I’m starting to wonder if Christians can be happy about anything. Ever.
Take for instance this week’s launch of the Mark Burnett and Roma Downey produced docudrama, “The Bible.” I was expecting typical, cheesy, low-budget cable production, but was quickly invigorated by the visually stunning opening sequence. In the first three-minutes I was sold on the worth of the mini-series.
But reading Christian blogs this week I’ve noticed that more than a few fellow Christians have been outright negative in their reviews. While many people enjoyed the opening salvo of “The Bible,” a lot of Christian viewers, were, well…ticked.
Why? Because they’re Christians.
We now live in a Christian sub-culture which refuses to be happy about virtually anything. I know this from personal experience. Like I’ve said, I was a kindergarten legalist and lived much of my life being reflexively against…well, everything. I get it. I know how to be small and narrow and grudging. But I’d hoped we’d know better by now?
A Familiar Story
Remember last year when some uptight, control-freaks denounced the movie, “The Blindside” and pressured Lifeway Christian Stores to remove the movie from its shelves? When it was released, Hollywood rejected “The Blindside” as a feckless, pro-Christian tome. After all, it showed a Christian family, behaving in Christlike ways, and living as an example of the doctrine of adoption. Apparently, that was too much for some Christians to handle because the movie also involved “explicit profanity” and “racial slurs.” With too much time and too little sense, some sententious blowhards worked effectively to pressure Lifeway to stop selling the movie. I’m not sure where it is, but evidently, these folks live in a place where Christians never encounter profanity and racial slurs. Another part of the Christian Reality Distortion Field, I suspect.
Here we have a wonderfully made movie, an Oscar winning Lead Actress, and a story that not only reflects Christian values but an actual doctrine of scripture and Christians go get all agitated.
Why? Because some of us refuse to be happy about anything.
Back to The Bible Miniseries
The problem with The Bible docudrama, for some, was they felt it mishandled scripture. If there’s one thing I can assure you of, it’s this: Whenever any one person handles the scriptures there will be ten people lined up to tell them how they mishandled it.
Never mind the fact that the same starchy set of believers constantly lament the “trash” on TV – gratuitous sex and violence and all that – but when “The Bible” comes on, we piddle on that as well. Some complained the producers “added” and “embellished.” Others complained about the parts that were skipped. And, of course, there is the tried and true lambast from Christians against Hollywood: They have an agenda.
Of course, the filmmakers have an agenda. And so does the sanctimonious swarm of grumblers who criticize them.
Too many Christians fail to deal with the simple and obvious truth that all of us privilege the Bible in some way. We all have an agenda, whether we recognize it or not. All of us believe some portions of scripture are more important than others. All of us “read” the Bible in a certain way, and all of us believe the Bible should be handled in ways that reflect our biases. When someone’s hermeneutical lens doesn’t align precisely with ours, we get twisted and sharp even if those same people are giving us 90% of what we wanted to begin with. This “all or nothing” thinking has given us reflexive unhappiness.
The Real Problem
The problem is rarely that someone mishandled the scriptures in some kind of objective and universal way. That’s not why people are upset. People get upset when someone else’s Bible is not highlighted just like theirs. We become unhappy when the stories, interpretations, and emphases we’ve learned and inherited from our tribe of the Christian faith isn’t privileged in the same way by others. And since many folks have spent a lifetime convincing themselves that their interpretations of scripture are the only interpretations of scripture, instead of appreciating and listening to the voices of other committed believers, they take yet another opportunity to be mad about something.
Some will protest, “Well, they added to the Word. They augmented the text. Characters said things they never said in the Bible. The stories of the Bible are compelling without people adding to them.” Hogwash! Yes, the filmmakers added dialogue, the producers filled in some gaps, and smoothed over rough edges. The Bible wasn’t written as a screenplay. To move a storyline along, storytellers use imagination and creativity to reframe stories for maximum impact. They are not changing the story, they’re filling it out. Through the years it’s been called midrash.
And it usually doesn’t bother people.
How do I know? Our favorite preachers and Bible teachers did it the last time we heard them speak and we didn’t say anything. Pastors do it every week, regardless of what stream of Christianity they are from. Using our best knowledge of history and our best storytelling capabilities, Bible teachers bring life to stories. What’s more, last week no one showed up for church, heard someone read directly – and only – from the Bible and then turned around and went home. Someone put meat on the bones.
When Nehemiah sets his vision for the rebuilding of the walls, the Bible tells us he “read from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8 NRSV).” I’ve never heard anyone criticize Nehemiah for that. Have you?
Some Christians’ suspicions about Hollywood have heightened their sensitivity regarding connotations found in Biblical movies, but doing so reveals our hypocrisy. Because we’re really not against garnishing a story; we’re not against illustrative technique; we’re not against allegory; we’re just unhappy about “The Bible” miniseries because some Christians deem unhappiness as a fruit of the spirit and this miniseries gives them an opportunity to do be fruitful.
A Better Way Forward
But there is a better way forward. Jesus’s disciples faced a similar situation. In Mark 9, John comes to Jesus concerned that others are healing in Jesus’ name. How did Jesus respond? He said, “If they’re not against us, they are for us.” In the words of an old friend, when it comes to differences in interpretations, say “yes” when you can say yes and only say “no” when you absolutely have to.
That seems to make a lot of sense to me. It also seems like it would make many people happier.