What is the Future of Bible Films?

In March 2013, the History Channel’s miniseries The Bible surprised everyone…it actually was popular. Despite its poor production quality and uneven acting, millions of (primarily) Christians tuned in to watch their favorite Bible heroes on the small screen. A sequel series, tentatively titled A.D.: Beyond the Bible, is already in the works.

CB-in-Exodus

Christian Bale as warrior Moses

Little did anyone realize: Hollywood had found its new cash cow.

In the past year alone, a steady procession of theological and biblical movies has marched through the hallowed halls of Hollywood including Son of GodGod’s Not DeadHeaven is for Real, and Noah. If that’s not enough, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale as Moses will hit theaters December 2014.

I’m surprised it took Hollywood this long. Despite near-constant cries that the Millenial generation is abandoning the Church en masse, Christianity remains a sizable (and wealthy) religious majority in America. Add to that the growing Jewish and Muslim populations, and you have a robust potential audience for big-budget Bible productions. But what will this look like and how should it be done?

I’m personally hoping for a streak analogous to the superhero movie craze that has gripped audiences for the past decade. Not only have popular characters like Batman, Spiderman, and Superman each received their own treatment, but even previously unknown heroes like Thor and the Green Lantern have garnered cult-followings.

The Bible offers just as much source-material as the entire American comicbook corpus. Why not bring minor characters like Ehud to the big-screen? Or what about an epic trilogy about King David from his humble beginnings as a shepherd to his reign as king of Judah? Between the political intrigue, massive battles, and sex, a savvy director could rival Game of Thrones or the Lord of the Rings with these stories.

But if the recent films are of any indication, I need to temper my expectations. Son of God and God’s Not Dead were almost universally panned with criticisms ranging from simply poor film-making to downright racism (just Google how Muslims were portrayed in God’s Not Dead and you’ll see what I mean). Noah, although marginally better, is an uneven film that barely rises above mediocrity.

Whoever helms future Bible films needs to be a risk-taker, someone who can produce works of art despite the vitriol that so often stems from religious convictions. Movies that don’t take risks are not good. Think how much better the Christian drama Facing the Giants would have been without the fairy tale ending in which God fixes everything (Deus ex machina anyone?). Or if Josh Wheaton’s faith in God’s Not Dead was genuinely shaken when he realized atheists have very good reasons for their non-belief. Noah’s one redeeming quality is Aronofsky’s risk to reserve God’s communication to vague visions and premonitions. A booming male voice from the sky as we see in the History Channel’s series would only have made the film cartoonish.

Having said that though, if future Bible films are going to succeed, they just need to stick to the source material: a compendium of men and women struggling through a broken world. Just as today, there are stories of abuse, genocide, oppression, ethnocentrism, suicide, inequality, and yes, debilitating doubt that a Deity even exists and has a grand plan for the universe. Only by exploring these themes openly and honestly will anyone produce culturally relevant Bible films for years to come. I’m personally excited by the prospects and am hoping that bold film-makers of any and all religious convictions can bring out the raw emotions from these stories rather than the tepid installments we have seen so far.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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