Program description: This week on Search the Scripture 24/7, Tom answers questions from listeners regarding the influence of Christianity in Hollywood - or is it vice versa?
Gary: Welcome to Search the Scriptures 24/7, a radio ministry of The Berean Call featuring T.A. McMahon. I’m Gary Carmichael. Thanks for joining us. In today’s program, Tom responds to questions from listeners concerning Hollywood’s version of the Bible. Here’s TBC executive director Tom McMahon.
Tom: Thanks, Gary. On today’s program, we’re going to do something that is different from our usual interview programming, but actually not too different. It will still involve an interview, but I will be interviewing myself.
The questions, for the most part, are derived from questions I’ve been asked over the last couple of years about movies - in particular, so-called biblical movies. Why me on movies? Well, that’s what I majored in in college as a graduate student. Following that, I worked in Hollywood for 20th Century Fox in publicity and advertising for a number of years, and later became a screenwriter. Since evangelical Christianity has of late become the favored audience of Hollywood filmmakers who have been generating movies to appeal to that audience, I thought it would be helpful to use my background in film and my decades of experience in biblical discernment to critique Hollywood’s attempt at translating the Bible visually. Hence, T.A. will be interviewing T.A., although Gary Carmichael, our producer/announcer, will be asking the questions, all of which I’ve been confronted with over the last couple of years.
But first, all of us need to establish what we think of the Bible. Our understanding of the Bible is critical to how we discern whether or not various interpretations are valid. So here’s my view: I believe the Word of God is just that - God’s Word. The Scriptures are God’s direct communication to mankind given through the prophets. That’s what the Apostle Peter tells us in 2 Peter:1:21: “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.”
There are numerous other verses that declare the same, such as Luke:4:4: “And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”
The Apostle Paul commended the Thessalonians for “receiving the Word of God which they were taught, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God,” 1 Thessalonians:2:13.
Luke in chapter 1:1-4 writes to his friend Theophilus that he had “perfect understanding” in all the he wrote, and that Theophilus could receive them with confidence, “that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.”
The point of all those verses - including the more than 4,000 times phrases such as, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” or, “The word of the Lord came to me” - is that they all are a support for a biblical Christian who believes the Bible to be a supernatural revelation from our infinite God, the Creator of the universe. If that’s not the case, then what are we left with? Speculations, opinions, and guesses at least, and mixtures of truth with errors, myths, and superstitions at worst.
No, God has not left us to our own finite and fallen devices. He’s given us His words. Jesus prayed to the Father that His disciples - who all believers are - that they are to be set apart by God’s truth. “Thy word,” His Word, “is truth,” John:17:17. Hopefully, all of us who claim to be biblical Christians are on the same page with that.
What then does that have to do with biblical movies? A so-called biblical movie is a translation of biblical content and characters from written words to a visual medium. The critical question is then, “What does the visual translation do to the supernatural qualities of God’s Word, such as its accuracy in conveying what God has communicated?” As I hope our listeners will understand as I deal with what goes on in the making of a movie how the process of filmmaking itself distorts biblical truth. So with that as a backdrop, let’s proceed with the questions, Gary.
Gary: All right, Tom, our first question: Why have you written critically about the latest biblical movies coming out of Hollywood since they are favorable to Christianity, and God can certainly use such movies to reach people who are not knowledgeable about the Bible, nor do they go to a Christian church?
Tom: You know, to use the term “favorable” with regard to Hollywood, having spent a number of years there…what Hollywood is favorable to is an audience, a paying audience that will support the product that it generates. Historically, Hollywood has never been favorable to Christianity. Yes, there have been some in the past - movies by Cecil B. DeMille - and I think during the ‘50s there may have been a so-called revival in Hollywood, but to call Hollywood “favorable” to Christianity and the things of God would be a mistake. You see, if a movie is Hollywood’s erroneous interpretation of what’s in the Bible, how would that be of value for people who have little or no knowledge of the Bible? That’s a mistake in thinking. Whatever knowledge they thought they were getting would not be true to the Scriptures. We’re going to explain that as we go through the process of how a movie is made, a biblical movie is made, and you’ll have to decide for yourself whether Hollywood is indeed favorable to Christianity.
