Cornerstone

“If our Christian art only emphasizes the major theme, then it is not fully Christian, but simply romantic art. And let us say with sorrow that for years our Sunday school literature has been romantic in its art and has had very little to do with genuine Christian art. ..." – Francis Schaeffer

It was a tough choice between seeing The Hobbit and Exodus: Gods and Kings as my holiday movie outing for the year, but since Exodus has everyone talking about the Bible, I figured it was my duty to oblige. Plus, who doesn’t want to see plagues and the parting of the Red Sea on the big screen in full CGI IMAX glory?

Coming on the heels of Noah, which took quite a few artistic liberties (and because this is Hollywood, after all), I was prepared for some biblical distortion. The director, Ridley Scott, is not ostensibly religious, nor is most of the cast. I had heard some criticism from Christians and irreligious alike, but I find it important to see movies like this so that I can more thoughtfully engage in conversations about them.

And as one might expect (slight spoiler alert), Scott broadly recolors some of the facts. Many biblical details are changed or glossed over altogether and some of his embellishments are even a stretch for secular historians. True to its most vocal criticism, the film is considerably white, one of many choices made to rake in box office dollars. Yet, even with a slightly petulant portrayal of God, Exodus left me with a strong sense of awe at this incredible moment in God’s story of redemption.

Early in the film, we learn that “Israelite” means “one who wrestles with God,” a theme that rings true for Moses personally and carries the bulk of the storyline. Moses wrestles with an impossible calling, a painful family conflict, and a God that is beyond his comprehension. Even though I knew that many details missed the mark, the film was powerful for me in its portrayal of mankind’s weakness and struggle. It was a truly compelling portrayal. A sentiment that, inaccuracies withstanding, fiercely resonated with me. And isn’t that why we engage in art? To view in part what is difficult to fully comprehend.

Even at its best, art is a reduction of what is we experience about the world--broken, flawed, and incomplete. Stained glass is a great example of this. Even if someone knew exactly what feeding the 5000 looked like, it would be impossible to render the moment photographically in glass. But stained glass presents an opportunity--a change in scene--to inspire worshipers in the pews in a way that poetry or prose may not. To that end, the artwork has tremendous value in deepening the experience of worship. For centuries, the church has strived through art to depict stories from the Bible for just this purpose, yet all of the famous pieces we admire today have inaccuracies in one form or another (or many!). Stained glass, painting, and photography can only capture a singular moment. Music and dance rely on our imagination. Even something that feels as realistic as a film is unable to capture God’s story perfectly, but just like any other form of art, it can be a vehicle to inspire spiritual meditation.

As a child who grew up going to a rather artless protestant church, most of my understanding of the Bible was formed by coloring pages and felt board reenactments. The heroes of my Sunday school experience were a rather one-dimensional David, Noah, Jonah, and Ruth. In my simplicity, I wanted to be just like these characters, who I believed to be somehow better than the rest of humanity. As I painted them into gods among men, I missed the magnificence of God Himself in their stories.

Francis Schaeffer describes the danger of this kind of incomplete representation. In Art and the Bible, Schaeffer suggests that a Christian worldview, which is a necessary marker of Christian art, can be divided into major and minor themes. The major theme revolves around “meaningfulness and purposefulness in life” while the minor theme notes the “the abnormality of the revolting world.” He explains that an artist’s body of work is most complete when it emphasizes the major theme without leaving out the minor theme. We must, in our art, showcase God’s goodness, mercy, and love. We should talk about Christ and the beauty of salvation. But those truths are incomplete apart from the context of a broken and hurting world. Schaeffer explains:

“If our Christian art only emphasizes the major theme, then it is not fully Christian, but simply romantic art. And let us say with sorrow that for years our Sunday school literature has been romantic in its art and has had very little to do with genuine Christian art. Older Christians may wonder what is wrong with this art and wonder why their kids are turned off by it, but the answer is simple. It’s romantic. It’s based on the notion that Christianity has only an optimistic note.”*

For this reason, I am drawn to art and storytelling that reveals the flaws and foibles of the Bible’s major players. I don’t want to see a glorified Moses; I want to see a glorified God. So I am glad that we are talking about Exodus.** I feel a bit like Paul, describing his fellow prisoners to the Philippians:

“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (1:15-18)

This isn’t the first film to inaccurately portray a part of God’s story, and it won’t be the last. Exodus offers one unique glimpse into the nature of our holy, unfathomable God. It’s value is found in the Creator it points to, and THAT is a story worth talking about.

— *How Schaeffer builds to this conclusion is really quite lovely. Art and the Bible a great read and under 100 pages--check it out.
**If you are looking for a more thorough review of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christianity Today published a great article here

Meredith Storrs

Meredith serves Cornerstone with the Women’s Ministry and as a Global Liaison.

Additional articles that might be of interest.