Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bible Bending Movies: More Pain, Less Laughter?

Evan Almighty, a modern day Noah story, opened in theaters Friday and the reviews have mostly lamented the wasted talents of Steve Carell. But at least one review had the good sense to spare a moment to lament the film's Bible bending.

David Plotz, the writer of Blogging the Bible fame, does not think anyone involved with the film even bothered to read the Noah story of the Bible. "I'm no great religious scholar, but it doesn't take Pope Benedict to see that the Noah story is not a charming little tale about familial love, but a terrifying lesson about our dependence on God: a warning that we are alone in the world and always at the mercy of a wrathful and demanding Lord," writes Plotz.

Plotz is especially concerned with a scene where God, played by Morgan Freeman appears to Noah's wife and tells her that most people "miss the point" of the famous flood story. Rather than a tale of God's anger, God points to out the cooperation it took to bring pairs of animals and a family together, "I think it's a love story about believing in each other."

This "pander at the Christian market," says Plotz, reveals "Hollywood's embarrassingly stupid approach to religion and faith." The simple coffee-mug morality "strips away anything Christian (or Jewish) about the story and replaces it with a message of universal hokum."

That any writer would have the acumen to recognize Bible bending is so exciting and rare I am loathe to criticize Plotz; but it can not be helped. Plotz was right to call Hollywood out for its infantile morality tales. The Bible is ripe for parody; why the need to come to a sugary resolution? But Plotz's concern is not that they are using the Bible to cater to the belief that its message is eternal, but that the movie uses the Bible wrong.

First of all, assuming that there can be such a thing as having a film be "Christian and Jewish," what could possibly be more Christian and Jewish than retelling that story over and over again using whatever cultural means available? Plotz believes that Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, with its portrayal of "suffering and sacrifice" was closer to Christianity than Evan Almighty (I am not kidding, Plotz actually said that). Cinematic tastes aside, how does a film about coffee-mug morality disqualify it as Christian? The Bible is full of coffee-mug morality ("Do unto others as you would have done to you" comes to mind).

The problem with Plotz's conclusion, is that while criticizing Evan Almighty's attempt to distill the Bible's message into a neat feel-good moment about Acts of Random Kindness (or "ark," get it?) Plotz does the same thing, minus the feel-good. "The lesson of the Bible is that faith is hard, and unrewarding, and painful," writes Plotz.

So here is my plea to movie makers and journalists and politicians: stop coming about with lessons we need to learn from the Bible. There is only so much to be squeezed out of a two thousand year-old text; stop trying to make it support every idea that pops into your head.

Lost, found and fallow: Israel attempts to heed biblical commands

The Hamas take over of the Gaza Strip has seriously impeded a deal that would have allowed flour farmers to remain profitable while observing the biblical command to allow the land to go fallow every seven years. Highlighting further how much Israel's economic and political fortunes are tied to biblical commands, last Friday Israel today reported:
"Residents of Beit El on Tuesday joyously resumed compliance with the forgotten biblical commandment to tithe the first wool sheared from a sheep born and raised in the Land of Israel to the priests."

Luckily, because the residents suddenly became aware of Deuteronomy 18:13,
Beit El's Chief Rabbi reports, “These commandments bring us closer to our dream of rebuilding the Holy Temple and supporting the priests.”

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Obama's Bible

During a trip to Iowa last weekend, US Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama told an audience of delegates that America's current issues were "moral problems." Obama is establishing himself as the canidate with "religious values" who will dedicate his presidency to fighting AIDs and ending genocide. And when it comes to raising taxes, Obama believes he has a biblical authority to do so, "There was a period of time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich...I don't know what Bible they are reading," Obama said, as the crowd applauded. "Didn't jive with my version."

Andrew Sullivan, the popular disgruntled conservative blogger, is not surprised that Democrats are using the Bible to justify tax hikes--they learned it from Bush.

Listen to Obama's speech here.