Gary: All right, since there are many people in the world who are illiterate and others who would rather watch a movie than read the Bible, and we have a younger generation that is far more visual than written word-oriented, aren’t you cutting off a large number of those who could be reached through the medium of biblical movies?
Tom: Well, that would be okay if a visual translation could accurately present what is given in the written Word, but it can’t. So feeding people something that is not true to the Scriptures would not be helpful no matter how many it might reach. You see, yes, we’re moving into and we have to deal with a generation that’s more visually oriented than the written word, yet that’s not to say that movies, especially biblical movies, are going to solve the problem of getting them to the Word of God.
Now, a little bit later we’re going to talk about being written word-oriented and how important that is, how critical that is, to anyone’s understanding, true understanding, of the Scriptures, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Gary: Tom, I heard you say in one of your talks that it is not possible to translate the Bible visually without drastically changing it. I don’t understand how you can say that. What are your reasons?
Tom: First of all, the Bible is not a book loaded with visual descriptions. Such things would be a distraction from the significant things God has communicated. For example, very little is given in terms of the physical description of Jesus, yet there is a great deal written about His character and what He said and what He did. If not much visual information is given, then what’s missing has to be supplied in order to meet what’s needed to make a movie. What are some of the things necessary to make a theatrical motion picture from a Bible story? Well, you have character development, you have dialogue, and there’s story continuity. There’s drama. As I mentioned, I majored in filmmaking in graduate school and then worked in Hollywood for about a decade.
Now, here are a few things that Christians need to be aware of about the medium of film, especially a theatrical motion picture: the making of theatrical movies is a very complex and expensive collaborative process that involves input from numerous personnel, writers, a director, cameraman, art director, producer, production supervisor - we could go on and on -and it has as its primary goal the entertainment of audiences that will ultimately translate into a box office success. Decisions are often made on the basis of production costs, location problems, actors’ egos, the directors’ and writers’ ideas, producers’ whims, studio pressure, weather, etc., etc. Rarely, if ever, would the truth of the content of what’s being presented be a critical issue. What does that tell you about accuracy in regard to bringing the Bible, the Word of God, to the silver screen?
Every movie must begin with a screenplay, which involves scene descriptions, actor descriptions and directions, dialogue, and the way the scenes are to go together. As a screenwriter, one of my main objectives in writing movie scripts was to manipulate the emotions of the audience: make them laugh, make them shed some tears, frighten them, have them love the good guys and hate the baddies, have them on the edge of their seats, whip their emotions around, and so forth. Those are just some of the aspects of movies that make them an entertaining experience, which is the, as I said, it’s the primary goal of feature films. Are those legitimate things when it comes to translating the Bible accurately? Remember, I said that a biblical movie must begin with a screenplay, which cannot be restricted to what’s in the Bible. Why? Screenplays need dialogue between characters in order to further the story, which is in limited supply in Scripture.
Gary: Tom, I saw an interview with Russell Crowe, the star of the movie Noah. He was asked to answer those who complain that his movie greatly misinterpreted the biblical story of Noah and the ark. He said that he didn’t think so, because the Bible doesn’t give much information about Noah.
Tom: Well, here’s what Russell Crowe actually said - I’m quoting him: “There are very few lines in the Bible, very few specific lines that tell the story, so if you’re going to make that tale into a narrative for a feature film, you’ve got to fill in some of those gaps.”
Now, what Russell Crowe said is true, but the critical point in what he said is the qualifier if.
“If you’re going to make that tale into a narrative for a feature film.” That would be a disqualifier for a biblical Christian. Why? Because we are not given license to fill in some of those gaps. We indeed do not have artistic license to add to or subtract from the Word of God.
