It’s Christmas Eve, and our minds are on all things Christmasy at this time. Plenty of Christmas films to watch, gathering with family and friends, and more. However, I wanted to take a brief moment to share some thoughts on the recent film release, Exodus: Gods and Kings, while also commenting on some of the Christian community’s response to this film, and others like it.
The running joke that’s been around since the announcement of the movie’s making is that Moses is being played by Batman, meaning Christian Bale has taken on the role of the ancient prophet of the Hebrew people. It truly is hard at times to see an actor play another part outside of the role where he became most famous (can we think of Kiefer Sutherland as anyone but Jack Bauer?). I know I personally went in to the movie thinking we were going to have a cross between Gladiator (that’s a Ridley Scott film as well), Batman and The Lord of the Rings. In the end, it didn’t seem to overly mix these films as much as I thought it would, which is a relief.
However, more than anything, as I said, I would like to touch on the response of Christians in regards to the release of the film. As with the early 2014 release, Noah, the biggest contention many Christians have brought up is that this film was far from true to the biblical text. This has been greatly problematic for not a few.
So how are we to respond?
To start off, I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I see a problem with many Christians offering an overhaul of criticism towards Exodus (having done the same with Noah). I understand the notion behind the uproar, or at least what is being verbalized. There is a great desire for these folk to honor both God and the Scriptures given to us through the work of God, but the film falls well short of this two-pronged honoring nature. However, I still believe the criticism is problematic, mainly because I believe much of this is based in fear and an approach of retreat from the world. This is summed up in over-the-top, and expected, responses from such places as Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis – see their review of Noah and thoughts on Exodus. Of course, AiG is as far one way as anyone can get. However, what they have voiced and will continue to voice is not far off from the response of many Christians.
So let me offer a few thoughts on why I believe we don’t have to join the great denouncement of Exodus and other such movies.
1) Getting theology from Hollywood.
I did have some brief interaction with someone this week, and one thing they stated was: It’s sad when society turns to Hollywood for their “theology”.
I just want to go ahead and lay to rest any thought that says society, as a whole, actually turns to Hollywood for theology (or history or archaeology, for that matter). Of course, there might be the odd statistic out there, one who watches Noah or Exodus (or The DaVinci Code) and believes every word (or scene). But I’ve yet to meet that person. However, for anyone who does actually turn to Hollywood for Christian Theology 101, not to mention that they then let the cat out of the bag that this is their approach, then they’ll have to simply deal with the consequences of such choices. Imagine someone espousing this perspective and proceeding to interact with real humans in real life. I fear for such a person.
In the end, we’ll have a great opportunity to remind them that no human actually turns to Hollywood to give us complete historical fact, nor to offer a film rendition that is true to any written text (think how Hollywood adapted The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series).
Of course, the people at large are shaped by the songs we listen to and the films we watch. We’d also be greatly blinded not to admit such, even if it is a subtle influence. So, I admit that, perhaps, people will walk away with an idea that Moses was a barbaric man (as Bale stated himself in an interview), rather than the most humble man of his day (see Num 12:3). But perhaps the answer is that Moses was barbaric, at least in light of our perspectives today (since he lived some 3,300 years ago in an ancient world that would have been much more barbaric), while also being truly humble in his day as a follower of the one true God, Yahweh, at least comparative to other leaders. It’s not unlike Noah being both a man that failed at times (Gen 9:20f), but who was also identified as righteous (Gen 6:9). Or that David was both a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14) while also being a man of war and bloodshed (1 Chron 22:8), for which he was chided. Imagine encountering an ancient Moses in our world today.
Still, I don’t want to get greatly off-track by trying to reconcile the Bible’s account with the movie’s account. It’s not doable and should not be attempted! Just like reconciling modern-day science with Scripture should not be attempted. Hollywood and Scripture have two different approaches.
But, suffice it to say, no one I know heads to the movies on a Friday night thinking they are about to get the down-low on theology. So I think it faulty to argue that people are getting their theology from Hollywood. I’ve yet to meet such a person.
This point really relates to #1, and the premise is true. There is a bit more “artistic license” taken these days with films, well more than 60 years ago with such releases as The Ten Commandments. (By the way, that is a nice photo of Charlton Heston on a motorbike in his Moses’ costume).
