A Christian Response to the Recent Surge of Biblical Films
The rising interest in Biblical films compels us Christians to ponder the implications of such a surge. How do we address this increased interest in Scripture? After all, as one old film title depicts the story of Christ, it is the “Greatest Story Ever Told.” This could also be applied to the Bible as a whole, as the entire collection features timeless stories of humanity’s contention with evil, themselves and, perhaps most significantly, God. There are many positive ramifications of Hollywood’s use of the Bible for their entertainment purposes, but most notably is the rare chance for Christians to progress in the film industry.
Addressing “The Surge”
For Christians, hearing about a Biblical movie should encourage us, even if it is written and directed by a hardened atheist (e.g., Noah). Over the last century and a half, Christianity has slowly forfeited their hold on culture, especially the entertainment industry. Due to this, any Biblical film, regardless of its accuracy, should be supported, albeit carefully. Simply turning society’s attention to the Bible, even if it is merely in a medium of entertainment, should be something to welcome in our age. Even if a Biblical film takes great liberties with the text (e.g., The Last Temptation of Christ), it’s a start. Simply bringing the Bible to the film industry’s table is a foot in the door. If Hollywood is willing to produce Biblical films, then it’s only a matter of time before Christians can get more than just a foot in the door--or on the red carpet. Once the interest in Biblical films is on the table, discussion and respect for Biblical stories should soon follow, regardless of the film industry’s faith. This is a good thing if Christians are involved in the filmmaking process (Matt. 18:20).
Simply maintaining the film industry’s interest in these films should not be the goal of Christians in the film industry, since we would then miss our chance to progress in it. Christians must step up in the film industry and join the ranks of distinguished writers, directors and actors/actresses that permeate Hollywood and create films that are both engaging and true to the teachings of the Bible.
The Tension Between Art and Accuracy of Biblical Films
The biggest problem facing the vast majority of Christian-made films--not just Biblical films (films depicting a Biblical event, story or character)--is the lack of compelling, moving art (and high budgets, which is another issue). Most Christian-made films betray an oversensitivity to promoting a Christian message, which immediately creates a pigeon-holed storyline and ultimately a loss of moving art that is relatable for humanity as a whole. In other words, in trying to make a film a "Christian" film means making it less relatable for anyone outside the Christian worldview. Since when should Christians only make films for themselves?
Christian-made films need to somehow bolster their artistic quality and relevancy, but this may take more attentiveness than many of us assume; it takes work to be both Biblically accurate and culturally relevant. Yet this must be done if Christians want a promising future in the film industry.
So all it takes is art and relevancy? Well, for the production of Biblical films, it also takes adherence to the Bible for it to be a “Biblical film.” In bringing the Biblical texts to life, Christian filmmakers must find a balance between art and accuracy. The core message and elements of a Biblical story must be maintained, yet this poses another problem. When a Christian-made Biblical film tries to stay true to the texts of Scripture, art tends to be sacrificed for the sake of Biblical accuracy.
Why is this? Because the Bible wasn’t written to be entertainment. It was written to describe man’s contentions with God and God’s methods of redeeming such a contentious people. There are certainly entertaining aspects of Scripture, but this was not its original purpose. If a movie scriptwriter tried to apply the exact words found in the Bible for a character’s dialogue, it would be as effective as the corniest flannel graph. Of course, this is an exaggeration, and no filmmaker today would adhere that closely to the text, but the point remains: the more restrictive a filmmaker is on taking artistic liberties with the Biblical text, the less engaging the film will be. In other words, a reasonable amount of artistic liberties and must be taken to ensure relevancy and relatability with the audience (although what constitutes “reasonable” is up for debate). When making a Biblical film, it's not a sin to fill in the inherent holes found in the Biblical record with, for example, creative character traits and behaviors as long as the central message is maintained. It's possible to be attentive to art and relatable characters when staying true the Biblical text.
The recent miniseries, The Bible, is an example of how difficult it is to maintain the core message of a Scripture text while simultaneously creating an engaging depiction. The miniseries seems to straddle a fence between art and Biblical accuracy, which makes it awkward in parts. The characters seem too pigeon-holed; I didn't see much grit or human ambiguity in the characters, which made it seem artificial. There needed to be more art and creative liberties to make it more engaging. I felt like it had a hard time bringing out humanity of the Bible. Still, apart The Passion of the Christ, I have not seen a more engaging Biblical film/series than The Bible. It’s a good temporary standard, but I know we can do better.
So if we emphasize art at the expense of accuracy, or vice versa, the final result will either be disgraceful to the Bible (too much relevancy) or culturally irrelevant (too much accuracy). There must be a balance between art and accuracy. This is simply the reality of the film industry in the twenty-first century.
The Pragmatics of “The Surge”
It’s important to remember how Christians should practically handle this surge. I believe that allowing the status quo to make the first move is a wise decision. In other words, I think we let the surge be a surge and support the underlying desire to create Biblical films before we judge the films based on their Biblical accuracy. Supporting the artistic tastes of the film industry as they create depictions of the Sacred texts is the best way to lower defenses and attempt to find common ground with our fellow humans, who may happen to share completely different worldviews. This is a practical application of 1 Cor. 9:22, where Paul says he strives to “become all things to all people.” We put ourselves on their page when we appreciate art the way they do. There is power in approving the God-given, artistic talents of Hollywood’s filmmakers; we can be human together.
Additionally, in the pursuits of Christians in the film industry, it’s important that we maintain our faith while also promoting the artistic values and talents of Hollywood. Yet maintaining the Christian faith is hard in the film industry. Christians have been brought into a new way of life (Rom. 6:1-11; 2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 3:1-3), which makes congruency with the industry difficult, if not impossible at times (John 15:18-19; Rom. 12:2a). Yet that doesn’t mean we must attack the world or insist that they change (see Matt. 5:13-16; Titus 3:2), since God is the one who changes people anyway (Eph. 2:4-6; Titus 3:5-6). We must let God do the transforming work and stop trying to do it for him. Our worldview clearly states that every human is on the same page before God apart from Christ (Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:1-3). We should start with this conviction when we progress in the film industry. Further, we mustn’t worry about the motives of filmmakers who make these Biblical films. It is not our place for such judgment. The most important behavior Christians should do is promote the authority of the Bible because there is power in God’s word (Isa. 55:10-11; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:23; see Matt. 5:13-16).
Let’s embrace this “Bible film surge” and support Hollywood’s interests in Scripture. In this way, we can promote the authority of the Bible (thus applying Matt. 5:13-16), while simultaneously affirming their God-given, artistic talents (thus applying 1 Cor. 9:22). From this standpoint, Christians can develop and progress in the film industry without perpetually remaining a meager sub-genre. With these Biblical films on the rise, we can, surprisingly, find some sort of common ground with Hollywood. Let us not give up such a rare opportunity.