by Pastor Doug Kings
Today’s Reflections is based on one I wrote for my congregation almost ten years ago. It continues the theme of how we read our ancient Bible in the contemporary world, this time looking at how modern media influences how we understand the Bible’s stories. Also, as I am leaving on vacation soon, Reflections will be taking a break for a few weeks.
A while ago I watched a documentary on the life of Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille is credited with being one of the founders of the Hollywood movie industry and considered a great and innovative director. DeMille was also a sincere if unconventional religious man. His father was a preacher who read aloud from the Bible to his family every night. As a result, the Bible’s stories and images became lodged in DeMille’s imagination. It was this love of the Bible’s drama which would later inspire some of his greatest movies, including King of Kings, Samson and Delilah, and The Ten Commandments (which he made twice).
Beyond that, however, DeMille’s own religious beliefs were amorphous. His granddaughter said that DeMille didn’t go to church but rather that he “went into churches,” where he would sit alone and in silence. DeMille would often hold court in the studio cafeteria with the likes of Billy Graham, the local archbishop, or prominent rabbis.
In last week’s Reflections I talked about how the scholarly understanding of the Bible has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years. The difficulty has been, however, that little of this information has made its way into the public consciousness. The reasons are complicated, but DeMille may be partly to blame.
DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments tells the ancient biblical story of Moses’ delivery of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. It explodes across the screen. No picture Bible, Sunday school book, or film strip (remember those?) could ever compete with such a retelling of this tale—nor could a simple reading of the Exodus story. While the story may have endeared itself to DeMille as a child, his nearly 4-hour, Technicolor, “cast of thousands” film version left that story in the dust.
Despite his usurping (and altering) the biblical version, religious people—clergy and laity alike—loved DeMille’s Ten Commandments. He made it so real! Who was Moses? He was Charlton Heston! Who was Pharaoh? He was Yul Brenner. What did the “angel of death” look like? It was an eerie green, snaking cloud wrapping around its victims. What was it like to part the Red Sea and let it flow back, drowning Pharaoh’s army? A huge tank built in Hollywood for the purpose and special effects photography showed us. Those images became lodged in the minds of anyone who saw DeMille’s version of this biblical tale.
DeMille and the other early cinema pioneers had recognized the incredible psychological and emotional power of this new medium. Humans have always been story tellers. Invented in the 18th century, the popularity of the novel quickly spread across the globe. Then moving pictures, sound, and spoken dialog were combined to bring stories to life more vividly than life itself.
Thus movies are “real” in ways written stories are not. Novels must rely on our imagination while movies do the imagining for us. In effect, movies hijack our imagination. For millions who read the novel, Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler will always be imagined as his movie interpreter, Clark Gable. Indeed, movies are so vivid that they usually push aside any written version of a story. Ironically, DeMille’s movie version is now better known than the Bible story he heard as a child.
As I wrote last week, the epic tale of the founding of Israel told in the first books of the Bible is increasingly viewed as just that: a tale and not history. There isn’t space here to explain why this is so, except to say that there is little or no evidence to support it and quite a bit that contradicts it. As a result of the archaeological data, biblical scholars increasingly view the story of Israel’s founding as a mythological story of Israel’s origins. It was written to give Jews, living three to four centuries before Jesus, a sense of identity: their meaning, purpose, and place in the world as God’s chosen people.
DeMille once said, “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” He knew the Bible overflowed with human narrative and drama which could be adapted for any age. It’s widely recognized, for example, that his second The Ten Commandments is as much about DeMille’s Cold War politics (with enslaving Pharaoh as a stand-in for Joseph Stalin) as it is about either religion or ancient history.
By making the Bible “real”, however, movies unfortunately also freeze it in our mind: this is the way it was and must always be. Remakes often flop because they challenge impressions left in people’s minds by their predecessors. Thus it becomes harder for us to reimagine a Bible story we have already “seen.” We’ve seen the sea part; we’ve seen Moses/Heston come down with the tablets. That’s the way it happened, our brain tells us.
It’s only in modern times that, for some, the Bible has become “frozen” as Gods’ “inerrant Word.” But stories can’t stand still if they are to continue speaking to us. Where DeMille saw the struggle against totalitarianism, African American slaves saw the struggle for their freedom. And similarly, scholars tell us, that is why the story was told in the first place: not to remember past events but to inspire struggle and resistance against Israel’s Greek and Roman oppressors. Real stories, true stories, bend and adapt. Today these stories can only live and inspire us if they are allowed to float free for each generation to hear anew.
Blessings in your life and ministry.