Biblical Movies? Epic.

Ridley Scott, film director and avowed atheist is making a movie based on The Book of Exodus called, appropriately enough Exodus with Christian Bale (Moses) and Aaron Paul (Joshua). This will follow close on the heels of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah The Gospel Coalition asks the question — Can an Atheist Make a Good Bible movie?

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.

As a Christian and a lover of films (and movies) of all stripes I would say a qualified yes. First and foremost, the job of a filmmaker is to make a compelling movie — character, plot, writing, cinematography, etc., etc. No amount of earnest and Truthful plot can redeem a poorly made film. The danger for an atheist making Bible movies is that a disrespectful attitude to the source material does not bode well. Just as I want the maker of comic book movies to at least understand the comic genre, the characters, and take the world they inhabit seriously, I want any director of biblical movies to take the stories at face value. Any agenda (or worse — apathy) outside of that risks the movie’s quality. Besides the film director’s job is not to teach per se in any case. Anyone going to a biblical epic looking for accuracy is primed for disappointment.

We’re all made in the image of God and thus we all, even in our Fallen state, bear some residual of His truth and love for Beauty. Blackhawk Down, Gladiator, and Blade Runner (among many others in Scott’s long career) all have a lot to say about life, truth, and other virtues. He may not worship the Source of some of his themes, but he nevertheless has been able to tap into part of His Truth.

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