Category Archives: Movies

Five Movies to Make You Think in the New Year

Why do you go to the movies? For many, it’s about entertainment. Movies certainly possess a powerful ability to make us laugh and cry. Others go to the movies to escape from the pressures and challenges of daily life.

78466801I may be an oddball but I enjoy movies that make me think—especially about the deep questions of life. Some of my most stimulating theater-going experiences have resulted from films that inspired discussion with my wife and children. Earlier this year my son Michael and I saw Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary America. We ended up discussing the movie’s content for more than two hours. As a father, I have always enjoyed the opportunity to talk with my children about ideas that really matter and movies sometimes provide an ideal context for doing just that. Typically, I recommend a reading list for your New Year’s resolutions, but this year it’s movies that are guaranteed to make you think.

Some of these films contain language, violence, and sexual content that some may find objectionable. So, for the most part, these are films for adult viewers. Please use your own discretion in selecting which thinking movies you view in 2015.

5. 12 Angry Men (1957; not rated)

Twelve men serving on a jury are given the task of determining the guilt of a young man charged with murder. Henry Fonda plays the lead role of this black-and-white classic.

What I like about the movie is that it illustrates the various ways that people approach questions of truth and justice. Some jurors find their time wasted as jury members and want to avoid their civic responsibility. Other jurors make up their mind immediately apart from careful consideration of all the evidence. While still other jurors are inordinately influenced by strong peer pressure.

The most powerful scenes depict Fonda’s character asking Socratic questions to get the group to think more objectively about the evidence. In juries, as well as in all areas of life, asking the right kinds of questions about issues of truth can lead to great illumination.

4. Dead Poets Society (1989; PG)

Robin Williams stars as Mr. Keating, an unconventional teacher at a 1950s prep school for young men aspiring to reach the Ivy League. Keating challenges his students to “seize the day” (carpe diem) instead of following conventional ideas of success. I have enjoyed Williams’ dramatic movie roles and this is one of his best.

The film does a good job of raising questions about whether the purpose of education is to challenge young minds to think critically about life’s questions or about providing career-economic success. The underlying philosophical-religious question of man’s need to find genuine meaning in life, especially given life’s brevity, is a central theme in the movie.

3. Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine (2010)

Catholic publisher Ignatius Press produced this powerful TV-movie about Augustine of Hippo’s (AD 354–430) restless pursuit of enduring truth and eventual dramatic conversion to Christianity during the decline of the Roman Empire. The movie illustrates the central truth of Augustine’s autobiography Confessions—namely that human beings were made for God and that nothing else will truly satisfy human longing for the divine. The film, made in Italy, covers many of the major events in Augustine’s life. A 2-disc edition is available that offers extra exploration of the historical and theological issues involved in Augustine’s life and times.

Since Augustine is as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics, this is an important film for evangelicals to see in learning more about one of Christianity’s finest theologians and apologists.

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994; R)

What would it be like to be sentenced to life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? The Shawshank Redemption follows a falsely imprisoned man (Tim Robbins) from the 1940s through the 1970s and does a great job of raising critical questions about the issues of justice and meaning to life. The two central figures of the story (Robbins and Morgan Freeman) discover that art, education, and genuine, loving friendship can help to alleviate the pain and isolation of prison life. But what I like most about this extraordinary film is its illustration of the importance of hope in every human being’s life.

1. To End All Wars (2001; R)

Imagine the plight of World War II servicemen imprisoned by the brutal, fascist Japanese army. Daily life in this prisoner-of-war camp involves heavy labor, physical beatings, and a starvation diet. Yet in spite of it all some of the allied soldiers begin asking the big questions of life, especially questions about suffering.

To aid his men one of the Scottish officers begins a jungle university where the prisoners discuss philosophy, theology, and the arts. Through education, spiritual discipline, and a committed brotherhood these men are able to discover meaning and purpose even in the midst of evil and suffering. This amazing film illustrates such critical themes as hope, self-sacrifice, and redemption. This movie is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

You can also listen to our discussion of these thinking movies on episode 308 of my podcast, Straight Thinking.

What thinker’s movies would you add to this New Year’s resolution list?




Biblical Themes in “The Hobbit”

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, the third and final film in the series, releases in theaters December 17. RTB editor and fan of the book and film series Sandra Dimas stopped by my office to discuss some of the themes in The Hobbit.


