Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Avril Z. Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and eductaor with over seventeen years experience making films and helping other filmmakers figure out which films to make. As she says in the first article in this series, "while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work," so we're excited to feature Avril's proposal for what filmmakers who are Christians should consider as they decide which stories to devote large portions of the time and talents to. Avril's entire series is archived here. - Editor
During my first year of film school, I took a screenwriting class where I tried to adapt the story of David and Bathsheba. In my mind, it wasn’t going to be just another Bible story. It was going to be an epic modern adaptation where David would be a politician climbing his way to power by any means necessary. There was going to be drama and intrigue and suspense, and of course romance. And it was going to be entirely based on the Bible, all in efforts to show that David’s sin could still bring salvation.
As I wrote my first outline, I struggled with how to tell the story and still remain true to the text. What I ended up with was a pretty basic outline--David sees Bathsheba, David sleeps with Bathsheba, Bathsheba announces she’s pregnant, Uriah returns home from business trip, David has Uriah killed. After reading my outline, my screenwriting professor started asking several questions about the story: Why does David want Bathsheba in particular? What would be the conflict? How does Bathsheba feel about the affair? Why is Uriah so loyal to David? What is at stake for David, etc. As a fairly new Christian, these questions were harder for me to answer because all of them aren’t clearly stated in the text, and answering them would require adding details to the story that aren’t there. Feeling resentful of my professor for forcing me to go beyond the written word, I eventually opted to abandon that story and write something else.
Re-Imagining Biblical Adaptations
Adapting biblical stories for the screen is hard work, yet there has been an abundance of them made throughout movie history. For many Christian storytellers, the desire to dramatize some of the great stories of the Bible is a major impetus for wanting to make films in the first place. This eagerness has created a market that is at times saturated and overdone. The pressure of appeasing both Christians and other religious groups beholden to these stories can also be a daunting task since interpretations may vary. In 2014, religious critics deemed it to be the “Year of the Bible,” as several Bible-based films were released that year. Charisma News issued a poll that stated that “Eighty percent of the Christian community plan to see the upcoming Exodus movie if it remains true to biblical accounts. However, that number falls to 29 percent if the movie fails to be biblically accurate.” The idea of accuracy may be a deal breaker for some, but often it finds itself in tension with the fact that there are rules of storytelling. There must be relatable conflict, there must be compelling characters, and even the noblest attempt to retell a narrative story will require some massaging in order to keep an audience engaged for two or more hours.
Reading Bible stories and telling Bible stories can be two vastly different experiences. As a book of several stories that point to one central story which centers around God, it makes sense that some detail may be left out in order to make room for that central story. If we tried to tell one of those individual stories on their own, however, more details would be required. The Bible doesn’t tell us why David was so taken by Bathsheba, other than the fact that she was beautiful, and it’s probably not important in light of the bigger story the Bible as a whole is trying to tell. However, making a conscious decision to tell a story about that particular moment in David’s life would require research and thinking deeply about David’s hopes, dreams, fears and shortcomings.
As storytellers, is it acceptable to embellish a Bible story? And if we have to embellish, should we even bother telling the story at all for fear of misrepresenting the text? What does it mean for us to increase our imagination to think beyond what is written? Sandra Levy, author of the book Imagination and the Journey of Faith, expresses the ways in which our hesitation to explore the intricacies behind such stories can sometimes hinder us from knowing God more deeply. She asks, “Why are some seemingly impervious to the pull of these larger questions? Why are so many seemingly content to live out their lives within the everyday frames of family, market, and sport, without addressing larger questions of ultimate meaning?” It is risky business to imagine what goes beyond what we already know and have read. But it is with these questions, Levy suggests, that we lean toward a greater understanding of God’s work in the world.
In order to make peace with such questions, we may need to rethink the practice of imagination itself in order to gain new revelation about the text that we may not have had before. She states: “What I mean by imagination here is the inherent human power to transcend the concrete, to create new images or ideas that can open up new possibility and promise – the not yet of a future we can envision, the re-valuing of a remembered past. Ultimately what I mean by imagination is that human capacity to receive and respond to God's revelation in our everyday lives.” This call to re-imagine, and in some cases re-invent, the stories with which we may be familiar, toys with the possibility that maybe there is more to our biblical texts than meets the eye, and that may not be a bad thing.
