Beliefs Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

3 religious hurdles Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ must overcome

The big budget Bible film hits American theaters on Friday, but it faces a few significant hurdles to winning over religious audiences. - Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox
The big budget Bible film hits American theaters on Friday, but it faces a few significant hurdles to winning over religious audiences. - Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox

The big budget Bible film hits American theaters on Friday, but it faces a few significant hurdles to winning over religious audiences. – Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox

When we began 2014–the “Year of the Bible” as it was called–many wondered whether religious audiences could carry films to financial success. With “Son of God” taking in nearly $60 million, “Noah” earning more than $100 million, and the insane success of “God’s Not Dead”, the answer is a resounding “yes.” But Hollywood will conduct its final experiment on Friday when Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” arrives in theaters.

In some ways, “Exodus” hopes to strike a balance between the two poles of recent Bible films. “Son of God” was a wooden and overly literal adaptation of the Jesus story that captured traditionalist Christians but didn’t penetrate deeply into the general market. “Noah” captured non-religious audiences with an all-star cast, but the fanciful, less literal portrayal put off some religious watchers. With an estimated production budget of $140 million, “Exodus” can’t afford to lose either. But in order to win over believers en masse, the film will have to overcome three hurdles.

According to a 2014 poll of 1,200 adults nationwide, 79 percent of Christians say that accuracy is important to their ticket-buying decisions when it comes to movies dealing with questions of religion. In other words, these potential patrons want a biblical film that sticks to the text and gets at least most of the facts right. This can be a massive hurdle for filmmakers who want to make good art, not just regurgitate a well known tale.

I’ve argued elsewhere that “artistic liberties are inevitable whenever a story is transferred from one medium to another…[which] requires that audiences actually think about symbols and forms.” But most Christians sadly don’t think this deeply about films and art. They simply want their Bible movies to look and sound familiar and align with the images they already have in their heads–regardless of how mythologized those pictures may be.

Having screened “Exodus” last week, and not wanting to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I can report that there are some critical deviations from the text that viewers familiar with the Bible will notice. Whether or not these alterations will generate negative responses remains to be seen, but they are significant and numerous enough to be a possible hurdle for this film.

Connected to the last point is the way the voice of God is imagined in this film: as a pre-teen boy. Played by 11-year-old British actor, Isaac Andrews, God turns out to be a temperamental and impatient, if not impetuous, child. While Scott seems to portray the character more as the voice of God or God’s messenger, when Moses asks who he is, the boy answers with the classic God-name: “I Am.” Religious audiences won’t miss this moment.

Rabbi David Baron, a consultant on the film, said he believes that Scott’s decision to portray God in this way–among other artistic deviations–might cause controversy, because it does not fit with the story as it appears in the text. “They went off the biblical text, but the text was very terse,” he said.

Representatives for the marketing firm, Faith-Driven Consumer, were more pointed with their assessment. “The portrayal of God as a willful, angry and petulant child in EXODUS will be a deal breaker for most people of faith around the world,” a statement from the company said. To be fair, the company may be feasting on sour grapes after they asked to become advisors on the film and were rejected. Regardless, their opinion of Scott’s bold decision may prove true when religious audiences view the film for themselves.

Last week, I wrote about how Hollywood has largely barred minorities from Biblical films and why this is problematic. “Exodus” is no exception to this trend. It boasts a largely white cast–with Sigourney Weaver laughably playing an African queen –and relegates actors of color mostly to smaller roles such as “Ramses Servant,” “Egyptian Thief,” and “Egyptian Lower Class Civilian.” And the inequity was not helped by Scott’s tone deaf response to those who’ve raised concerns: “get a life.”

The monochromatic cast has proved disconcerting to many, sparking widespread criticism and calls for a boycott on social media. But, specifically, many religious people like myself have expressed dismay. Ryan Herring of Sojourners, for example, vented his outrage for both “Noah” and “Exodus” when he realized there wasn’t a single person of Middle Eastern descent in either film.

