Earlier today I got an email from a group of college students from the Midwest who asked this question: How are we as Christians supposed to process, respond to, and view biblical epic films in light of Scripture?
I think that's an important question. Last year saw two major Hollywood-produced epics (Noah and Exodus) plus Son of God, an edited-down version of The Bible TV miniseries. I'm not even sure how many are slated for 2015, but I know for certain that there are multiple adaptations from the Old and New Testaments en route, a sort of revival of the “sword-and-sandal” mid-20th century heyday. (That spate of biblical epics is far more complicated than we often assume; I wrote about it six years ago for Christianity Today.) If the subject interests you, the best person I know to read is our contributor Peter Chattaway, whose blog is a treasure trove of information on Bible movies past and present.
I don't need to tell you that the reception of Noah and Exodus was mixed from Christians, with everything from four-star reviews to accusations of heresy. That means the students' question is important for more than just a class assignment. I'm not a theologian or a philosopher, but here is how I think about it. (Please forgive my lousy Greek.)
First, I have to think about what a work of art is. The definition I've been working with for some time now is this: art is the cultural artifact—the thing that humans make—that requires both maker and audience in order to complete it. It has both form and content. More on that in a moment.
This isn't a definition of good art, mind you—just art generally. But it suggests that if I make a painting and hide it under my bed, it isn't a “work of art” yet, because someone else needs to view it and invest meaning in it. On the other hand, a picture a little girl paints and gives to her mother is a work of art, because the girl invested meaning in the painting, and so did her mother (and probably anyone else who sees it on her mother's office wall). That investment from both maker and creator is what turns it from “a piece of paper with paint on it” to art.
(Obviously there's the question of whether a person can have an “audience of one,” perhaps God or herself, and I haven't worked that out quite yet. Which is why I'm not much of a philosopher!)
The maker/audience piece is just half the definition, though. Many have suggested that a work of art must have both form and content. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis calls content Logos and form Poiema. “It is only by being also a Poeima,” Lewis says, “that a Logos becomes a work of literary art at all.” In his essay “Art Needs No Justification,” Francis Schaeffer's friend Hans Rookmaaker calls these communication and form. This is by no means a Christian idea; you'll find it in many if not most aesthetic philosophers.
So a work of art has a maker and audience, and has both Logos and Poiema.
This all seems pretty obvious, but it blew my mind when I started thinking about them in terms of the story of the Bible. Two of the most important doctrines to Christians are Creation and Incarnation. In Creation, God calls the world into existence; in the Incarnation, God becomes a man. God speaks, and the world comes into being; God takes on flesh, and the world is redeemed.
What we're saying, in essence, when we talk about the doctrine of creation is that God uses words to speak content, or Logos: “Let there be light,” he says. And then light takes shape—God's Logos about what ought to be in the world takes on a Poiema. Light, darkness, sun, moon, stars, animals, even people all take beautiful shape when God speaks it. (And God only says it is “very good” after it takes shape. He doesn't think the ideas are good until then.)
The doctrine of the Incarnation is even more explicit. John tells us in the beginning of his gospel that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.” The actual Greek says that the Logos became flesh, which means that it took on the shape, the form, of a man. Jesus took on a particular shape in a particular time and a particular country. He became a human man born into a family in Israel during the time of Roman rule. This is not abstraction: it is among us.
To me, these doctrines taken together seem to indicate two things. First, because we humans are made in God's image, we can also take Logos and help it become “also a Poeima,” in Lewis's words. We can come up with an idea or a story, then have it take shape: tell it in words, paint it, sing it, even make a movie.
Second, because the Word took on flesh, we too can imitate him in temporarily taking on someone else's flesh. Not literally, obviously, but through empathetic identification with another person, walking in their shoes for a while. Because art expresses a particular artist's view of the world, it's recognized by psychologists, philosophers, social theorists, and many others as one of the best ways to temporarily take on someone else's flesh. Reading and experiencing others' views of the world helps us enlarge our own. But like Christ, we don't lose our individual identities—Jesus didn't become less God when he put on human flesh. (And note that the Bible indicates that Christ remains in his human body now, now in its perfect resurrected state.)
Instead of losing our identities in experiencing an artist's viewpoint on the world through their art, we grow larger—at least, we do if the artwork will let us in. Lewis puts it this way: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality . . . In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.”
So I think our perspective as Christians interacting with art and living in light of Scripture is that we need to think about four things: the artist; the Logos of the work; the Poiema of the work; and ourselves. When it comes to biblical epics, this is especially helpful for me.
First, I think of the artist, and how I'm meant to interact with him. I take from the Bible that first I'm to recognize that anyone making a creative work is exercising (in some way) their status as a human made in the image of God, who is imitating him through pouring Logos into Poiema. That's something to celebrate.
I also, through the Incarnation, understand that to submit myself to a work of art is to submit myself in some way to the artist's particular experience of being human. Especially if she's done a good job, what I experience, then, is her particular vision of the world. I'm listening to the story she wants to tell, looking at the world through her eyes. I may not like it, or it may be different from mine (and therefore quite uncomfortable to me), but if I'm doing my job as a follower of Christ in loving my neighbor, then I'm going to at least give her the benefit of the doubt.
