February 22, 2019
Cecil B. DeMille
In my continuing preparations for setting up a dialogue between the reading of Exodus and the showing of clips from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, I remembered an article I had read years ago in a journal called Semeia: an experimental journal for biblical criticism. The article is entitled, “Moses Goes Down to Hollywood: Miracles and Special Effects.” (Semeia 74, 1996)
While the article is more wide-ranging than I can attribute to it in this brief space, I was struck by the author’s characterizations of the work of DeMille on this movie. She describes his thorough preparation for the epic, and his desire for authenticity and historical accuracy. She writes, noting the intersection that occurs between a story and the creative effort to tell that story, that, “DeMille strives to present the original story, but – like any other interpreter – ends up creating his own story. Even more fascinating, he duplicates the very process by which the Bible itself is thought to have been created…the writing of the script…was a collective project.” (p. 22)
As DeMille strove for authenticity, he insisted on filming the movie in Egypt. He wanted movie goers to walk the Exodus as Moses had walked it. As DeMille worked to create his story, he drew not only from the biblical account, but also used other sources both ancient and modern, including the works of the historians Philo and Josephus. In addition, he employed various scholars whose names appear in the acknowledgements. It truly does appear that he was quite thorough.
While people may debate the merits of the movie itself, and more than sixty years later may find some of the special effects to be less than they might be today, it is encouraging to me to be reminded of how much he worked to produce a movie that reflected the biblical story itself.
As the author of the article noted, DeMille did still create his own story. And it certainly can be noted as well that even though he employed scholars to help with the effort, there are certainly varying views that diverse scholars take toward all biblical stories. Nonetheless, it is fascinating that it was a group effort. That knowledge will make our discussions all the more interesting as we view it in our church side-by-side with the story from Exodus.
February 15, 2019
The Bible at the Movies
A friend and I were recently discussing the fact that lack of familiarity with the Bible and its stories has an impact upon how well people understand the subtleties and underlying themes of a good deal of literature. Without such knowledge of basic stories as those involving Noah and Moses, as well as ones about Jesus and Paul, in addition to parts of the “wisdom literature” such as Psalms and Proverbs, layers of richness in many books is simply left for others to discover.
Along the same lines, people who have seen movies about Bible events and personalities often assume that they know well the general scope of those stories, and even imagine that they have a good grasp on the details as well. In a few cases those might be reasonable assumptions, but more often it just means that people have been led to understand one thing by the movies, and the accounts in the Bible tell different, and sometimes very different, stories.
This was clearly brought home to me years ago when I was teaching Sunday school to the young folks in our church. We were studying the story of Moses, and the movie, “The Prince of Egypt,” had been recently released. I have always felt that film is a powerful way to communicate with young people, so I went about previewing the film prior to showing it. I was amazed to discover that there was a whole new story being told through the movie. Yes, there were some details of the biblical account that had been preserved, but it was far from a telling of the actual Bible story. If I remember correctly, I did show some clips from the movie, since some of the young people had already seen the movie on their own, and I used those clips to talk about the biblical story and to clarify what was a part of the story of Moses in the Bible and what had been created to augment that story.
Now, I am not opposed to the use of imagination to enter into the biblical stories, and to thereby explore characters and situations that go beyond what the Bible provides to us. Indeed, that is what we do in our Scripture as Theatre workshop that meets weekly at my church. But it is important to be able to distinguish between the parts of a movie that are a faithful telling of the story, and those parts that have been creatively added.
As our Bible study group is currently working its way through the book of Exodus, I am preparing to show clips from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. It will be interesting to me to see people’s responses to the film clips in light of our study. We will, in fact, discuss whether the film adds to our understanding of the texts, or changes them in ways that we might fail to notice if we have not done a careful reading of the texts. The discussion will, I imagine, be quite fun.
When I shared my message in worship last Sunday, I used a PowerPoint presentation to highlight several things. Among those was looking at different perspectives on Jesus, as seen through the eyes of artists. I began with a classic image, the “Head of Christ,” a painting by Warner Sallman from 1940. It is a powerful, reflective, prayerful, ethereal image of Jesus that has helped to mold the vision of Jesus in the eyes of many of us through the past seventy years or so.
But did Jesus really look like that? Of course, cameras came along just a little later, and much of the art of Jesus’ time was reserved for honoring royalty, so we have no picture-perfect images of him. That is why people got so excited about the shroud of Turin, because it professed to be showing the imprint of his image. The verdict is still out about that. But, as with so many other things about Jesus, I imagine he is just as glad that no photos, drawings or paintings exist that are portraits for which he sat still. I imagine that about him because his life and word have always been meant to transcend nationalities, races, times and places.
Believing that, I was glad to share with my folks an image in the PowerPoint presentation that showed Jesus at the Great Wall of China, looking very much like that was his home country. Then there was another one of him in an African village, again looking as though that was indeed his birthplace. And, finally, a depiction of a very large Jesus standing outside the headquarters of the United Nations, demonstrating once again that he came for each and every one of us.
My point in sharing these images was that in being open to these diverse depictions of Jesus we can have our perspectives enlarged, both in our view of Jesus and in our appreciation of one another. In some sense, there is probably nothing really new about this. On the other hand, the beauty and the diversity of the body of Christ is something that we should always be remembering and celebrating. Artists can bring this into focus for us in ways that preachers can only hint at with words. Images somehow make things more real for us.
Both the images, and the artists, are to be received with gratitude, and with grace.
February 1, 2019
There are times when life in the smaller church is exhilarating. Seeing someone experience growth, or sharing about a feeling of a closer relationship with God, are at the top of the list. Successful events, from a regular Bible study session to a larger concert event, bring about great joy as well.
Then there are those moments of discouragement, when disagreements arise that may not be settled amicably, or when a roof leaks during a rainstorm despite the fact that regular inspections were made and all seemed fine. And, of course, low attendance in worship, and at other events, can become discouraging as well.
Finally, there are those times when one is just plain tired. Tiredness can come from having worked incredibly hard to make an event into a great success. It can also arise when tensions and conflict dominate the landscape for too long a period. And, tiredness fills us at times just because there is too much to do and too few people to do it.
Of the three circumstances, tiredness is for me the most difficult to handle. I think that is because it can be the least defined of the three. Times of joy are usually self-evident, as indeed are those experiences of discouragement. But tiredness seems to just sort of settle in.
When I do become aware of tiredness though, I look for ways to renew my energy and my passion for ministry. Sometimes, of course, just a day away from everything helps, but I am thinking of a deeper tiredness, one that drains one’s energy.
You no doubt have a variety of ways in which you respond to such tiredness. Prayer and Bible reading are likely two of the top remedies. But I am thinking of something perhaps less familiar.
In turning to a writer whom I know to have a rich and stimulating way with words, whatever the genre, I recognize that glimmer of my own passion for words, and through those words a pathway to renewed imagination.
I also, as you might guess, find renewal through the arts, especially the visual arts. And while familiar and well-appreciated artists are helpful to me, it is sometimes the case that a different person, perhaps working in a unique medium, opens a window into creativity and passion that provides the impetus toward an energizing renewal within me.
Whatever your chosen pathway, it is especially important to find renewal within the times of tiredness, for while joy and discouragement both seem to pass, tiredness can build upon itself and be a great hindrance to both life and ministry. Then again, though, that tiredness can become the beginning of renewal, if we engage it fully.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.