The-Hobbit-Battle-of-the-Five-Armies-poster-9-691x1024The story begins with Bilbo Baggins leaving his cozy hobbit hole to join Gandalf and a band of dwarfs on their quest to reclaim vast treasures. Along the way, Bilbo experiences deep personal growth. Do you think this could relate to our faith and stepping out of our comfort zones?

It strikes me that both Lewis and Tolkien (I tend to think of them together) were very good at telling stories and then integrating them with theological, spiritual, and moral lessons along the way. So I can definitely see Tolkien picking that up. He was a great storyteller. In terms of Christian spirituality, I think there are a lot of things in life that compete for our attention—work, even our families, as important as they are. But when we come to know the Lord we begin a spiritual path. Like Bilbo’s path, the spiritual path has great benefits, but it also has challenges and difficulties. That’s how I see it connected to spirituality.

One of the main characters, Thorin Oakenshield, is consumed with greed and claiming what is his, even when faced with an impending war. What does this say of the corrosive power of greed, and how do we keep this in mind as we make our mental Christmas lists?

We live in a capitalist world in which people are weighted and measured by the kind of cars they drive and clothes they wear and home they own. And I think as a father and husband, there’s a side to me that wants to get my family something really nice to communicate that I care for them deeply and that I’ve listened to them and taken the hints. I’m aware of what they’re telling me. But on the other hand I think it’s very easy to be caught up in a merchandise culture and forget that the thing we truly care deeply about is our family. It’s not the things that they can give us; it’s them. We want their love and to enjoy that relationship. Greed is a big problem and I’m not surprised that Thorin’s greed would have application in ours lives.

After realizing his error, Thorin states, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” What can we learn from these poignant words?

That’s a wonderful sentiment. Ultimately we look for the joy of being with those we love. A lot of that can happen without a big price tag. It’s certainly easy to be caught up in the gift giving of the season. Though there’s nothing wrong with purchasing gifts for our loved ones, it’s true that the best things in life—love, humor, and the joy of being together—are free.

Speaking of the joy of being together, in The Battle of Fives Armies dwarfs, wood-elves, men, and the great eagles come together, not for joy, but to fight against their mutual enemy, but it takes some effort to band together. There’s a lot of peace and even sacrifice that need to take place. It brings up the question, how can we Christians avoid infighting and band together to fight for good?

The New Testament speaks of brothers and sisters in the Lord living together in peace, alluding to what’s going to happen in the new creation. The more I read about Lewis and Tolkien, the more I see how they were so deeply shaped by their WWI experience. That was a gruesome war—young men being in the trenches fighting and dying and being replaced by more young men. It seems like Lewis and Tolkien in their own way were trying to come to grips with the brutality and sorrow of the war, to rise above it all and move ahead, to overcome all of that pain and live in peace. Those are very strong themes.

Overall, The Hobbit reminds us that even someone small and lowly like Bilbo can change the world. This theme reminds me of the shepherds at the nativity. They were lowly and insignificant, yet they were called to worship the Christ child and then, beyond that, change the world by proclaiming that the Messiah is born.

That’s a great point. I like it! During the nativity and the advent season, we of course celebrate the coming of the Lord. Yet when you think about the shepherds who probably had very little in terms of what they could give, it’s a powerful statement that they got to witness this extraordinary event. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, was this lowly handmaid and yet she’s involved in this incredible truth. I think in some ways that’s kind of what God does in our lives. He finds us, and most of us are pretty ordinary folk, we don’t have any claim to fame, but God works in our lives and develops our character and allows us to see what awaits us in the new creation. The 12 apostles were also pretty ordinary folk. We’re reminded to see what God does in the lives of people who are ordinary and not terribly famous but willing to leaving their hobbit holes, so to speak.

Tolkien was great at developing characters like Bilbo and Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Simple, lowly characters who left their lives of comfort and changed the world. That’s pretty powerful.

You’ve read more fiction than I have, but I have to say Tolkien sells so many books because he tells stories that hook people and they relate to these individuals in the story and probably they see themselves or others. That’s a powerful thing to do, to get the reader to relate to the story and maybe see yourself or see God in that.

Absolutely. Tolkien was phenomenal at communicating deeper spiritual truths in works of fiction. Would you like to offer any final thoughts on The Hobbit, and, more importantly, do you plan to see it?

