Program Description: In this week’s presentation of Search the Scriptures 24/7, Tom continues with answers to questions from listeners concerning the value or lack thereof in so-called biblical movies.
In today’s program, Tom continues with his responses to questions from listeners concerning Hollywood’s version of the Bible. Here’s TBC executive director, Tom McMahon.
Tom: Thanks, Gary. Well, we’re picking up where we left off last week, and an interview - it’s a little different from our usual interviews, because I’m actually interviewing myself, although Gary Carmichael, our producer/announcer, is asking me the questions. And the questions, for the most part, have come to me over the last couple of years about movies, and in particular so-called biblical movies. Why me on movies? Well, I majored in college - you know, as a graduate student, I majored in film, and following that time, I worked in Hollywood for 20th Century Fox. I was in publicity and advertising for a number of years, and then later, I became a screenwriter. And 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’d 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.
So last week, we covered a lot of territory, so I encourage you to go to our archives and check that out.
Gary, let’s pick up with where we left off last week question-wise.
Gary: Okay, our first question this time around: Why do you feel so strongly that the medium of film or any visual media is not appropriate for translating the Bible?
Tom: Well, it has to do with the nature of visual media. It is not the best way to communicate objective truth. That’s one of the reasons Moses wasn’t given a picture book by God when He was on Mount Sinai. Visual imagery is nearly always subjective regarding its communication and interpretation.
For example, suppose a handful of people were in an art gallery, and they were giving their impressions - their feelings, really - about a painting, and what they believed the artist was trying to communicate. Well, there’s no doubt their interpretations and ideas about the artist would all be different. But next to the painting, let’s say there’s a sign with the words, “When the fire alarm sounds, walk immediately to the nearest exit.” Well, let’s say the fire alarm goes off. Now, do you think those people would stand around giving their impressions, their feelings, about what the sign meant? No! The communication was objective and clear.
Suppose the same people were discussing what they believe the artist was communicating. Again, their replies would nearly always be different, because the painting is a visual communication, and therefore, its interpretation is very subjective.
Now, a biblical movie is a visual presentation, so its making and its interpretation will be subjective. It cannot be as accurate as the written Word, which is the most objective form of communication.
When it comes to one’s interpretation of the written Word of God, on the other hand, we can apply hermeneutics, which is the science of interpretation to help us understand what God has revealed in His Word. Hermeneutics includes discerning the intent of the author, the meaning of words, the context of biblical passages, the grammar of the text, the historical background, and so forth. That is a far more objective approach, and therefore, more accurate than visual media can supply.
Gary: Now, I’ve been told that movies are the most influential medium in the world today. Would you agree with that, Tom?
Tom: I don’t know that to be true, but I would think so. It definitely impacts people’s lives. I personally experienced that at a conference where I spoke in Russia about a year after The Passion of the Christ had its theatrical release. As I sat listening to the conversation of a group of young adult believers, Mel Gibson’s movie somehow became the topic of their 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 - I would say for the most part - biblically literate Christians a Bible quiz of sorts? Having seen the movie a couple of times, and the fact that I’ve 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?”
Well, 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 moviemaking imagination, or the mystical nun’s book - that is, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, upon which Gibson had looked for more content in creating his script. The nun, by the way, claims to have had a vision of Jesus in which he came to her, and then took her back in time to the time of his crucifixion, and that’s where she got all the detailed information - that is, information that is nowhere found in the Bible.
Nevertheless, Mel Gibson had to look to that for more content in creating his script. The movie obviously had them accept some false ideas about God’s Word. Visual imagery can have that very powerful effect.
Gary: Tom, do you see any problems with other visual media in teaching the Bible? For example, flannel boards for young children or illustrated Bibles?
Tom: I don’t see a problem for very young children. You see, the flannel board is more for holding their attention than communicating through that medium. And as the child learns to read, however, I would recommend that he or she is weaned off the visual elements. One of the problems with an illustrated Bible is the child can become dependent on the visuals rather than the written Word. Remember, the visuals are the creative input of an artist, which is man’s subjective interpretation of what God has communicated in His words.
