I could walk there.
When I turned eighteen I auditioned for the Christmas season of Fantasy on Parade, landing a part as a gypsy puppeteer in the Pinocchio unit. After that I was cast in the Cinderella unit in the first Main Street Electrical Parade, and when that ended, because I was tall and thin, I was offered a slot in the character department, where I would roam the park in costume as Goofy, Captain Hook, and the Big Bad Wolf.
Now I was on my way. The character department was often a stepping stone into supervisory and management positions in Disneyland's Entertainment Department, where a guy with ambition and the right connections could eventually end up overseeing parades and special events. I had the ambition and I was developing the connections. The man who was to become my mentor, the director of the first Electrical Parade, began feeding me assignments here and there within the department that sent me to Los Angeles for special Disney themed events.
I liked these events because more often than not I got to wear a tie and an official looking blazer with the Disney logo on the pocket, which gave me a certain cachet. Sometimes I got to hobnob with the stars. One time late at night in an empty theater lobby Jack Gilardi and his wife, Annette Funicello, wandered over to where I was standing just to chat with me about the deteriorating quality of Disney movies since Walt Disney had died (this was the era of such duds as Superdad, Charlie and the Angel, and The World's Greatest Athlete). Lionel Hampton's band members invited me to hang out with them on the rest of their L.A. tour, and I got to ride with Lionel himself in the back of his limo. Debbie Reynolds told me of her plans to one day open a Hollywood Motion Picture Museum. I chatted with James Garner on set at Disney Studios and was surprised that in person his makeup looked orange. Another time I saw Fred MacMurray without makeup and was surprised how old and ordinary he looked in person. I stood next to another old man on the set of "Pete's Dragon," and didn't recognize him as Mickey Rooney until he spoke. Red Skelton once told me a joke. I wish I could remember it, but the whole time he was talking all I could think about was "Red Skelton is telling ME a joke!" I was even at the Academy Awards one year, watching on a monitor backstage as Sacheen Littlefeather made her notorious protest speech in accepting the Best Actor award for Marlon Brando.
This was the life I wanted. I was climbing the Disney corporate ladder, and it was only the beginning. Then at 21, a time when most of the other guys my age were returning home from their missions, I suddenly felt compelled to go myself, so I put in for my call. I didn't worry about my career at Disney; it would be there when I got back. I was assured of that by my mentor. I would be able to slip right back in where I left off. Besides, I was on speaking terms with the Vice President of Disneyland's entire entertainment division, a man so high up the chain that most of my co-workers had never even met him.
I had my connections in place. Of course, chief among them was the Lord Himself, who I knew would shower blessings upon me when I got back because I was putting him first by serving a mission.
I was in the catbird seat. When I got back, I'd certainly be leapfrogged into a comfortable position on the Disney corporate ladder.
But when I returned home in the spring of 1975, I was stunned to learn that the VP had resigned from Disney and gone to Washington to produce America's national bicentennial celebration coming up the following year. Shortly after that, my friend and mentor left the company. This was unexpected. I knew other people in management, but we weren't close, so the plum assignments I had hoped to get when I came home were going to others. There was still a place for me in costume, and I was welcome to work Disneyland's Bicentennial parade, but the sad reality was that by leaving for my mission, I had lost my place in line. Had I stayed I would be further up the corporate ladder, but by choosing to serve the Lord first, I had shot my career in the foot. None of this made sense. What was going on here?
I stayed on at Disneyland for another two years going nowhere, and finally quit in frustration. Opportunities eventually led me to Provo, but for years I puzzled over why God had let me down so thoroughly. Hadn't I proven myself by serving a mission? Paying tithing? Doing everything I was supposed to? So why didn't God hold up his end of the bargain?
In the end, things worked out for me, because if I had stayed at Disneyland I would have never ended up in Provo where I eventually met my wife Connie, the woman who is my soul mate. Sometimes God doesn't give us what we want, but he'll give us what we deserve. So I had to give up the career of my dreams in order to get the girl of my dreams. I'm happy with that trade.
