connecting theology and life in gospel-centred ways to the glory of God and our joy in Him
There’s been plenty of reviews out there now from various Christians. Most of which have been fairly negative and of the ‘don’t waste your money’ type. Most of these reviews have come to this conclusion on the basis that the movie itself does not stick closely to the original source material (ie. the book of Exodus in the Bible).
I’m of the opinion that any review that does this needs to answer another set of questions, which I’m also not sure there has been a good answer for.
I’d like to do another post about Art in general. I think Christians are bad at interacting with Art, and I also think that this drives some of the poor reviews of this movie. That will have to be for another time as I suspect it’ll be a long post.
So this is what I thought were some of the flaws of the movie artistically:
The scripting is clunky at times. For instance, Ramses finds out about Moses’ true heritage, and in a dinner scene gets very worked up about it. But the rage seems to fly out of nowhere. As Ron Burgandy might put it, ‘Boy that escalated quickly…’
At other times the script leaves very little room for other characters to develop – like Queen Tuya (played by an underutilised Signourney Weaver) who seems to have a passionate hatred towards Moses and his family for undisclosed and undeveloped reasons – Joshua (played by Aaron Paul) does very little – and Nun played by Ben Kingsley seems to have had his screen time wasted.
Speaking of Joshua, there’s an interesting little motif in which Joshua follows Moses as Moses has his dialogues with God. An interesting tension is created as we see Moses speaking to God, but from Joshua’s perspective Moses is speaking to himself. The problem is that this motif never gets explored or opened up. Nothing is made of it in the movie. Does Joshua think Moses is crazy? Does Joshua believe that Moses is speaking to God? We’re not told what to make of it. I suspect it’s Ridley Scott’s dig at the craziness of it all – perhaps we are meant to see through Joshua’s eyes how insane everything is. But, again, because this motif is not further explored we can’t do much with it.
John Tuturro is terribly miscast as Seti, Ramses’ father. He simply does not carry enough gravitas into the role. Further his relationship with Ramses is not explored in great depth – we know there’s disappointment but I was never sure why. And he will forever be the crazy conspiracist from the Transformer movies.
The two main characters, Moses and Ramses, are not overly likeable. Moses’ character arc from the anachronistic sceptical agnostic to faithful follower doesn’t seem believable. Ramses comes across as one-dimensionally brutish through most of the movie, even as the movie seeks to demonstrate tender affection between him and his son.
Because of that it’s the action, and not the characters, that drive the story. The biggest issue I had with this what I simply could not connect with any of the characters – I was simply following them along as they progressed through the story. Probably the biggest example of this is Ramses losing his son. It’s a terrible and tragic moment, but not because the relationship between he and his son is developed enough for me to emotionally invest in the moment, but because as a father who dearly loves his own son I was already emotionally invested. On screen I saw the tears, I understood the pain but my empathy remained low.
With all these negatives the movie just doesn’t hit the mark artistically. Sure, the animation of the plagues is riveting, and the battles sequences at the beginning at very Ridley-esque (although, every battle I watch now is unfulfilling thanks in part to the insight given by this video) but everything in between is deflating.
Here is where Christians are divided in not only how to respond, but also how to engage with their response.
As I mentioned at the start, most reviews I’ve read have been fairly critical and negative – primarily because the greatest failing of this movie has been to remove itself from the original source material. However, this raises the question of why we should expect a generally secular Hollywood to stick to the original biblical source? Why should we go to a movie expecting to walk out worshiping and glorifying God?
I think these questions tap into our understanding of Art in general – which I mentioned earlier will require another post, but I still think the questions are worth pondering.
There’s another issue, though, which I will interact with.
We like when movies stick close to the script and will forgive some embellishment or take liberties that can be well explained (for instance, the Lord of the Rings trilogy). For some reason when a biblical movie does that Christians seem to get all defensive, critical and negative.
Yet, when movies like The 10 Commandments or the Prince of Egypt take liberties (I’d estimate that around 80-90% of both of those movies contain dialogue and story elements which are not part of the original narrative) we’re fine with it.
Why is that?
I suspect the answer lies in our own biases. I don’t mind the adaptations and liberties taken in The Prince of Egypt because those changes still fit neatly into my theological worldview. But when Exodus: Gods and Kings adapts things that don’t fit into my view then I’m uncomfortable and lead towards rejecting it.
Let me suggest that it’s better for Christians to practice and model a different form of engagement with a world suspicious of our place in society, our beliefs and our motives.
How should Christians respond/engage to their culture surrounding them? Not simply by outright rejection – otherwise we will have a message with no audience. Nor by obfuscated immersion – where we end up with an audience but no message. We engage by critical participation.
Probably one of the most upsetting part of Exodus: Gods and Kings, for a number of Christians, was the portrayal of God (through the angel Malak) – shown on screen as an 11 year old boy. God comes across as an 11 year old boy would: petulant, impatient, and ultimately acting out in childish ways.
Certainly, this runs in the exact opposite direction of how Yahweh reveals himself as, ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…’ So what does Ridley Scott’s portrayal of God reveal?
Well, it certainly gives us Scott’s clear view of God – a view which lines up with his own atheistic worldview.
Despite this there are several instances where Scott tips his hat towards the original source material.
First, the naturalistic explanation of the 10 plagues. Though not unfamiliar to anyone who has studied liberal theological scholarship it is still a visually stunning sequence. The movie wants to present these events in an explainable, naturalistic light – but even the vizier’s natural explanation is figuratively ‘killed off’. Scott’s attempt at a pure scientific explanation of the plagues necessarily comes to a laughable end – there is more going on than meets the eye, and even Ramses knows this.
Second, there is in my view a nice moment of scripting in which Ramses proclaims that he is god, not Moses’ God, but he. To demonstrate his godlikeness he will act to kill all Hebrew children. The moment comes back to bite him when God comes on the scene and kills all the firstborn of Egypt in the final plague. Ramses, cradling the dead body of his son, cries out to Moses, ‘What kind of fanatics worship such a God?’ A question with a double edge given what Ramses intended to do in the first place.
Coming back to the question of God’s violence, I think, is a question Christians are not well equipped to answer. It’s an old question, but a question which I believe will now come to greater light and usage in our sceptical world. How do Christians explain the violence in the Old Testament – not only here in Exodus, but also in the rest of the Old Testament?
Scott’s answer in the movie is to justify the killing as retribution for 400 years of oppression and subjugation – that’s how God puts it to Moses when he asks the same question. But how do Christians answer this question – and just as importantly, how does our answer point forward to hope found in the gospel?
This post is already long enough. So let me point to two articles worth reading.
First there is this recent article from Kyle Dillon who looks at God’s conquest of Canaan and briefly outlines how to handle the issue. For a more indepth, and pastoral answer, my mate Nathan Campbell has written a very long but very good post worth reading on the matter.
The answer to the question of violence is long. I’ll flag here that the Divine Command Theory (God said it, so it must be ok) simply won’t engage with our world. So let me strongly encourage reading those articles – Nathans in particular – for answers to this question.
Finally, let me point to two reviews of the movie I think not only do the movie justice but also model critical participation. Dr Bill Salier, ‘The spectacular distance of Exodus: Gods and Kings’ and Al Mohler, ‘Moses without the supernatural’.
More on Art and how to engage with it in the future.
For now, what did you think of the movie? In what ways do you think you’d answer the question of violence in the Old Testament? How else have you critically engaged with culture? Put your thoughts, and questions in the comments below.
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