- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

I first glimpsed the new book as I was strolling past some exhibits at a religion writers conference: “Journeys with the Messiah,” a thin volume of gorgeous, sepia-toned photos.

A white-robed, strikingly handsome Jesus was in nearly every one, interacting with a cast of Italian actors who portray card sharks, prostitutes, blind religious leaders and villagers.

The setting is Sassi di Matera, the southern Italian village best known as the setting for Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ” blockbuster because of its resemblance to what Jerusalem may have looked like two millennia ago.

Michael Belk, the Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., photographer who executed this project, had made his name in fashion photography. In 2007, he decided this was the time to pursue his dream of a book devoted to how Jesus would appear in 20th- or 21st-century situations.

He shot all the photo stills and video a year ago this month. The project morphed into such a huge undertaking that he changed producers midway through, bringing on a Rome-based production company that could handle everything from negotiating with local police to providing offbeat items, such as a lamb for a shoot of the Last Supper.

One of my favorite shots shows a family, dressed in 1930s-style clothes, whose car had broken down. Marching alongside them as they go for help is Jesus, clutching four suitcases.

“I want people to see these images and say ‘This isn’t about religion, it’s about life,’ ” Mr. Belk told me. “The nonchurched are frightened by anything that has ‘Jesus’ or ‘church’ connected with it.”

He and his wife, Cheryl, sunk more than $500,000 of their own money to travel to Italy and hire the production company, 100 models and actors and an American film crew despite the economic downturn having wiped out 50 percent of his savings.

The result is dozens of fashion layouts juxtaposed with Bible verses. What keeps this from being a Sunday School read is the romantic setting, the gorgeous Italian models and the virile Italian actor who portrays a Jesus with chest hair who hangs out at fancy dinners and bounces little kids on his lap.

The actor, Sergio Muniz, turned 33 in the weeks before shooting took place.

“He was very much into this shoot,” Mr. Belk said. “He liked what all this was about.”

“Most people are visual,” he added. “The old adage that a picture is worth 1,000 words is a gross understatement. A picture is worth zillions of words. In advertising, if you can’t make someone stop long enough to read your ad, you can’t share your message.”

Mr. Belk, 61, is proof it’s never too late to start something new. Feeling burned out a few years ago, he began wondering how he could use his fashion and marketing know-how to come up with a different take on Christianity.

A person who understands symbolism and image, he launched his combination book, DVD and Web site this past Sept. 11 because of how September has become a month of trauma for Americans in the years after the terrorist attacks in 2001, and a historic economic crash in 2008. Knowing that people tend to look beyond themselves for answers on these anniversaries, he wanted to present his answer.

“I wanted,” he said, “to ignite a fire in people to know more about Jesus.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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