It is also true that the Bible does not contain enough information, descriptions, dialogue, story development, character development, and so forth, to put together a biblical theatrical movie without adding those necessary ingredients. Proverbs:30:6 tells us, “Add thou not unto his words lest he reprove thee and thou be found a liar.” That should bring to a halt any attempt to translate the Bible into a feature film, because the Bible condemns adding the ideas, beliefs, thoughts, things from the imagination of man to the Scriptures.
Gary: So are you against all movies or just religious ones?
Tom: I’m not against all movies, although the number of the ones I like you could put on the head of a pin and still have room to spare. You see, the medium itself is not evil, in my view. Yet a great deal of its use has promoted evil in many forms. My major problem is with movies that attempt to portray biblical stories and characters, as I’ve been saying. The errors found in biblical movies run the gamut of subtleties to gross distortions. In the Son of God movie, you have the character Jesus in the tomb with Lazarus, kissing him on the forehead in order to raise him from the dead. In Noah, you have a stowaway aboard the ark, which fallen angels helped Noah build. In the TV movie Judas, the character Jesus confesses that he got out of hand in his cleansing the temple of the moneychangers. In The Passion of the Christ, the cross upon which the character Jesus is nailed levitates.
I could fill up a week of programs with the gross distortions of biblical content, yet every frame of an alleged biblical movie is erroneous. On the other hand, I don’t apply the same criteria to fictional movies that have a religious theme, although I would not be in favor of them if they deviated from biblical truth. Some movies like Chariots of Fire, which gave some aspects of the life of Eric Liddell, I could give a pass to, even though I knew the movie was derived mostly from the mind of the screenwriter rather than Eric Liddell’s life.
On the other hand, there are movies like Heaven Is for Real, which professed to give insights regarding heaven that are not given in Scripture. That movie had a double-fault going for it. It’s supposedly the real-life story, which is highly questionable, and the movie version of it was even more questionable.
Then there is a film like Left Behind. Even though I believe in a pre-Tribulation Rapture of the church, which the Bible gives very few details regarding how it will take place, the movie takes a great deal of liberty in supplying what the Bible doesn’t provide. In addition to that, it was such a bad movie, in my view, that I think it gave those who would ridicule the return of Jesus for His bride, the church, more reasons for their mockery.
Gary: What do you think about movies such as Campus Crusade’s Jesus Project?
Tom: Even though this biblical movie was produced by a Christian organization, the production still suffers from the same problems inherent in all attempts to translate the Bible visually. Although there is no attempt to dramatically portray the life and events of Jesus as a Hollywood production does, it nevertheless is made up of scenes created by film craftsmen and artists, biblical characters portrayed by actors, especially an attempt to portray the God-Man Jesus by an actor that cannot measure up to our sinless Savior. Such things add up to a false representation at best.
I’m aware that the Jesus Project boasts of millions who have seen the film, but there’s nothing to cancel out the fact that what they saw was another Jesus, not the biblical Jesus. We’ve received correspondence from missionaries where the Jesus film was shown, and they viewed their concerns about the movie. One noted that in India, many who viewed the film simply added the image of Jesus to their millions of gods. Scripture is very clear that we are not to go about creating images of God through artistic endeavors. “For as much then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art in man’s device.” That’s Acts:17:29.
Gary: But, Tom, I have a friend who said that she felt closer to Jesus since she saw The Passion of the Christ. Now, isn’t that a good thing?
Tom: Not only is that not a good thing, it’s not even rational. Let me give you an illustration: let’s say that I just came home from work one day and I took my wallet out of my pocket and put it on the dresser, and I turned, and then I accidentally knocked the wallet to the floor. Just at that point, let’s say my wife comes in and she picks up the wallet, which now is open to where I have photos. So she looks at the photo, somewhat disappointed, and she holds it out to me and she says, “Tom, who’s this in your wallet?”
And I say, “Well, honey, that’s Angelina Jolie!”
And she says, “I know who it is! What is she doing - what’s the picture of her doing in your wallet?”
