For almost as long as the movies have existed, moviemakers have turned to the Bible for inspiration. From the 1903 Pathé production of Samson and Delilah to this year's popular miniseries The Bible, the Good Book has been a fixture on the silver screen and, often, a box office boon. Cecil B. DeMille was perhaps the first filmmaker to recognize the epic scope and inherently cinematic nature of the Bible. Through films like The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), and The Sign of the Cross (1932), he helped pave the way for the genre, which today includes the likes of The Prince of Egypt (1998) and The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Soon to be added to the genre are two films slated for release in 2014: Exodus, starring Christian Bale as Moses and directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator); and Noah, starring Russell Crowe as Noah and directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain). Both films are said to be epic in scope (watch the Noah trailer here) and both feature major Hollywood talent. Christians should be excited, right?
Not so fast. Early Noah test screenings for faith-based audiences produced “worrisome results,” according to the Hollywood Reporter. After reportedly seeing the script, Christian screenwriter Brian Godawa wrote that Noah would be “an uninteresting and unbiblical waste of a hundred and fifty million dollars.” Little is yet known about Scott's Exodus other than its impressive cast; however, when asked about the film in October by The New York Times, Scott said, “I'm an atheist, which is actually good, because I've got to convince myself the story works.”
What does it mean that the director of a movie about a sacred biblical text is himself an avowed atheist? Should that fact alone make Christians question his ability to tell the story well?
Both Exodus and Noah raise interesting questions for Christians about how they respond to films about the Bible when they are made by “secular” filmmakers—filmmakers perhaps more interested in their own aesthetic vision than faith or fidelity to Scripture. Noah's director, Darren Aronofsky, is culturally Jewish and has long been fascinated by the Jewish narrative tradition surrounding stories like Noah's ark. But he's also a boundary-pushing auteur whose last film (Black Swan) was a psychotropic nightmare featuring grisly violence and lesbian sex. No wonder Paramount Pictures is a bit worried that Aronofsky's vision of the Noah story won't connect with evangelicals.
For many Christians who watch films based on Bible stories, the most pressing question is, What'd they get wrong? It's the same phenomenon for hardcore fans of comic books or fantasy novels when those are made into movies. Doubtless the new Hobbit movie will incur the wrath of a million blog rants spelling out each and every thing missed, distorted, or changed from the original.
I'd like to suggest that, whether it's Tolkien or the Old Testament, the more important questions are: Is it a good movie? Does it convey beauty, truth, goodness? Is the filmmaker's vision clear, focused, compelling?
Even if their adaption of a beloved text is less than faithful to the source material, I try to give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. If a source text is powerful enough (and the Bible fits that bill I think), it invariably inspires a variety of passionate perspectives and disparate interpretations. Christians should be open to hearing what others see in the text or what various artistic visions it inspires. I like what Peter Chattaway wrote recently in his assessment of Noah's controversies:
[Christians] need to be able to approach each film with a willingness to discern which bits come from the Bible, which bits don't, and how God might be speaking to us through both. Let's hope the studio allows Aronofsky to make his film the way he envisioned it. And let's hope that Christian audiences, instead of demanding a piece of mindless entertainment that leaves their souls untouched, will allow the film to challenge their ideas about faith, love, justice, mercy, stewardship, heroism and all the rest of it—assuming, of course, that the film is good enough to warrant that sort of attention.
Christians assessing Bible films should certainly consider what's “right” or “accurate” in the fact-checking sense. Even more, they should consider whether the films succeed as art that communicates something valuable; art that moves us; art that, in its very beauty, brings glory to God. In the best of both worlds we get films of both quality and accuracy. But given the choice between a mediocre filmmaker committed to accuracy and an exceptional filmmaker committed to beauty, I might be more interested in seeing the latter's version of the Exodus story.
In his book Art for God's Sake, Philip Ryken says this:
The doctrine of creation teaches that by God's common grace, the gift of art inevitably declares the praise of its Giver. Thus non-Christian as well as Christian artists can represent virtue, beauty, and truth. It is important to remember, as Nigel Goodwin has said, that “God in his infinite wisdom did not give all his gifts to Christians.”
This is the core of it. Christians need to understand that, through common grace, even the most unregenerate heathen can create something good; something we should take seriously.
As I discuss in my book Gray Matters, the concept of common grace is hugely important in any conversation about Christian appreciation of art. The concept is similar to Calvin's notion of sensus divinitatis (a sense of the divine), the idea that God implanted in each person an inherent understanding of himself that complements the revelation of creation in which God “speaks to us everywhere.” Calvin believed that “the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts” (Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 2, Section 15).
What does this view mean for Christian filmgoers? It means we open our minds to the possibility of truth, beauty, and goodness shining forth in films from even the most secular filmmakers. It means we see other interpretations of biblical history not as threats but as testaments to the enduring wonder of God's story. And it means we should celebrate an excellent movie about Moses or Noah for being excellent, even if it's made by an atheist.