But I got off lucky compared to others. Buying into this idea that "I'll do this for God, then He'll do this for me" can be devastating for people when they get hit with the double whammies of life. If you live long enough you may learn that even though you do everything you're supposed to do, God can make no guarantees. Jobs are still lost, illness intrudes, careers evaporate, divorces occur, fortunes disappear, children go astray. Sometimes our children even die. When we've done everything we knew we were supposed to do, yet life becomes one disaster after another, we wonder why God let us down. Why did he fail to hold up his end of the bargain?
Rarely do we ask ourselves "What bargain?"
Getting Him Wrong
I few years back I saw a movie based on the real life experience of one Neale Donald Walsch. Walsch had been praying fervently for months, then one day, he says, God started talking to him in his head. He grabbed a legal pad and began writing down what he was hearing. It was compiled into a book and published under the title "Conversations With God."
Now, like any good Latter-day Saint, I'm conditioned to be skeptical of anyone claiming to get messages from God, especially if those messages have not come down through "the proper channels." But I'm less inclined than I used to be to dismiss such things out of hand, particularly when I know nothing about them. (These days my skepticism is more acute toward those who claim divine revelation yet don't produce anything at all.)
At any rate, I have never read Conversations With God, so I'm not qualified to render either judgment or an opinion. All I did was watch the movie. And in this movie, Walsch is sharing his experience with a group of people and taking questions from the audience. A woman asks if God has a message for humanity that Walsch can encapsulate in about a paragraph. Walsch replies, "I can put it in five words: 'You've got me all wrong.' "
Most of us have got God all wrong. If we don't imagine him as a magical being who bestows automatic blessings on those who work hard and keep their noses clean, we picture him as some version of The Great And Powerful Oz, who we must approach with fear and trepidation and who demands the performance of an endless list of chores before he'll grant our wishes. Rather than simply allow Jesus to draw close to us, we deliberately keep him at a distance by carefully checking the proper format of our prayers instead of letting them flow naturally from our hearts. We consciously sprinkle our prayers with archaic "thee's" and "thou's," using a language Jesus never spoke himself, because we believe he is keen on formality.
Paul Toscano, Author of Christ On Trial, has been been interested most of his life in the true attributes of Christ. As editor of the Ensign magazine in the 1970's you could expect an article with his byline to contain more meat than usual. Later, he co-authored a book with his wife, Margaret, Strangers In Paradox: Explorations In Mormon Theology. That book introduced me to the reality that the religion of my youth was much broader, deeper, expansive, and wonderful than I had ever imagined.
Born into a devout Sicilian Catholic family from Southern California, Toscano joined the LDS church in high school and almost immediately moved to Utah to attend BYU. From the beginning Paul was intrigued by the differences between the static, iconic Jesus of the Catholic religion and the living Jesus as revealed through the Restoration. At an age when the most pressing religious question in my own life was what shirt I was going to wear to the stake dance, Paul Toscano was already contemplating the mystery of Godliness. As he stated in an interview in 2007:
“I didn’t leave my family in California to join Mormonism so that I could run across the recreation hall with a spoon in my mouth and an egg and sit on a balloon. I was interested in the revelations from God through Joseph Smith. That’s what I was converted to...I became intrigued with Mormon doctrine. I was interested more in the teachings."In Christ on Trial, Toscano uses the trial as a way to introduce ideas about Christ and man's relationship to Him. Although the story is not overtly "Mormon" (there is no hint that the main characters might be LDS), the astute Mormon reader will find much within it that rings familiar. And much more still from LDS teachings that many of us have forgotten, or perhaps never learned in the first place. In addition to the surprises that surface during the trial, the discussions that take place during recess between Cliff, his wife, and the defendant are extremely illuminating.
Contrary to what you might expect, the trial does not go well. Halfway through the day, Cliff is incapable of thinking of effective ways to impeach the testimony of the prosecution's witnesses during cross examination. The whole thing is turning into a disaster, though Cliff can't tell what the defendant is thinking about his efforts one way or the other. Is he worried about the outcome? Cliff can't tell.