Yeah, I’d like to see it. With Tolkien, he was able to draw on a lot of difficult situations to write some really beautiful stories—stories of hope, of purpose. His work informs us that God brings good things out of really bad situations. Christmastime is a great time to grow spiritually in anticipating the coming of the Lord and reflect on the common individuals who are part of the nativity story. We can think about peace, humility, the danger of the sins that just grab hold of us, and how the Lord comes to free us. Those are wonderful elements that people like Tolkien can use in their writings to change people’s lives, giving us hope, a sense of purpose, and challenging us to grow as their characters have grown.


For more on The Hobbit, see “Big Truths from The Hobbit.”


Ethics in “The Hunger Games”

How do the choices we make in pursuit of an end goal impact the outcome of our endeavors? If our cause is worthy enough, are we excused from ethical considerations in our efforts to achieve it? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

These were the questions on RTB editor Maureen Moser’s mind after reading Mockingjay, the third book in author Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. She knocked on my office door recently to discuss ethics and consequences. Whether you plan to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 or not, I hope this post will provide some food for thought. (Possible spoilers included.)


ac09894e-3903-11e4-93ff-bc764e11a888In the Hunger Games, it’s obvious the Capitol is untrustworthy and cruel, but then the leaders of the rebellion also pull some very dirty, even brutal, tricks to win the war in Panem. If you are fighting for the “good guys,” are you ever justified in using unethical tactics to achieve victory?

I think many people, perhaps Christians especially, would say that the means should never violate the ends. That is, a sound approach to ethics means you must have a moral end and moral means to getting there.

One big challenge in war is that the nature of warfare often changes strategies. Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists can come up with a sound ethical code—but applying anything to the battlefield is difficult. During World War II, the Allies occasionally cut corners despite the American policy of not targeting noncombatants. The bombing of Dresden, for example, killed many civilians. So did the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have sympathy for people who have to make those choices. Ethics requires a lot of thought and reflection, but in combat, you have to make instant decisions. You have a second or less to decide if you’re going to shoot or be shot. It’s not easy to know if your means is ethically compatible with your ends. I have a lot of admiration for noble soldiers because they act justly when they could be abusive. It’s easy for me, sitting at my safe desk, to criticize people on the battlefield. My tendency is to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.

War is often evil, always regrettable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary to fight—because if you don’t, the greater evil will prevail. Of course, it’s never comfortable to reason out what the least of the evils is.

The scenario in Mockingjay, of replacing the corrupt Capitol with a new government, brings up an interesting question. When you accept an ends-justify-the-means-mentality, are you building your new beginning on a history of doing things that are ethically unsound?

That’s a great point. I think it’s true that most new wars begin because of the way the old war ended. The ending of World War I caused real problems that historians suggest contributed to the onset of World War II. Also, the way the Second World War ended raised complications for the Cold War. Winners of wars, even though justly fought, must be very careful in how they treat conquered enemies.

In American history, I look at the aftermath of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s policy was to let the South off easy and extend forgiveness. But Andrew Johnson’s administration, which followed Lincoln’s assassination, was about as bad as Lincoln’s was good. The country has paid a heavy price for it in the form of bitterness and racial tensions. Perhaps showing mercy would have been the better policy.

What about the question, would it be wrong to lie to Nazis in order to protect Jews? In this scenario would the ends (saving a life) justify violating one of the Ten Commandments?

If you were hiding Jews and the Gestapo came to your door, most people would agree that you should lie to the soldiers about the refugees’ whereabouts. These questions have been debated for a long time. In general, there are two schools of thought among Christians regarding such scenarios.

Some people would say that lying to the Gestapo agents is something you have to repent of, but it is the lesser of two evils. So, it’s a bad thing to break the Ten Commandments and to lie intentionally—but in this case, it would be the lesser moral offense.

The other school of thought would argue that the greater good of saving a life would mean that that intentional deception was no evil at all. People in this camp would take the view, and I agree with them on this point, that the greater good principle would mean that you haven’t done anything wrong at all.

This brings to my mind the story in Exodus about the Israelite midwives who lied to Pharaoh in order to save the Hebrew male babies. And God rewarded them for it by giving them families of their own!

Yes, in such a case, I would argue that the value of life outweighs your obligation to your political leaders. Personally, I would agree that it would not be wrong to intentionally deceive an evil power that is out to crush innocent human life.

