How to watch a Bible movie without making everyone miserable

March 30th, 2015

‘Tis the season when Hollywood gets religion.

On Easter Sunday, ABC will be airing Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments” for the umpteenth time. (This tradition started at the network when I was less than a year old, and to my knowledge the film has aired there every year since.) Through the years, other films based on the Bible have shown up on the big screen and on television. “King of Kings,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” “The Prince of Egypt,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Gospel of John,” “Noah.” Too many to name, really.

I remember watching a replay of “Jesus of Nazareth” on NBC in 1978 when I was five (it had premiered the year before). I was glued to the set. That production played a major role in getting me interested in who Jesus was at a very young age. (Sadly, I didn’t understand the concept of a miniseries and was confused and disappointed when I tuned in the following week and found The Wonderful World of Disney.)

I discovered much later that controversy had surrounded the film. Fundamentalist Bob Jones III had declared the film “blasphemy” (before he even saw it) and eventually the film’s lead sponsor General Motors pulled out of the project. If Procter and Gamble hadn’t stepped in, “Jesus of Nazareth” probably wouldn’t have aired.

I’m glad I didn’t know all this as a kid. It would have probably ruined the film for me.

Fast forward 37 years, and not a lot has changed. My three TV channels from the 1970s have turned into a couple of hundred, and the screen aspect ratio is now 16:9, but it seems many Christians still enjoy criticizing Bible films for sport. Except now they have Twitter, so God help those of us who venture into a movie hashtag timeline unawares.

Last night (Palm Sunday) I watched the premiere of the television movie “Killing Jesus” on the National Geographic Channel. The film, based on the book of the same title by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, is notable in that it features an actor of Middle Eastern descent as Jesus. Haaz Sleiman is Lebanese-American and Muslim. “Killing Jesus” also features an ethnically diverse supporting cast.

During the commercial breaks, I read tweets from the #KillingJesus timeline. 

Many of the tweets were positive.

Some were negative.

A few complained about the religion of the lead actor.

Others were upset because of details that were added or left out.

I enjoyed the movie. I thought Haaz Sleiman gave a passionate, believable performance as Jesus. But I went into the film with the understanding that it wasn't taken word-for-word from the pages of the Bible, and that it would focus more on Jesus' humanity than his divinity. Bill O'Reilly said as much during the weeks leading up to the premiere of “Killing Jesus.” Maybe others didn't get the memo.

I can usually find good things to say about most Hollywood adaptations of Bible stories, even when they get some of the details wrong. That's because when I watch these films, I keep the following points in mind:

The Bible wasn't written to be a screenplay. People often ask why films about the Bible don't tell the stories exactly as they're written. I'll tell you why, because they would get tedious. “The Gospel of John” did this, and although that film was quite good, it would have been better if it had allowed itself to be more flexible. (Some people didn't understand why there were clear skies during Jesus' crucifixion in “The Gospel of John.” It's because the script stuck with John's Gospel, word for word. And John didn't mention the darkness that you'll find when Jesus is crucified in the other three Gospels.) Artistic license is a good thing. Sure, it can be abused, but without it, films based on biblical accounts would all seem the same. 

Hollywood isn't the church. Most screenwriters, producers and directors aren't out to destroy the Christian faith when they adapt the Bible for cinema or television. Many Christians, however, seem to think that's exactly what's going on. We can't even watch movies anymore without nitpicking. We complain that Hollywood only puts out garbage, but when it tries to produce something that it thinks might appeal to people of faith, we rip it to shreds because it doesn't pass the purity test. Many of the people involved in these productions aren't even Christians, so wouldn't it be more kingdom-minded to find the positives and use constructive criticism to address the rest? Let's praise God that there's an audience for these movies in the first place and that Hollywood is making an effort!

Learn to spit out the bones. I hated eating fish as a kid because I was always afraid I was going to swallow a bone, even when I was eating fish that had been filleted. As I got older, I learned that finding a bone is no big deal. Just take your time while you're eating, and spit it out! That's good advice for consuming information and entertainment too. As with evaluating prophecies, the Bible's instruction to “examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good” offers a helpful principle here as well. 

Actors don't have to be perfect (or even Christian) to play a role well. When the “Jesus” miniseries ran on CBS in May 2000, one of my Christian coworkers refused to watch it because the actor playing Jesus (Jeremy Sisto) had also appeared in the film “Clueless.” Interestingly enough, she didn't have a problem with watching “Clueless” herself, only with an actor from the movie playing Jesus. (Sometimes we Christians don't make a lot of sense when we try to set standards for other people.)

Actors are professionals. Who cares if a Muslim is playing Jesus if he's the best person for the role?

Sometimes there's more than one way to interpet a Scripture passage, and biblical narratives don't include every little detail. 

Each of us pictures stories a certain way when we read them and, in most cases, a film adaptation isn't going to live up (or down) to what we've imagined. I remember watching “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” and thinking that Hermione looked nothing like I'd pictured her in the book. (Ron on the other hand, looked almost exactly like I'd pictured him.) It's the same with Scripture. When I read accounts of Jesus' miracles in the Bible, I picture something extraordinary and dramatic that should happen with a majestic score playing in the background. So when “Killing Jesus” interpreted Jesus' miracles in a more low-key way than I'd imagined, it caught me off guard at first. But it really worked for the movie. Jesus hugging a child to cast out a demon was certainly a use of artistic license, but it was done well, and the resulting scene was quite moving.

As long as there's an audience for movies based on the Bible, Hollywood will keep making them. Some of these films will be more faithful to Scripture than others and none of them will get everything right. So Christians have a couple of choices. We can reject Hollywood's attempts, curse the darkness and pat ourselves on the back because we've stood for biblical truth. Or we can meet these films (and many of the nonchristians viewing them) where they are and use the films as positive starting points for discussion about who Jesus is and what the kingdom of God is like. 

Call me a heresy-enabler if you want, but I believe the positive approach is much more productive.

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