Bible in Film

Adding to The Good Book's longstanding history on the big screen.

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In the aftermath of the hotly contested 2004 election, pundits and pollsters grew convinced that values, not politics, were the determining factor in George W. Bush's narrow re-election victory. Voters hungering for old-fashioned, God-fearing values chose the born-again Bush over John Kerry (or so the story went). Religion reemerged as an influential force in mainstream American society, and the trickle-down effect of this electoral revolution extended to pop culture and Hollywood in particular. The filmmaking process being what it is, some of these films are only now beginning to see the light of day, facing a profoundly different political and cultural climate than that of 2004.

While the subject of much media speculation, this is hardly the first time that films have turned to the Bible for inspiration.

bible in cinemaThe Bible has been a regular guest in movies since their inception, in one of two guises: as moral lesson or as spectacle. In movies ranging from Cecil B. DeMille's shlock masterpiece The Ten Commandments to Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue, movies and the Bible have gone hand in hand, bringing God’s word, or some modern semblance thereof, to the masses. Two 2007 Bible-themed films--the Steve Carell vehicle Evan Almighty, and the sketch-comedy omnibus The Ten-- take their inspiration from the Bible, seeking fun and occasional moral uplift from the Good Book. Their efforts are bumpy at best.

Evan Almighty

In Evan Almighty, Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) hears God's voice, and sees his presence everywhere--in Baxter's SUV, outside his suburban McMansion, in the private sanctum of his Congressional office. Embodied by Morgan Freeman (of course), this is God 2.0-- folksy, amiable, and completely personalized. God, as it turns out, is soliciting Evan's help for a little ark-building project. Without specifying why, and with the "how" clarified by a crisp new copy of Ark Building for Dummies, God politely, but unstintingly, demands complete, unquestioned obedience, and Evan Baxter--husband, family man, Congressman--listens.

Outside the realm of overly sentimental "family" comedies, though, the people convinced they hear God's voice are too often demagogues and extremists. They are the ones who behead journalists, stone Sabbath violators, and demand fidelity to papal edicts from their politicians. Their unshakable assurance is born of a conviction that each of their beliefs is built on a rock-solid foundation of God's will. The God of demagogues is a tyrannical, demanding sort who requires from disciples an unbending devotion and a willingness to lash out at those who do not meet his requirements. Evan's God is a far cry from the lord of the Old Testament or of Islamic fundamentalists. However, the implication of his conversion into an unbending, obedient servant of God's will is a plot development whose far-reaching implications have clearly not been thought out by the film's writers. Evan Almighty seeks to render God fuzzy and lovable, but still, for the film's creators, it is only through unstinting obedience to God's voice that a measure of happiness can be acquired.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.