Archives For Film

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.

History Chanell the BibleLast night, the History Channel aired the first episode of their series on the Bible. I watched the previews for this show with curiosity. For one thing, Hollywood isn’t known for its efforts to protect the accuracy or intent of Scripture. For another thing, if the History Channel wrote a history textbook, it would contain at least a chapter on each of the following: World War II, antiques, aliens, truckers and loggers, and conspiracy theories; then there would be a concluding chapter entitled “Other Things that Happened.” So as I watched previews for a dramatized film version of biblical stories, I was skeptical.

If my Facebook feed is any indication, the show proved controversial. Some are arguing that it was very reverent and preserved the intended message of the Bible, even if some of the details were change for the new medium. Others are outraged, concerned that the Bible was changed to make a good show. Most people seem to be falling in between these two positions.

I was only able to watch the first 20 minutes (though I plan to keep watching), so what I will offer here are some thoughts on what we should expect from a film version of Bible stories, rather than what the History Channel did specifically. I feel that many of the negative reviews seem to be stemming from a misunderstanding of how the Bible might work as a movie.

So what should we expect when we go to see the Bible on the silver screen? Well, don’t expect too much. Haven’t we all watched a film version of a beloved book only to be disappointed that it wasn’t as good as the book? This is because books and film work in different ways. If a book could be easily and accurately adapted as a movie, then these movies wouldn’t need writers. The story is already written, why rewrite it! Right?

History Channel JesusMovie-adaptations need writers because we read books differently than we watch movies. A book can tell you Frodo threw the magical ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Your mind conjures up a wonderful image of what this “looks” like, based in part (though only in part) on descriptions the author provides. But the movie has to show you the details. They have to show you lava flowing, rocks shaking and falling, a convenient rock peninsula that seems to have been built for throwing magical rings into the lava below. Thousands of details that a writer can leave out have to be thrown into a movie.

So when the Bible says that Jesus fed five thousand and picked up basketfuls of leftovers, a film presentation would have to show you people’s faces. It would have to interpret their reaction to getting increasingly more bread and fish from a single man. The Bible doesn’t tell us if the people sat still for this, if they were dead silent or talkative, or if they fully realized what was going on. A film has to make a decision on each of these things in order to portray the event.

Similarly, a book can give you extended dialogue on what a character’s motivation is, or pause the action to describe the significance of what’s happening. A film has to keep moving. It can fill in some gaps with a narrator (which the History Channel chose to do), but much of the interpretation comes from the visual depiction and the action and interaction of the characters.

So back to the question. When the Bible hits the silver screen, we shouldn’t expect it to be a word for word retelling of biblical events. Aside from necessitating the longest film series the world would ever see (or wouldn’t see, because it would be immediately cancelled), this would make for a bad movie (can you imagine the many many episodes on Numbers, or the similarity between the Kings and Chronicles episodes?). Don’t get me wrong. The Bible is indeed the greatest story ever told. But God chose to record his story in a book. The doctrine of inerrancy says nothing about how that book should adapt to film.

Can some events be left out? Can some dialogue be extrapolated in order to present the significance of what was happening? We’re left to make those decisions on our own. Just keep in mind that it’s not an issue of Hollywood trying to change the Bible, these are decisions we’d all have to make in trying to present the Bible visually.

These are a few thoughts to help us consider how well the History Channel did. We have to keep in mind that they took on an audacious project, one that we would all find exceedingly difficult, and that we would all be criticized for undertaking.

But there is more to be said. Tomorrow I will give some concluding thoughts and show why many of the concerns presented are justified. Then I will explain why I tend to disagree with most of the concerns.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower PosterBefore Thanksgiving, my wife and I watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As I’ve been looking at the movie lineup this Christmas season, I’m realizing that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Not everyone will agree. Viewers seem to have liked it better than critics (which surprises me a bit), but I suspect that most of the Christian community would be uncomfortable with the film. (There are a few mild spoilers below, but you’re likely to forget them by the time you watch the film, so keep reading anyway).