Monday, June 18, 2007


As my penance for neglecting this site last week, here is a quick up-date of what the Bible is up to these days:

Why the need to report on violent uses of the Bible?
The Melbourne Herald Sun (AUSTRALIA) reports that the man convicted of raping a Muslim woman as punishment for reading the Bible will lodge an appeal against his jail term today, based on new evidence from a witness who was named but never called to testify at his trial. Florida newspapers report that a prison inmate tried to pound a pen into his left eye using a Bible as a hammer. Then there is a man in Tennessee who set several small fires in his hotel room using pages from the Bible. Is the irony too irresistible for a journalist to pass up?

The Bible and Society: An International Debate
In a letter to the editor, a man from Jamaica argues that the Bible is a poor moral muse. If Jamaica were to draw moral values from the Bible, then they would need to support genocide, slavery, and the suppression of women. The letter writer concludes, "What Jamaica needs at this time itself up from the moral abyss into which it has been led is not more religion or the appointment of religious persons to important governmental office. Rather, it needs to provide quality education for its citizens, particularly the young, to enable them to unshackle themselves from primitive superstition and mental slavery--to think, to question and to investigate instead. It is the proper use of our minds that will put us above lower animals."

Other countries are debating how much the Bible should and should not be a part of their society. I have already reported on Hong Kong's debate over whether or not the Bible should be classified as offensive. The government of Burma, a predominately Buddhist country, has restricted Bible imports to 2,000 a year. Some newspapers in Poland insert passages from the Bible into their publications. In the US, a writer for the Mens Daily News argues that the US child support policy is not biblical while another writer hopes the US Congress adopt an immigration policy based on the Bible.

Bible Speak: The Endless Comic Material of the Bible
From Sarah Silverman's "Jesus is Magic" to Monty Python's "Life of Brian," the Bible is a comedian's most valuable muse.

"Evan Almighty," the "contemporized" Noah's Ark story starring comedian Steve Carell, opens in theaters this Friday. Director Tom Shadyac prefers that the film be referred to not as a comedy but as a "Bible parable." Watch a trail here; it promises to be a "film of biblical proportions."

Also seizing the opportunity to mine a comic goldmine like the Bible, Jewish comedian David Steinberg has written a novel about his life--in the style of the Bible.
"There is something in 'Bible speak'," observes one book review, "— that vague, generalized cadence where so much is left unsaid — that has set many imaginations on fire."

I think the comedians may be on to something about our Bible curiosity when they play around with its material. Trying to believe the impossible and apply the vague and unrelated to our everyday lives says something about the intensity of our desire for a coherent, mutually agreed upon order to our lives. We are struck by the prisoner and the hotel patron who misappropriated the Bible because it reminds us of just how prevalent the Bible is--it was the only thing readily available to them. No wonder so many societies try to articulate themselves using the language of the Bible. But, just as the image of Steve Carell building a giant ship in the middle of Manhattan strikes us as ridiculous, we have to ask: can't we do better?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Lets Talk About Sex

Douglas Todd, a highly regarded feature writer of the Vancouver Sun, says that everything we know about the Bible and sex is wrong. This is especially important, Todd claims, because "For good and ill, what we think the Bible says about sex matters a great deal."

Teresa Hornsby's recent addition to the literature on the Bible and sex "Sex Texts and the Bible" concludes that the Bible sends no message, or mixed messages, about divorce, adultery, masturbation, abortion, celibacy, sexual abstinence, homosexual relations and even sex with slaves. In other words, says Todd, the Bible has no justifiable place as the source of all our cultural sexual angst.

Tell me about it, says Dan Agin, a professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago. "The crazy religious roots of America's sexuality" with its poor grasp of biological necessity and the complexities of social order, is "America's Sexuality Time-Bomb." A religious understanding of sex, with all its phobias and taboos, will either need to make room for the evolution of sexuality or we will see social order "crack into miserable little pieces."