Hollywood has a long history of making Bible-based movies, including epics by Cecil B. DeMille and John Huston; Italian directors Pasolini, Rossellini, and Zeffirelli; American Martin Scorsese, and Australian Mel Gibson. Broadway musicals have also been made into “biblical” movies and videos such as Jesus Christ, Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Smaller productions abound including the Visual Bible’s Matthew, Acts, and The Gospel of John, the TV presentation Judas, Campus Crusade’s The Jesus Project, and Johnny Cash’s The Gospel Road. Then there are upcoming movie epics with proven box-office stars. Noah, for example, features Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins, and there are other offerings planned by two major studios. Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox are planning productions on the life of Moses, with Steven Spielberg being sought to direct one of them. Randall Wallace (Braveheart, Secretariat) will direct the upcoming film version of the New York Times bestseller Heaven Is for Real (see May 2011 feature article), which, although not a biblical story, claims to give the first-hand experiences of a young boy who visited heaven.
It seems that Hollywood has been attracted to the Bible more than ever, thanks in large part to the financial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The History Channel’s recent 10-hour miniseries titled The Bible did nothing to dampen the ongoing enthusiasm as it broke viewer records, making it “the most-watched cable entertainment telecast of the year.” It played to more than 13 million viewers. Many Christians might conclude that much of the interest from secular entertainment companies is reason to rejoice. Of course, that would prove to be a hasty conclusion, especially for those who would call themselves biblical Christians.
Let’s start with a definition of true biblical Christians. They would be individuals who regard the Bible as God’s direct communication to mankind. They believe that Peter’s words were inspired of the Holy Spirit when he wrote, “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter:1:21). They believe that all the words were without error as they were given to and written down by the writers of Scripture. Both Matthew and Luke proclaimed that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word…of God” (Luke:4:4; Matthew:4:4). Paul commended the Thessalonians for receiving the “word of God,” which they had been taught, “not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (I Thessalonians 2:13). Jesus prayed to the Father that His disciples be set apart by God’s “truth: thy word is truth” (John:17:17). Luke writes to his friend Theophilus that he had “perfect understanding” in all that he wrote and that Theophilus could receive them with confidence: “That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed” (Luke:1:1-4). The point of all those verses (and many more) is that they are a support for a biblical Christian who believes in the supernatural accuracy of the Scriptures.
For those who aren’t on that page, let’s reason together. There are three possibilities regarding the sources of information found in the Bible: 1) The words came directly from God; or 2) They came from men, that is, the words are based upon man’s speculations, opinions, and guesses about God; or 3) The words in the Bible are a mixture of 1 and 2. Biblical accuracy would suffer greatly under possibilities 2 and 3 but not under 1, the belief that the Scriptures came directly from God.
God’s claimed attributes of omnipotence and omniscience support His ability to produce a book that is without error—that is, if the claim is true. We believe that the claims of God in the Scriptures are indeed true and that they are supported by the amazingly detailed prophecies that constitute nearly 30 percent of the Bible (see TBC 11/01; 6/09; 7/09; Q&A 3/04, etc.). Prophecy is the astounding device that God uses to verify that He alone is God and that He alone knows the future. In numerous chapters of the Book of Isaiah, God declares His sovereignty, challenging the worshipers of the idols and false gods of the pagans to ask their gods to produce accurately fulfilled prophecies. They can’t—although down through history there have been continual bogus attempts (fortune tellers, crystal ball gazers, wizards, astrologers, psychics, channelers, etc.) to prove that the God of the Bible has made a false claim regarding His uniqueness.
If the Bible is of any value to mankind whatsoever, it must be accurate. Those who have no problem with a bible that includes the speculations and opinions of men, even in part, are putting their faith in something with contributions by fallen, finite people rather than the words of an infinite, righteous, and holy God.