Gary: Christianity has a long history of religious art going back to the icons of the Russian and Orthodox church though the paintings and statues of the Roman Catholic Church, even during the Protestant Reformation. Although religious art was greatly reduced, nevertheless it continued. Are you saying that all of that is wrong?
Tom: Aside from the fact that attempts at painting scenes and making statues featuring biblical characters can only produce false images, down through church history they have also led to idolatry and superstition. In addition, we find the problem throughout the Old Testament, as well. Yet even when God instructed Moses to make a serpent of brass to be put upon a pole so that those who looked upon it would be healed, the Israelites made it an object of worship, which God had them destroy centuries later during the time of Hezekiah. Today we have the worship of statues and the occult use of icons throughout the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches which is also creeping into evangelical churches through the Emergent Church Movement. I find no value in so-called “religious art,” yet I admire much, but not all, of what I see in the art world. That may be because I have a degree in fine arts and can appreciate the creativity that our Lord, our Creator, has bestowed upon mankind.
Gary: Do you see the trend of Hollywood-produced biblical and religious movies continuing?
Tom: I think the trend will continue until the financial well runs dry. If and when that happens, Hollywood - which is in the business of making money - it will move on to the next money-making genre. Sadly, it was the evangelical church that got the trend going by its support of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The marketing scheme of buying out theaters for the showing of movies like The Passion and Son of God, among others, got Hollywood’s attention. The evangelical church has now become Hollywood’s cash cow. I blame evangelical church leaders for that. Many of them seem to have stars in their eyes, and have been seduced by Hollywood. Those who are high profile like Rick Warren, Luis Palau, Max Lucado, Miles McPherson, and others who are supposed to be shepherds of the Lord’s flock have looked to Hollywood to increase their herds by feeding from its trough. They have seriously missed the mark that Jesus communicated to Peter after asking him if he loved Him. He said, “Feed My sheep.”
So if and when the interest in biblical movies fades away, as I said, Hollywood will move on. Until then, Christians need to discern what the medium does, and what the problems are, because the flood of such movies is coming. What’s coming? Well, there’s Mary, Mother of Christ, which is written by Benedict Fitzgerald, cowriter with Mel Gibson of The Passion of the Christ. It’s being called the prequel to the story of The Passion of the Christ. It covers Mary’s life during her teenage years. Now, if Mel Gibson couldn’t find enough information in the Bible alone to make his feature film about Jesus, good luck finding info on the teenage Mary!
Then there’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which portrays the child Jesus and his family returning from Egypt and journeying to Nazareth. It’s based upon the novel by Roman Catholic Anne Rice. She’s the author of The Vampire Chronicles. Now, I’m not going to bother asking you for chapter and verses regarding the doctrines promoted in this production.
Then there’s The Shack, which will very likely star Oprah Winfrey. You may or may not be aware that Oprah is the most influential religious teacher and spiritual activist in America today. Her viewers number in the millions daily, and her theology is New Age.
Well, here’s the latest from the couple who produced the History Channel’s Bible and Son of God. I’m quoting from a news release: “Argentinian actor Juan Pablo di Pace has been cast in the role of Jesus Christ in the upcoming 12-part miniseries A.D., the sequel to the record-breaking series The Bible produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. The NBC original series is set to premiere Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015.
“Di Pace, the 35-year old Argentinian actor set to play the role of Christ, also starred in the TNT show Dallas, and NBC’s series Camp. The A.D. series will chronicle the lives of Jesus’ followers after the resurrection with a central emphasis being placed on Mary Magdalene, played by Chipo Chung, described as ‘the backbone of the group, who works tirelessly to keep the movement going amidst all the challenges.’” Now, where are you going to find that in Scripture?
