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Apr  2014 09
Biblical Films Don't Replace Religious Experience

‘Tis the season for the release of Bible-themed movies. In Lent 2014 we can see Noah and Son of God which are now playing in theatres near just about everyone in the U.S. And only ten short years ago, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was running throughout Lent all the way up to and through Easter. Apparently, studio executives are recognizing that Lent is a good time to lure Christians particularly open to film-inspired spiritual experience into their movie houses. And the data supports their choices: Noah was the number one box office draw in the first weekend of its release and Son of God, which actually came out before Lent, has exceeded expectations in ticket sales.

Of course, both films have attracted their share of detractors.  Evangelical Christians have derided Noah as only barely related to the Genesis story; and indeed they have a point. The primary narrative conflict of the film, which I will not describe here so as not to spoil it for those who still haven’t seen it, has no biblical basis—in fact, the biblical account flatly contradicts it. More progressive Christians have shunned Son of God as a mash-up of Jesus scenes from last year’s roundly disparaged television series The Bible. From both camps, and the many groups that position themselves in-between, have come shouts of unfaithfulness to the Bible, claims of theological heresy and accusations that the filmmakers just want to promote their own ill-informed interpretations of the biblical material.

But such denunciations miss the major problem with Bible-themed movies for religious people, I think. By their very nature, such films cannot be literal reproductions of biblical stories, so why expect that they should be? In Genesis Noah only utters a couple of lines at the end of the story as he curses one son and blesses the other two. For the rest of the tale he is silent. What is a script-writer to do but invent dialogue for the primary character? Further, all attempts to film the life and death of Jesus rely upon choices among the elements of the gospel presentations that inevitably abrogate other elements. And we all recognize that one group’s heresy is another group’s central truth-claim about the nature of God in which appeals to the Bible and its proper or improper interpretation generate very difficult debates, some of which can only be resolved with agreement to disagree. Even a favorite in the Pittman household, the 1998 DreamWorks animated Prince of Egypt, takes liberties with the Book of Exodus. And its producers actually consulted well-known biblical scholars and theologians in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions in order to offer a story as faithful as possible to the account of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrew people!

Which gets us to the real problem: biblical stories which have formed and informed so many religious people in so many ways cannot be flattened into a two-dimensional film format.  This is because these stories don’t simply lay on a page waiting to be brought to a life with which everyone can identify; rather, they resonate in our imaginations and reverberate through our souls in ways that no medium can capture or reproduce. What is sacred and holy in our lives cannot be reduced to photograph, film, or video. I think that is why video reproductions of weddings, no matter how expertly produced, are so unsatisfactory.  Holy moments defy such efforts to pin down and contain what is ultimately ineffable and indescribable.

So I am in favor of enjoying or critiquing or just ignoring the Bible-themed movies of this season and any other. I hope that whenever we watch them we are moved to go back to the biblical stories that inspired them and fact-check, and weigh the theological claims of the movie against those in the stories themselves. But I am not for mistaking them for an experience with the God who inspires sacred stories and leads us to entwine them with our stories as we seek to listen to God’s voice and follow the way of Jesus.


Browse more posts by: Nancy Claire Pittman, Phillips Dean
Phillips offers Christian graduate theological education in service of intelligent, just, and
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