This Christmas we’re getting another Bible epic film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses. The teaser is intriguing, especially thanks to the spectacular closing shot of the Red Sea being parted as described in Exodus 14.
Exodus is just the latest of several planned films based on Biblical accounts — which are well-known, just controversial enough, and in the public domain, so they’re perfect for new films. (Coming next are Clavius with Joseph Fiennes as a Roman soldier who investigates Jesus Christ’s resurrection, a remake of Ben-Hur, and at least two more films about the life of Jesus Christ.) But especially after evangelicals’ debates over Noah earlier this year, Christians must reevaluate how and why Scriptural accounts should be adapted for movies. Otherwise, whenever another Bible film is released, we will merely repeat our fun response to Noah:
- The Bible film is announced with a big-name director, actors, and budget.
- Christians and especially evangelical leaders share concerns.
- Early reviews and audiences confirm the film shockingly deviates from Scripture.
- The director and/or studio replies by saying they certainly respect the source.
- Evangelical leaders suggest we use the film for evangelism (as occurred with Noah).
- The film is released. Some evangelicals like it, some hate it. We all yell at each other.
- Quietly the film drifts away to live on in Blu-Ray and streaming sales. We all forget about that wonder (horror) that would have restored Christianity’s pop-cultural glory (committed final blasphemy against its sacred text). Time to do it all again!
When the Exodus teaser appeared, popular creation advocate/evangelist Ken Ham started early with the requisite Concern-sharing. I have been an overall fan of Answers In Genesis since before it was un-cool, but I find Ham’s posture toward popular culture inconsistent (occasionally Ham seems to slip up and show his inner geek). In his July 12 post, Ham said Exodus will “distort the truth and not be evangelistic,” perhaps reinforcing a made-up doctrine that truth-distortion and “failure to be evangelistic” are equivalent movie sins. Several commentators’ responses and Ham’s own July 21 follow-up also showed that many Christians who claim a movie “distorts the truth” are relying not on discernment but on assumptions that “movies must be family friendly” and plain old nostalgia. Ham wrote:
Bale has hinted that the film will have “violence in the extreme”—looking at a movie trailer, it appears to be so.
This presumes rather than defends the notion that child-level sheltering from “violence” is the default or most spiritual position even for Christian grown-ups. This is also strange given the Creation Museum’s creative and direct presentation of sin’s and the Flood’s violent realities, which has brought criticism from Christians and non-Christians. Even on Facebook a Ham fan challenged presumptions that violence=bad:
Why wouldn’t it be violent? Honestly what part of the plagues weren’t violent in the Bible? The Bible is a violent book filled with wars and deaths in the OT… [I]t’s this perspective of “God is love” that is ruining Christianity… [Y]es God is love but God is also just, He is jealous, and He is righteous!
Commentators on both Ham’s Facebook page and YouTube also claim Exodus can’t match the pinnacle of cinematic Biblical fidelity, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Ham writes, “That film from the 1950s was by and large true to Exodus.”
Such claims make me wish I could be one of those “faith-based” studio consultants for “faith-based” test audiences. First I would show a rough cut of the Exodus film. Then, when well-meaning evangelical test viewers faulted the film for not being faithful to Scripture like that great classic The Ten Commandments, or even The Prince of Egypt, I would distribute the following Bible movie quiz.
True or false, in the biblical book of Exodus:
- Pharaoh’s wife found Moses in the Nile River.
- Moses and Rameses were raised as brothers.
- The Pharaoh’s name was “Rameses.”
- Moses and Rameses fought for the affections of the same Egyptian princess.
- After Moses killed the Egyptian, he was exiled from his country.
- During the burning bush appearance, God taught Moses miracles.
- Moses proclaimed to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”
- For the final plague, an “angel of death” appeared like a creeping spooky fog.
- During the exodus, God blocked Pharaoh’s army with a pillar of fire.
- When God collapsed the parted Red Sea, Pharaoh died along with his army.
After the quiz, I would politely inform the “faith-based” test audience:
- False. Only The Prince of Egypt says she was Pharaoh’s wife.
- False. Only The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt show a brotherly relationship.
- False. Only the films give Pharaoh a name.
- False. The Ten Commandments spends arguably too long on this wholly extra-Biblical love triangle.
- False. The Ten Commandments has Moses banished, and in The Prince of Egypt Moses exiles himself.
- True. Both films leave out God’s signs with Moses’s staff and leprosy.
- False. Exodus 4:10-16 specifies that Aaron did the public speaking.
- False. The films show this visual, but Scripture does not describe the death angel.
- False. Both films upgrade the pillar of cloud (by day) to the pillar of fire (by night).
- ???. Both films show Pharaoh surviving, but Scripture doesn’t tell us his fate.
Finally, I would try to challenge the faith-based test audience like this:
- Are we sure we’re not confusing Scripture for our evangelical “headcanon” of its details?
- Are we sure we’re not allowing nostalgic affection for The Ten Commandments to skew our views of newer film versions? Haven’t we already given permission for film adaptations to alter significant details of the account even while preserving the Bible’s overall themes?
- Moreover, didn’t previous generations of Christians also criticize Big Hollywood films such as The Ten Commandments in the way we’re criticizing Exodus today? Does that make us “compromisers”? Or do we simply have the advantage of perspective because we can look back and see that all those changes in The Ten Commandments didn’t ruin our faith forever and actually helped people grow to love His Story?
At this point, I as a consultant for “faith-based” test audiences would be shown the exit.
But first I would rewind the film footage and sneak another look at the Red Sea parting scene. I can still recall when evangelicals feared that The Prince of Egypt would show the liberal mainline theologians’ perversion of the scene: a ragtag band of slaves slopping through a decidedly non-miraculously-parted “sea of reeds.” Now there is no chance of films forsaking the opportunity to show epic million-dollar-visual-effected miracles. For that I rejoice. Even in movies that change the story — Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Ten Commandments alike — manmade “miracles” can remind us of the only Director Who alone makes His stories reality.