Nevertheless, here’s a comment by Burnett and Downey: “We feel incredibly blessed that we are able to bring this amazing love story to life on the screen.” But they go on, “It’s our hope that folks everywhere will continue to be touched by the message of the Bible [folks, this is not the message of the Bible], and cherish these stories at home with their families for years to come. This is just the beginning.”
Well, I hope not. Nevertheless…
And what’s the next so-called biblical blockbuster to appear? Well, this month being December, Exodus, starring Christian Bale, will open, and my guess is this feature film will break all box office records.
I think the trend will continue until the financial well runs dry. If and when that happens, Hollywood, which is in the business of making money, it will move onto the next money-making genre. Sadly, it was the evangelical church that got the trend going by its support of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The marketing scheme of buying out theaters for the showing of movies like The Passion and Son of God among others got Hollywood’s attention. The evangelical church has now become Hollywood’s cash cow. When that dries up, as I said, Hollywood will move on.
Until then, Christians need to discern what the medium does, and what the problems are, because the flood of such movies is coming. My hope had been from the time I saw The Passion of the Christ - was that it would be a box-office flop. No! It was a stunning success! Hollywood loves to get on the success bandwagon. Then came the success of the History Channel’s Bible series. Again, another success. Then the TV spinoff movie from the Bible series, Son of God, which was only saved financially by the evangelical marketing scheme of having churches support the movie by reselling tickets to their sheep. Then came Noah, which featured lava rock transformer demon angels who helped build the ark - which, by the way, had a stowaway on board. I thought, “Man, this boat’s going to sink.” (That was a pun, which was, woefully, intended.) On the contrary, it was a Russell Crowe/Anthony Hopkins box office blockbuster, with special effects that only Hollywood could produce.
That brings us to Exodus: Gods and Kings. When I first saw the trailer, I laughed to myself, thinking, “Batman plays Moses.” Well, after seeing the movie, that was no joke. That’s the movie, and worse. For those of you who don’t get the joke, Christian Bale, who plays the Moses character, starred in the Batman trilogy of films. In my view, watching the movie, his Batman character and Moses character are interchangeable. Christian Bale, in a promo series of interviews prior to the movie being released, he said he sees his Moses character as schizophrenic and little different from the Middle East terrorists of today. Well, that in fact is how the Moses character was portrayed in Exodus.
I warned Christians who were going to see Noah about the lava rock transformer demon angels; that was nowhere in the publicity and promotion of the film, although that surprised many. The surprise - no, the blasphemous shock - of Exodus is that God (that is, the God character) shows up first at the burning bush and later at Mt. Sinai as an arrogant little 10-year old boy. Moses has conversation, debates mostly, with the “preteen God” throughout the movie. The movie has so many other blatant errors from the standpoint of what the Bible indicates that it’s clear that Scripture was only an incidental concern. The Moses character was clueless that he was Hebrew and had to be convinced that he was. He saw himself as a liberator of the slaves, given to terror tactics.
And although Scripture tells us that “the man Moses was very meek above all the men which were upon the face of the earth,” the movie Moses reeked of pride and arrogance. Was Moses a military general? Well, according to the movie he was. Did Moses have to swim for his life when the tidal wave of the Red Sea crushed the Egyptian soldiers? That’s what took place in the movie. For all of that, it can be an exercise in futility or even stupidity to get caught up in attempting to discuss the merits or failings of Exodus, or any other biblical movie, for all the reasons that I’ve given.
Again, the Bible cannot be translated visually without corrupting it, without adding to it or subtracting from it, especially in a theatrical motion picture, without destroying its miraculous nature. That should be enough for every Bible-believing Christian to recognize and therefore reject all attempts. But sadly, in part because of high-profile Christian leaders - we’ve named a few of them, but not all of them, and there are many - all of them have seemed to have gone starstruck and are encouraging their sheep to, in fact, be fleeced by Hollywood.
On the other hand, to those biblical Christians who are shocked by what Hollywood does to the Bible, my response is, “What would you expect?”
