Can Anybody But an Atheist Make a Good Bible Movie?

The Gospel Coalition asks, “Can an atheist make a good Bible movie?

Little is yet known about [director Ridley] Scott’s Exodus other than its impressive cast; however, when asked about the film in October by The New York Times, Scott said, “I’m an atheist, which is actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works.”

What does it mean that the director of a movie about a sacred biblical text is himself an avowed atheist? Should that fact alone make Christians question his ability to tell the story well?

Both Exodus and Noah raise interesting questions for Christians about how they respond to films about the Bible when they are made by “secular” filmmakers—filmmakers perhaps more interested in their own aesthetic vision than faith or fidelity to Scripture. Noah’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is culturally Jewish and has long been fascinated by the Jewish narrative tradition surrounding stories like Noah’s ark. But he’s also a boundary-pushing auteur whose last film (Black Swan) was a psychotropic nightmare featuring grisly violence and lesbian sex. No wonder Paramount Pictures is a bit worried that Aronofsky’s vision of the Noah story won’t connect with evangelicals.

For many Christians who watch films based on Bible stories, the most pressing question is, What’d they get wrong?

When a book gets made into a movie, the people who loved that book are often disappointed with the results. (When that book is a comic book, people often devote years of their lives to being disappointed with the results.) But those people often don’t appreciate the fact that books and movies are just different genres that make different demands on the storyteller. A movie is going to be different from a book first of all because it’s a movie, and not a book.

But people who are really committed to the source material have a hard time letting go so it can become a movie. This is one of the reasons that, when Christians make Christian movies, the result is The Passion of the Christ 1% of the time and Facing the Giants the other 99% of the time.

So my question is, Can anybody but an atheist make a good Bible movie? The GC continues:

I’d like to suggest that, whether it’s Tolkien or the Old Testament, the more important questions are: Is it a good movie? Does it convey beauty, truth, goodness? Is the filmmaker’s vision clear, focused, compelling?

Even if their adaption of a beloved text is less than faithful to the source material, I try to give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. If a source text is powerful enough (and the Bible fits that bill I think), it invariably inspires a variety of passionate perspectives and disparate interpretations. Christians should be open to hearing what others see in the text or what various artistic visions it inspires.

Christians assessing Bible films should certainly consider what’s “right” or “accurate” in the fact-checking sense. Even more, they should consider whether the films succeed as art that communicates something valuable; art that moves us; art that, in its very beauty, brings glory to God. In the best of both worlds we get films of both quality and accuracy. But given the choice between a mediocre filmmaker committed to accuracy and an exceptional filmmaker committed to beauty, I might be more interested in seeing the latter’s version of the Exodus story.

Me too. I don’t know if I’ll see Aronofsky’s Noah or Scott’s Exodus, but I’m excited that the Bible is still recognized as a source of compelling stories by mainstream directors. And if they make a hash of it, the book version is still pretty accessible.

3 thoughts on “Can Anybody But an Atheist Make a Good Bible Movie?

  1. If Moses is portrayed as a satanic double agent, ultimately loyal to Pharaoh, who we last see letting the Red Sea fall back and engulf the Hebrews while laughing manically, in a movie made by an “exceptional filmmaker committed to beauty,” you might have one humdinger of a movie. However, I would argue that critical moviegoers would be justifiably disappointed with the lack of accuracy regarding fundamental elements of what makes Moses, Moses and have a legitimate complaint if they said the movie was really well done, but should not be called “Exodus.” I mean, if both sets of parents look at Romeo and Juliet and say, “My, don’t they make a cute couple,” and they live happily ever after, at least have the decency to say “inspired by” instead of “based on.”

    If a director changes what distinguishes and defines a character or a story at a fundamental level, at its very core, essence and soul, it ceases to be an “interpretation” of that character/story and becomes something else – perhaps something else that is beautiful and well done, but something else.
    (If I might indulge myself momentarily and comment on my motivation to post the above comment, allow me to say this: so this is what you do when you are forced by incompetent meteorologists to spend the night at the high school where you are employed and you don’t have your three medications. Aaaaaaaaaa!!)

    By the way, best blog ever. Just the right mix of You Tube, Star Wars, Looney Tunes, and the Bible.

    1. God bless you, commenter who was forced to spend the night at a high school. I’m glad to play a small part in helping you kill the time, and maybe prevent you from killing some students.

  2. If Moses is portrayed as a satanic double agent, ultimately loyal to Pharaoh, who we last see letting the Red Sea fall back and engulf the Hebrews while laughing manically, in a movie made by an “exceptional filmmaker committed to beauty,” you might have one humdinger of a movie. However, I would argue that critical moviegoers would be justifiably disappointed with the lack of accuracy regarding fundamental elements of what makes Moses, Moses and have a legitimate complaint if they said the movie was really well done, but should not be called “Exodus.” I mean, if both sets of parents look at Romeo and Juliet and say, “My, don’t they make a cute couple,” and they live happily ever after, at least have the decency to say “inspired by” instead of “based on.”

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