Things I liked about
Exodus: Gods and Kings

ExodusThings I liked

Confidence. Bible movies I’ve seen before have portrayed young Moses as an unsure outsider in the Pharaoh’s palace—a man who knew he was Hebrew and didn’t quite belong. Exodus presents him as a confident military leader and privileged member of the Pharaoh’s advisory team, completely unaware of his Hebrew heritage. I have no idea if this is accurate, but I found it thought-provoking.

Jealousy. Exodus’ storyline develops an interesting relationship between the Pharaoh and his son Ramses and his adopted son Moses. Those dynamics of personality and jealousy and indebtedness inform the later interactions between Ramses and the Moses who returns to Egypt to free the Hebrews.

Exodus_Moses_300 Exodus_bow_300Transformation. Setting up Moses as a military leader allows Exodus to present an interesting transformation. In this version of the story, Moses grows up with little respect for all things spiritual. He tolerates his adopted father’s reliance on a priestess to interpret what the Egyptian gods were saying. He knows nothing of his own people’s faith. Then God appears to him at the burning bush, and he believes. He believes, but he doesn’t understand—because he’s not familiar with this God. He assumes, for example, that God chose him to save the Hebrews because of his military background. So Exodus shows Moses returning to Egypt and having an unsuccessful confrontation with Ramses (who is now the Pharaoh), which leads him to begin training the Hebrews for military conquest. When Moses’ military approach fails, he has to step back and watch God do things His way. The plagues teach Moses as much about God as they teach the Pharaoh. I liked seeing Moses learn and change and grow.

Relationship. Toward the end of the movie God and Moses are working on the Ten Commandments, and they have this exchange:

God: I’ve noticed that about you.

Moses: What?

God: You don’t always agree with me.

Moses: Nor you with me.

God: Yet here we are, still talking.

I like the idea that we can keep talking with God—even when we’re angry with Him, even when we disagree with Him, even when we don’t understand what He wants from us. We hang in there and keep talking. Isn’t that what relationships are all about?

Things other people didn’t like

I read some other reviews of Exodus: Gods and Kings before seeing the movie, and most of them gave the movie very low marks. The criticism—from Christians as well as nonChristians—covered the acting, the special effects, the departures from the Biblical narrative (yes, there were some), the fact that Director Ridley Scott is a religious skeptic, and even the fact that the cast was mostly white people. I am not enough of a film (or social) critic to know how much merit those accusations have.

I just know that Exodus entertained me while I was watching it, and it made me think afterward. What more can I ask from a movie?


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Creativity and truth: a review of Noah and Son of God

From “The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The Biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

If you’ve read this blog for the past couple years, you know that I hate lame Christian movies. I hate getting tricked into seeing them (“This is Hollywood-quality, and we have to support Christians in Hollywood!”). I hate that we tell ourselves this is “evangelism” (ahem, has any American become a Christian after seeing a Christian movie?). And I hate that we lower our standards of storytelling when we are telling the greatest story ever.

So why did I go see Noah and Son of God?

These two “Christian movies” take two different approaches to storytelling. And that, of course, got me thinking.

They are based on the same book. They are attracting attention and criticism from the same group of people. One movie is quite literal (which to some people means “true”), and one is quite creative (which to some people means “full of lies”). The fact that they were released only a few weeks apart gives me a unique opportunity to compare them.

Creativity and truth

Yes, the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and we need to be careful whenever we represent it. We don’t want to distort its truth or change the meaning, so sometimes we feel safest when we take the words at face value.

But God is also creative! And He expects creativity from us too.

Son of God: not enough creativity

Son of GodSon of God was a pretty literal depiction of the familiar Jesus stories, though there were a few notable departures—three magi showing up at the manger, and Jesus going into Lazarus’s tomb are the two that jarred me the most. My main complaint with these departures is that I couldn’t see a purpose for them. In fact, I think being more literal with the magi scene—having them show up at Jesus’ house when he was one or two years old—would have been more creative (because no one ever depicts the scene that way) and more effective (because a later visit helps show that Jesus was remarkable throughout His life, not just at birth and then at 30 years old). When you depart from convention, you should have a good reason.

Son of GodFor example, when Movie Jesus invites Peter to “change the world” instead of “follow Me,” I understand that the screenwriters are making a creative effort to contextualize a calling that may not have much meaning for people today who have not been raised as church-goers. I think it’s a somewhat cheesy choice, but I understand the creative reasoning behind it.

Son of GodSo my main complaint with Son of God is that it was literal without being creative. Or maybe it was literal to popular depictions of Jesus, but not to the Bible itself. In Son of God, Jesus looks like He always looks in movies (and in Renaissance paintings, and in Sunday School flannel graphs)—long hair, white robe, piercing eyes. Mary wears blue. People recite lines in typical British-sounding “Bible voices,” not like everyday Jews. As Matthew Paul Turner says in his review (which you totally should read):

Few things cause the story of Jesus to fall short of God’s glory like a factual cinematic portrayal acted out by pretty Caucasians with British accents and bed-head walking joyfully across barren landscapes to a dramatic symphony of flutes and strings. At times, I swear I was watching the cast of Downton Abbey on vacation in Morocco.