This doesn’t mean I think intentional deception is an easy thing to do; hopefully our conscience tells us that telling the truth is right. I’m thankful that I haven’t had to make that kind of choice, which also puts you and your family at risk. The Corrie ten Booms and Sophie Scholls of history have shown extraordinary moral strength.

We’ve been discussing big topics and intense scenarios. For those of us who will not likely face such choices, how might the ethics we’re talking about apply to everyday life?

I do think many of us face temptation to cut corners. There’s a moral flaw in any theory that allows you to hold an ideal, but then allows you to cheat, lie, and destroy in order to achieve that thing. We have the opportunity to live out the greater good everyday of our lives. If we’re morally strong with the small things, then the more likely we’ll be morally strong when the big things come along.

We need a morality that’s deeply grounded in some form of revelation. I think any kind of secular grounding doesn’t work; we need a broader principle to guide us—love God and love your neighbor. This means we don’t lie to our neighbors and we don’t cheat our neighbors. It isn’t always easy. The Christian life can be very challenging, but I think it’s a deeply rewarding one.

Definitely. Any thoughts you’d like to close with?

Yes, for the New Year’s resolution episode on my podcast Straight Thinking this year, I’ll be sharing a list of thought-provoking movies. I think movies are great, especially the ones that have you walking away from the theatre wondering, how would I respond to that? I hope people will choose to go see movies like that and it sounds like the Hunger Games series raises some issues that need careful thought.


Additional resources


A Review of Dinesh D’Souza’s “America”

AMERICA-OneSheetPoster-July2-webOver the Fourth of July holiday my family and I saw America, a new documentary from Dinesh D’Souza. The film, which sparked a lot of discussion among the members of my family, suggests that there are two basic views of the United States:

1. America the Oppressive Nation

2. America the Exceptional Nation

D’Souza begins the film with interviews of select and high profile people who hold the first view and connects it with some popular historical authors. He then interviews other people who critique the first view and, thus like him, affirm the second. D’Souza served in the Reagan administration and is, of course, a conservative Republican who is greatly critical of both President Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Regardless of political perspectives, the real benefit of this movie is that it gives the viewer the opportunity to think “worldviewishly” and to engage in serious critical thinking about important historical, cultural, and political issues. The categories of race, gender, and class are constantly in the news and this movie allows these topics to be viewed from very different points of view (though clearly D’Souza’s film has a strong perspective, if not an agenda). One possible response to the film is to conclude that maybe the truth is found somewhere in the middle.

In my opinion, every high schooler and college-aged student in the United States should see America. It affords a great opportunity to ponder two very different prisms of America. Whatever your political persuasion, the movie is guaranteed to cause some irritation but also to make you think.

And it is always a good idea to ask yourself: “What is the best argument on the other side?” Truth is far too important for us to allow it to go untested!

For more worldview thinking on movies, check out these other reviews and articles.

How to Think about Near-Death Experiences

MV5BNjc3MzYzMTUzNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTYzNzI2MDE@._V1_SX214_Stories of heavenly visions, like the one at the center of the upcoming film Heaven Is for Real (based on the near-death experience of a four-year-old Nebraska boy), can have a powerful effect on people. They can inspire our imaginations, tug on our emotions, and stir our spirits because they address one of the most haunting questions humans face (or try to ignore): what will happen to me after I die?

A near-death experience (NDE) occurs when someone, usually on an operating table, undergoes clinical death, is resuscitated, and later reports events or circumstances that took place while they were clinically dead. These reports can include the perception of floating above the body, the ability to relate information (such as doctors’ names and descriptions of medical equipment) that would be impossible for the person to know otherwise, and visions of dead loved ones or religious figures.

Evidence for life after death?

Since the 1970s, when NDEs came to the forefront thanks to investigative books by medical professionals such as Raymond Moody and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, researchers have amassed a large amount of data on this phenomenon, some legitimate, some not. Credible NDEs do happen and some of them defy naturalistic explanations. In this way, they can provide some corroboration for the Christian claim that humans are more than a mere body and that there is life beyond biological death.

However, extreme caution must be used in citing NDEs as support for Christianity. This is not smoking gun evidence. Some NDEs don’t fall in line with a Christian worldview, such as those where people see Krishna. Additionally, some people have reported hellish visions, rather than heavenly ones. Others, including Moody and Kubler-Ross, interpret NDEs in light of Eastern mysticism. In other words, NDEs can be used as evidence for everyone’s worldviews.