I left the theater feeling somewhat uplifted, but Wallflower is a dark film. Its PG-13 rating comes from sexually suggestive scenes (mainly springing from the groups’ fascination with the Rocky Horror Picture Show), heavy themes (including sexual abuse), and drug use. It’s fair to say the film’s content is less than wholesome.

But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the content alone shouldn’t determine the value of a work of art (otherwise we’d have to ban much of the Bible). It’s the way the film interacts with, speaks to, and frames that content that really matters. It is from this perspective that I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an excellent movie.

The “wallflower” in the story is a high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman), who is aloof, alienated, and bullied. He is befriended by a complex, flawed, and wonderful group, and the film follows their struggles with growing up in their relationships with each other and with the world around them. All of the characters are broken in a number of ways, whether it be drug use, the lingering effects of sexual abuse, or struggles with homosexuality.

The most fascinating character is Charlie, who befriends all of these obviously flawed people and loves them unconditionally despite their oddities and dysfunction. Charlie is an excellent picture of love and acceptance. And though the group has its ups and downs, it ultimately finds hope and even healing.

The Perks of Being a WallflowerFor the characters in Wallflower, salvation comes through love and the conscious decision to enjoy life in the moment. Though faced with the unbearable darkness that often finds us in life, these characters find healing as they cling to the love they share and find meaning in the moments in which they feel most alive. The memorable scenes in this regard involve Sam (Emma Watson) and eventually Charlie standing up in the back of a pickup, arms spread and head back, listening to just the right music, as they speed through a tunnel. They are embracing the meaning of life as it hits them in that moment, and this meaning carries them through the dark moments.

There is much to appreciate about the hope offered in Wallflower. Love is indeed the answer. We do find deep and supernatural love through the people who accept us unconditionally. John even suggests that the love we feel from these kinds of people is ultimately God’s love for us (1 John 4:7, 11-12). Not only that, but we should also embrace the life that God has given us. Too often, we let life’s unbelievably rich moments pass us by as we focus on trivialities or get so caught up in finding a grand purpose that we miss the meaning and glory in the small things.

But we should also be cautious here. What Wallflower is presenting to us is nothing new. It’s actually a philosophical system known as existentialism, which seeks to find meaning in a defining experience in life. Who we are is determined by our experience with the world, not the essence of who we have been designed to be. Again, there are positive (biblical) elements here. But I find it fascinating that old philosophies (how many high school students have heard of existentialism?) keep popping up in trendier dress. (As a side note, there is also more than a hint of existentialism inherent in the YOLO mentality.)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Snow AngelI appreciate the humanity, the unconditional love, and the deep (non-superficial) enjoyment of life that The Perks of Being a Wallflower commends to us. But it’s important that we follow these themes far beyond the film. In the real world, these characters would remain broken. They would find these moments of healing, but they would continue break down. As we know, the only lasting solution to our brokenness is Jesus, who embodied to the fullest extent humanity, unconditional love, and a non-superficial enjoyment of life. Wallflower points us in the right direction, but as with all good things, the deepest expression of these truths is found in Christ.

Most Christians go through life with an uneasy truce with the media. We can’t avoid the media altogether. (Maybe we can, but nobody really does.) But we also distrust it. We find music, movies, and tv shows compelling, but we also sense that we are being asked to believe something that is not true. Most Christians don’t get beyond this tension. They say, “Okay, media, I’ll stay tuned in, but I’m not going to be entirely happy about it, and I reserve the right to feel guilty from time to time.”

In this post, I want to introduce you to a book that can help you move beyond the media truce: Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer by Grant Horner. The book is directed at movies, but Horner explains that his theory for what movies are and how Christians should relate to them applies to all aspects of cultural production.

Why do people make movies? And why, when we watch movies, do we find things that seem so true and important standing alongside other things that are clearly false and destructive? Horner explains this in light of Romans 1, where Paul essentially says that every human being knows the truth about God, and that every human being is attempting to suppress that truth. So the grand human drama that plays itself out every single day is one of truth and suppression: we know God’s truth, but we push it down. We are never entirely successful in our attempt to suppress God’s truth, says Horner, so truth continues to spring up, even in the most unlikely places.