Hollywood JesusCasting Jesus differently would have been an immediate way to show some creativity and be more literal. Why not choose a guy who looks Jewish (Matthew 1)? And who’s somewhat ugly (Isaiah 53:2)?

Noah: not enough truth?

Noah, on the other hand, was very creative, and I was completely gripped by the story! Russell Crowe‘s portrayal of Noah made it easy to see how righteousness in an evil world can feel both noble and wearisome. Ray Winstone gave depth to Tubal-Cain (a character mentioned only once in the Bible) and used him to speak truth about our position of dominion in the world, and to convey our capacity to abuse that position. And Anthony Hopkins was delightful as the grandfatherly, somewhat-mystic, berry-craving Methuselah.Noah

All the characters were very human, very real. The costumes may not have been literally authentic to the Mediterranean Bronze Age, but they set the characters free from the bathrobe-clad stereotypes and let us see them as hard-working, rough-life nomads. The sets conveyed a landscape that was probably more barren than the world literally was at that time, but those images dramatically illustrated the effects of selfishness and rebellion; they set a mood that was appropriate for the story. This is what I mean when I say a creative choice can convey a literal truth.Noah

Of course, there were also some creative choices that changed the literal meaning of the Bible story—for example, Tubal-Cain managing to stow away on the ark. The writers used this plot twist to contrast Noah’s calling with Tubal-Cain’s—and I did find it helpful to see Noah and Tubal-Cain as foils for each other. But I think putting Tubal-Cain on the ark compromises my understanding of the ark as both a literal and a symbolic sanctuary. Here again, I appreciate that the creative choice has a purpose, but I think a different choice could have accomplished the same goal.

The screenwriters also made a creative choice to have Noah arrive at the conclusion that the Creator’s plan was to cleanse the world of people, creating a new Eden of only plants and animals. This of course leads to high drama and conflict within the family on the ark. But I find it unlikely that either Movie Noah or Bible Noah would come to this conclusion; I think Noah understood humanity’s role as caretakers of the new world, in spite of our fallenness. Still, this creative choice did succeed in conveying the truth that God’s calling is not always clear, that we humans sometimes misinterpret His will or jump to misguided conclusions—and the result is conflict. So again, I understand the creative choice, but I can think of “truer” ways to accomplish the same purpose.

Truth and creativity

I find it really interesting that the Noah website posts a disclaimer of sorts about the artistic license they’ve taken with the story (see above). It’s a well-worded disclaimer. And it’s quite possible that reading it ahead of time did help adjust my expectations so that I could truly enjoy a very creative movie.

Overall, I found Noah to be more creative and more truthful than Son of God. And that’s the mark of a good story.

Your thoughts?

Abraham Lincoln, re-published

Abraham Lincoln

When I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in a theater near me, I was impressed with Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of our 16th president. I thought Lewis’s Lincoln had a realistic blend of humor and sadness, strength and weariness, homeliness and nobility. Obviously, no one alive today can say how accurate Lewis’ rendering is, but I have a feeling that it’s pretty accurate.

Abraham Lincoln
As I recall, George’s copy of the book looked something like this. (This photo is from Berkman Books.)

In fact, there were a few scenes that made me wonder if Day-Lewis had read Abe Lincoln’s Stories and Speeches while researching the role. This is a book that really broadened my own understanding of Lincoln—thanks to one of my favorite clients, George Griffiths.

It was 2007 when George presented me with a tattered hardcover copy, edited by J. B. McClure. George was a fan of Lincoln, as was I, and he wanted to clean up this old book and make the stories available again. The nice thing is, it’s perfectly legal to do so.

Public Domain

McClure’s collection was originally published in 1896, which means the copyright has expired, and the book has entered Public Domain. So I sent the book to Kirtas Technologies to be scanned and digitized. They returned the book to me, along with a Word document of both the text and all the images scanned at high resolution. From there, flowing the text into a new book layout was a fairly straightforward process.

But I wanted this version of that old book to be an improvement over the original. So I re-titled some of the stories and updated some of the language and grammar. Here’s an example of one of the stories that appears in the section about Abe Lincoln’s professional life:

Original version:

A Famous Story.

It is said that Mr. Lincoln was always ready to join m a laugh at the expense of his person, concerning which he was indifferent. Many of his friends will recognize the following story—the incident actually occurred— which he always told with great glee: “In the days when I used to be ‘on the circuit,’ ” said Lincoln, “I was accosted in the cars by a stranger, who said: “Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.” “How is that.” I asked, considerably astonished. The stranger took a jack-knife from his pocket. “This knife,” said he, “was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.”