More than Moses being portrayed as barbaric in Exodus, or a few of the plagues and miraculous actions being explained from a naturalistic point of view, or some biblical scenes being edited out of Ridley Scott’s interpretation, the thing that will probably cause the greatest of problems for Christians is the portrayal of God himself. I won’t fully spoil things here for those who’ve yet to see the film, but suffice it to say, the role of God is rendered in the vein of something akin to The Shack. Remember the Father being portrayed as an African-American woman? And remember how many Christians decried such? Well……Exodus portrays God in a way that we are not used to.
My initial thought to our negative reaction to how God is portrayed in Exodus is that this unveils more about us than Ridley Scott – that we are still more akin to an ancient people of 3,300 years ago than we’d like to admit. Many still envision God as an actual male, with a deep voice, possibly even preferring Hebrew over other languages and what not. But I’ll leave this discussion for another day. In all, I would not expect Hollywood to give an accurate account of the biblical Exodus account (and who would?!). That’s not an excuse, but a reality of prudent, common sense.
Still, here’s the thing. Every film (or other artistic interpretation) involves a reading between the lines. Matter of fact, every bit of exegesis and hermeneutics calls for some reading between the lines. I’m not putting proper exegetical engagement with Scripture and a Hollywood film on par with one another. But, knowing that Hollywood has all but 2 goals in mind – produce great cinematic art and make money – I don’t walk in expecting an accurate account of the Scripture’s narrative. And if one doesn’t hold to that expectation, then one doesn’t have the rug pulled out from under them when watching such films. We watch it and use our critical thinking skills (as we would almost every other film). But we take it for what it is.
I wasn’t disappointed in the film because of it’s lack of adherence to the book of Exodus. But this is because I knew who was writing, directing and producing.
3) An opportunity at hand.
I remember back in 2003 when the best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, hit the stores. Beyond Love Wins, The Shack, Noah and Exodus, this might have been the most condemned work of the 21st century, thus far, by the Christian church. Such outcries were in the manner of the denunciation of Arius or the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. And, yes, The Da Vinci Code was, by no means, Scripturally or historically accurate (remember that no one sees the gnostic gospels as historically accurate).
Despite that, I remember a pastor friend of mine who became excited with the fact that millions were now reading Brown’s bestseller. Why? Every time he saw a person reading the book, he knew he had an opportunity to talk about Jesus. Sure, the portrayal of Jesus in The Da Vinci Code was extremely inaccurate, if not downright blasphemous. At times, I found myself annoyed at Brown’s portrayal of Christ. But what my friend saw with the release of this book was an opportunity to engage people, the world, about who Jesus really was. I was greatly encouraged by his response.
And, so, with each artistic and/or multimedia-related endeavor (not just films or books of a religious nature, but all sorts of cultural expressions out there), we have at our fingertips an opportunity. We can decry, retreat and express our nauseous feelings. Or we can recognize a moment worth seizing.
Sure, I don’t expect revival to take place over the release of Exodus. But who does? And did revival take place with the release of The Passion of the Christ? Nor am I even expecting millions to flock to Scripture to now re-read Exodus, or read it for the first time. I, for one, will. But my next-door neighbors might not. Still, we can see a tool in our hands, even reminding us of what God asked Moses at the burning bush – “What’s that in your hand?”
No massive revival. But rather a simple, normal, small, every-day tool available to us (like leaven working its way into dough).
Perhaps it will be like Paul in Athens. He affirmed the religious, seeking-intent of a group of intelligent philosophers and he spoke to them by quoting their own pagan poets (rather than quoting the Old Testament Scriptures). He utilized their playing field! Just maybe, whether today or a few years from now, we’ll be given a window to discuss, on some level, the topics of Scripture, the exodus, what that exodus pointed to, how Jesus clears up any misconceptions of the nature of God, etc.
Revival? No. Opportunity? Yes. That’s what I see here.
In all, I enjoyed watching the Exodus film a few days ago. I also enjoyed the Noah film. And, though I sit not around waiting for something about Joshua or Judges to be released in 2015, if such is released, I’ll watch those films as well, all the while looking for opportunities to let my “conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col 4:6).
Note: For those interested, here is an interview with both director, Ridley Scott, and Christian Bale. There are many pertinent questions asked and Christians might be interested in Scott’s and Bale’s responses.