Friday, June 13, 2014

What's with all the Bible films?


It’s not hard to see why headlines proclaim this as Hollywood’s “Year of the Bible.” Son of God opened at the end of March, followed by Noah a month later. Mary, Mother of Christ and Exodus are slated for this December. In various stages of development are films about Pontius Pilate, David, Goliath, a Ben-Hur remake and another Moses movie. In addition, a handful of faith-based films are also on the big screen this year. Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead came out earlier this spring, and Left Behind is due out in October.

Bible movies have been around as long as film itself. Film critic Peter Chattaway, in “Battle of the Bible Films” published in Christianity Today, notes Bible films were very popular with the major studios in the silent era and in the post-war boom of the 1950s, culminating with a record 11 Oscar wins for Ben-Hur (1959). But in the 1960s, their popularity waned as audiences turned to other genres.

Why the renewed interest? It seems to have started with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004), which made over $600 million worldwide. It revealed a niche market of religious moviegoers, and Hollywood took note. Screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine tells Chattaway that Bible stories also have “a built-in recognition factor” attractive to major studios.

Chattaway also points to growth in foreign markets and that the latest Bible films share similar elements with “sword-and-sandal” action movies like Clash of the Titans (2010) and 300 (2006), which are popular overseas. Son of God filmmaker Mark Burnett tells NPR that the surge in Bible films “just has to be that God is moving. There is no other explanation for it.”

Whatever the reason, many Christians are excited by the trend—but also wary, particularly of films made by secular filmmakers.

Reverence for and faithfulness to Scripture are top concerns. Indeed, some films stray far from the text. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is a familiar example of straying so far as to become irreverent.

But films made by Christians aren’t exempt from this concern. Some smooth over difficult aspects with modern sensibilities. Still others, favoring plot or fearing controversy, lack the deeper, more troubling themes and confrontations in the stories. Son of God was criticized for trying to please too many, resulting in a bland film and a bland Jesus.

It’s important to keep in mind that any film, made by a Christian or not, will take creative liberties to fill in gaps as it takes the story from the text to the screen—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“We need to be able to approach each film with a willingness to discern which bits come from the Bible, which bits don’t, and how God might be speaking to us through both,” writes Chattaway in a blog post about Noah.

In “Can an Atheist Make a Good Bible Movie?” film critic Brett McCracken reminds us that God gives his gifts to both Christian and non-Christian artists, and we need to “open our minds to the possibility of truth, beauty, and goodness shining forth in films from even the most secular filmmakers.”

We won’t always agree on which films do this. But if we approach films with Chattaway’s and McCracken’s advice, we may find the truth of the text comes to us in a new way on the big screen.



This post first appeared as an article in the Christian Leader. See my reviews of Noah here and here. See my review of Son of God here.

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