So how do we relate to movies? We do so with discernment. Horner encourages us to engage with the stories that our culture is telling. But he warns that there is no such thing as mindless entertainment. The Christian must use her God-given mind in every sphere of life, and movies are no exception.

Horner is realistic about the harmful effects of film. He argues that film is one of the most powerful forms of storytelling that any culture has ever known. Sometimes this powerful medium has a beneficial effect; sometimes the effect is harmful. Each Christian must be aware of what he can helpfully view, and what he ought to avoid. Not only does this vary from person to person, we may also find that we can watch a film and benefit from it one day but not the next.

All of this fits within the first half of Horner’s book. But the second half is equally fascinating. He explores particular genres of film and asks questions like: Why do we find comedy funny? Why do people like watching horror films? How should we think about Hollywood Romance? Though the Bible does not address modern films directly, Horner’s analysis of these topics comes from a thoroughly biblical worldview, and I resonate with his explanations.

If you don’t care about movies, you probably shouldn’t bother with this book. But for the rest of us, this book is very helpful. You spend a ton of time investing in movies of all types. Why not spend a few hours thinking about what movies are and how we should relate to them as Christians?

What could Thomas Kinkade possibly have in common with Quentin Tarantino? Both of these artists are famous for portraying only one side of reality. Which means that both give us a deficient view of the world. Of course, artists can’t present every aspect of reality in every work, nor should they try to do so. Nevertheless, both of these men consistently give us a distorted picture of reality. One overemphasizes the dark and terrifying, the other overemphasizes the bright and cuddly.

Both are equally dangerous.

Reservoir Dogs. 1992.

Grab your popcorn, dim the lights, and curl up on the couch with your date to watch Reservoir Dogs. Or Pulp Fiction. Or Kill Bill. Things aren’t going to stay romantic for long. These films are dark. They’re disturbing. They’re unsettling.

Tarantino is on to something. He sees something about the world truly. People are messed up. Things don’t go the way we want them to. All around the world, human beings are oppressed, tormented, washed up, burnt out. They crave relief. But just like a Tarantino film, no relief comes. The world has a dark side, and Tarantino captures the heart of it beautifully.

But if we only talk about evil, then we aren’t seeing life for what it really is. The shadows belong in the picture, yes, but the picture is more than shadows.

N. D. Wilson addresses the Tarantinos of the world with these hard words:

“Cute things exist, and they are objectively cute. The movie isn’t over. I’m sorry to tell you this, but the world will end happily. Sorrow goes down in a barrage of bullets, and Grief is executed after a fair trial.” (Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, 157)

Sunset on Lamplight Ave. 2005.

Surely Kinkade’s painted worlds are better. Stroll through a Kinkade Gallery. Light erupts from every candle as though it were a splitting atom. Smoke artistically wafts from every stone chimney in every quaintly-crafted cottage, drawing our attention to the cozy, problem-free families within.

Kinkade, too, is on to something. He sees beauty in the world, and tries to capture it. He longs for an unstained world, and he finds it by putting oil to canvas. This world is a beautiful place. We read about light waves in science books, and yet there is still something about a sunset that can’t be communicated in an equation. Every day people experience comfort, acceptance, and warmth. We crave these things.

But if we only talk about the light and fluffy things in this world, then we aren’t seeing life for what it really is. The picture is full of light, yes, but light creates shadows.

Wilson warns the Kinkade lovers:

“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.” (157)

Here’s the point. This world is an amazing place. But we don’t help things when we try to portray it as something other than it is. To be clear, we need to have hope, and the Bible does promise us a world where the lion lays down with the lamb. Equally so, evil is real, and we see the effects of darkness all around. Pretending that this world is all one or all the other is a mistake. Ultimately, the Light did not overcome the darkness by ignoring it, but by entering into it and taking it upon Himself. Our mission is to see this world as it truly is and to do something about it. The Light is working all around us, and He calls us into the work that He is doing.