Did you see The Bible movie produced for the History Channel? I confess to you that, being fully immersed in New Testament studies for going on two years now, my interest is peaked. Especially after reading some of the reviews, like the one I saw this morning which reads something like, “Hollywood Finally Got It Right.”
There is indeed some value in seeing the Bible portrayed well, for it can give us a better appreciation for the ancient culture from which the Bible was written. It helps our interpretation, for instance, to understand how the original audience of the Bible saw their world. And there is a missional component we should not miss: whenever these media presentations air the unconverted around us take notice of the Bible, and we may have opportunities to talk to them about the true message of the Scriptures.
However, we have to be extremely guarded about seeing the Word of God through Hollywood-colored lenses. When it comes to the life of Jesus for example, the authors of the Gospels tell the story the way God wants us to hear it. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not attempting to give us a step-by-step account of the life of Jesus, but are proclaiming a witness to Jesus’ words and actions so that we mightbelieve in him. John makes his intentions explicit in his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31). Jesus is not a historical curiosity. He is the Son of God; and only God himself can reveal this to us through his word (cf. Matt 16:17).
By contrast, there is a danger in letting our imaginations be carried away by a human portrayal of the historical Jesus—or any part of Scripture for that matter. The great special effects and solid acting are pieced together in an editing room to create those “moments” which draw us into the drama that the producers want us to see. And if we aren’t impressed, we don’t watch, and they lose money. So they have to make editing decisions which will sell the drama to the viewers. And they must include elements that sensationalize and intrigue—like the review I read which mentions the “ninja angels” defending Lot in Sodom. (Really?)
So in the end what we are watching is a fabricated version of the Bible based on what they think wewant to see. Such is the nature of drama—especially drama for public media—which is always in essence a kind of deception. The danger, however, is not so much that we will believe the fabrications, but that we will be influenced to imagine a different message than what God has revealed. Which of us older ones have not had our picture of Exodus colored by Charlton Heston’s performance of Moses in the 1956 blockbuster, The Ten Commandments? Again, the value of “seeing” Moses walk around in his own environment may give us a fresh appreciation for his culture, so that we are reading the Bible with better understanding. But the main protagonist—God himself, faithful to his covenant with Abraham, staging a powerful deliverance of his people and bringing them to himself, proclaiming his salvation to the whole world—is dwarfed by the human drama and romance of the characters. So the true story is veiled, the volume of the divine revelation is muted, and the media points our attention ultimately to things below. So we watch with discernment, always guarded against letting the drama guide our insights into the meaning of the Scriptures. For on so many levels, Hollywood will never “get it right.”
This matter is extremely important. I was reading 2 John this morning when I thought about writing these reflections. John’s message in this little letter is: walk in the truth. That means that our thoughts and our actions must be true—they must correspond to reality as God has revealed reality to us. This truth, John says, must “abide in us” and “be with us forever” (2 John 2). There are two requirements for walking in the truth which are discernible from this letter. First, we must love one another (4–6). Second, we must guard against any deception which would distort the truth (6–11). This is a great prescription for a healthy church: love one another fervently; guard and proclaim the truth of the gospel faithfully.