“Throughout the history of European imperialism and colonialism this type of indoctrination was present. Depictions of white only Biblical figures (including prophets, angels, Jesus, etc.) were intentionally used to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of white divinity (and therefore superiority) upon the minds of the oppressed and conquered,” he said. “By allowing Hollywood to hijack Biblical stories and display them however they please, we as Christians have also allowed them to be cheapened. We often miss out on cultural aesthetics, language, motifs, and overall richness when stories are told through the lens of European ideals and thought patterns.”

With the country in such a raw place on the matter of race, it’s an obviously bad time for a film to have such a problem. The question is whether it is glaring and offensive enough to affect ticket sales.

My hunch is that many religious moviegoers will be bothered to some degree by one or more of the aforementioned issues, but they’ll go see the film anyway. Religious people are as enamored by celebrity culture as any other group, and the big-name cast will draw many. It stays close enough to the Biblical narrative to feel like the Exodus story that most have imagined. And, it’s been more than half a century since Moses and Pharaoh tussled on the big screen, so this may be their only opportunity to see this story on film.

While “Exodus” won’t gain the critical acclaim of “Noah” or the religious support of “Son of God,” it will probably earn more than those two films combined. That should be more than enough to convince Hollywood to part the seas for another slate of big budget, Bible-based films in the coming years.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Artistic liberties are great. As the author of an upcoming novel portraying some of the events surrounding the Great Deluge (in a fictional way, but one which seeks to honor simple truths expressed in Scripture), I was VERY excited to see “Noah.”

    But my hopes were dashed when upon seeing the film I was subjected to the disgraceful way the writer and director portrayed the protagonist. Noah’s hopes, motivations, character, and struggle … all portrayed beautifully (and not “woodenly” at all) in the Scripture … were simply gotten completely wrong. 180 degrees wrong, in some respects. (Fundamentally, they portrayed Noah as bent on the destruction of the human race, to the point where he was willing to kill his own granddaughter. A simple reading of the Bible reveals this was basically the opposite of the truth.)

    That was incredibly offensive and frustrating. Nevermind all the ridiculous blather about demons who were cast to earth and became rock people but could re-ascend to heaven if they defended God’s chosen from attack. (That’s creative license … far-fetched and somewhat laughable, but creative.)

    So, now here comes Moses. Christian Bale likens his character to a bloodthirsty terrorist. And God, a petulant child?

    As a professor of mine in Bible college used to shout, when we dumb students got something simple so very wrong: “DON’T YOU READ YOUR BIBLE???”

    I think I’ll sit this one out.

  • Much of Christian art starting with the Middle Ages was symbolic and viewed through artistic lenses and not orthodox lenses. Yet for many such art has been the first step to taking a serious interest in the Christian and Jewish religions.
    Hopefully modern movies can be sparks to faith like so much Medieval and Renaissance art has been a spark igniting faith for many modern seekers.
    In fact, some historians claim that one great strength of the Catholic Church comes from its refusal to have become iconoclastic at the time of the Reformation, thus keeping alive the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation while Protestants were smashing stained glass windows, burning Catholic art, or hacking apart crucifixes.
    Let us hope that modern movies, in spite of some unorthodox accretions, can become for our age what paintings and other art were for faith in an earlier time.
    I still remember the great movie about St. Thomas More (“A Man For All Seasons”) and St. Bernadette Soubirous and Lourdes (“The Song of Bernadette”) as well as the great movie about St. Thomas Becket starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. (Movies beloved by many Catholics)
    But I bet if those movies were carefully nit-picked they would probably be found to not be wholly orthodox. Yet those movies became a spark to faith for many.

  • What Aronofsky’s “Noah” had going for it was Aronofsky’s insertion of kabbalistic and Enochian themes. I haven’t seen anything in “Exodus” that would be interesting for the mystically inclined.

  • I’ll shell out the $11 (senior discount) but I’m not expecting anything more than 120 minutes of film entertainment. I never go to films hoping to encourage my personal faith, and anyone who DOES would do better to stay home and read their bible or sit with other believers and discuss their faith. Movies are entertainment. Period! “Son of God” was NOT! “Noah” was a turgid mess! And I refused to see “God’s Not Dead” because it was nothing but Christian triumphalism, and I do not need that.

