Monday, July 16, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 5): Biblical Epics and Evangelistic Filmmaking

But he could laugh and cough, couldn’t he? He’s always depicted as so solemn, walking slowly, with his hands held like this . . .” [1]

The Public, bless ‘em, must have a pretty face to look at . . . Well, isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?” ~ Carl Denham, from the movie King Kong (1933)

When Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ hit theaters in February of 2004, both the filmmakers and some segments of the general public were taken aback by the resounding success and popularity it achieved. It was not anticipated that a movie whose source inspiration was a medieval book of esoteric Passion visions penned in the 19th century by an Augustinian stigmatic nun [2], and which was dubbed entirely in the dead language of Aramaic, would make much of an impact on the modern movie-going public [3].

Hollywood veteran Mel Gibson fully realized the financial risks accompanying a bold venture such as this. But contrary to modest expectations and tentative, awkward steps in initial marketing and release that was unconventional almost by necessity, The Passion of the Christ did indeed make a resounding impact. According to an online poll conducted by (answered by approximately twelve thousand people and sponsored by Zondervan, the world’s largest publisher of Bibles), 62 percent were reading the Bible more as a result of seeing the movie. The poll also found that 41 percent of respondents had a more positive view of the Bible after seeing the movie, while 75 percent indicated when asked that the movie portrayed events “very close” to the Bible’s account of Jesus’ death [4].

This last statistic is of particular interest; it is no secret that images are rapidly replacing texts as a primary vehicle for information of all kinds, especially entertainment. This unseating of textual mediums means that, in a country for whose citizens religion is a deeply-embedded preoccupation, visual media is an obvious direction for communication of a distinctly religious (and especially evangelistic) bent to venture down. Religious themes have found their way into the medium of film almost from its very inception. As Robert Johnston points out in his book Reel Spirituality, religious subjects were prominent in many early films, many of which were made by religious people, and as the relationship between the church and the movie industry grew and matured, so did the quality of the way in which religion and the Bible were presented [5].

Midrash at the Movies

The ubiquity of this growth and maturation is evidenced by the fact that the version of the Old Testament with which a wide swath of the American public is most familiar is that of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments. Because of this well-known cultural blockbuster, which highly sanitizes the biblical life of Moses, a surprising number of people who revere the Bible are not even aware that the Moses character is depicted in the Book of Exodus as a sneaky murderer who goes on to lead a massive, ideologically-motivated slaughter of over 3,000 of his own people whom he initially freed from Egypt (Exodus 32).

The “cinematic redactors” (as I like to call them) were aided in their Midrashic process by their liberal use of sources. In crafting the script, the writers of The Ten Commandments drew not only from the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus, but also from the writings of Philo of Alexandria [6] and Josephus [7], both of whom added several creative details to the story. In addition to these sources, the film writers incorporated material from three fiction novels about Moses written between the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century [8].

The New Testament’s Gospels are similarly cinematic and dramatized in the minds of most of the American public, more so than anciently textual. In addition to Mel Gibson’s wildly popular Passion of the Christ, other successful cinematic ventures have included Franco Zeffirelli’s equally-Catholicizing but much-cleaner 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1973 film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera of the same name. More recent offerings include Catherine Hardwicke’s 2006 American film The Nativity Story and the BBC’s 2010 miniseries The Nativity in the UK (written by Tony Jordan and directed by Coky Giedroyc).

Movies like The Ten Commandments have become the new definitive version of the Old Testament’s legendary tales, the Book of Exodus having been relegated to the stack of raw material. On a general level, this is not a new trend. It is the modern incarnation of the homiletic Midrashim method of interpretation, applied in ancient times to biblical texts to fill in gaps left in the scriptural narratives. It is also essentially the same process indulged in by the Aramaic Targum, which popularized paraphrases and etiological expansions of the Jewish scriptures in the common language of the people near the end of the last century before the Christian Era. Even in Josephus’s classic historical work Antiquities of the Jews (composed near the end of the first century CE), Josephus promises his readers at the outset that to give only the most accurate details of the historical events, not adding or subtracting anything:

