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Personal view: How to watch a ‘biblical’ movie

March 2015 | by Paul Milner

Biblical filmsWith the recent release of Exodus: gods and kings, following the earlier Noah movie, why and how should Bible-believing Christians consider engaging with a film based on any Bible story?

If you watch a normal secular film or TV programme, how do you watch it? Most of us would first make sure the content was appropriate and check the plot to make sure it was going to be worth our time. But what then? 

Or maybe we switch it off because it is mindless entertainment? Do we engage the storyline, think about its themes and characters, weigh up the message of the story and bring the gospel to bear? 

Sometimes we may find ourselves pleasantly surprised that, in doing the latter with a movie, we find thought-provoking aspects that can be a springboard into gospel conversations with non-Christian friends.

Understanding approaches

But, somehow, when a film is produced that claims to be inspired by a Bible story, such as Exodus or Noah, we don’t so easily approach the issues in a dispassionate way. 

Although we know such films are made by secular storytellers, who have no time for biblical inerrancy, we are both surprised and disappointed that they have made changes to the Bible’s narrative. Our approach then becomes focussed on the differences and the fact we don’t like them. This was reflected in many Christian reviews of Noah and Exodus, often recommending readers not to bother watching such films.

Whether you decide to watch such films or not, I leave to your own conscience; and I am not here to defend these movies or the changes they make. But I suggest that rather than dismissing them because they are not biblically accurate, it is worth considering the reasons why the film-makers made their changes, and then thinking more deeply about the themes the movies focus on, and in what ways they can still be helpful for the gospel.

There are basically three different approaches a film-maker can take to a Bible story. The first is to follow the biblical text as closely as possible. This is likely to keep a Christian audience more happy, but even here there are difficulties.

Film is a visual medium, so in translating text to film there are inevitable interpretive choices, elaborations and omissions. For a film-maker, the purpose of a movie is primarily entertainment, whereas the purpose of a biblical story is primarily revelatory. So changes will certainly be made.

As a result, Christians can still end up unhappy and also few non-Christians go to see such films. So they don’t to lead to many gospel opportunities.

The second approach is a revisionist one — reinterpreting the story for a new generation and different audience. This was Hollywood’s approach to Noah. Hollywood wants to tell its stories in ways that are new, original or thought-provoking. Otherwise, why remake Exodus in 2014 when Charlton Heston did it in the 1950s?

Evaluating changes

We shouldn’t be surprised that the film-makers change aspects of the story; they are bound to. Rather, we should ask why they made any particular change and what can we learn from it?

The third approach taken is a kind of middle way: follow the biblical story broadly enough to keep Christian audiences happy, but make enough revisionist changes to appeal to a non-Christian audience too. This seems to have been the approach to Exodus, but, judging by the mixed reviews, ended up pleasing only a few!

We need to remember that the purpose of any Bible story is ultimately summarised in John 20:31 and John 5:39-40 — to show us the nature of God and our own need of being saved, and point us to Christ as the only Saviour. 

These are never going to be the purposes of Hollywood movies. But judged by this standard, even many classic Bible movies, and some Christian-made movies (that are considered more acceptable than modern Hollywood retellings), still fall far short. They may be morally better, but still cloud the core issue of our need of redemption in Christ.

So why bother engaging with a movie that we know is going to be inaccurate, maybe glaringly so, and which we therefore find frustrating? Here are six reasons to consider doing so.

Studying the text

First, a film’s inaccuracies can encourage us to go back to the biblical source materials to study them more carefully. At the same time, they can cause conversations within our culture about Bible stories in an age when the Bible is rarely mentioned.

Second, even while glaring errors in these films are annoying, other things can be helpful. Both Noah and Exodus were helpful in visually depicting something true about the world at the time of the story, such as the scales of the ark and the Flood, and the human impact of the plagues on Egypt. 

We can become so familiar with the stories that a fresh telling helps us see certain aspects in a new light, or causes us to examine more deeply or ask new questions about the biblical text. Even considering why God in the Bible didn’t act in the way that a modern storyteller thinks can be helpful to ponder.

Third, the characters are often portrayed in films in much complexity. A movie likes to focus on character growth, so Noah and Moses are shown wrestling with flaws in their characters, struggling with faith and doubts, and the costliness and difficulty of obeying God. 

Sometimes this is portrayed unhelpfully, but it does remind us that these men were ‘with a nature like ours’ (James 5:17). They were great examples to us, but not perfect. They needed the Saviour.

Fourth, changes can be factually inaccurate, but can still fit thematically with the big picture of the Bible. 

Understanding our culture

The most shocking change to the Noah story was where Noah began stalking round the ark wielding a knife. Why did the director do this? Just to add tension? Maybe, but it did convey two truths: that Noah and those in the boat were, by nature, sinners too who didn’t deserve to be saved; and that salvation is by God’s grace. Fallen human beings will inevitably corrupt the earth once more with sin. 

I don’t defend these changes. I didn’t like them, but they can fit the bigger picture about the human condition.

Fifth, these changes help us understand our culture and its view of God. Film-makers make movies to be watched; they want them to be popular. Therefore, their changes not only tell us a lot about our culture, but starkly crystallise the objections that our friends have to the gospel. 

For example, both Noah’s and Moses’ faith are questioned in the movies, as though they were mad or mindless fanatics. But that reminds us that those around us have similar issues about our faith, and we need to ‘be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in us’. 

The Exodus movie struggles to come to terms with the severity of the final plague — the death of the firstborn. It implicitly asks how God could do such a thing. But that is exactly the question many non-Christians would raise about the Exodus narrative. And this is the kind of argument the New Atheists bring against the Bible. ‘Why would you want to believe in a God who does something like this? Surely he is not good or worthy of our worship?’ 

These are questions our culture poses and we cannot avoid them. Movies can crystallise the issues powerfully and force us to think through their objections and how to answer them.

Pointing to the gospel

Sixth, our non-Christian friends and loved ones will be watching these kinds of movies anyway. They already think the same way these secular film-makers think about God or are heavily influenced by similar views. 

But we can then show them how the movies entirely missed out the key parts: the love and grace of God; the need and nature of his salvation; and what he has done for us in Christ. These are the very things missing from the thinking of non-Christians generally. 

Biblical films provide opportunities to talk to them about the good news of the gospel. The true God of the Bible is not just different, but infinitely better than the views and portrayals of secular film-makers. He is vastly superior in every way.
We can say, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to know the God revealed in Christ, when he is so much more desirable than any movie can ever show?’ So, even the movies’ failings can be used as a springboard to tell people about the excellencies of Christ.

Paul Milner

The author is pastor of Reynard Evangelical Church, Northampton