Last month, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods & Kings capped off a year of biblical films. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, it is a Bible epic made by a director who has identified himself both as agnostic and atheist. Yet Scott’s approach to his story is very different from Aronofsky’s — and both reflect ways we believers approach Scripture, too.
I enjoyed Noah, particularly how Aronofsky used midrash, an ancient Jewish approach to Scripture used to fill in narrative gaps in difficult or sparse passages with the goal to better understand them. While Noah has elements outside the Bible narrative, many of Aronofsky’s choices are rooted in Jewish and biblical texts. He shows a respect for the narrative that ultimately helps us wrestle with the story’s hard questions.
I was disappointed by Exodus. Unlike Noah, it was not well-received by critics. Many found the film inconsistent, disjointed and unconvincing.
Take the film’s uneven portrayal of God. Moses’ first encounter with God comes after a head injury, suggesting his vision of God (as a grim and angry child) is a delusion. Yet God’s reality is displayed powerfully later in the film.
I was also disappointed by how the film’s flaws undermined its approach to one of the more disturbing aspects of the Exodus narrative. As Peter Chattaway points out in his review, Scott is troubled by why God would let people suffer so long, as well as by the violence of God’s actions. Indeed, one of the more moving parts of the film is Rhamses’ confrontation with Moses after the death of Rhamses’ son. “Is this your God? A killer of children?” asks Rhamses, holding out his child’s body.
That’s a question worth tackling, but we lose its context in the film. After all, the man asking the question demands to be worshiped as a god himself, strips an entire people of their humanity through slavery and follows in the footsteps of a man who slaughtered Hebrew children.
But we get no real sense of that in the film. Even as Scott fleshed out the Egyptians characters, he “watered down his protagonists, giving us almost no insight into their suffering and burning need for liberation,” writes Annalee Newitz in her io9 review.
Part of the inconsistency may be explained by Scott’s own struggle with belief in God while simultaneously trying to understand him. In Variety, Scott Foundas says the director describes himself as “compelled by the notion of Moses as a reluctant hero — a nonbeliever like himself who . . . finds himself actively questioning God’s plans and his own role in them.”
Or perhaps Exodus ultimately fails because Scott approaches the story by eliminating and adding elements to make it fit with his own unsettled journey and worldview. In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, Scott describes himself as a “very practical person” who chose what elements to accept and reject in the story based on “what did make sense and what didn’t make sense” to him.
That’s not an uncommon way to approach Scripture, even for believers.
“Some people read the Bible as if its passages were Rorschach inkblots. They see what is in their head,” writes Scot McKnight in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. “Instead of being an opportunity for redemption, the Bible becomes an opportunity for narcissism.”
To some extent, Noah and Exodus reflect these two approaches to Scripture. And that’s part of the reason I love film: for the stories it tells and how it tells them, and also for the way it challenges us to think about how we read and tell those stories.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.