Preferences for various Bible translations are issues of controversy among many Christians and are beyond the scope of this article, except in principle. In terms of scriptural accuracy, however, few would disagree that a literal translation would be the most objective and therefore the most accurate. Literal versions rely on prayerful biblical scholarship familiar with the most accurate data in translating the Hebrew and Greek words into English (for English Bibles). Furthermore, they are far less subjective, meaning they do not involve the personal biases of what men think a verse should say. The most popular Bibles today lean to the subjective. These would include dynamic equivalent versions, which feature the personal opinions of a translation committee as to what the sense of a verse is rather than a literal translation of the terms. More subjective yet are paraphrase versions—those that are based upon the ideas of an individual in declaring what a verse says and means. As one can clearly see, in the slide from a literal translation to a paraphrase version, the movement is from the objective to the personally subjective, and from God’s words to man’s suggestions, opinions, and guesses.
If you need an example of the kind of damage that the subjective departure from God’s words has caused, you need only to read Psalm:1:1 in The Message (How well God must like you—you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College) to recognize that what Eugene Peterson wrote could never fit with the phrases, “Thus saith the Lord,” and “The word of the Lord came to me,” which occur thousands of times throughout the Bible. Those phrases would seem ludicrous when applied to The Message, which can only say, “Thus saith Eugene Peterson.”
Considering the blasphemy (“blasphemy” meaning a distortion of the character of God and His Word) of The Message, one might think that’s as bad as it could get in terms of inaccurate Bible versions. Yes and no. It may be the worst thus far (it’s used by more than 10 million evangelicals), but in terms of overall adverse influence, no written version’s effects can compare to the damage done to the Bible when its content is translated to the silver screen or television. Those numbers of viewers are incalculable, and the effect has been devastating beyond measure. Hopefully, most who are reading this are getting the picture (pun intended). If not, I recommend Showtime for the Sheep? (see resource pages), which gives many more reasons why much harm is done when attempting to translate the Bible visually. This brief article will focus primarily on the necessity of biblical accuracy.
Question: How does a biblical movie satisfy the necessity of biblical accuracy?
Answer: It doesn’t, and it can’t—and the reasons are many. Here’s a short list:
1) A movie takes what God has directly communicated in the Scriptures and makes the visual translation of what He said dependent upon what is in the minds and the craft of a film production crew (writers, director, cameramen, art director, actors, and a host of others).
2) Other constraints that determine what shows up on the screen have to do with budget, locations, weather, and the inevitable “Murphy’s law” of filmmaking, which states, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Those are hardly “let’s be true to the Scriptures” considerations.
3) Any movie must begin with a screenplay. The Bible cannot be translated into a biblically accurate movie because nearly all movies need dialogue, which the Bible provides only in limited situations. Hence, the screenwriter (whether he is a believer or not) has to supply the dialogue to maintain story continuity, which means that he must add to the Scriptures, thus including false information. “Adding to the Scriptures” is forbidden by God’s Word (Proverbs:30:6; Revelation:22:18-19). A few such productions try to avoid some of the translation problems by incorporating only those words that are found in a particular Bible version. This is greatly misleading because it gives the false impression that the production is more accurate. More accurate than what? A movie is, first and foremost, a visual medium. When a person exits a theater after watching a powerful movie, I can almost guarantee that it will be the images that he will leave with, not the words.
4) “Biblical” movies are an assemblage of false images and scenes. Not one frame is accurate. Yet The Passion of the Christ was lauded by many highly regarded evangelical leaders as “the most accurate biblical movie yet.” Yet?—as if the film medium were capable of a progressive movement toward truth? No! Suppose that I were to watch a video by someone who claims that he has produced a documentary featuring my family. After watching the video, I tell him that he has gotten a few things right but that everything else is wrong: yes, my wife’s name is Peggy; no, she doesn’t weigh 300 pounds. Yes, I have five children; no, they are not all girls. Yes, my kids are excellent athletes; no, they are not on the synchronized swimming team.
