For Pop Theology’s 200th post, we celebrate 1973, the year of the Jesus musical. That year saw the release of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and the lesser-known The Gospel Road: One Man’s Journey on the Road to the Truth. While perhaps not as popular as the first two and certainly not as cinematically polished, directed Robert Elfstrom and writer/narrator Johnny Cash manage to blend a reverent retelling of the life of Jesus with lively country gospel music mixed in.
Gospel Road: One Man’s Journey on the Road to the Truth is one man’s journey for truth. Of course, we are not exactly sure if that one man is Jesus or Johnny Cash. Cash’s faith was certainly no secret throughout his life, and he struggled with it and his addictions to drugs and alcohol. Perhaps this little film is another attempt in the long line of famous celebrities attempting to cinematically atone for their sins.
Nevertheless, The Gospel Road presents the life of Jesus as narrated by Johnny Cash with frequent country gospel songs punctuating significant moments in Jesus’ life. The film is shot entirely in the Holy Land, and as Cash wanders around, he speculates on what Jesus or the disciples must have felt as they strolled along similar pathways. Cash narrates while actors act out the story. There is little, if any, dialogue from the actors as they all mime the events. Director Elfstrom plays Jesus while his son, Robert Elfstrom, Jr., plays the child/young teenage version.
There are a couple of problems here, namely the depiction of Jesus. Elfstrom’s long, straight blond hair and his pale complexion are really no match for the probable appearance of a first-century middle eastern man. I do not say this to once and forever rule out various racial portrayals of Jesus, but as time passes, we should remain aware of the prevalence of this image in historic representations of Jesus and how it might influence our theologies and Christologies. There’s a bit of irony here as well. Cash reads numerous selections of scripture, including the verses where Jesus directs his followers to pray in secret. Not two minutes later, Cash piously recites The Lord’s Prayer atop a mountain in the Holy Land.
In one of the more editorial aspects of Cash’s narration, he claims that Jesus treated everyone the same, regardless of socio-economic status. While there might be some merit to this, it is far from the entire truth. Jesus’ comments about the wealthy entering heaven and a camel passing through the eye of a needle and significant portions of the Sermon on the Mount are nothing if not a preferential option for the poor. Elfstrom and Cash also take creative liberties with Jesus’ crucifixion. Their staging is slightly inaccurate as all the disciples are present with just one or two centurions. This is a far cry from the gospel depictions of the majority of disciples fleeing for their lives. While they may have been in attendance, they certainly would not have been observing from such prominent positions lest a similar fate befall them. The two flanking thieves are nowhere to be found, visually, thus implying a uniqueness to Jesus’ form of death that, in reality, was an all-too-popular and humiliating execution.
At the end of the film, in an attempt to broaden the scope of Jesus’ crucifixion, Elfstrom pulls a Cecil B. DeMille trick. He zooms in on Jesus’ suffering face, and when he pans back out, the background is now a modern day city rather than Golgotha. He then cuts to an image of this crucified Jesus in front of various town and cityscapes. Jesus’ sacrifices stretches across time and space.
These are criticisms that should be made. Yet they do not tell the full story of the film. There is a genuine sincerity here that is certainly effective. Of the Jesus musicals, this one holds up the best to repeated viewings…or rather listenings…given Cash’s immense musical talent. Many of the more upbeat country gospel songs sound like the music from “Cocaine Blues” but with Jesus-themed lyrics. Cash’s wife, June Carter, who also plays Mary Magdalene, actually had a dream about the film before it was made. Actually, she dreamed that Johnny was on a mountaintop talking about Jesus. Elfstrom and Cash’s film is certainly a unique contribution to the Jesus film genre, even though it holds up better as a soundtrack. At least they fulfilled June’s dream.
Gospel Road: One Man’s Journey on the Road to the Truth (93 mins.) is rated G and is available on DVD in some video stores and through Netflix.