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Exodus - Gods and Kings: The Cinema and Bible Stories

Posted on Sunday, December 14, 2014 No comments

Sunday, December 14, 2014

It wasn't quite as good as Noah - at least as movies go - but for those who are interested in the Bible both as Scripture and as literature (which is not, however, to suggest one can pull those two things apart) last Friday's release of Exodus: Gods and Kings was an enjoyable and thought-provoking cinematic retelling of what is probably the most significant single story in the TaNaK - what Christians call the Old Testament.

Bible Stories on the Big Screen

The making of the Noah movie, which I reviewed here, has occasioned a conversation about movies hemming tightly to the Bible's version of a story.  My pastor put the matter to rest among our congregation with a pithy observation.

"If I want to know what the Bible says, I read the Bible." he mentioned one Sunday after Noah was released. "I don't go to the movies."

When I go to the movies, the first thing I expect is to be able to relate - or try to relate - to the main character in some sense.  I especially appreciate what literary theorists call the "discovery plot."  This is not a plot surrounding the discovery of something like a hidden treasure, but rather the main character discovering something about him or herself.  Taking a biblical character like Moses and developing a discovery plot around a biblical event like the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt offers so many different opportunities to the director and screenwriters.  The important thing to remember is that none of these directions requires the story tightly follow the biblical version.

The Bible and God as the Main Character

In fact, in a significant sense it is important that the movie version of a Bible story not follow the Bible's version in a highly literal fashion.  The reason for this has to do with how the modern cinema and the Bible differ sharply in terms of character development.

In cinema, as with all storytelling, character development requires dialog.  It also requires empathy - meaning we have to be drawn to the character to empathize with him or her in some way.  Because God is, well... God, presenting dialog with Him on the big screen is problematic simply because it is highly unlikely anyone in the audience has had the kind of conversations with God which otherwise would be presented.

In Roma Downey and Mark Burnett's highly popular cable series "The Bible" Abraham is shown to be hearing a voice.  He spins around, looking to see who is talking to him.  Dialog with a disembodied voice is a problem simply because it is not something the audience can relate to.  It immediately separates the audience from the main character, making it harder to evoke empathy.

Noah was much better in this respect as it showed Noah discussing a dream with his wife.  It is in the dialog between him and his wife about the dream that he surmises what it is God would have him do.  In the Bible's version, God simply commands Noah to build the Ark.  Noah goes about doing exactly as God tells him.  Indeed, throughout the Bible's Flood story, Noah never speaks.  This does not make for good character development... unless the character the author is developing is the character of God.

And it is exactly here where biblical stories diverge starkly from what we would otherwise expect of stories.  In many biblical stories, God is the main character and others like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are supporting characters.  This is especially important in Genesis because it presents God in a light very different than how "gods" are otherwise presented in Ancient Near East literature.  And in the earliest of the stories in Genesis, literary forms like genealogies which would otherwise involve kings (e.g. the Sumerian royal genealogy) involve ordinary people who are born, have children, live x number of years, and die.  Stories which would otherwise involve demi-god superheroes (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh) who tell their stories in the first person instead involve ordinary people who walk with God and otherwise do not speak in the story.  The choice not to develop these characters so as to provide the character of God "center stage" seems to be very deliberate on the part of the biblical author.

Cinema as an Invitation to Dialog

So in the cinema the screenwriters and director are left to take supporting characters from Bible stories and make them into the main character.  This is why diverging from the Bible's storyline is actually essential.  In Exodus: Gods and Kings the character of Moses is shown to be quite "modern" and metropolitan, at least as that might have been thought of among Egyptian royalty at the time.  He goes from this to a closer identification with his own people, and from that he struggles through to the place where he accepts the leadership God expects of him.  The Bible's story shows this struggle as well, but the movie fleshes it out as a struggle between Moses and God.  Moses struggles especially with the plagues, seeing in them an excessive brutality.

Without giving away too much for those who yet to see it, God appears in Exodus: Gods and Kings as a child, initially at the burning bush.  He appears at his own initiative, and sometimes does not appear when Moses would otherwise like to hear from him.  In this respect, God's "otherness" is maintained.  But precisely because God is embodied as a child (as opposed to merely a disembodied voice), we can be drawn into the dialog.  Some might object to what appears to be a capricious, violent and vindictive presentation of God by the child.  But it is this which creates a conflict between God and Moses, and that conflict shows Moses as having a strong sense of justice.  The viewer who is familiar with the Bible's version has to take care to remember here that it is the character of Moses, not God, that is the focus of the movie.

If those of us who consider ourselves believers and receive the Judeo-Christian Bible as Scripture can remember this, we can come away from Exodus: Gods and Kings with a lot of very profitable lines of discussion at church get togethers or just as we take the time to encourage each other over coffee. Again, trying as I am not to spoil the movie, I'll suggest this example:

There is a sense in which the movie suggests that the Ten Commandments should be enough to provide His people the guidance they need even after Moses is gone.  This might be the central question posed by the movie.  Are the Commandment enough?  Is the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) more broadly speaking enough?  How might today's Jewish viewer answer this question?  How might a Christian answer it?  If their answers would be different, why is that so?  Does this question even make any sense at all to those who were not raised in any faith?