And now I exhort all those that peruse these books, to apply their minds to God; and to examine the mind of our legislator [Moses], whether he hath not understood his nature in a manner worthy of him; and hath not ever ascribed to him such operations as become his power, and hath not preserved his writings from those indecent fables which others have framed, although, by the great distance of time when he lived, he might have securely forged such lies; for he [Moses] lived two thousand years ago; at which vast distance of ages the poets themselves have not been so hardy as to fix even the generations of their gods, much less the actions of their men, or their own laws. As I proceed, therefore, I shall accurately describe what is contained in our records, in the order of time that belongs to them; for I have already promised so to do throughout this undertaking; and this without adding any thing to what is therein contained, or taking away any thing therefrom [9].
However, one finds upon reading the Antiquities that all manner of changes and imaginative additions crept their way in. For instance, consider Josephus’s explanation as to why Pharaoh tries to kill all the male infants and toddlers of the Hebrews; Josephus would have us know that Pharaoh does not undertake this campaign because he is afraid of the Hebrews for any particular reason, but rather because he is fearful of a single prophesied deliverer of his Hebrew minions:
[T]here was this occasion offered itself to the Egyptians, which made them more solicitous for the extinction of our nation. One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages. Which thing was so feared by the king, that, according to this man's opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it; that besides this, the Egyptian midwives should watch the labors of the Hebrew women, and observe what is born, for those were the women who were enjoined to do the office of midwives to them; and by reason of their relation to the king, would not transgress his commands. He enjoined also, that if any parents should disobey him, and venture to save their male children alive, they and their families should be destroyed [10].
This premise is clearly ahistorical as well as extra-biblical (it is nowhere to be found in Exodus), but most people recognize it immediately, and erroneously believe it to be in the Bible, due to its inclusion in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.


In addition to their etiological and harmonizing function, films that depict sacred narratives serve an actualizing function. That is, they are visual tools designed, whether consciously or subconsciously, to aid the faithful in visualizing the ancient accounts that form the basis of their worldview. This differs in kind from the enhancing powers of the written word of fiction novels, because visual media presents a ready-made vision to the viewer over which his or her imagination has no altering power, whereas the narratives of fiction novels are conformed to the subjective visions of different readers. In many ways this visual kind of experience is far more compelling to people than text; after all, a great many people would love nothing less than to jump into a time machine and travel back to first-century Palestine to meet Jesus face to face, like Michael Moorcock’s character Karl Glogauer in his science-fiction novel Behold the Man [11], or to be whisked away back in time by some ancient magic to witness firsthand the major stories and events related in the Bible, as in Hanna-Barbera’s animated series The Greatest Adventure.

Of particular importance in interpreting the function of these films in this way is the concept of defamiliarization, the technique of enhancing the familiar by compelling audiences to view things that are commonly recognizable by the audience in an unfamiliar or groundbreaking way that is cathartic or refreshing to the imagination. The Christ narratives certainly fall within the category of the universally familiar. “Like the narratives of Greek tragedy, the Christ narratives dramatise a familiar story, the rudiments of which we are familiar with, even if we may not be believers, perhaps even more so than with those of other biopics, a genre to which in significant ways the Christ narratives belong [12].” Bible scholar Robert M. Price elaborates on this function quite eloquently:

Because the gospel events are extraordinary, superhuman, we have elevated them to the status of religious myth and dogma. And, ironically, these we take for granted! Once one has heard them embedded in dull sermons for years, clubbed to death by a decade of pedantic Sunday School teachers, the shocking mandates of the Sermon on the Mount come to seem as familiar as the words of a TV commercial . . . And so, if the tale is to strike us again, it must be defamiliarized. And the only way to defamiliarize it is to make it sound mundane, profane [13].
However, the concept of defamiliarization constituted a double-edged sword for Christians interested in spreading their gospel via the silver screen. When applied to such a revered figure as Jesus Christ, defamiliarization has the potential to strike many devout believers as subversive or heretical. As Gerald Forshey observes, “Jesus presented quite a different problem [than DeMille’s Moses] because he was the object of faith [14].” It is interesting to note that none of the major Jesus films that came from Hollywood in the twentieth century were produced by explicitly-branded Christian writers or studios, with the sole exception of Barnet Bain’s Jesus (1979). Although Cecil B. DeMille is mostly remembered for his biblical epics, most of his films were not biblically-based or inspired. His 1927 silent film The King of Kings builds up to a great defamiliarizing finale, in which the final sight given of Jesus as he ascends to heaven following his resurrection is above a vision of an urban cityscape in which modernistic architecture combines with belching factory-smoke. The intertitle “Lo, I am with you always” appears, as the music of the well-known hymn “Rock of Ages” plays in the background. Babington and Evans offer the interesting interpretation that this final scene “turns the crisis of evolution (rocks, geological strata, the evidence of the existence of life forms outside the scope of biblical explanation) back, even as we remember that the film was made only two years after the Dayton evolution or ‘Monkey’ trial of 1925, into images of comfort, solidity and refuge [15].”

