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Students skype with ‘Killing Jesus’ actor, Haaz Sleiman

“Where are you? You look like you’re in some office.”

“I’m at the student center of Point Loma Nazarene University.”

“Oh, Nazarene? That’s pretty fitting.”

Haaz Sleiman, who plays the role of Jesus in the new TV film, “Killing Jesus,” skyped with PLNU students after the film’s advance showing in the Activities and Recreation Center Wednesday.

Twenty students watched the two-hour film (otherwise three when it premiered Palm Sunday). The National Geographic film, based off Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling book of the same title, stars Sleiman, Stephen Moyer (“True Blood”), Kelsey Grammar (“Cheers,” “Frasier”), Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”) and John Rhys Davies (“Indiana Jones”).

Jon Huckins, the co-founding director of The Global Immersion Project, interviewed Sleiman. His organization tries to facilitate peacemaking through immersion in global conflict in the Middle East, Ireland and the San Diego-Mexican border. Sleiman said in Wednesday’s Skype session that he was raised Muslim but is not practicing, a topic controversial in other news reports because of his role as Jesus.

“The essence of all religions is the same and you can start talking about things like the son of God or is he a prophet or this person or that but what they came to show us and teach us is the same,” Sleiman said. “That’s not changed…you have that right to believe whatever you want to believe and I respect you for that.”

He said this role is his most profound role.

“Nothing will compare to this because it’s personal for me,” Sleiman said. “It really is so personal because I’ve been trying to really apply his teachings in my life over the past 10 years and it’s transforming in many ways and he’s that heavily influenced me and that powerful; I mean, his presence has been very powerful in my life… It was also very nerve wracking because it was like, OK this is something I really believe in, it’s important to me and I really cannot mess this up.”

Sleiman said the best scenes were the ones where he could imagine what it actually felt like to be Jesus, like the scene of the kid possessed by a demon. But he also appreciated the scenes with his mother (played by Seeta Indrani) because she got to see firsthand her son’s pain, but also because Indrani is Israeli.

“The actress who played my mother is just incredible,” Sleiman said. “I’m Lebanese, Lebanese-American, but I lived in Lebanon and grew up in Lebanon and she’s Israeli and I think that’s beautiful too, how in the world today we can apply that love even with an actor from Lebanon and an actor from Israel. Obviously, this story is timeless so you can always, always, always refer to whatever the current events are happening in the story in many ways.

Fox New’s Bill O’Reilly created “Killing Jesus” with co-author Martin Dugard. This film is part of a series of books that O’Reilly had written and made for film, including one on Lincoln, Kennedy and soon to be Patton. “Killing Jesus,” in particular, is its own miniseries.

When National Geographic expressed interest in showing the film at colleges, Dave Palmer, the owner of Dunk Tank Marketing, scheduled PLNU in with the help of Alan Hueth, a professor of communication at PLNU, who he had worked with in the past Palmer estimates about half a dozen schools or other locations have seen the film and says the response has been “uniformly positive.”

“My hope is that it compels people to explore the person of Jesus and also understand the many ways that people encounter Jesus,” Palmer said. “The film has been very clear that it wanted to look more deeply at Jesus’ humanity, since so many other projects tend to look primarily at the divinity of Jesus. Showing that human side is a powerful reminder of what that incarnation really encompasses.”

Palmer said he hopes this showing allows people to meet others unlike themselves.

“When we can hear our own stories and get to know people with different experiences and backgrounds, it tends to help us humanize one another more and get past broad, easy stereotypes and into actual relationships and understanding,” Palmer said via email. “That, to me, seems a Jesus-y thing to do.”

Caleb Daniels, a media communications major with an emphasis in production and biblical studies major, is the Point TV station manager. He led the event with Palmer. While Daniels enjoyed the humanization of Jesus in the “historical-critical movie of the life of Jesus,” he said that was also its downfall.

“I thought the film was an example of how Western American culture has taken the reigns of the Christian message,” Daniels said via email. “In an attempt to appeal to a larger audience — and likely because of the beliefs of those writing the book/script — Jesus comes off less as God incarnate coming to redeem all of creation and more like a cool prophet who came as a means of human self-fulfillment.Overall, I thought the film gave an interesting portrayal of the Jesus and the events leading up to his death, but I found it ignoring or lacking in many of the deeper Christological and theological questions we wrestle with in the Christian faith.”

Daniels said it was interesting that Jesus’ resurrection was left out and he was concerned about Jesus not knowing he was the Messiah until John the Baptist told him. However, he did appreciate the active Jesus in comparison to the passive model in “The Bible” miniseries. He recommends the movie to students with some precautions.

“With any movie, I think you need to go in understanding that it’s someone’s interpretation, especially here where it’s not only just based on scripture but also based on someone else’s book,” he said after the event. “I think it was really interesting and opens the table for some good discussion not just for Christians but for people like historically or [to pose the question,] What do we believe about Jesus? I thought that was a good conversation starter.”

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