The second part is thinking about the Logos of the work—its content and its (obvious, stated) message. In Romeo and Juliet, the logos is a story about star-crossed lovers, as well as a message of some kind about love and death. I can—actually, I must—evaluate the Logos of the work of art. It's often the more obvious element of the work, the one that's easy to recognize (often because in movies characters tend to stand up and give speeches about the Logos). And I can say things like “this Logos is not true,” or “this Logos is not accurate,” or “this Logos is harmful to viewers.”
A lot of Christian critics have stopped at the Logos and not continued into the third part: the Poiema. This is not a side note or less important. In fact, it may in some ways be more important, because while the Logos of a work of art might hit us in the rational register (in our brains and understanding), the Poiema, philosophers suggest, hits us in the “aesthetic” register, which is something more in our bodies, and something that's harder to recognize. Have you ever felt ill watching a movie or reading a book? Or felt caught up in a romance's swelling music? Or said that something “really moved” you? You're using aesthetic language, and that's what Poeima is.
When Marshall McLuhan famously declared that “the medium is the message,” this is what he was getting at: a medium, the thing in which the message is embodied, can do as much to us as viewers as the message itself, or even more. It can even contradict its message. A film about the love of God that suggests in its actual form that Christians ought to not like some people is contradicting its own message.
But C. S. Lewis suggests (as do I, and many others like Schaeffer and Rookmaaker) that we don't have to agree with the Logos of a work of art to admire and praise its Poiema. That is, I may believe that the Logos of a work of art is dead wrong, but I can still recognize its artistry and craftsmanship. Being able to recognize that does require study and humility, but it's an important thing. (The people who have helped me most on this point have been the critics I've read who talk about form.)
Finally, I have to think about my own reaction to a work of art, since I'm what takes something to being “art.” Did I feel like the work provoked some kind of emotional reaction in me? Did I think it worked as whatever it was (a painting, a poem, a film)? Did it take the time to be something new or fresh, or did it retread tropes I've seen before? Did I like it?
All of these elements are part of processing, responding to, and viewing biblical epic films, as much as anything else. I start with the creator: what do I learn about him or her through this film? How does that help me understand someone else better? (I personally find that reading interviews helps me in that endeavor.)
Then I think about the content. Do I agree or disagree with the message that is present? In biblical films, the question is often whether it deviates from the account in Scripture—an important question, to be certain. But Scripture is not a screenplay, so one of the most important questions here is whether the story stays faithful to the spirit of the original. This requires us to carefully study the Scripture passage in question and understand not just the events it recounts, but also how they fit into the narrative of the whole story of redemption, and what purpose God has in retelling that particular story (after all, there are plenty he elected to leave out—John tells us as much in his gospel).
Next, I think about the form. Is this an imaginative, skillfully-made film? Did the filmmaker try to make me see the story in a new way? Did he use all the tools at his disposal in his chosen medium in imaginative ways? For filmmakers, this includes things like acting and writing, and also cinematography, special effects, music, editing—all the things for which we give Oscars. Did he try to make something new, or just settle for the old vocabulary?
Finally, I think about my reaction. What did this film move me to do? Did it move me to appreciate the story in a new way? Did I cry? Laugh? Think? Feel?
In my view, any movie (and especially a biblical epic) fails or at least is mediocre if it recounts the story to me blow-by-blow, exactly how I know it happened. Why bother with the movie then? Instead, I think a good biblical epic is one that takes the text seriously and respectfully—it is the Word of God, after all—but then imagines it in a way that makes me see an old story in a new way. It pulls out the themes that are there on the page, but envisions biblical characters as living, breathing humans, with flaws and desires, failures and triumphs, instead of overly perfect, holy beings (even Jesus himself was tempted). It makes me love God's creation and God's work of the Incarnation and, maybe most importantly, the humans he made in new ways. It invites me in to have my own experience with the film, never tying things up so neatly that I'm left without any work to do (and so not letting itself take shape as a work of art). That's a successful biblical epic, in light of Scripture.
(Not to stir up old controversies, but this is why I persist in liking Darren Aronofsky's Noah so much. I learned a lot about Aronofsky—he is interested in Jewish tradition, in the transcendent and supernatural, in how biblical themes resonate across stories, and in how people become redeemed; I saw Noah's story as one about redemption, which never really occurred to me before; I saw an imagined view of the beauty of an antediluvian world; and I was personally moved.)
I also persist in thinking that any criticism of a film that merely relies on Logos is inherently unscriptural, in that it denies the world the way God made it: it acts as if he made a world that is mostly Logos, no Poiema, and that the only thing that matters is Logos. But here we are: humans have rational faculties, and also bodies, emotions, and histories. To deny that is not a Christian act of criticism. It's Gnostic.
These aren't checkboxes, of course. Watching and responding to films isn't an easy task for anyone (especially critics). Actually, it's hard work. But I can only start to say meaningful things—as a critic, as an audience member, and as a Christian, too—if I am thinking about the film as a work of art.
It seems like both creating the world and taking on a human body were also pretty hard tasks, so if I'm wanting to watch and respond to films well—a thing that brings me much pleasure, since it's something I was created to do—then that hard work is probably the least I can do.