Updated version:

A Sharp Retort

It is said that Mr. Lincoln was always ready to join in a laugh at his own expense. Many of his friends will recognize the following story—the incident actually occurred— which he always told with great glee:

“In the days when I used to be ‘on the circuit,'” said Lincoln, “I was accosted in the cars by a stranger, who said: ‘Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.’

“How is that?” I asked, considerably astonished.

The stranger took a jack-knife from his pocket. “This knife,” said he, “was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.”

My goal was to make the stories accessible to today’s readers while preserving their historical accuracy. Plus, the changes were enough to give this version of these stories a new copyright.

The result was Glimpses of Lincoln: Stories Relayed by Himself and Others. We first published it as a pocket-sized paperback, and George ordered 10 or 20 copies at a time for kids in his family he thought should be more familiar with Lincoln. Later, as ebooks became more popular and I became more familiar with epublishing, I transformed Glimpses of Lincoln into a Kindle ebook. The paperback, ebook, and a PDF version, are now available from the LifeLines Shop.

Unvarnished history

I wrote in the re-published book, “…the wealth of stories collected by McClure gives depth and dimension to the legend.” That’s how I felt, reading a book that had been published less than 40 years after Lincoln’s death. Too often, history puts a gloss on events and people, and we end up remembering them as more glorious or beautiful than they were. (This happens a lot with Bible movies; I have yet to see a movie Jesus who looks or sounds like a 30-year-old Jew. But that’s another post.)

Re-publishing Glimpses of Lincoln gave me a chance to read stories written by people who actually knew the man. The fact is, he was not Henry-Fonda handsome or Gregory-Peck resonant, and that’s ok. For all his ugliness and occasional crassness, Abraham Lincoln still “led our nation through its darkest season with humility, humor, and strength of character.”

The genius of Disney:
bringing families into stories

Donald Duck
Disney in 1977: My brother and I pose with one of the Disney characters who roam the park. (My brother is the one on the far left.)

Disney really hasn’t changed much in the past 35 years.

I was there for a day this summer with my sister and her family. Together we rode all the classic rides my sister and I had loved as children—Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, Dumbo, and more. And I was surprised at how little they’ve changed. Sure, Johnny Depp and Ariel have been inserted into the scenery, but overall the experience is the same as when I was 10 years old.

Disney in 2012: An access card serves as your ticket to the Magic Kingdom.

Participating in the stories

Those rides were meaningful to me as a child because I had read the stories, so I recognized the characters and scenes. Coming back as an adult, many of the story details had been lost to my memory, so the images were more confusing. I knew they meant something, but I couldn’t always remember what. Why is Wendy walking the plank? Why is Dumbo holding a feather? The images don’t tell the story themselves; they are meaningful only as a supplement to the story. But when you know the story, riding the rides is a way to participate in it, and that adds an extra dimension to what would otherwise be just a roller coaster ride.

(Of course, this is further evidence to support my claim that pictures need words in order to really have meaning.)

Passing on the stories

Now, I don’t know if kids today read Peter Pan and Dumbo. My guess is, kids who do read are more likely to choose Harry Potter and The Hunger Games than dusty old Disney classics. But today’s Disney World is still crowded, and the rides with the longest lines are still Peter Pan and Pirates. Why?

I think the secret is that those rides are still a powerful reminder of the stories the parents loved. Now they want to bring their kids to share the experience. Whether or not the kids get the same thrill out of the rides I imagine will depend on how well the parents have relayed the stories to the next generation. And, of course, movies starring Johnny Depp don’t hurt either.

Disney in 1974: My sister (you can barely see her over the dashboard) drives our grandfather around the Grand Prix Raceway. This Disney ride was extremely popular back then, even though it was not related to a story.

I think part of Walt Disney’s genius was that he recognized both the power of family and the power of story, and he managed to find a way to combine them. He brought stories to life through animation and animatronics, creating experiences that children would beg their parents to participate in, and that families would enjoy so much they would want to relive with each successive generation. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of nostalgia about Busch Gardens or Six Flags.

Disney in 2012: My sister drives me around the Grand Prix Raceway (now called the Tomorrowland Speedway). We’re sharing the experience with the next generation—in the roadster in front of us, her 6-year-old daughter is barely able to see over the dashboard.

It remains to be seen how many generations the experience can last. Each new ride that Disney adds to the park is still tied to a story—The Little Mermaid, Toy Story, and Aladdin are all cinematic stories that are now represented by Disney World rides. But are families sharing these stories together before they share the rides? Are they sharing the movies, the books, or both?

Will kids today enjoy the Aladdin experience so much that when they become parents, they’ll drag their kids to that ride, instead of to Peter Pan?

What about you? Do you have a Disney memory you’d like to share? Have you and your kids shared a Disney experience? What was your favorite Disney story? What was your favorite Disney ride? Tell us in the comments below!