The Possibilities of Putting the Bible on the Silver Screen

Mark Beuving —  March 5, 2013

History Channel The Bible 2Yesterday, I talked about the History Channel’s new series on the Bible. As I said, many found the show compelling and faithful to the overall story, if not to every detail of the biblical story. My argument in yesterday’s post was that adapting a book for film is fraught with difficulties, so we should be cautious with our expectations. Today I want to continue exploring our response to this show by showing why the criticisms are valid, but why I tend to disagree.

The most important concern about the series is that it changes some of the events, dialogue, and chronology within the biblical storyline. This is serious. We’re talking about God’s divine revelation to us, after all. So even though it’s difficult to adapt a book to film, the issue is significant when we come to the Bible.

If presenting the Bible on film is so difficult, we might argue that it shouldn’t be done at all. God wrote the Bible, so let’s stick to that. That’s a legitimate position to hold. This would allow us to stick with the inerrant version of the story and keep us from needing to interpret the events for visual depiction.

But that does seem a bit simplistic. For example, can we paint pictures about biblical events? Christians have been doing this throughout the history of Christianity. What about stained glass windows? At one point in church history, these windows were designed to tell the biblical stories so that illiterate peasants would have access to these inspiring and important accounts.

So we probably shouldn’t rule out visual depictions of biblical stories outright. Instead, we’ll need to focus the discussion on what types of presentations are permissible.

History Channel Abraham IsaacAnd that’s where we’ll disagree. As an example, I was okay with the History Channel’s decision to put the words of Genesis 1 –3 into Noah’s mouth (when in fact it was Moses who wrote them). It served as a cool introduction to these chapters, it put the flood in its theological context, and it allowed them to cover a lot of ground in a few minutes. Was this presentation inaccurate? Yes. We have no record of Noah saying this. Is it bad? I don’t think so, personally. Moses would not have been the first one to be aware of the creation story, though he was the one chosen to record it in Scripture. Noah would have known these things. So I liked it as a storytelling device that stayed accurate to the overall story, if not to the details. Others will disagree, and that’s okay. It’s a tough issue.

I also saw in a preview that when Jesus is asked by his disciples what he will do, he replies, “Change the world.” The gospels don’t record these words, so again, we have an inaccuracy. But would any of us deny that this is what Jesus was doing? It’s a storytelling device that shows the significance of what Jesus was up to. Again, I’m okay with it. And again, others won’t be.

So here’s my point in writing these two posts. If you find yourself disgusted by The Bible on TV, then don’t watch it. It won’t be helpful for you to smolder on your couch. But be okay with other people being encouraged by it. Be sure that they’re committed to the reliability of Scripture and the primacy of the biblical telling of these stories, but be okay with them finding value in something you don’t like.

And if you find yourself upset at those who didn’t like the series, understand that the Bible is the most important book in the world. It’s understandable that some are disturbed at seeing the biblical events altered for film. We can all agree that something more significant is going on here than disliking the way the Hobbit was adapted for film.

For all of us, if we curb our expectations and evaluate the series based on its faithfulness to the overall message of the Bible, we might get more out of it. (But then again, we might not—it has yet to be seen if the show will faithfully present the overall story of the Bible.)

Here’s the position we should hold: The Bible is and always will be the only inerrant and definitive telling of God’s story. If we cling tightly to that, we will be equipped to critically assess and still benefit from a visual interpretation of that story.

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Mark Beuving

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Mark has worked in youth, college, and worship ministry since 1999, and now serves at Eternity Bible College as the Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Simi Valley with his wife and two daughters.
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  • kitos

    The wycliffe group has been doing the Jesus film for a long time now. And they have been faithful to the wording of Luke. I dont see why being accurate, especially when its a “HISTORY” channel should not be of concern to us. And the problem with changing Jesus’ words is that it is putting words in His mouth. DId Jesus come to change the world? Yes and no. But people will read into something different than they should. Prov 30 includes a warning not to add to scripture.

    Even if you were a history buff you would be hoping for accuracy. And as the History channel you would think they would be too. But that doesnt seem to be the case. And secondly, what is more important, that people find some enjoyment out of a bible series? Or that they hear the word of God. Because we have far too much popular christian sayings that arent biblical and I wouldnt be surprised if this just helps along a trend of non scripture based Christianity. And if you notice that some of the people involved as experts are prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Olsteen. I find it funny that other believers are not at least concerned as well.

    At the end of the day I cant make the decision for everyone else or anyone else. But I find it odd that on 2 levels this fails. In faithfulness to Christ’s words, as an accurate historical account, and I’m surprised to hear a biblical scholar being totally ok with that.

    • MarkBeuving

      Kitos,

      It’s not that being accurate isn’t a concern, I’m just trying to highlight some of the difficulties involved in “being accurate” across media platforms. I haven’t seen the Jesus film, but I’m sure they had the same issues. I understand that every word that Jesus speaks is from the Gospel of Luke, but does that mean that the film presents every word of Luke’s Gospel? If not, then they are making editorial decisions about which portions of Luke would work well in a film presentation of the Gospel. Not to mention the fact that they decided to choose Luke and not the other Gospel. So my point still stands: someone is making choices over what is to be portrayed and what is not.

      If we follow the biblical warnings about not adding to God’s words and apply those warnings to film presentations of biblical stories, we should keep in mind Jesus’ warning not to take away from his words as well (Rev. 22:19).

      I doubt that any biblical scholar (or any person, for that matter) will be “totally ok” with the whole thing, my point is simply that the creators of the Bible series had a tough job, and we should factor that in when weighing the value of what they made. I see value there, even as I see value in the Jesus film.

      I think your point is valid about not wanting to create a culture of non-Bible-based Christianity, but I’m not sure film should be our scapegoat here. It sounds like the Jesus film has produced some amazing fruit, plus one could argue that preaching and sharing the gospel interpersonally lead toward a Bibleless Christianity. To me, it’s all about how we respond to such things.

      As I watched the first episode, I had my Bible in hand and would periodically check their interpretation of some of the events against what the text actually said. Sometimes I didn’t like the choice they made (though I didn’t find anything heretical), sometimes it seemed like they made a valid interpretation of the biblical narrative, and sometimes they presented a biblical event in a way that made it come alive for me.

      So again, I think if we want to use a film like this as a substitute for our Bibles and for discipleship, then we’re heading for trouble. But if we take it as a potentially valuable resource (though as I said we have yet to see how they’ll do with the overall storyline), then we can take the good and leave the parts we don’t like.

      But I know good Christians will disagree over how this is to be done best and whether it ought to be done at all, and I am okay with that.