First Corinthians 2:14 gives us another critical reason why a so-called biblical movie - which, as I’ve mentioned, is a collaborative effort at translating the Bible, which majors in decisions made by those who do not know the Lord, and that’s why such a movie will have so much unbiblical content. But the natural man, 1 Corinthians - again, 1 Corinthians:2:14: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him. Neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians:2:14). Even if a true biblical movie were possible, which it’s not, the way movies are put together will always involve, at best, the natural man who does not receive the things of the Spirit of God.
None of those major decision makers involved with The Passion of the Christ, Son of God, Noah, and Exodus were born of the Spirit of God. At the very least, then, their input has been, and will continue to be as this continues, loaded with fleshly contributions to their movies.
Gary: What do you say to someone who says, “I hear what you're saying, but I believe God can still use biblical movies to get them interested in the Bible and draw unbelievers to Himself”?
Tom: Two words come to mind: damage control. The producers of the Son of God, for example, promote the movie among Christians by saying, “Well, it’s an opportunity for Christians to have conversation with non-Christians.” In my view, especially of that production and the series it was taken from (the History Channel’s Bible), my conversation with a nonbeliever would almost entirely be correcting the scenes and dialogue that are not found in the Bible. These are serious errors, which may not seem obvious to most people who don’t know the Bible or who don’t know it very well. Those biblical movies that seem closer to the written word of God are still a counterfeit. They still distort Scriptures by adding man’s so-called “artistic license” to the Word of God, and like any counterfeit, they are of no value and worse. Try spending a counterfeit $20 bill someplace. It could end up in jail time. It’s just bad news.
Now, for those who have never read the Bible but experience all the drama, special effects, human conflict, love interests, and false interpretations, what happens to them when they look to the Bible for what they’ve seen on the screen? “Disappointment” would be an understatement.
Furthermore, for millions, Hollywood’s distorted renditions of the Bible may be the only “biblical” insights that they get. That’s a win for Satan, whose major goal from the time of his seduction of Eve is to undermine the Word of God. Genesis:3:1-4: “Yea, hath God said…?” That has been the basis of his deceiving mankind throughout history.
Gary: Tom, one pastor I saw promoting the Son of God movie with Rick Warren said that Christians have long been critics of Hollywood, and now we need to thank Hollywood for their Christ-honoring productions. Do you think he makes a good point?
Tom: I think it’s not just a - not a good point, it’s really wrong. It’s erroneous. Certainly, you know, having worked in Hollywood, having known the mindset there, having known and do know what Hollywood’s all about - it’s a business, it’s an organization, many organizations, and as a business organization, the bottom line is profit. So however they can come up with profit…you go back and look at all the movies like Temptation of the Christ - blasphemous - and not just their erroneous take on the Bible, but they deal with our Lord and those issues. Yes, we’ve been critics of that, but this pastor and Rick Warren and those who are promoting these things are not thinking it through. They are holding their…well, they’re supposed to be shepherds of the sheep. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed My sheep. If you love Me, feed My sheep.” Well, the feeding trough is not going to be Hollywood-based, which is what we’ve seen and what we’ve been talking about here.
So it sounds good, what the pastor said, but he hasn’t thought the process through, so I would take huge exception to what he’s saying.
So in summary of what I’ve been saying, I would encourage all who call themselves biblical Christians to devote themselves to the written Word of God. That is God’s direct communication to us. It is the most objective and accurate form of communication there is. Not only did it come to us through the Holy Spirit, but God has given us who believe the gospel and are born again the Holy Spirit to help us understand His Word and to enable us to live it out in a way that is pleasing to Him.
My prayer for all of us is that we would discipline ourselves to read the Scriptures daily, and then do what the Word of God says.
Gary: You’ve been listening to Search the Scriptures 24/7, featuring 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, OR, 97708; call us at 800-937-6638; or visit our website at thebereancall.org. I’m Gary Carmichael. Thanks for joining us, and we hope that you can tune in again next week. Until then, we encourage you to Search the Scriptures 24/7.