- Deseret News - Friday, December 12, 2014

In an early scene for director Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Moses (Christian Bale) argues with the meaning of the word “Israelite” with Hebrew slave driver Viceroy Hegep.

“Do you know what it means in their own language?” Hegep provokes Moses. “It means, ‘One who fights with God.’ ”

“Actually, it means one who wrestles with God,” Moses argues. “There’s a big difference.”

That exchange sets the tone for Mr. Scott’s Dec. 12 release, which in many ways is a reworking of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic, “The Ten Commandments.”

Unlike Charlton Heston’s portrayal in DeMille’s epic, Mr. Bale’s Moses isn’t faithful to God from the get-go, he doesn’t claim to have any firm grasp on the visions and responsibility that’s thrust upon him — he even argues with God himself.



Movie audiences have done their own wrestling with the Bible as a film genre — especially where biblical accuracy is concerned. For example, while “The Ten Commandments” became a staple of Easter television in America despite the liberties taken with the original story, Darren Aronofsky’s 2013 retelling of “Noah” was criticized for some of its imaginative interpretations like Noah’s vegetarian lifestyle and stone-clad angel ark protectors called “The Watchers.”

But for modern movie audiences, there’s little evidence that biblical accuracy in Bible movies matters at all — and that’s the way it should be, says Forbes film critic Scott Mendelson.

“This is not a documentary. It’s a narrative film,” Mendelson said. “Accuracy is not an excuse for bad artistic choices. Make the changes you need to suit the film.”

Yale Hebrew Bible professor Joel Baden says a script too dedicated to biblical accuracy wouldn’t really make a good film.

“The fact that the Bible is internally contradictory means that to be accurate would make a self-contradictory movie nobody wants to see,” Mr. Baden said. “Movies often develop culturally acceptable versions of the story. ‘Noah’ had lots of stuff that was nowhere in the Bible, and people went crazy. That’s the risk every time you make a biblical movie.”

The new conversation

Mr. Baden and Christianity Today movie critic Brett McCracken said that the variable in the conversation around biblical accuracy is the Internet.

“The landscape of digital media and social media is a factor now,” Mr. McCracken said. “The discourse surrounding a film can turn quickly and early buzz and if some cultural influencer tweets a certain opinion early on before the film’s release, that can color the perceptions of a film.”

Nowadays, Mr. Baden says, outspoken groups have more influence than they once did, like in the pre-Internet days of “The Ten Commandments.”

“‘The Ten Commandments’ wasn’t made for a Christian audience,” Mr. Baden said. “Even if they’re not explicit about it, the people who make these [Bible] movies are thinking about reactions from groups that make lots of noise.”

And one of the groups making a lot of noise about biblical accuracy, Mr. Baden says, are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

“It’s only in the last few decades that it’s become imperative to have absolute representation with the rise of evangelical and fundamentalist perspectives,” Mr. Baden said. “Two thousand years ago, no one gave a damn about accuracy. They were retelling the Bible stories all over the place in ways that were semi-scriptural.”

Mr. Baden said that studios have in turn tried not to offend their audiences by appealing to a broad audience — not only to make more at the box office, but in response to a wide spectrum of opinions that all have a voice on the Internet.

“The Internet provides people with an unmediated outlet,” Mr. Baden said. “In the 1950s, if someone started shouting that ‘The Ten Commandments’ wasn’t true to the Bible, who was going to hear that?”

Whether or not the movie business’ desire for mass appeal at the expense of accuracy is the best course of action is, Mendelson says, up for debate.

Take “The Passion of the Christ,” where director Mel Gibson was so dedicated to accuracy he had his actors learn period language and paid meticulous attention to detail with wardrobe. That film was so successful, Mr. Mendelson argued, because Mr. Gibson knew precisely what he wanted to say and wasn’t afraid to offend.

“These films want to emulate the success ‘The Passion of the Christ’ to some extent, which was a very personal film that offended some people and offended people in part because it was so personal,” Mr. Mendelson said in a phone interview. “So it’s ironic that filmmakers [like Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Scott] are trying to copy that success while trying not to offend anyone.”

Art vs. accuracy

Mr. McCracken says he hopes Christian viewers will balance any possible expectations they might have for biblical accuracy with a director’s artistic interpretation.

“As Christians, we feel like these are our stories, so it can be hard to see them through the eye of a filmmaker that doesn’t hold our same faith,” Mr. McCracken said. “But I would hate for Christians to go into any of these movies calculating every little misstep. That’s no way to appreciate art.”

The point is to enjoy the show, Mr. Baden says, because audience ideas about accuracy are muddled with cultural ideas about what the Bible says anyway.

“Really, none of these films are especially accurate to the Bible, they’re accurate to our public perception of a story everyone knows,” Mr. Baden said. “At a playground near my house, the equipment has the flood story on it, but that’s not the biblical story, that’s the kids’ version. But if you made a film of that version, most people would say, yep, that’s the Bible.”

Mr. McCracken said it’s likely any Bible film will send both detractors and enthusiasts to a happy ending — thumbing through their own Bible at home.

“It’s not meant to be the gospel truth or an exact replica of the Bible. And that’s OK,” Mr. McCracken said. “I suspect this movie will send people back to the Bible. That fact alone makes me happy these films are being made.”

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