Popular entertainment, especially the kind that hits big, may be the most effective barometer of our culture. And also ourselves—who we are, who we want to be, who we expect to be.
It’s fascinating, then, that in a culture largely averse to the Bible and its authority, the recently released Son of God and Noah films will usher in a wave of upcoming big-budget Bible films—and even an NBC TV series. These productions were apparently green-lit in the wake of the titanic ratings success that was The Bible miniseries on The History Channel.
So in this sea of releases, it’s important that we, as the body of Christ, step back to get an accurate view of pop culture and seize the opportunities inherent in Bible-themed entertainment to proclaim the gospel.
Pop Culture Unites
If you think about it, there’s not much people get excited about at the same time. Politics and theology are increasingly divisive. But, golly, can we all get pumped up together that the next Hunger Games is coming out or that Sherlock is back with three more episodes or that every time it snows there will be a flurry of Frozen-inspired “Do you wanna build a snowman?” tweets. There is a communal nature to our entertainment culture.
Francis Schaeffer notes this fundamental truth that art inevitably influences, drives and unites general cultural conversation: “If Christians try to talk to people as though [they aren’t embedded in popular culture], when in reality they are…we will only beat the air.” We need to participate wisely in pop culture as a 21st-Century Mars Hill, bringing a biblical worldview to the conversation. Even if that worldview might be in the minority.
Given the budget, attention and star power—the buzz—of a film like Noah, we will have many chances to join the conversation and unite with unbelievers around these Bible-based releases.
There is Money to be Made From the Faithful
It’s also important that we don’t lose sight of what’s driving so many Bible-themed releases. It’s not altruism or concern for biblical literacy—it’s money.
The miniseries The Bible is not the first success for productions targeting the faithful. A decade ago, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was a box office juggernaut. These two success stories alone attest that people of faith have, for a long time, desired large-scale depictions of their stories and values onscreen. And they’re willing to pay to see them, even if a theological mark or two is missed.
So, as we head into the upcoming season of faith-based cinema and shows, let’s not check our brains at the door as we take our seats for Bible stories on the big (or flat) screen. We need to keep in mind that these films are meant to make money, that they are largely made by secular-minded artists and that Hollywood is ultimately hoping for another Passion-like hit. They deal with Christian stories and themes, but they are not “Christian.”
That being said, we do have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the conversation these releases afford us in the public square.
Pop Culture and Worldview Conversations
Stories form the lens through which worldviews are often shaped. Popular culture, as a unifying factor, creates the basis for a worldview conversation. So a fresh crop of popular-level Bible entertainment presents the opportunity for the believer to have the water cooler conversation about what the Bible actually says.
According to early reports, Noah does apparently get a little extra-biblical. But the film also presents fairly clearly the doctrine of sin and its offense to a holy God. Dr. Jerry Johnson, President of the National Religious Broadcasters, who attended a special advance screening, notes:
Noah, Methuselah, and the heroic characters of this movie all affirm God as the Creator and just Judge. In a scene that backs up the doctrine of total depravity, Noah says there is evil in his wife and his sons, even though they will be on the ark. What is more revealing, after seeing an image of himself in a corrupt city, he comes to realize and admit his own sinfulness. This is beyond a mere surface treatment of sin, and it is thought provoking.
So when truth about the depravity of man is given such stark treatment in a major Hollywood release, we must seize the opportunity for that discussion over squabbles about the length of a cubit or the appearance of the ark.
It sounds as though Noah is portrayed as a human being who sins but receives saving grace from His Creator—and that’s the conversation worth having. Embrace these wide-release entertainments as a divine opportunity to dialogue and demonstrate the power of the gospel as shared in God’s Word. No movie or miniseries can do the work of the Word. No, that wonder-working power plays out as God’s people preach the sacred script of the gospel in their daily spheres.
But isn’t it nice when pop culture queues the script?