Being the religious nerd that I am, and one who likes to keep up with popular cultural expressions of faith, I’ve watched two documentaries of note. Namely, Christiane Amanpour’s ABC News special, “Back to the Beginning,” and the History Channel’s miniseries, “The Bible.”
After hearing several of my clergy colleagues talking about the grave inaccuracies of “The Bible” series, I had to see for myself. And, after sitting through hour after hour of these stories, I agreed.
Large and crucial chunks of the stories were ignored. I missed seeing interactions with characters such as Hannah and Samuel, Ruth and Naomi, Esther and Mordecai, and Elizabeth and Mary.
I longed for the more fair portrayal of the birth narrative of Jesus in films such as “The Nativity Story.” The whole drama seemed like one politically driven made-for-TV movie (and, of course, this is what it was).
The actor who played Jesus was way too pretty (I mean no disrespect to my Lord, but still!), and Jesus’ teaching opportunities seemed way too short.
But when it came to Amanpour’s documentary – which traces the historical roots of the earliest stories of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures, showing, ultimately, our common connections – I was pleasantly surprised.
In typical Amanpour style, her commentary was balanced, fair and came from a place both of belief and skepticism (which I think is healthy). Way before she began to question the historical traces of the narrative of the Bible, she acknowledged the spiritual importance of the stories as of ultimate importance.
In fact, her reporting from a hot air balloon ride over Egypt gave me one of the best visuals of life in Egypt I’d ever gotten.
As the cameras focused in on the Nile River valley, showing the fertile ground around the river in comparison to the surrounding desert areas, I understood, for the first time, why the tribes of Jacob got stuck there out of necessity and why it was so hard 400 years later for the children of Israel to leave.
The security of the Nile kept Egyptians powerful and led Pharoah to always seek more. For Israel, slavery was tortuous, but who really wants to leave the land of plenty for the desert?
But, what’s the larger point? Is it worth our time as people of faith to watch such films?
I have to think so.
Even if the visual portrayals are full of depictions that are “in the spirit of the book” (as “The Bible” miniseries notes at the beginning of every episode), we can thank Hollywood for them.
Why? Because sometimes – especially for those of us who are visual learners – we need pictures and visual representations of stories to send us back to the texts to remember correctly and read for ourselves.
We need opportunities to be reminded that what we read in Scripture is meant to challenge us into more faithful patterns of living.
For example, it struck me again, as I was watching the opening episode of “The Bible,” how radical a message Abraham received when God told him to leave his homeland because God was going to lead him to the “Promise Land” as he made his descendants as great as the number of stars in the sky.
I’ve preached on Genesis 12 on countless occasions in my life, but whoa! It’s hard to truly put this kind of faith experience in a 20-minute homily.
What a crazy decree of God Abram received! What faith it required on Abraham’s part to follow through! What a laughingstock of his neighbors Abram must have been!
Lest we think our faith is not radical and doesn’t ask us to do radical things, it is.
It’s a faith that:
â— Asks 90-year-old women to believe they are going to have a son
â— Tells young boys they will grow up to be God’s spokespersons
â— Gives words to prophets about the rising and falling of kingdoms
It’s a radical faith.
I’m glad that Hollywood helps me remember – even if this was not their intention. Maybe it can help you remember, too.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer and minister dividing her time between Arlington, Va., and Oklahoma City. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this column first appeared.
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.