3 Reasons to Watch Bible Movies and TV

Exploring the passions of Holy Week

The Easter season often sees a spate of Bible-related TV programming and film openings. Ages ago, it was the annual airing of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film “The Ten Commandments” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which featured Swedish actor Max von Sydow as a blue-eyed Jesus. Now we have a number of new works offered— "Risen" (about a Roman leader searching for Jesus’ corpse), "Young Messiah" (based on an Anne Rice novel about Jesus as a boy), “Of Kings and Prophets” (hard-edged TV fare about Saul and David), and “The Passion” (a star-studded musical drama event shot live in New Orleans).

As you lead your people into Bible engagement, this content presents you with a challenge and an opportunity. Can you trust Hollywood to tell the biblical story properly? Chances are, if you watch any of these shows, you could find a number of moments where the scene on screen seems at odds with the biblical text. Should you warn your people away from these productions, so they won’t be led astray? That could be a mistake. Here’s why.

1. These works are highly engaging.

We long for our people to be engaged with Scripture—excited about the story, thinking about its meaning. Your church may be filled with people who sit politely and listen to your correct doctrine, but where’s the excitement? How can you light a fire under them?

We also long to speak God’s Word into our communities, to equip our people to talk about their faith with their neighbors and coworkers. All too often our evangelism training seems like just another multi-level marketing scheme. How can we spark authentic conversations with non-Christians on spiritual matters?

Maybe these shows can help.

Instead of bad-mouthing these media offerings, try asking your people to watch them and then compare them with the biblical accounts. Could you suggest that they view these films and TV programs with friends and then discuss their content? Even when a show misses the mark biblically, it still gives Christians a chance to think and talk about what the Bible really says.

2. There are always challenges in translation.

The Bible comes to us in a verbal medium. We are given certain descriptions of what people said or did. But problems quickly arise whenever anyone tries to translate that into visual form. What was Jesus wearing at the Last Supper? How many people were in the crowds that shouted “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!”? When Jesus looked at Peter after his third denial, what did that “look” look like? These are questions that a videographer must answer, even though Scripture leaves those details blank.

Moving from verbal to visual requires some creative license, but it can also create difficulties (like a Swedish actor playing the Jewish Jesus). As we move increasingly—and almost exclusively—into a visual age, these are issues we’ll need to deal with. It doesn’t mean we should blithely accept every new imagining of Bible stories, but it might enlarge the benefit of the doubt we offer to creative folks working in a modern medium.

3. Creative interpretations can open new doors into the text.

I am fascinated with the approach taken in “The Passion.” (Full disclosure here: its producers have asked American Bible Society to set up a Bible content website for viewers.) Key moments from the biblical accounts of Holy Week are played out and then interspersed with pop songs sung by the biblical characters.

Wait— what?

Yes, Jesus sings "Love Can Move Mountains" (from Celine Dion) after the Triumphal Entry and Creed's "With Arms Wide Open" at the Last Supper. And, given what we know of the craziness of Roman rule in Palestine, it’s strangely appropriate for Pilate to sing "Mad World" after sending Jesus to be crucified. (Note that any of these details may change before the live broadcast.)

There’s a lot to question here. Are they singing about a fluffy “love” rather than the sacrificial love of God’s Son? Maybe. But then that’s something to talk about. Is it love that moves mountains or rather faith in the love of Christ? Discuss.

Yet this mashup gives us an emotional avenue into the story. How did Judas feel at that pre-betrayal moment, or Peter after the denial, or Mary seeing her son crucified? What is the emotional soundtrack of the gospel story? This program does not get everything right, but it might help some viewers engage with Scripture in a new way—through their feelings, and through the emotive power of pop songs. And a lot of these potential engagers are people who don’t come to your church, or any church . . . yet.

Questions to Ask

Let me suggest a basic discussion strategy for groups and families interacting with these films and TV shows—one that roughly follows the points in this post.

  1. What were the most interesting/exciting/engaging moments you saw? Why were they so powerful?
  2. After reading the biblical account, what “creative license” did the screenwriters/directors take? How did they “translate” the Bible text to the screen? What was lost in translation, and what was gained?
  3. What new avenue did you find into the story? What feeling or idea or question did you experience through this production?

The apostle Paul wrote from prison about people who preached the gospel for the wrong reasons. On other occasions, he strongly criticized his opponents, but here he tells the Philippians, “It does not matter! I am happy about it—just so Christ is preached in every way possible, whether from wrong or right motives” (Philippians 1:18).

You may have strong disagreements with any of the productions launched this Easter season, including “The Passion.” But don’t miss the opportunity to make use of these programs. Consider how these interpretations, imperfect as they are, might lead people to discover what the Bible actually says, and who Jesus really is.

The Passion Live airs on the Fox network Sunday, March 20, at 8 pm EDT. Feel free to direct your people to our Bible content website.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is a free-lance writer and former Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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