  • “More than half a century?” Did Jonathan Merritt forget about The Prince of Egypt, which is still the best bible movie ever made?

  • I roll my eyes at comments that come off snarky, such as Jonathan’s “most Christians don’t think that deeply about art” comment. Talk about a baseless over generalization!

    Jonathan, try thinking less about how snarky you can sound about “mainstream” Christianity and think about how fans (insofar as Christians would be considered fans of The Bible) of any classic work react to adaptations. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series both come to mind. Fans are HIGHLY critical of artistic deviations from the original text because their allegiance is to the original text, not because they are incapable of seeing outside the box or because they lack artistic depth, but because they love what was originally presented. Deviations are “messing with a good thing.” Now, the difference between the Bible and works of fiction make this deviation more stark. Where are you taking your artistic license? Are you changing an orthodox view of God so that he becomes perceived as petulant? That kind of act offends because changing the character of God changes everything about the a bible and the story you’re telling.

    Son of God was more literal, yes, but it still took artistic license with the content of conversations that were had between characters. But the movie preserved the character of Jesus.

    So before you attribute objections to a certain work as an inability to appreciate depth, consider what it is that is being objected to and why. Perhaps there’s a lot more depth there than you give credit for.

  • The Noah film had a good narrative and was visually & musically appealing. I enjoyed it. I didn’t go see it to just see what I had read in The Book, I went to see something creative that was an interpretation of the famous story. These are the same things I will expect from Exodus: Gods and Kings.

    As far as how religious audiences will react…. Suffice it to say that Christians are so incredibly exhausting to be around sometimes.

  • I know I’m repeating myself from my “Noah” comments but it needs to be said in the context of this new article. It should have been titled “3 _Christian_ hurdles.” Like your response to “Noah,” it illustrates a certain Christian privilege, that anyone religious and interested in the film must be a Christian. You even mention that a rabbi consulted on the film. You misquote him and say that he admitted the movie does not “fit with the story.” In fact, his statement, “They went off the biblical text, but the biblical text was very terse,” is a description of midrash, what rabbis have been doing for centuries. You can’t do a movie without poetic license, whether you call that midrash or a screenplay.
    And please explain it to me: you yourself criticized “The Bible” miniseries for getting basic Bible stories wrong. Why is it that you use apologetics for blatant mistakes like changing the ram at the binding of Isaac to a lamb? Any objective observer can see this was done to Christologize the story, to turn it into yet another “proof text” like proselytizers have done with the Hebrew Bible since the Gospels. Yet you explain it away as saying that a lamb is “aesthetically pleasing.” Why is it that a popular Christian miniseries about the Bible gets a pass for _changing_ the text to make it more palatable for Christians, but a non-Christian film about the Bible gets hammered for _interpreting_ the text?

  • “Son of God” was an “overly literal” adaptation… It had many problems, but that was not one of them.

  • Again, I don’t know what you count as “Middle Eastern” (which isn’t even an ethnicity, strictly-speaking), but Noah co-starred Jennifer Connelly, whose mother was Jewish, and Logan Lerman, who is 100% Jewish.

    Why does the mainstream media refuse to print these simple facts?

  • Again, I don’t know what you count as “Middle Eastern” (which isn’t even an ethnicity, strictly-speaking), but Middle Eastern Arabs didn’t write the Bible, Jews did (Arabs didn’t even live in the Levant region until the 600s).

    Noah co-starred Jennifer Connelly, whose mother was Jewish, and Logan Lerman, who is 100% Jewish.

    Why does the mainstream media refuse to print these simple facts about their ancestry?

    Do you believe a lightning bolt from above will strike you down if you? Why don’t you print their actual ethnicity and see if it does?

  • Noah wasn’t Jewish. The Israelites didn’t even exist until after Abraham. Your concept of “middle eastern” is highly suspect.

  • Based on the box office failure of the film. The boycott worked. The film was budgeted at 140 million and is on track to make 60 million domestically. For it to be profitable, it would need to earn 280 million globally or a minimum of 150 million domestic due to marketing and distribution costs.

    It will do neither.


    Next time maybe Hollywood will think twice about discriminatory and blasphemous filmmaking.