I’ve been told all too often that my concern for accuracy misses the fact that God can “use” these movies. Some have said, “Admittedly there are problems, but…but…the Lord can use a movie to get people interested in reading the Bible,” which, by the way, was a stated goal of the History Channel’s The Bible. Should I likewise conclude that the inaccurate documentary of “my family” might get some people interested in knowing my real family? Would they be disappointed that my kids are all very good runners but that my three sons are not huge fans of the “sport” of synchronized swimming? What happens when the multimillions who might be motivated to read the Bible because of all the Hollywood drama, effects, dialogue, and compelling music realize that it’s not in the “book version”?
A similar situation occurred when the Bibleman (a character playing off the popularity of super heroes Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, etc.) video series and tour, through the “wisdom” of marketing, attempted to get pre-teens excited to read the Bible. They found that if the kids even bothered to look at the Bible at all, they were disappointed at not finding the fleshly excitement in the written Word that they had loved in the video.
5) There are many more aspects unique to the medium of film that work against the translation of the Bible into that means of communication. Through this art form, one is attempting to convince the audience that what they are seeing is believable. Shooting a scene in the place where the actual biblical event took place may help its accuracy, but often, if that location doesn’t quite satisfy what the film director believes an audience will accept, then it’s “on to a more ‘believable’ location.” For example, The Passion of the Christ, featuring Christ’s crucifixion in Israel, was shot mostly in Italy.
6) This point may be the most serious error. Those who have played the character of Jesus in Bible-based movies from the last century on have all portrayed false Christs. Many spoke words that Jesus never spoke and misrepresented the character of the biblical Jesus. In a made-for-TV movie, as one example, Judas questions the Jesus character regarding his actions in clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple. Jesus’ reply was that he blew it. This is a misrepresentation of the perfect, sinless God/Man. Yet, tragically, that—along with all the other misrepresentations of Jesus—are the only representations that millions upon millions around the world may ever see or hear about the One who came to save them from their sins.
7) Finally, the problem isn’t only for the lost worldwide, but it is also a stumbling block for many evangelical Christians, even those with a reasonable amount of biblical discernment. I spoke at a conference about a year after The Passion of the Christ had its theatrical release. As I sat chatting with a group of young adult believers, Mel Gibson’s movie somehow became the topic of our conversation. I listened, somewhat uncomfortably, to their glowing praises of the film and wondered how I might make an important point without seeming to be “preaching” to them. Then the thought came to me, Why not give these somewhat biblically literate Christians a Bible quiz of sorts? Having seen the movie a couple of times and written a book on the subject, it was easy for me to describe eight scenes in detail. The quiz part was, “Tell me which of the scenes are found in the Bible and which are not.” The consensus of the group was that five were biblical and three were not. To their shock, they only got three correct; all eight were either from Mel Gibson’s movie-making mind or the mystical nun’s book (The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ) to which Gibson had looked for more content in creating his script. I have great concern for our upcoming visual generation.
Ignorance of the visual medium with regard to so-called biblical productions is a serious problem among evangelicals of all generations. Without the support of evangelicals, whose churches bought out theatres so that their sheep and guests could view the film, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ would have been a box-office flop. In Showtime for the Sheep?, I could have filled nine pages with endorsements from evangelical leaders for this production that Gibson described to Christianity Today as “his very Marian movie.”
Yet the lack of discernment continues to abound. Here is a list of some of the advisors/endorsers for the History Channel’s The Bible, most of whom were thrilled with the series’ “biblical accuracy” or “bringing the Bible to life”: Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Nicky Gumbel, Luis Palau, Tony Campolo, Erwin McManus, T. D. Jakes, Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Jim Daly of Focus on the Family (details of their endorsements, as well as more endorsers can be found at http://www.outreach.com/the-bible/about.aspx).
As overwhelming as this lack of discernment may seem in the church today, it has only just begun as Hollywood continues with its mistranslation of the Bible for Christians. Pray that the Lord’s people will take to heart His words of warning: “Take heed that no man deceive you.” Only the habit of daily reading God’s Word and living it out will equip us with the discernment necessary to avoid being deceived. TBC