Am I the only person who liked Exodus: Gods and Kings? Having just caught up to the controversy of Ridley Scott’s big budget epic, on DVD, I’m befuddled that both mainstream and Christian audiences have orphaned this film. In his review for Forbes, Scott Mendelson, weighing in for the secular audience, commented, “Nearly all of Exodus is a routine by-the-numbers retelling of an oft-told tale with little to justify itself beyond improved special effects.” Going on, he criticized wooden acting and casting problems, the latter addressed by Scott prior to the film’s release.
I’m a Christian, so I want to speak to the Christian film viewer, and dare you to give Exodus a fair shot on home release. I’ve been scouring the web for a Christian critique that makes sense to me, and so far I’ve come up with just one, in Christianity Today. Oh there’s plenty of criticism; it’s awful, petty, churlish, and riddled with hermeneutics. By comparison, there is a dearth of critique of the film as a viewing experience.
What confounds me is that this was a film that was literally made for us. It’s like Ridley Scott—pretend he’s a vegetarian—invited us over for dinner—pretend we’re carnivores. He did his best to research pork chops, how to buy, marinate, cook, and serve, but they ended not quite to our liking. We didn’t like the wine he chose. We felt the salad was too vinegary. We, frankly, went to the dinner acting a little (a lot) entitled. He should have cooked and planned and purchased just as we wanted him to.
But here’s the deal. The Bible is not our book. It’s everyone’s book. Ridley Scott is free to read it and interpret and adapt it as he wants. If you want the original version, read the book. If you want an artistic rendering on an epic scale of a story you love; if you want to be challenged by seeing how a non-Christian interprets the same Bible story you hold close to heart; if you want to be able to engage in conversation about the film, see the movie. (Hang with me here, I’m going to tell you why.) But if you don’t, do not get on message boards and self-righteously declare you’re not going to see this film because you’re too good for it. That doesn’t make you a good Christian, just a snob.
There are plenty of accusations against the film. Let me quickly run down the big four:
- It strays from the Biblical account.
Yes it does, in several small ways and one large. This is a problem faced by every filmmaker from The Wizard of Oz to Unbroken. Adaptations are just that, re-imagined creations inspired by a story. If you don’t like the re-imagining itself, that’s one thing, but to criticize the movie for not being exactly the same as the book is pointless.
- It’s inaccurately cast, with white actors in the two main roles.
This is a valid argument which Ridley Scott did a flimsy job of addressing before the movie released. John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver are actually laughable as Seti and Tuya, Aaron Paul is simply irrelevant, he’s stunt casting. However, until (mostly) white, mainstream audiences start paying to see minority actors lead films, stop complaining. Thumbs up to Kevork Malikyan as Jethro however, bringing a rare sense of levity and ease to a grim cast.
- It’s overdone and grandiose, more spectacle than substance.
It’s Ridley Scott meets God so, really? This is not a character sketch, we’re talking about a massive, grandiose, ancient culture, and massive, unimaginable miracles. If you’ll shell out to see Star Trek, Harry Potter, and Toy Story, this is right up your alley.
- Most offensively, the avatar the film uses to stand in for God is a cheeky eleven year old British boy.
Christianity Today has a great comment on this choice in their review. Personally, I didn’t find the kid that annoying. I’m not that hung up on how a secular film director chooses to represent God. (I am very hung up on how you and I choose to represent God.) I didn’t think Morgan Freeman was the perfect God, nor do I think a booming voice falling from the heavens suffices. There is no good way to portray God on film. This was not the best, this was not the worst. It is not a reason not to watch the film.
I believe the filmmakers made one big mistake. Early on, at the burning bush, the child/God-avatar urges Moses to go see how the Israelites are doing and says something akin to, “He will not be at peace until you do.” The line is muffled and garbled, hard to hear. Since it’s the burning bush, and all good Christians are primed to know that’s when Moses meets God, we assume the kid is supposed to be God. We forget artistic license. The movie turned on that encounter for several people I talked to, ruining it for them.
Here is what I took away from Exodus and why I’d challenge you to give it a watch.
- Moses’ journey will be real to anyone who has wrestled with faith.
Christian Bale is a conflicted Moses, who relies on his knowledge and reputation as a warrior before he learns to rely on God. He is not the white-bearded leader we know well; he is a young man, learning to balance his upbringing with his new-found discovery of experiential faith.
- Listen for what speaks to you.
At moments, I paused the film to ask my husband, “Did you hear that?” (He never did.) I found moments of profound insight in the script; moments that made me chuckle about the universality of the Christian experience, or marriage, or faith. Watch for the exchange between Zipporah and Moses when he saddles up to leave and she says what so many of us feel when we are faced with a choice of no choice at all.
- Moses’ interactions with that annoying British kid?
How often have you felt like God is being confusing and obscure in your own life? Be honest. Though you’d never call him petulant or bratty, confusing and obscure aren’t much better. The interactions between the God-avatar and Moses are immensely relevant. The fact that that he stop-checks Moses’ pride in military-leadership, tells him he’s failing, tells him to step aside—that’s important. Moses is called the most humble man in the Bible (Numbers 12:3), but how you think he got that way? We got to see it played out on screen. The fact that Moses argued with him, and therefore God, as we all do, and are loathe to admit it, is important. Because God was faithful. God hears us through our complaints—“You took me away from my family!”—and helps us understand the intersection of His will and free will.
And in the end, Moses met God. After Moses cried out he was tired of speaking with a messenger, the boy did not return. The next time Moses needed God, on a desperate mountaintop, he had to listen for the voice of the transparent Almighty Himself, and God showed up. Note that after that experience, Moses was willing to talk with the messenger again. I would be too. I’m always ready to speak with someone that God sends to interpret His will in my life. I expect you are too.
- It is an important example of the way many people view the Bible.
Christians have complained that their God wasn’t as vengeful as this child portrayed Him to be in the movie. Hmmm, really? Read the Old Testament much? Yes, I know my theology. I know about the unchanging nature of God, free will, and justice. I’ve also traveled America and Europe, I’ve met more than enough people who don’t believe in God, solely because they cannot reconcile for their own mind the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. And that, for anyone seeking faith, is a valid question.
Ridley Scott is an atheist; and any Christian should be very interested in how people who don’t know God view Him. This film shows us exactly that, and why; and it presents a valid argument. Do not discount it because it makes us uncomfortable. Wrestle with it, create your argument for God based on Biblical evidence, history, your experience, and theology.
More importantly, before you begin to answer a non-believer’s accusation against God. Before that first “Yes, but…” bubbles up, stop. We, as a faith need to learn to say, You are right. Yes, millions of innocent people died and it is really, really awful. It does not, on any level in our human world, make an ounce of sense. It hurts my heart. Full stop. Let that resonate. Be a human who grieves the fact that millions of people die because of God, or sin, or justice, or whatever you’re about to call it. People. Die. If you can’t stop to feel that grief for a moment then you are going to become the living embodiment of the callous God they think they understand.
- It’s an entertaining movie. It’s clean, it’s PG-13, and you can watch it with the whole family. When it was over I actually dared to hope we’ll see it pop up on TV on a regular basis someday.
- It has great CGI. If you’re willing to put time and money into Transformers, but worry that you’re compromising your faith by watching this, please reconsider your legalism.
Enough ranting. Spend a buck at Redbox. See the movie. Be challenged to think beyond the surface of what you hear and what you read.