What do we have to lose by using our imagination to truly explore biblical texts and characters and their motivations? Perhaps the better question is what do we have to gain? In the case of my professor, she was challenging me to use my imagination to tell a relatable story that would speak to an aspect of the human condition before trying to make a point about God’s authority or forgiveness. After all, how can one understand the significance of David's repentance without weighing the source and consequence of his greed? A second look at the story of David could potentially reveal a powerful story about the tension many of us have felt between right and wrong. It's the very tension Paul talks about in Romans 7:19. What does a beloved king in power do when they encounter the very thing they know they could not have? How can a person say they love someone and yet do the exact opposite of what they want or expect? These and other questions like the ones my professor asked can help us understand why God’s work in the world is so significant in light of the relationship with a flawed human being.
What We Can Learn From Noah
One of the most horrifying scriptures in the Bible for me is Genesis 6:5-6 which says “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth...And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” For me that is probably one of the worst scriptures in the bible. I associate God so much with love, that it’s difficult for me to imagine what was happening on the earth that merely six chapters into the bible, made God say “You know what? I think I need a re-do on humans.” I have always been curious to know what happened between chapters 3-5, before God sends the rainbow that says everything is going to be all right. We know that a brother pummeled his brother to death, which was bad enough. But there had to be more. Something had to trigger God to say what he says in 6:6, something more than the genealogy accounts that take up most of the chapters between Cain and Abel and Noah. My curiosity about that part of the story, about the wickedness on the earth, helps me to understand why God’s salvation matters, even today.
Perhaps that is why I appreciated Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, so much despite the fact that many Christians felt the film was inauthentic to the text. Genesis 3-5 may not explain the details of the events that lead to the flood, yet, the film allows itself to fill in those blanks in order to explore a unique dimension of Noah’s character. It is true that Aronofsky and his team took much creative license in writing the film, but the story he was trying to convey had more to do with the human aspect of Noah’s relationship to God. Says Aronofsky:
“The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up. [The first three stories in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, are the creation, Adam and Eve, and the story of Cain and Abel, which is often referred to as “the first murder.”] The world is wicked. Wickedness is in all of our thoughts. Violence against man and against the planet.”
Noah was criticized by Christians and Muslims alike. Muslims objected to a visual representation of a religious figure while many Christians felt as though the film was “too dark.” Aronofsky made a decision to explore and give access to a different perspective of the flood. He uses imagination (aided by the Jewish tradition of midrash) to give us access to a story that is less about the happy animals who file into an ark “two by two,” and more about a human being wrestling with the true meaning of justice: “So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.” Aronofsky’s interpretation is less about getting details of the text right, and more about exploring the boundaries of this relationship between God and Noah, and giving the audience an access point to why such a relationship matters. Additionally, it forces us to use our imagination to offer new ways of thinking about how we relate to God.
Bible stories can run the risk of becoming cliche when we rely on basic renditions of what the written text is telling us. All too often, we know the story, we like to tell the story, but it’s questionable whether or not we really get the story? We know the story of God because the Bible and our churches make it a point to tell us that story. We don't often get the human story, and sometimes that requires imagination to flesh out, and to rethink the narratives in ways that give us new revelation about our parts as humans in God’s larger story. Maybe the real problem with Bible stories is that we don't have enough of them. Perhaps we don't have enough exploration of them in ways that help unravel our faith in ways that are challenging and good. Surely it can be a slippery slope when trying to imagine more of the text than is there. But that is the magic of movies and of art as a whole. We tell stories in ways that go beyond what is concrete, and we hope that those who partake will see God. My prayer is that we would embrace the weight of such a challenge and handle it with care.
Avril Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and educator who teaches cinema courses at University of La Verne and Azusa Pacific University. She recently earned her second master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, and she continues to produce, write and direct film and new media. Her ultimate goal is to diversify the film market by educating and empowering aspiring artists; thereby creating a movement of media that represents the true, multi-dimensional qualities of people and speaks to the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.
 Sean Savage, “Hollywood: 2014 is the Year of the Bible.” Charisma News. February 20, 2014.
 Sandra Levy, Imagination and the Journey of Faith. p 2.
 Levy, p. 3.
 Cathleen Falsani, “The Terror of Noah: How Darren Aronofsky Interprets the Bible,” The Atlantic.