On the other hand, enterprising evangelists soon realized that adapting their religious message to a secular movie-going audience, who would much rather immerse themselves in a good film than sit through a sermon, meant that they too would have to translate the sacred into the “profane,” to defamiliarize the sacred. But filmmaking of an explicitly Christian brand did not fully mature until the early 1970s. While evangelicals have historically not been fearful of technology and innovation, “it is certainly true that evangelicals were slow in catching on to the evangelistic possibilities of motion pictures, due at least in part to lingering doubts about Hollywood morality and its ‘communist’ sympathies [16].”

Thus, it makes sense that one of the first successful evangelical films to be made, spearheaded by Russell S. Doughten and Donald W. Thompson, featured a plot that explicitly depicted Communist tendencies in government as evil and even Satanic. The use of film media to further evangelistic ends was largely pioneered by Doughten and Thompson. Their claim to fame was the 1972 sleeper hit film A Thief in the Night, an end-times thriller in which a young woman awakes to finds herself alone in the world after her husband disappears in the “Rapture” (in Christian Dispensationalist theology, a term for the divine snatching away of the righteous from the earth at the end of time). The film follows her struggle to cope with a nightmarish world in which a one-world government emerges almost instantly after the worldwide disappearances and local authorities hunt her down with the intent to mark her as a loyal citizen upon pain of death.

Despite the relatively impactful nature of A Thief in the Night and its three sequels within the Christian subculture, Christian evangelical filmmaking slowly dwindled in originality and production quality over the next decades, due to its sequestered position within a narrow evangelical niche that saw little or no infusions of large funds enjoyed by big budget Hollywood fares. Hollywood business is rightfully very wary of films that explicitly promote a sectarian worldview, since they know such films will only appeal to a very small portion of the population. Witness, for example, the box-office failure of films that unsubtly and unambiguously promote specific religions and worldviews, such as 2000’s Battlefield Earth (Scientology), 2003's The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume 1: The Journey (Mormonism), or 2011’s Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 (Randian Objectivism). By the time Left Behind: World at War (the third installment in the Left Behind movie series) came along in 2005, it became the first in film history to be released exclusively in churches instead of a theater.


1. La Voie lactée, directed by Luis Buñuel (1969; New York City, NY: The Criterion Collection, 2007).

2. Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (New York, NY: Cosimo Books, 1923).

3. For my critical review of the movie, see Nathan Dickey, “The Golgotha Chainsaw Massacre: A Rambling Commentary on ‘The Passion of the Christ’,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 13 June 2012, (accessed 16 July 2012).

4., “Poll Finds ‘The Passion of the Christ’ Boosts People's Bible-Reading Habits; More Than 12,000 People Take Zondervan/ Poll,” PR Newswire 31 March 2004, (accessed 16 July 2012).

5. Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 31-37.

6. Philo, On the Life of Moses, in Philo Volume VI: On the Life of Moses, ed. G.P. Goold; trans. F.H. Colson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994). In broad outline, Philo’s Life of Moses is to DeMille’s Ten Commandments what Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is to Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

7. See especially Josephus, Against Apion, in Josephus Volume I: Against Apion, trans. H.St.J. Thackeray (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966).

8. Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Prince of Egypt (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949); Arthur E. Southon, On Eagle’s Wings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939); J.H. Ingraham, The Pillar of Fire, or Israel in Bondage (Philadelphia: G.G. Evans, 1860). Also, a novelization based directly on the earlier 1923 silent version of DeMille's movie itself was written by Jeanie MacPherson and Henry MacMahon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1924). See also Melanie J. Wright, Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative (Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Brian Britt, Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2004).

9. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Preface, in William Whiston, A.M. (trans.), The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, the Celebrated Jewish Historian (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, 1900).

10. Ibid., Antiquities Book II, Chapter 9.

11. Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man (London: Allison & Busby, 1969).

12. Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 127.

13. Robert M. Price, Jesus Christ Superstar: The Making of a Modern Gospel (Published in eBook format by, 2011), p. 16.

14. Gerald E. Forshey, American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992), p. 84.

15. Babington and Evans, Biblical Epics, p. 126.

16. Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America (Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 65.

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