Thus, it behooves Christians to develop a healthy measure of skepticism with regard to NDE stories. It is precisely because of the strong emotional appeal of such accounts that we must exercise caution and careful thinking when dealing with these and other religious visions. (I join RTB colleague Hugh Ross and national security expert Mark Clark in addressing issues similar to those surrounding NDEs in our book Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men.)

For those planning to see Heaven Is for Real, I’d offer the following tips for thinking through the film. First, after enjoying the initial viewing, move into a mindset of critique and reflection by differentiating between your feelings toward the film and the facts behind the story. Second, ask the following questions: (1) what is the scientific and/or medical basis for NDEs? and (2) what worldview does the film reflect?

Talking about death—and the Resurrection

I do believe that Heaven Is for Real can be beneficial in encouraging people to think about death. This is a taboo topic in our society. Though we know death is inevitable, many of us avoid the subject. Yet if Christianity is true, then it is imperative that we consider what will happen to us when we die.

The central miracle of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would argue that if Jesus rose from the dead, then there isn’t a more important thing for any person to possibly hear than that message. To draw from my book 7 Truths That Changed the World, if Jesus rose from the dead, then that is the most dangerous idea because it turns the paradigm upside down. It means that death isn’t the end.

A movie like Heaven Is for Real, released this Easter, can provide an impetus for talking about death and what Christ did to break its power over humanity.


For more information about the medical evidence for NDEs, I’d recommend the works of Michael Sabom, a Christian, distinguished cardiologist, and careful researcher who has become an expert on NDEs. You can also hear more about this topic in these episodes of my podcast, Straight Thinking:

For more about death in light of the Christian worldview, see these previous Reflections articles:

For more about Heaven and salvation, see these resources:

Coauthored with RTB editor Maureen Moser

Quote of the Week: Captain America

The price of freedom is high and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

— Captain America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

From childhood, my favorite superhero has always been Captain America. In light of the Winter Soldier sequel released today, I’d like to offer two previous articles exploring the worldview questions raised by superhero comics and movies.

Considering “Blackfish” and the Question of Mammals in Captivity

Blackfish_quad2Whatever your opinion about the controversial documentary Blackfish, its impact can’t be ignored. CNN has been airing Blackfish periodically since October 2013. The documentary has won several awards and inspired numerous boycotts. Personally, I have three friends who vowed to cease taking their children to SeaWorld after watching Blackfish; one of them even had an annual pass! Hollywood’s elite is also jumping into the debate, with some artists pulling out of performances at SeaWorld. And now the film is inspiring new legislation.

A California state lawmaker (Richard Bloom–D) recently introduced a bill that would prohibit theme park entertainment shows featuring orcas, such as the popular whale shows at SeaWorld San Diego. Bloom says that Blackfish inspired his bill. According to Bloom’s press release,

There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes. These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pens for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement.

Bloom’s bill not only prohibits the use of orcas for entertainment in California, but also provides certain protections for those orcas currently in captivity. The goal of the proposed law would be to rehabilitate captive orcas and return as many as possible to the wild. In those cases where release isn’t possible, whales must be transferred to ocean-based pens where there is adequate room for them to swim according to their natural instincts. Furthermore, they would not be used for public display or entertainment.

The Message of “Blackfish”

Made in response to the orca-caused death of a veteran SeaWorld trainer, Blackfish features former SeaWorld trainers, whale harvesters, and marine experts to marshal the filmmaker’s case that keeping large-bodied mammals in captivity is unhealthy for the animals and potentially dangerous for their keepers (view the trailer here). The film’s premise is simple: long-term existence in a small, chlorinated tank separated from their natural pod is physically detrimental and psychologically traumatic to orcas, to the point that it drives some killer whales to act out against their trainers in psychotic behavior. After months of silence, SeaWorld finally responded to Blackfish in December 2013, asserting the film is propaganda, not a documentary.

The reasoning of the anti-SeaWorld crowd generally runs along these lines:

  1. Whales were designed to live in the open ocean and reside in pods.
  2. Whales are a highly intelligent species, capable of communicating and of reaching certain levels of reasoning.
  3. Whales are a highly social species, capable of bonding with their young, their pod, and even humans.
  4. Whales are a highly emotional species, capable of feeling such emotions as anger, trauma, and loss resulting from mistreatment or separation from their young or their pod.
  5. Because of their high-level of intelligence, sociability, and emotions, whales deserve protection in their natural habitat and should not be on display for human entertainment.