Cliff is clearly out-gunned by the prosecution, who comes off making more sense sometimes than we'd like him to. We tend to forget that long before he rebelled against God and became the dark lord of the underworld, Lucifer was a being of light and virtue who wanted what most of us want: to see good triumph and evil destroyed. This version of Satan is unexpected; we are not used to thinking of him like this. Far from a devious manipulator, the prosecutor reveals himself as he must have seemed long ago: a valiant champion of all that is right and good and noble.
We get a taste for how persuasive the Son of the Morning must have been in the pre-existence, as the prosecutor argues in favor of good winning over evil. It is a compelling argument most of us would find ourselves agreeing with if we didn't know who was promoting it. Further questions are raised such as why is it that Jesus demands all this attention for himself? Why does the defendant insist that mankind "come unto him" first, instead of simply abiding by the principles of love and kindness? Doesn't it make more sense that people be allowed to simply live by the great principle of love, and put all else second? Why should we worship this megalomaniac who claims to be our god, and why does he demand our love? Which is greater, Christ or love?
Toscano weaves the answers to these questions within the narrative, but we are kept guessing as to how it all will end until the very last. There are twists and turns a-plenty, as just when you think things are going one way, the author pulls a surprise. I wasn't even close to the end of the book before I was caught up short, a sudden awareness of the magnificent love of Christ as my eyes filled with tears and I had to pause just to allow myself to bathe in what I had just experienced. This is an amazing story, and incredibly moving. At only 288 pages, it would make perfect reading for a Sunday afternoon.
Christ on Trial: An Easter Hymn is available at Amazon for the Kindle, or you can get it at Barnes & Noble which should work for all other e-reader formats. The price is a very low $4.14. All you do is download it onto your computer or other device. In order to make the book inexpensive and easily accessible, it was has not been published in a hardcopy edition.
If you'd like an effective way to cut through the ubiquitous chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps this Easter and truly be spiritually fed, you couldn't do much better than this. This is the way to spend your Easter.
I have one more Disneyland story that I think is worth telling. In 1980 I was shown a Kodak photo of a couple of pre-teen kids at Disneyand posing for a picture with Goofy. The guy inside that Goofy costume is me, though of course I have no memory of that photo being taken. I posed for hundreds of such photos each day. I wish I could reproduce that picture for you here, but it has been lost to time.
Ordinarily it would be impossible to tell who's actually in that costume, because depending on the shift or the day of the week, there were at least three of us members of "The Zoo Crew" available to play a particular character any given week. But this picture was taken in late 1972, an election year when Disneyland was running a mock promotional campaign promoting Winnie the Pooh for President. I had taken to wearing a Pooh For President button on every costume I wore that summer, and that pin is visible in that photo on Goofy's blue vest. I was the only character who wore the pin on his costumes; none of the other guys was that zealous. That's how I know it's me in there with one arm around that boy and another around his sister.
From the day and date stamped on the photo, I could pretty well tell what was going on in my life at the exact time that picture was taken. I had been in love with a girl named Marie from Santa Ana whom I'd met at a Young Adults regional activity. I was twenty years old, she was nineteen, and we were at the point where we were seriously talking marriage. A few weeks previous to when this photo was taken, Marie, who had been working as a waitress at Marie Callender's, had found a better paying job selling cookware. One day she admitted to having fallen in love with her new boss, and we were over.
I was shattered. Worst of all, the guy Marie was leaving me for was not LDS, so I was convinced she was not only dumping me, but throwing away her eternal salvation as well. I grieved over her as though she had died. For a long time it was difficult for me to be at work in that silly costume, flopping around in those oversize shoes and shouting "Gawrsh!" in my Goofy voice. Sometimes at "The Happiest Place On Earth," posing with my arms around tourists like those kids in the picture, I would be thinking about the loss of Marie and my eyes would start filling with tears. I was spared public humiliation only because no one could see my real eyes inside that giant Goofy head. It was a rough time for me. I had lost my true love. There would never be another.
So, back to that photograph. The picture was taken by the father of those kids on the family's first and only vacation to Disneyland. The beaming boy on my left is Robert Bradfield, ten years old, from Provo, Utah. My right arm is around the shoulder of Robert's smiling sister; a tall, gangly, freckle-faced twelve year old. Eight years after that photo was taken, I met that girl again and she became my wife.