Income Inequality: The 'Chief Elder' Speaks from on High

Posted on Friday, December 5, 2014 No comments

Friday, December 5, 2014

Toward the end of this past summer, Lois Lowry's teen dystopian book 'The Giver' was released as a feature film starring Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, and Katie Holmes.  Streep's character is the 'Chief Elder' who enforces conformity in the 'community'.  She delivers the movie's signature, icy line:

When people have the freedom to choose, they choose badly... every time.
It is hard to put a real-life face to the Elders among us, seeing how thoroughly dominated our political life is by the 'Culture of Experts'.  It is tempting to put a white wig with bangs on Jonathan Gruber from MIT, seeing how dimly our pedestrian lights flicker under the brilliance of him as our Chief Elder for Healthcare.  It even seems the signature line from The Giver was written for him - for he apparently feels that when seniors are free to choose their health care plan, they usually choose wrong.

But the Chair really has to go to the esteemed professor from Princeton, and his Nobel Prize in Economics.  Paul Krugman was recently interviewed by Business Insider on income inequality.  If Gruber's ignorance of his own political stupidity in publicly questioning the intelligence of American voters isn't proof enough that the Elders, er... Experts actually believe they know what is best, Krugman's brilliance on income inequality is just as stupefying.

In his interview, Krugman notes that questions about extreme wealth are uniquely American questions.  No, actually they are uniquely Progressive questions - Progressivism as it has been expressed in American history among shining lights like Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt.

Concerns about extreme wealth arise among Progressives in America because America has a unique egalitarianism of opportunity.  Europe does not struggle with these questions because their aristocracies are idled to their own self-indulgence such that it would not even occur to their wealthy to ask them.  And the poor?  They do not belong to the 'ruling class', after all, so why would it occur to them to ask these questions?  This egalitarianism of opportunity bothers Progressives precisely because it butts up against their desire to be the 'ruling class' of Elders..., er... Experts.

It occurs to the rest of us because our social model is built on the assumption that everyone who can work and create real wealth actually does - rulers and ruled alike.

So how did we get from that which European writers like Alexander de Tocqueville marvelled at among us to where we are today with an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor?  Krugman seems to take for granted that "great wealth" is a problem and perhaps "undermines democracy."  Even if we grant him that premise for the sake of the discussion, the question of how we got here remains.

And it is this question that shows us how little the Elders..., er. the Experts... actually know.  That Nobel Prize must gleam so bright in Krugman's eyes than he cannot see how his ideas are themselves the origin of the problems he bristles about.

And some of the answers are right in front of him.  He speaks of how "luck" plays such a large role in wealth and that the wealthy were "in the right place at the right time."  It is amazing to listen to him speak because what was an elliptical, mumbled remark about "...preparation, and all that..." shows us that he seems to know naturally that "luck" is actually the combination of opportunity and preparation.  A lot of people are so busy preparing (e.g. the young adult pushing thirty and in the middle of his third graduate degree, living on student loans patiently waiting for an adjunct teaching opportunity to open up) that they miss the opportunity to actually create wealth.  Or they see the opportunity, but haven't prepared to seize it.

Krugman would like to tax the lucky - the ones who prepared and then seized the opportunity - so others might be able to prepare some more while opportunities pass them by unnoticed.  Or he would like to tax the wealthy to provide for those who see the opportunity for a government job so their lack of preparation won't matter anyway.  I mean, we have to get our Elders..., er... Experts from somewhere, right?

"Being poor," Krugman laments, "or being working class is really hard...  Think about how hard  it is... if you don't have health insurance and your kids get sick."

What did we do before government run health care?  Now this isn't an argument against Medicare or subsidies in general to enable the poor to treat a chest cold with a doctor's visit and medicine instead of an emergency room visit because they couldn't afford the appointment and the prescription.  It's not even an argument about the social safety net.  It is, rather, to point out how government benefits inflate the money supply in any sector where they are extended.  If it is hard not having health insurance when your kids get sick, that hardship is a function of how price inflation follows the addition of those benefits, leaving the people who need them the most without them.

"In this environment," Krugman goes on, "you cannot get your kids into a... you can't afford to send them to a good school, or maybe to college at all, no matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you skimp and save."

This environment, the good professor evidently has missed, is an environment totaling some $1.2T of student debt.  This is money which has been borrowed for free, lent out at around six percent, guaranteed by the taxpayer and not dischargeable in bankruptcy.  The banks absolutely love this money printing enterprise.  And tuition inflation has followed this expansion of the higher education money supply.  Yup, this environment is tough indeed... thanks to the good professor's Nobel Prize in economics.

At some point - hopefully soon enough to rescue the future of my 16 year old son who has just started noticing that some people are "swmmin' in the bills" (he has a terrific way of coming up with phrases like that) - we will see the Elders..., er... the Culture of Experts for what it really is and 'send them to elsewhere...'  We might even have a ceremony for that in a couple years.

Sorry, you'll need to go see the movie to get that.
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