A New Slate of Biblical Movies

There has been a lot of talk lately about how much we should mix church and Hollywood.  If producers made movies to generate good reviews, they would likely make another Biblical movie.  Like it or not, in the show business world, there is no such thing as bad publicity.  For every negative review that was written about Noah, with Russell Crowe, a few more tickets were sold, because the more people that talk about the movie, the more people that think about the movie, which then leads to more people watching the movie. It seems Hollywood has learned a lesson here, and so they will continue to make Biblical movies.

There are a few different categories of Hollywood biblical movie, but Noah is a Biblical epic, and I thought it might be fun to suggest a few more stories to be used for upcoming movies.

First, I thought it might be necessary to spell out just what exactly constitutes a Biblical epic.  It is a story of a grand scale, with some supernatural act, and preferably some violence (or at least the possibility of adding violence without fundamentally altering the story.) The story needs to have a grand central figure, like Jesus, Moses, or Noah.  There needs to be an enemy and a means by which that enemy is overcome.  There is no shortage of Bible stories that fit this description, but there are a few more criteria that a contemporary Hollywood movie needs. It isn’t enough anymore to hate an enemy because the Bible says we should, the movie has to make the enemy hate-able. To me, that was the biggest challenge of making a movie based on the story of Noah, is that you have to inevitably kill off a whole bunch of people, and for the audience, even a Christian audience to be comfortable with that, you have to make them pretty evil, and you have to make Noah really, really good. (BTW, if it strikes you as odd that I’m suggesting a Christian audience is more pre-disposed to hating an enemy and generally more comfortable with killing off hordes of people, GOOD, that should strike you as odd. Even though it’s true, it SHOULD strike you as odd.)  Also, there needs to be room for an extra-biblical twist, a side story or point that isn’t in the Bible, but allows the director/studio to have fun/make a point/generate controversy.

So, here are my three suggestions for upcoming Hollywood movies in the category of Biblical epic.

Gideon – you may not know this story, but you should, and you will after the major motion picture comes out.  Gideon is an unlikely military leader called out of obscurity by God to lead an Israelite army against the oppressive Midianite forces. He tests God to see if He is really there, and God answers.  Gideon assembles an army, and God intrevenes and says the army is too big.  Then Gideon, his small army, and God drive the enemies away in dramatic fashion and the Israelites can live in peace.
Passage: Judges 6-7
The hero: Gideon
The enemy: The Midianites
Why we can hate them: The Israelites are dying of hunger because the invading Midianite hordes keep stealing their grain and gold, etc.
Extra-biblical twist: Without too much reworking the behaviour of the of the Midianite army could be written to look suspiciously like another country that has military forces in that part of the world.

Acts of the Apostles – this is a collection of stories about how the church evolved from a group of people who literally followed Jesus to a religious movement encircling the Mediterranean.  From Paul’s conversion, to surviving shipwrecks, to his persuasive arguments, this movie would follow his life as he goes from church to church to try to build up a movement.
Passage: Most of the book of acts, and snippets from Paul’s letters
The hero: Paul
The enemy: Paul (I know it sounds like a trick, but he struggles with himself a lot, so that could be the theme here, does he use his own arguments? does he interpret the earthquake as a miracle so he can escape and allow the jailor to kill himself? does he let the fame get to his head? etc)
Why we can hate them: Of course we love Paul, but he writes a lot about falling into patterns of temptation, and this movie could be written to draw out that pattern, making us hate his (and our own) propensity to fall into those patterns that threaten to undermine everything that he was doing
Extra-biblical twist: Two options here (among many) 1.) What is the thorn in Paul’s flesh? Scholars have speculated it was a physical ailment, a recurring sin, a disagreeable wife, his sexual orientation, etc. Pick one, run with it, make it a big deal, and people will talk about your movie or 2.) add a compelling female character. Paul is often accused of being a mysogynist, so seeing him empower women in his life would create fodder for conversation at least

Patmos – in what would be the most controversial and talked-about biblical movie ever, an exiled former slave sits on a slave trading island shouting condemnation toward the dominant empire of the day.  He records his visions and predictions into what we would later call the book of Revelation. Who was he? Where did he come from? How did the culture of his day influence his writings? What symbols and images did he borrow?
Passage: the whole book of Revelation
The hero: John of Patmos
The enemy: Rome, the whore of Babylon
Why we can hate them: They devour everything in their path and slander every religion they can
Extra-biblical twist: Make John a divisive character so that his life takes on the identity of his writing, ie. some churches love him, some ignore him, and some build everything they know around what he teaches them.

Forgiveness

One of the events on the calendar at the recent Truth and Reconciliation gathering I attended in Edmonton was an inter-faith panel.  Representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and First Nations spiritual communities were present.  Each panelist spoke about how their faith teachings lead them to deplore the abuse that so often happened at these residential schools.  They also each spoke about how their faith might point toward a path of reconciliation. Without exception, they spoke about the need for forgiveness, that whether it was earned, or even asked for, the victims would not find peace in their hearts until they were able to forgive their oppressors.

