Reasons to Believe

“Son of God:” Representing the Bible on Screen

With the release of the Jesus biopic Son of God in theatres last week, this is a great time to engage in a conversation with others about the historical basis of Jesus. For those of you considering whether to see the film, theologian and RTB's dean of online learning Krista Bontrager offers a balanced review of HISTORY’s The Bible, the TV miniseries from which Son of God is adapted (originally posted on the RTB blog Take Two), in addition to an update on Son of God in particular.

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In recent years, HISTORY has treated the Bible as a source for sensationalistic material, airing a steady stream of shows based usually on liberal scholarship. So it was with a fair bit of skepticism that I sat down to watch producer Mark Burnett’s miniseries The Bible. Yet the evangelical leaders supporting this project (not to mention the celebrity endorsements) made me hope for a pleasant surprise. Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice, Shark Tank) and his wife, actress Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), are the brains behind this project. Now after watching the series, I’d like to offer some brief comments.

Production Values

Despite the absence of big-name Hollywood stars, the casting is solid. One of the film’s more memorable performances is the slovenly and downright gross King Herod.

The project’s production value (costumes, sets, scriptwriting, etc.) reflects an insider’s knowledge of how to make a quality independent film. Even so, the film doesn’t quite reach “epic” Cecil B. DeMille proportions. Many of the “large crowd” scenes look as if they hired only about 200 extras. The director then tried to “cheat the shot” by using close-ups to make the scope look larger than it actually was.

The film does a decent job of accurately portraying the brutal nature of the ancient world. Even between battle scenes and kings killing people at-will, there is a fair amount of sword fighting, stabbing, and gouging. Thankfully, most of the violence happens offscreen. Still, this series would likely receive at least a PG-13 rating if released in theatres. I even shut my eyes several times and am still undecided about whether to let my teenager watch it.

Accuracy and Artistic License

Some Christians have pointed out departures from the biblical narrative. For example, in the scene where David prepares to slay Goliath, David doesn’t visit a stream to collect five smooth stones; he simply picks them up off the ground. Though this is a tiny departure from Scripture, I don’t see this as being a huge issue of concern.

Each episode is preceded by an explicit disclaimer stating that this is intended to be an artistic rendering of the Scriptures—and as anyone familiar with Hollywood adaptations of books knows, there is a certain tension between staying true to the original story and translating that story to the big (or small) screen. Overall, however, I think the filmmakers have done a remarkable job of remaining faithful to the key historical facts.

If I had to name the series’ weakest link, I’d have to say the overall storytelling. Obviously, a significant amount of pruning is inevitable in the attempt to fit the Bible into a TV miniseries. Viewers see a steady stream of historical events, stitched together by periodic and brief voice-overs. The unfortunate result is a story arc that often feels disjointed and characters that often seem one-dimensional, as we watch them sweep across the screen one after the other.

Also, given HISTORY’s target audience, it’s no wonder the series never explains the “why” behind all the stories of the Bible. Although that would certainly have increased the program’s appeal to me, I realize that the HISTORY audience isn’t necessarily interested in those kinds of theological questions.

Overall, Burnett and Downey are to be commended for their efforts to bring the story of the Bible to primetime television. In an age when Christianity is being pushed further and further to the margins of society, watching The Bible is a refreshing change.

Son of God Update

The theatrical release of Son of God is likely to appeal to a similar audience as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Son of God’s producers have provided special screening access and free tickets for prominent evangelical churches and colleges and the film is garnering widespread Christian support. Time will tell how Burnett’s version of Christ’s story fares financially and whether it can best Gibson’s $370 million domestic box office gross. Although Son of God earned solid ratings on television, as part of The Bible miniseries, and will likely pull in decent box office returns, it’s hard to gauge what the interest in Son of God will be among the broader culture outside Christian circles.

Like other movies in the biblical genre, Son of God is not intended to provide a detailed account of the scriptural text. Rather, it provides an overview of key stories and themes to give the viewer a summary of the story of Jesus’s life and ministry. These kinds of movies can, at best, only introduce people to biblical concepts and culture—but they can’t stand as a substitute for Scripture itself. To be fair, even the most accurate film portrayal of Christ couldn’t do this. After all, God revealed Himself as the Word, not as a film (John 1:1).

One of the most disturbing aspects of films in this genre involves the grotesque whipping and crucifixion scenes. As happened with Gibson’s R-rated film, the director and editor of the PG-13 Son of God designed the prolonged beatings and hanging sequences to invoke strong emotional repulsion in the viewer. And in this regard, they’re successful. The practice of Roman crucifixion was a true cruel and unusual punishment. One could argue, then, that graphic on-screen depictions of Christ’s death are too extreme for both adults and younger viewers.

According to Downey, the only changes made between the television version and film adaptation was the deletion of scenes with Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. After The Bible first aired, the filmmakers were disappointed that so many people exaggerated a resemblance between President Obama and the actor who played Satan. Downey said they didn’t want a distraction from Son of God’s main message:

But for our movie, Son of God, I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want his name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out. It gives me great pleasure to tell you that the devil is on the cutting room floor. This is now a movie about Jesus, the Son of God, and the devil gets no more screen time, no more distractions.

If you’ve seen The Bible or if you catch Son of God in theatres, let us know what you think in the comments. Do you think graphic depictions of the crucifixion have a place in biblical movies? Will films of this nature have an impact beyond faith-based audiences?

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By Krista Bontrager

Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.

Additional resources:

  • “How to Watch a Movie,” Part 1 and Part 2 (Straight Thinking podcast)
  • As part of her church’s read-through-the-Bible campaign for 2013, Krista produced a podcast series that goes through the entire Bible and explains how all the stories in the Bible tell the overall story of the Bible. The podcast, Points of Interest, is available on iTunes and on YouTube.

Subjects: General Apologetics