It was announced that there was going to be a blockbuster movie based on the Biblical story of Noah – you know, the one with the flood and all the animals. The Christian community lapped it up but the reactions upon seeing it were very mixed. Many suggested that the filmmakers played pretty fast and loose with the original story – and they were right. Fantastical creatures and concepts were added to hardly-un-fantastical global flood mythology. Those same filmmakers claimed that they had never intended to retell the bible story at all. Cue mild-mannered movie-going uproar.
Should we really be that surprised that this supposedly Biblical epic bears little resemblance to the story in Genesis (and while we’re on it, I would be very surprised if we’re not having a similar conversation about the Exodus movie coming in a few months)? Of course not. Hollywood filmmakers have been taking substantial amounts of artistic licence with true stories for years. Decades, The infamy of William Wallace owes far more to the efforts of Mel Gibson and Braveheart than to the ‘true’ accounts of Scottish history books. In war story, U571, the nationality of the eponymous submarine crew changed from British to American, and these are just two examples.
The phrase ‘Based on a true story’ when it comes to mainstream movies needs to be treated with the same level of skepticism as the disclaimer ‘Some scenes have been created for your entertainment’ that recent ‘reality’ TV shows like ‘Made (up) in Chelsea’ favour. Hollywood is built on story-telling and so the emphasis has to be placed on telling a really cracking story rather than on how accurately the events have been rendered, Biblical or otherwise. This powerful raison d’etre never promised “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, but instead a thoroughly absorbing, inspiring, challenging, cracking good tale. This is ‘Hollywood Truth’.
It’s easy to sit in judgement of those in the media and the artistic licence they employ. How tempting to be shocked and appalled and to feel rather like those of faith are fair game to be picked on. But in an increasingly secular culture, why should the true stories of Christianity be treated with any more sanctity than any others? Popular culture doesn’t owe us anything nor afford us special privilege but then neither is it (in the main) setting out to deliberately debunk our truth. Our sense of injustice rises because we know that the content in the Bible is far more than just mere tales but rather God’s living Word, breathed down through the centuries to us today.
The other question coming out of all of this for me is, have we developed our own type of ‘Hollywood Truth’ when it comes to how we read, understand and apply the Bible? Are we guilty of taking the bits we like or understand and polish them to make them acceptable for public consumption? Conveniently skipping over, minimising or completely re-writing the difficult, controversial sections of the Bible narrative to make it more friendly? Are we trying to rework the life-changing words of Scripture – the very word of God himself – into our very own Hollywood happy ending, available to all? The Bible already does a hearty stock in trade in happy endings but only when the entire Biblical narrative is being followed through in context and in its entirety.
There have been many examples of people developing this Hollywood Truth, by picking out sections that work for them and then using it to shield them from accusation, slap on protest placards or even used to bash dissenters into submission. We’ve all done it and sometimes it is the case that we are putting certain points or themes into a new, more contemporary context to make it more accessible to ourselves and to those we with to share God’s story with. But we need to remember to use the whole thrust of the Scriptures rather than merely cherry-pick all the best “action sequences” for the widest possible audience.
The Bible itself, in John 8:32, contains the words, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. Some people take parts of the truth found in the Bible and use it to their own ends. Some really don’t ‘know’ the truth at all. After all, it is not having the truth (on your book shelf or iPad for example) that really matters but rather digging into that truth and getting to know it fully. Understanding the whole picture and how God is speaking through the entire expanse of God’s Word to us. Get hold of that and, well, that really is a happy ending!