Like many of the events at the Edmonton TRC, this gathering was full to capacity, but of all the audiences I was a part of, this was by far the whitest.  This must have been the kind of academic exercise that was much more suited to the settler experience than the First Nations experience. The First Nations community leaders that I have talked to couldn’t think of a First Nations person who holds to an atheistic world view. The First Nations people, in one way or another, are a very spiritual people. Still, this didn’t seem to be the kind of spiritual gathering they were interested in attending en masse.

When the panelists had each finished their presentations, the MC invited questions from the floor, and a line formed at the microphone. I left after the second question, when it seemed clear to me that it would be a string of negative comments directed toward the Christian representatives, whether or not their own branch of the church was directly responsible.

But the first question/comment was powerful.  One of the few First Nations voices in the room spoke up and said that it was just a little bit too easy for them to speak about forgiveness, but for the people who had been affected, the pain was very real, and forgiveness was a very difficult thing to do.

Of course she was right. None of the panelists would have disputed her.  A number of the panelists I’m sure could have spoken of their own tradition’s very recent stories of overcoming victimization and how forgiveness was and is a central part of their healing.  I’m sure the Jewish, Sikh and Cree leaders could have told first- or second-hand accounts (even the Mennonite on the panel probably could have done the same).  But they didn’t.  Nobody said they knew how she felt.

In an event based on an apology, Stephen Harper’s official government apology to victims of abuse at Canadian residential schools, it might have been appropriate for one of the panelists to apologize for the ease with which they had spoken. None of them even made a half-hearted apology for any perceived insensitivity. Nobody was sorry for what they had said.

The pain this woman was feeling was clear in her voice and the way it quivered.  The stories of what happened to women like her were still resonating in our ears from what we had heard in other rooms at other times during the assembly. Nobody was going to deny her pain.  Nobody was going to force her to forgive or tell her that it would be easy to do so, but the conviction was the same, that anger and bitterness would only delay the healing.

The religious sentiment, almost without exception, toward this woman was empathy. It was visible in the faces of the panelists. Emotion in an academic setting, who would have thought. There was pain in her life and there will continue to be pain, that was obvious. While she is entitled to that pain, and her abusers are not in any way entitled to human forgiveness, that is where her healing will the begin.

A Truth Commission with Reconciliation Pending

Last week I spent a few days in the city of Edmonton to attend the final gathering of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  I had attended a previous gathering in Montreal a year ago and for almost two years I have sat on a committee that has been discussing how to bring the issues that the TRC presents to greater level of prominence within the local Mennonite constituency.

Having attended one gathering already, I sort of knew what to expect. The various kinds of smoke have the capacity to overwhelm the senses; grass, paper, tobacco and animal oils are burned as part of spiritual, ritual and social gatherings.  A variety of music and dance that is unfamiliar to most will quickly become normal, as the drumbeats, the shouts and the harmonies continually emanate from some room, somewhere in the building. The TRC is also a very colourful event. Flags and banners are waved, beaded clothing, jewelry and cultural artifacts are displayed, sold and proudly worn throughout the building.

Another thing that is sadly familiar is the ongoing narrative of residential school abuse, of teachers, priests and nuns, friends, fellow students, who over-stepped the authority given to them. Stories of excessive punishment, systemic degradation, and wanton sexual predatory behaviour can and should never become ordinary, but this is what a person needs to be ready for if they are going to attend a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Canada.  Naturally I heard some of these stories. People talked about their trauma, of the pain it caused, and the various ways that they tried to mask and otherwise deal with that pain.  I heard these stories, but not as many as other people heard.

The event was set up so that different gathering were happening in different places at the same time. Based on what other people told me, I’m sure I missed the heavier stories. I got to hear stories about how the various systems, governmental, societal, religious, had failed the First Nations people. I got to hear these stories from a position of weakness in Montreal too, but what I was excited to see this time were stories of strength.

I know lots of people that want to hear these stories of strength. I know of people in and out of the First Nations community whose desire to hear stories of strength pushes them away from the weakness that is shared at the TRC.  But all around me I saw and I heard stories of strength.

I heard stories of promises made to newborn children, that they would inherit equality, not the fight to earn it.  I heard of promises people made to themselves that the cycles of violence, addiction and despair would end with them. I heard about the power of rediscovering cultural identity and cultural pride. I saw children hugging their mothers. I learned a new word, “aunties,” that First Nations people use to describe any woman in their community who has participated or continues to participate in their upbringing.

First Nations people often complain that they are only in the news if they are suffering or protesting. At this year’s TRC, I saw evidence of strong communities, strong families and strong national networks.

Moving forward, there will still need to be more reconciliation. It shouldn’t take an event like this for well-intentioned neighbours like myself to hear and see this strength.  We, as dominant settler Canadian culture, need to remove the walls of division in our minds, so that when these stories are told, we will have ears to hear them.