And I think about it, and I get a little concerned, and I say, “Well, honey, she reminds me of you!” I mean, come on. Not only is that ludicrous, irrational, but I’ve hurt my wife. Now, apply that to going to a movie like The Passion of the Christ, in which you have James Caviezel, the actor, portraying the character of Jesus, and now somebody’s carrying around in their mind the image - his image? And this draws - supposedly draws this person closer to our Lord? No, no, no! I mean, that’s one of the powers of the medium - that it’s so difficult to take imagery out of your mind, no matter who’s portraying this character or that character and so on.
So it’s a huge problem. Now, we could also ask the question, if that hurt - the story that I made up - if that would hurt somebody that I love, like my wife, do you think it might have an effect on our Lord that we’re carrying around false images of Him or looking to false images of Him as though it were Him? You know, we have a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, and we can’t take anything away from that. That’s how He created us, to have a relationship with Him if we’re willing. But that’s not going to work if we have a false image of who He is.
I have another illustration using my wife Peggy: I love to use her as a relationship example, because she’s the one with whom I’ve been married to for 45 years, and she comes closest to the personal relationship I want to have with Jesus, which I know needs to exceed what Peggy and I have.
So consider this made up scenario: I take my wife to a screening of a Hollywood movie that I produced and directed of her life. As I said, I’ve had an intimate relationship with her through 45 years of marriage. In other words, I know her really well, so I want to share her qualities with the world through a motion picture. I have an academy award-winning screenwriter do the script, cast of beautiful and gifted actors to play her, spare no expense creating an authentic production of where the scenes from her life took place, and feature the noble aspects of her life story. Well, after viewing the movie, she turns to me and says matter-of-factly, “It’s a flattering film, but that’s not me. I don’t look like that, I don’t talk like that, I don’t think like that. Some of the scenes never happened that way, and most of the characters in the movie, I could only guess at who they were supposed to be in my life. Besides all that, honey, that’s just not me.”
Well, obviously, in my enthusiasm to share the love of my life with others via the medium of film, I would have mistakenly given them a view of her that was neither accurate nor true. If that would have been Peggy’s reaction, the foremost person in my life whom I love and sincerely wanted to honor, I would think my attempting to make a movie showing the life of Jesus, whom I love, no matter how sincere I may have been, would result in a similar reaction.
Well, we’re just about out of time for this segment. We’re going to pick up with this, the Lord willing, next week. But again, this is something that I’m very concerned about, and that’s why I decided to give this presentation, even though I’m interviewing myself. But my concern is that evangelical Christians who claim to have a love for the Word of God now are being deceived, basically, by a medium that has great power, that influences people, that ties itself into and impacts our emotions. I know people who have seen not only some of the films that I’ve mentioned, but in particular, you know, The Passion of the Christ, and have had what they believed was a spiritual experience. No, what they had - and again, as a screenwriter, I would write scenes to create emotions to manipulate the emotions of the audience - what they had was a catharsis, just a psychological experience that they mistake for a spiritual experience.
No, the Scripture says, “The flesh profits nothing.” We are to know God, to know Him in spirit and in truth, and my concern is that that’s becoming a problem more and more for those who claim to believe in the Bible and the Word of God.
So there’s more questions - quite a few questions that probably we can’t even cover in two episodes of this series. Nevertheless, we’ll get after quite a few of them, the Lord willing, next week.
Gary: You’ve been listening to Search the Scriptures 24/7 with T.A. McMahon, a radio ministry of The Berean Call. For more information on this topic, check out Tom’s book Showtime for the Sheep, available from The Berean Call. We offer a wide variety of resources to help you in your study of God’s Word. For a complete list of materials and a free subscription to our monthly newsletter, contact us at PO Box 7019 Bend, Oregon 97708. Call us at 800-937-6638, or visit our website at thebereancall.org. I’m Gary Carmichael. Thanks for tuning in, and we hope you can join us again next week. Until then, we encourage you to Search the Scriptures 24/7.