Paul Prather: Biblical films' pat answers don't do justice to Bible

Contributing ColumnistApril 13, 2014 

Two films with religious themes are hot at the box office: Noah and God's Not Dead.

I don't plan to see either. I tend not to enjoy movies about religion.

Having seen dozens in the past, having been annoyed by nearly all, I don't go anymore. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't buy your tickets. Consider yourself a recipient of my heartfelt blessing. Different strokes for different folks.

Noah apparently is a Hollywood epic in the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, but with wilder special effects and an ecofriendly subplot.

God's Not Dead lies at the opposite end of the scale, a no-frills, earnest, explicitly pro-Christian story. It's delighting evangelicals. Several of my congregation's deacons and elders have seen it; they came away inspired.

It's apparently about a college student who out-argues his smarty-pants atheist professor in a debate over whether God exists.

My issue with Hollywood's biblical films is they're usually written, directed and acted by people astonishingly tone-deaf to the Bible. Whether or not you believe the Scriptures are mainly true, as I do, it's easy to appreciate how wonderfully gritty and complex their stories are.

The Bible's narratives have endured for millennia and have inspired lasting faith and Western literature for a reason: Largely it's that their leading characters tend to be simultaneously imbued with belief, earthiness, hypocrisy, terror, remorse — you name it. They're tragic. They're heroic. They're credible. They're ordinary people — slaves and shepherds and priests and fishermen and carpenters — thrust into extraordinary, historic predicaments by a God they can't see.

My memory isn't what it once was. But I can't think of a single Hollywood movie that's managed to make a biblical character come to life for me. Maybe that's because I'm averse to costume dramas, religious or not. It's a quirk of mine. The minute I see a toga or a chariot, I start fidgeting in my seat.

Movies such as God's Not Dead, made independently on small budgets, by Christians for Christians, set in contemporary times, reside in a different cosmos from Hollywood biblical epics.

Yet they tend to share a flaw with the big pictures: superficiality.

I happened across a terrific column by Michael Gerson, a conservative op-ed writer at the Washington Post. His issue with God's Not Dead, he argues after watching it, isn't its worldview, but its errant anthropology, its poor understanding of how people think and act.

"It assumes that human beings are made out of cardboard," he says. "Academics are arrogant and cruel. Liberal bloggers are preening and snarky (well, maybe the movie has a point here). Unbelievers disbelieve because of personal demons. It is characterization by caricature."

Yes. Exactly.

That's what I find grating about "Christian" movies. The Christian faithful are good. Everyone else is bad or woefully misled. We've got to set them straight.

In this vision (Gerson calls God's Not Dead "an extended exercise in evangelical wish fulfillment"), non-Christians ultimately react as Christians would prefer. They admit their error. The saints (that's us!) prevail. Problems get cleanly resolved in the third act.

It's the religious equivalent of romantic comedies. Boy meets girl. Attraction ensues. Problems arise. But invariably, he wins her heart. They live happily ever after.

Except, of course, that's never how real life occurs. It's fantasy.

There's nothing wrong with fantasy, so long as you recognize it as fantasy.

Try this: Venture out as a real-life would-be evangelist. You discover incongruities unending. Other people believe what they believe, or don't believe what they don't, for actual reasons. Their experiences don't match yours.

You meet skeptical professors who aren't vain or mocking, but patient and self-effacing. You encounter agnostics who were raised in church and know the Bible better than you do, but fled because they were sexually or emotionally abused in churches. You stumble into folks who long to embrace God but find belief impossible.

Most listeners don't weep at your sermons and convert, any more than you weep at theirs and adopt atheism or Islam or sun worship.

You sow a small seed in them, maybe.

And sometimes they open your eyes.

What prevents me from liking films such as God's Not Dead, I guess, is that I'm constitutionally built to value spiritual accuracy over mere entertainment or cheerleading.

This predilection probably puts me in the minority. I can't help it. I distrust pat answers. Real Christians' journeys are laden with nuances and cognitive dissonance.

Gerson, I take it, feels much as I do.

"Good religious art — or good art by religious people — does not shape a fantasy world to conform to pious platitudes," he writes. "It finds hints of grace among the ruins of broken lives, where most of us can only hope to find it. Art is truly religious only when it is fully human."

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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