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Friday, December 12, 2014
Exodus: Gods and Kings—More Kings than God

Exodus: Gods and Kings—More Kings than God

Gary Black Jr. is an assistant professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University.

I enjoy Ridley Scott's movies. He often produces real "guy" movies—heavy on testosterone, heroics, swordplay, courage, and big finishes that resolve classic conflicts between good and evil. I admire his subtle attacks on systemic injustice and his celebration of strong, heroic women. I appreciate his portrayal of deeply flawed heroes, who ultimately succeed not because of their leadership skills but rather their integrity, self-sacrifice for the common good, and commitment to truth. Gods and Kings follows in much the same vein.

In short, it's a very good movie. It's a well-filmed, visual treat (the 3D version is worth the extra expense) with strong performances by the actors. The subject should be an "epic" picture and gives a valiant effort to be.

Here's the big miss: When will a moviemaker demonstrate the confidence or courage to tell the actual stories these biblical movies are titled after?

I'm sympathetic to the arguments made by some regarding Darren Aronofsky's movie on Noah (which had much less of a connection to the biblical story than Scott's Exodus.) I understand why and how certain stories or ideas play better only if certain thematic devices are added or plot lines adapted. Yet, what Scott and Aronofsky don't seem to realize is that many of us who grew up with these stories believe, and carry evidence within our lives of the transformative power these stories wield. It's perfectly fine, even advisable, to allow the primary events of these stories to speak for themselves. Often, our first encounter with these stories came from a priest, pastor, or rabbi who, despite very little dramatic training, rhetorical flair, or creative ingenuity, still conveyed the impact of these ideas with measurable effect.

Take Scott's Moses. He's depicted as a warrior, beginning to end. However, the scriptural story captures that Moses was, accomplishments aside, the most humble (often translated "meek" or "lowly") of men (Numbers 12:3). For Scott, humility arrives when facing Pharaoh's army at the cusp of the Red Sea. Scott's Moses appears humble after critiquing God's action through the plagues and all his failed attempts to lead the people. Only then does he throws away his sword of power. The scriptural story describes Moses' long, intimate conversations with God that form him into the kind of leader required for his task. I think Scott could have masterfully conveyed this on film much like the preparation and development of character Scott portrays beautifully in some of his other films.

What Scott and Aronofsky's depictions miss, and what people like me lament, is that the primary character in these biblical stories is God.

The stories highlight God's character and faithfulness. They are not primarily about power struggles, violence, socio-economic liberation, natural occurring phenomenon vs. supernatural miracles, not even about freedom from slavery. The biblical tapestry is more of a self-portrait of God reflected against the canvas of all human activity. Yet in these adaptations, God get's precious little screen time, not much character formation, and is rarely portrayed as good, much less heroic, all of which is far cry from what the original stories depict and why they exist.

I humbly suggest to future directors and writers recounting biblical events to allow the compelling drama, tension, nuance, irony, tragedy, humanity, and wonders in the scriptural accounts themselves to remain primary. These stories connect. They have proven themselves generation after generation even when told in the most rudimentary of ways. Don't discount, then dissect, adapt, and finally re-infuse a different story or motive into these stories. Trust them. They are as irreducible as they are infinitely capable in their ability to add value to human life. For ages, they have engaged and revealed essential truths about human existence, the nature of our world, what is good and true, what is evil and painful, and the purposes for which life can and perhaps should be lived to its fullest. Their longevity alone demands a higher level of respect.

I encourage you to go see the movie. Enjoy it for what it is, a film with wonderful moments, ideas, and images to inspire and challenge you. But then go read Eugene Peterson's interpretation of the life of Moses in The Message. After which, I encourage you to think deeply about which vision of God, and which depiction of these events, speaks more poignantly to the human condition and the problems and potential humanity faces in our contemporary context.

I only wish Scott shared the confidence of Christians and Jews in the transformational power of the original story to change hearts and minds. As Hollywood continues to produce biblically based films, I for one would like to see these unaltered old stories, first told around campfires and family tables, come to life on screen emboldened with the almost limitless talent and miraculous skills of artists wielding the best of modern technology. And perhaps, one day, God will get a long-overdue Oscar.

Or at least a staring role.

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