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How to watch a ‘biblical’ movie

February 2015 | by Paul Milner

With the recent release of Exodus: Gods and Kings following the earlier Noah movie, how should Bible-believing Christians consider engaging a film based on a Bible story?

When we watch a normal secular film or TV programme, how do we watch it? For most of us we would make sure the content was appropriate and check the plot to make sure it was going to be worth our time. But what then? Do we switch off because it is mindless entertainment? Or do we engage the storyline, think about the themes and characters, weigh up the message of the story and bring the gospel to bear on our thinking? Sometimes we find ourselves pleasantly surprised that by doing so we can find thought-provoking aspects in a movie that could be a springboard into gospel conversations with our non-Christian friends.

But somehow, when a film comes out that is inspired by a biblical story, such as Exodus or Noah, we don’t approach it in the same way. Despite the films being made by secular storytellers who have no thought for biblical inerrancy, we can be surprised and disappointed that they have made changes to the story. Our approach to the film can become about these differences and the fact that we don’t like these changes. This has been reflected in many Christian reviews of Noah and Exodus, often recommending you don’t bother watching such a film. 

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 would suggest that rather than dismissing such films because they are not biblically accurate, it is worth considering the reasons why the filmmakers made such changes, then thinking more deeply about the themes these movies focus on and the ways they can still be helpful.

There are basically three approaches a filmmaker can make towards a Bible story.

1) 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 the text to film there are going to have to be interpretive choices, elaborations and omissions. The purpose of a movie is primarily entertainment, whereas the purpose of a biblical story is primarily revelatory, so again changes will have to be made. As a result Christians can still end up unhappy and non-Christian audiences tend not to go to see such films, so they don’t to lead to gospel opportunities.

2) The second is to approach the story in a revisionist way, reinterpreting it for a new generation and a different audience. This was the approach to Noah. Hollywood always 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 50s? We shouldn’t be surprised that they change aspects of the story, they are bound to — rather we should ask why did they make that particular change and what can we learn from it?

3) The third approach is a kind of middle way — follow the biblical story broadly enough to try keep the Christian audience happy, but make various changes to be revisionist enough to appeal to a non-Christian audience too. This seems to be the approach of Exodus, but judging by the mixed reviews the danger is this approach ends up pleasing no one.

     Remember the purpose of any story in the Bible is ultimately summarised in John 20:31 and John 5:39-40 — to show us the nature of God, our own need of being saved and to point us to Christ as the only Saviour. This is never going to be the purpose of a Hollywood movie about the story. But judged by this standard even many classic Bible movies or even some Christian-made movies (that are considered more acceptable than these modern Hollywood retellings) still fall far short. They may be more morally right, but even that may cloud the core issue of our need of redemption.

So why bother engaging with a movie that we know is going to be inaccurate, maybe even glaringly so, and which we might find quite frustrating?

1. The changes in the films can encourage us to go back to the biblical source materials to study them more carefully. At the same time they are causing cultural conversations about biblical stories, in an age where the Bible is rarely mentioned.

2. Some things will be annoying, but even so some things will be helpful. We can become so familiar with these stories that a fresh telling can help us see aspects in a new light, or cause us to examine it more deeply, or ask new questions about the text. Both Noah and Exodus were helpful in visually depicting something of the world at the time of the story, the scale of the ark and the flood, the impact of the plagues on Egypt, etc. Even considering why God in the Bible didn’t act in the way a modern storyteller thinks he should have could be helpful to ponder.

3. The characters are portrayed in all their complexity. A movie likes to focus on character growth, so Noah and Moses are shown wrestling with the flaws in their characters, struggling with faith and doubts, the costliness and difficulty of obeying God. Sometimes this is done in unhelpful ways, but it does remind us that these men had ‘a nature like ours’ (James 5:17), they were great examples to us, but also were not perfect and needed a Saviour as well.

4. Changes can be factually inaccurate to the story, but these make us question why the change has been made. Sometimes these changes still thematically fit with the big picture of the Bible. The most shocking change in the Noah movie was when he began stalking round the ark wielding a knife. Why did the director do this? Just to add tension? Maybe, but it did convey two important truths. Firstly, Noah and those in the boat were also sinners who didn’t deserve to be saved. Salvation was by God’s grace alone. Secondly it showed that the rescued humans were all fallen and would inevitably corrupt the earth again with sin. I don’t defend these changes, I didn’t like them, but they do fit the bigger picture about the human condition.

5. These changes help us understand our culture and its view of God. Filmmakers make movies to be watched, they want them to be popular. Changes they make are often done to make the movie acceptable to modern audiences. Therefore, these changes tells us a lot about our culture. Moments we might be most unhappy with, may actually be a crystallisation of the views of our friends and of the objections they have to the gospel. For example, both Noah’s and Moses’ faith is questioned in the movie as to whether it is madness, all in the mind, or mindless fanaticism. We are reminded that those around us may have similar questions about our faith, and that we need to ‘be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in us’, to explain that faith is not these things. The Exodus movie really struggles to come to terms with the severity of the final plague — the death of the firstborn. It asks how could God do such a thing. But that is exactly the question many of our non-Christian friends would raise about the story too. This is the argument the New Atheists bring against the Bible — not so much trying to disprove the Bible, but saying why would you want to believe in a God who would do something like this; he cannot be good or worthy of our worship. These are the questions our culture has and we cannot avoid them. These movies crystallise these issues powerfully and force us to think through these objections and how to answer them.

6. Our non-Christian friends and loved ones will be watching these kinds of movies. They will already think about God in the same way as these secular filmmakers. The key parts that these movies entirely miss out about the love and grace of God, the need and nature of his salvation, what he has done for us in Christ will be the things missing from their thinking. Therefore these movies can provide opportunities to talk to them about the truth, about the gospel. 

These movies are made by secular people, so they are bound to make changes to the story, to have an inferior view of God and to miss things out. The good news is that the true God of the Bible is not just different to their portrayal, he is infinitely better, he is vastly superior in every way. 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 failings of these movies can be used by us to tell people about the excellencies of Christ.

 

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