I have watched with great interest the thumbs up or thumbs down on the host of recent Hollywood movies. I have seen those opinions raised often with a sense that if you think otherwise, the Holy Spirit must have departed your soul while you were at the movie or departed from it before you made the decision to go.
As one tasked to discuss cultural engagement at a seminary, I’m interested to see how church leaders respond to these films. And I am worried we are missing the boat on Noahand other movies, whether made by those inside or outside of the church. The questions we are asking about their content are important, but the tone and how we are reacting may be missing the mark. We may need to push rewind and rethink how we review what Hollywood produces for us.
Here are the core questions that get at my concerns:
1. Are we missing a wonderful opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about biblical topics with folks who might otherwise not want to talk about God or the Bible? Do I realize that not attending the film robs me of any opportunity or credibility in discussing it?
2. Should I expect people who do not believe the Bible to make movies that follow it? Might it be better to consider how people reading the Bible without the eyes of faith see it, listen to what they are saying, and then winsomely and critically engage where they are coming from?
3. Do I realize that the decision to make a movie about biblical topics will entail choices about how to portray and fill in the narrative? Noah’s involvement in Scripture covers only a few chapters. Can one make a ten-minute feature movie? On the other hand, to make a movie about all the Gospels entails choices about what gets put in, how fully to portray events, and how many to present. Do we recognize that even when the Bible retells its own stories like in the Gospels it sometimes simplifies and makes other editorial choices? So can we cut screenwriters some slack?
4. Can my take on the film be nuanced? Is my choice only to love or hate the movie and let the world know in 140 characters on Twitter? Can I look at it for things I both like and dislike? Can I ask myself if the thrust of the account raises real life issues worth pondering, thus making it a worthy catalyst for meaningful discussion about God, Scripture, and life? (This last question might be the most important one for engaging the movie with others.)
5. Do we complain that Hollywood does not make enough movies with Christian or biblical themes, but then critique them with so little nuance or artistic reflection that they engender the Hollywood response of, “Why bother?”
Let me explain why I am asking these questions and why we need more nuance in how we assess what Hollywood does. Do not get me wrong: I have concerns about how Noahfantasized about some characters in the story, giving the Bible a genre feel I think does not match its glorious content. The Watchers in Noah did little for me. I also did not care for the almost deistic way God was portrayed in most of the movie and the seeming darkness of the character Noah, although one can hardly be laid back or indifferent at seeing so much death. The other character additions also raised questions for me, but I see their purpose. The Abraham-Isaac moment is important to the story. (Those who saw the film will know what I mean.) It raises a biblical theme outside the Noah story but an important one nonetheless.
Here is the twist: The director changed the deistic story line with the ending, regarding Noah’s choice and the debate around it. You had to hang in there, listening to the story line to the end. I am convinced some of us gave up before we got there. The message said that by taking us through the suffering of life, God moves us toward grace. The movie asked us if we are we learning by the experiences God takes us through. That is a fair life question.
Also the movie could not have been clearer about the sinfulness and fallen condition of humanity, a theme I have seen some Christian movies fudge on. I can imagine a fruitful conversation with my unbelieving or skeptical neighbor about these ideas and themes. This is not trash; it is deep theology that can be engaged and developed that asks troubling questions in a vivid way, drawing us into answers the Scripture supplies to deal with the tension.
I also saw a director challenge people whose idea of law and duty is so strong that they too harshly dismiss the human element in those choices. Who has not felt this tension in life? Full of grace and truth, how do we do those well together? I may not like the answer given in the film, but I certainly can appreciate why it was being raised. This is yet another good topic for discussion.
Jesus Scenes and Jesus Movies
I have similar nuanced concerns aboutGod Is Not Dead and Son of God. Was the God Is Not Dead depiction of the atheist-believer debate really where the fault line lies, and did it reflect most such discussions? Was the depiction of the atheist a caricature? Was the edge-of-death scene at the end real? Did it feel genuine or forced? On the other hand, the key query of the atheist in the film, “How can you hate something so much you think does not exist?” was nothing short of brilliant.
Son of God felt like stitched-together Jesus scenes without as clean of a narrative line as one might have wished. That problem may well reflect that it was an edited two-hour film version of the ten-hour TV series that gave it birth. Yet some scenes, like the hole in Jesus’ hand after his resurrection, reflected a vivid and powerful picture of resurrection’s reality and the cost of crucifixion it took to get there.
Let me tackle two final objections to Jesus movies. First, no depiction of Jesus will do him justice. Second, such depictions may even violate the first commandment, not to put images of God before us. Yes, the first point is well taken; so do not set expectations too high. But who has not been moved into contemplating who Jesus is or what he went through by differing scenes in differing Jesus movies? Most of us probably have our favorite Jesus movie, Jesus scene, or Jesus painting. Art done well can speak to the soul. The second point I also have questions about. Was not the point of the first commandment that images are dangerous not merely because they exist but because they became objects of worship? The fact is we all have images of Jesus floating around in our heads, whether we write about them in books or portray them in movies. The test is to allow the Scripture to go to work on and refine that image. Others portrayals, even somewhat creative ones, may help me with my Jesus blind spots by seeing things I might have missed or raising questions worth pondering. Think of it as a visual sermonette. What pastor does not fill in gaps for events or recast events in a fresh light now and again?
I am not saying one must attend such events. Each of us must act according to our consciences before God regarding the use of time and resources and our sense of mission. I am saying if we go, let’s do so with an open heart about how we can better engage the choice to attend and give each other the room to disagree. Let’s see that sometimes a reflective rewind of the experience in conversation may do more for the call of God to engage than a simple thumbs up or down.