An Epic of (un)Biblical Proportions?

2014 will be the year of the biblical epic. And rather fittingly, the films are coming two by two!

You’ve probably seen the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was released last week and has already evoked a plethora of opinions. Some seem to consider it a triumph; “the Bible is being put on a big screen! The evangelistic opportunities are unparalleled! And if we’re lucky, Jesus might schedule the second coming for the premier! White Horse on a Red Carpet!” whilst others are lamenting the fact that the writer has filled the story out with details not include in the Biblical accounts, as if a watchable film could have been squeezed from three or four chapters of Genesis, without the slightest use of any imagination or artistic license! 

Trevin Wax’s post on how Christians should respond to the film is typically helpful, and I loved the way he expressed how Christians tend to overplay both the panic and promise:

“The critics overplay the danger of a biblically inaccurate film, tending to see all artistic license as sacrilegious. The celebrators overplay the promise of a Hollywood blockbuster, expecting spiritual fruit to come, not from the Word, but from pixels on the big screen.”

Whatever the final outcome, chances are it will be big, and loud, and aggressive, and gruesome. As, indeed, was the flood. Anything less would sell short the grotesqueness of the story.

My opinion means little until I’ve seen the film, but for what it’s worth, bits of the trailer made me think. I was intrigued by the way Noah ‘heard God’s voice.’ I hadn’t really considered how they would depict that on screen (assuming Morgan Freeman wasn’t going to make an appearance!) and it’s got me pondering about what OT prophetic experience might have looked like. Also, I liked the way they imagined people trying to take the ark as the flood arrived. There’s every possibility that did happen – it seems natural. And thirdly, although it was no-doubt Hollywood rhetoric rather than considered eschatology, I liked the strapline, “the end of the world is just the beginning.” N.T. Wright would be proud.

From the trailer, I have no idea if it will be a good film. I’ve no idea if it will make me feel that more good has been done than harm for public attitudes towards the Bible. I’ve no idea whether it will provoke fruitful conversations, or just reinforce people’s scepticism. But I personally wish Aronofsky had been able to present the film as he wished, without having to adapt it due to pressure from religious reviewers and focus groups. We’re not well-known for our incisive and unbiased opinions on what makes a good film! I was never under any illusions that it was going to be a biblically accurate movie, so I’d rather see the version that stays true to the Director’s original vision, than one that’s trying to please everyone! But that’s by-the-by…

The second biblical film coming out in 2014 is Exodus, the new Ridley Scott adaptation of the story of Moses, with Christian Bale in the leading role. When asked about the project, Bale said this: 

“It’s an intriguing piece, because it’s very few people that I’ve met that have actually read the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, all the way through… Most people read snippets. If you read it all the way through, it’s harsh. It’s really ‘Old Testament.’ And violence in the extreme. [Moses] was not a man of any half measures whatsoever.”

This quote is interesting. Tell me; how and when did ‘Old Testament’ become shorthand for ‘violent’? I mean; I’m not expecting Christian Bale to make nuanced theological pronouncements, but seriously? The story of Moses is ‘really Old Testament’?! How and when did a limited number of violent texts become indicative of the whole Old Testament? And why these verses, rather than the countless torrents that express God’s love, mercy, graciousness, forgiveness, provision, faithfulness, and so on?

And taking these two films together, why are directors, actors and (presumably) filmgoers drawn to biblical stories in a secular age? Particularly ones that include so much violence and bloodshed? Why is it that people will deplore the Bible for its bloodshed and violence yet happily plunder the very same passages for a film-premise? Why is it that we’re happy to be entertained by the Old Testament but not instructed by it? It makes good TV, but bad laws. It’s great for Hollywood, but keep it out of our schools, our conversations, and our civil debates. 

Of course, I understand why people might be happy to watch something on a screen whilst distancing themselves from it in reality. I am entertained by a whole host of things I know to be untrue. But there is something faintly hypocritical about it, is there not? Even if the hypocrisy is barely different from a gun-shunning pacifist enjoying Die Hard from the comfort of his (my?!) sofa. I find it a telling and thought-provoking thing, that people are happy to leave morals at the door of the cinema and be entertained by something that we would find abhorrent in any other context. 

It appears that something is only barbaric once it ceases to be fiction and starts to suggest something we don’t like to believe about our world…

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