The Dignity of Soulish Creatures

Blackfish is part of a larger discussion in our culture about the use of higher-level mammals, including those in circuses and zoos, for human entertainment. After watching Blackfish several times, I’ve been struck by the relevance of this discussion to the Christian worldview.

In his book Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job, RTB founder and president Hugh Ross outlines his case for three categories of life: (1) purely physical life; (2) life that is both physical and “soulish” (Hebrew: nepesh); and (3) life that is physical, soulish, and spiritual (humans only). Ross builds a biblical and scientific case for the special creation of soulish creatures.1 These advanced mammals and birds exhibit certain high-level mental and emotional characteristics, including a drive to protect offspring, the ability to foresee the future to some degree, and the capability of engaging in symbolic thought.

If Ross’s theory is correct, then it raises provocative questions about its application to our treatment of these advanced animals. How should an animal’s soulish nature influence political policy regarding captive animals? How should it impact what we view as appropriate for entertainment purposes?

In the case of orcas, is it cruel to keep large-bodied, highly intelligent nepesh creatures in constricting, chlorinated tanks? Since God created whales to roam freely in pods in the ocean, what role should we play in preserving orcas in their natural habitat? Should these animals’ natural desire to serve and please others2 be exploited for mere entertainment?

In addition, I think that the topics raised by Blackfish provide potential for thoughtful dialogue between Christians and the broader culture. It is true that some people believe whales and other animals should have rights equal with humans’. However, that’s not an adequate reason for Christians to remain disengaged from the public dialogue about this issue or to ignore the plight of higher mammals in captivity. Rather, I believe it’s cause for Christians to engage more deeply in the discussion and explore how the Christian worldview comes to bear on this issue.

Although God conferred His image on humans alone (Genesis 1:26–28), perhaps there is a way to recognize the God-endowed soulish properties of high-level mammals without demeaning the special status of humanity. Simply because soulish animals aren’t created in the image of God doesn’t mean that their soulish qualities should be disregarded. Politics aside, our biblical responsibility as stewards of Earth’s resources ought to encourage us to provide some level of protection for higher mammals from exploitation or cruelty.

This is a sensitive issue for many people, but it’s my hope that my reflections here can start a conversation to consider critical questions about how humans ought to be proper stewards over nepesh creatures.


  1. Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job (Grand Rapid, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 119­–29.
  2. Ibid., 132–33.


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.

“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, my friend and RTB colleague 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.


1471969_362683653878214_1179608122_n_largeIn 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?


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.

Reflections on a War Movie: Lone Survivor

340217xcitefun-lone-survivor-posterI’ve seen most of the war movies made over the last seventy years (see “Ken’s Top 50 World War II Films”). I rank Band of Brothers, the 10-part miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks about the real-life heroism of Easy Company as the very best. The recent film Lone Survivor has elements that remind me of the things I appreciated about Band of Brothers. Without giving away the storyline of Lone Survivor, let me simply list some of the things I appreciated about the film.

  1. While the actors do a fine job of playing Navy SEALs, the movie displays photographs of the real men and information about their lives.
  2. The film captures well that unique relationship that combat soldiers (in this case Navy SEALs) share when fighting for their country and sacrificing for each other.
  3. The cinematography of the film cultivates an appreciation for the challenges of fighting a determined enemy in a very difficult region of the world.
  4. Part of the storyline helps to humanize some of the Afghan tribesmen, showing that there are noble people all over the globe who care deeply for others.

I give the movie a 10-out-of-10 and highly recommend people go see it. Though keep in mind, this is an intense film filled with realistic combat violence and blue language common among elite fighting men.

In closing, when I think of America’s noble warriors I’m reminded of Jesus’s words in John 15:13 (ESV), “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Is “Evolution vs. God” a Genuine Science-Faith Apologetics Engagement?

Christians are divided as to how to view the broad theory of evolution. Some believers view evolution as the biological means by which God created the diverse life found on planet Earth (often called theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism). Other Christians reject the idea that human beings are the product of evolution, affirming instead some form of direct divine creation (accepting either young-earth or old-earth creationism theories). Continue reading