The Only Problem With Bible Movies

One of the guiding principals behind our work is a belief that most filmmakers make films to ask questions. They tell stories, be they narrative or documentary, to explore the questions raised by the stories, to ask questions of the stories, and to encourage audiences to do the same. Filmmakers want to know more about people, the world, and sometimes God, and filmmaking is way of investigating all those things.

This interrogative use of narrative is a different way of interacting with stories that we most often see in Christian churches. Christians, especially Evangelicals, tend to interact with stories to find answers. We expect stories, whatever their form—biblical, oral, cinematic, etc—to communicate truth, be that truth historical or moral. We look to stories to tell us things, to clarify things, to wrap things up. Most filmmakers tell interrogative stories. The stories most Christians tell are declarative.

Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. Non-Christian filmmakers make their movies, and everyone goes to see them. Christians make their movies, and a lot of Christians go see them. Each group might not care as much for the other group’s films, but there is room in the world for both.

Then, non-Christian filmmakers decide to make a movie based on a story dearly loved by Christians. Suddenly, the two groups stop getting along. Boycotts are planned. Film negative burning is threatened. Petitions are circulated. Facebook rants are ranted. Among non-Christians filmmakers, it has become expected that Christians will react with truly remarkable hostility to the news that a non-Christian is telling a Bible story.

There is a long history behind why Christians respond with hostility to some movies. If you want that long history, I encourage you to read Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. (You might also read Bo Sanders’ post on the subject.) I won’t go into the history here, but I reference it to draw out two key points:

1) Christians and non-Christians have very different goals in interacting with a Biblical story.
2) Both goals are valid, but demanding everyone do one or the other is not.

The recent release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah has made the above very clear. Prior to the film’s release, Kutter Callaway and I had the chance to be part of a round-table interview with Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. There were a lot of us around the table, but Kutter and I were able to squeeze in two questions. I asked Aronofsky and Handel what the Noah story means to them now, having spent the past ten years researching for and making this film. Here is their response:

Questions. They went to the story with questions. They left with more questions. They wanted to leave the audience with questions.

I had another similar experience a couple of months ago. I was asked to visit a film set where a group of filmmakers was making a movie about Jesus. This group included an agnostic, a lapsed Catholic, a Jewish person, and a person who was raised Episcopalian but isn’t really practicing today. There were a few of us visiting that day from a variety of Christian perspectives. The filmmakers gave us quite a bit of their time considering the brevity of their shooting schedule and the expense associated with that schedule.

They invited us out, because they wanted to talk about Jesus. They were making their movie, because they have questions about Jesus. The filmmaking process is their way of exploring who Jesus was and is, what Jesus accomplished on earth, and why Jesus matters today.

They wanted to talk to us, because they recognized that they were making a movie about a man who is extremely important to a lot of people in a way that he is not important to them. They wanted to make sure they weren’t doing anything offensive by asking the questions they are asking. We did all we could to free them to ask their questions.

When we respond to films based on the Bible with hostility, we hinder people curious about the Bible and all it contains from exploring it. Brave filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel, and the filmmakers I met a month ago proceed with their explorations anyway, but I wonder how many others have been put off from exploring the Bible entirely by Christian hostility.

We don’t have to agree with the way others interpret the Bible, but we do have to allow them to examine it. What are we so afraid of? Isn’t the Bible bigger than any of us? If we really believe the Bible is given to us by God to reveal God to us, that it’s God’s book, shouldn’t we have enough faith to allow God to preserve it? Shouldn’t we do all we can to encourage question-askers to ask questions about it, of it, with it? We don’t have to protect God’s word. God’s word protects us.

More Bible movies are coming. They are being made by Christian and non-Christian filmmakers alike. Take the movies as they come. Let them be what their makers want them to be. See the ones you want to see. Don’t see the ones you don’t want to see.

There is room in our world for all kinds of Bible movies, but there is no room for hostility. When God destroyed the world in the flood, God did so because of the earth was full of violence. After the flood, God promised to be merciful and to never destroy the earth with water ever again. We ought not test God’s mercy.