Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings came out today, and already it has triggered a plague of controversy. People have blasted the movie for racially insensitive casting, biblical liberties, and for star Christian Bale’s apparent lack of piety. (He called Moses “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”) But for faith-based moviegoers, nothing may stir up righteous anger more than a little boy.
Scott chose 11-year-old Isaac Andrews to play God — an unpredictable, petulant, angry deity in the guise of an angel-faced waif. Watching the film, you sometimes get the feeling that the kid is playing with toy soldiers. He drafts Moses as his “general,” then whines that Moses’ methods are “taking too long” to free his chosen people. When Moses himself is worn down by God’s plagues, God pushes on — satisfied with nothing less than complete capitulation from the Egyptians. In critical moments God seems to vanish, leaving Moses to wander alone.
It’s easier to fear Scott’s God than to love him, to cower in the shadow of his child-sized fist than to curl in the cup of his hand. This cinematic deity, this boy, feels so foreign to the God that many of us worship and praise. No wonder so many folks had issues with the portrayal. I know I did.
But I wonder whether my discomfort might have had as much — maybe even more — to do with the original story as it did with Scott’s portrayal. Here’s the thing: the God we read about in the Bible doesn’t always match the God we want to believe in and worship.
I don’t think this dichotomy is restricted to Christianity. People of all religions, I imagine, wrestle with these sorts of faith-based problems. But maybe it’s particularly keen for Christians given the many facets of God we read about in the Old and New Testaments.
And the problems start early. Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday school teachers telling me about a perfect, loving God — one who loved us so much that he became human to save us. “Yes, Jesus loves me,” we sang. “The Bible tells me so.”
But a few years later, I sat in another Sunday school class and heard the Exodus story, unalloyed by children’s songs. God sent plague after plague on the people of Egypt . . . and that same God purposefully “hardened his heart” — apparently so he’d have an excuse to send more plagues. “Everything created by God is good,” 1 Timothy 4:4 reads, but those plagues sure didn’t look all that good to me as an 11-year-old. In fact, they still don’t look all that great.
Death is the final plague, of course — the wholesale destruction of Egypt’s firstborn. In Exodus, the Pharaoh Ramses (played by Joel Edgerton) confronts Moses, his own dead son cradled in his arms. “Is this your God?!” Ramses thunders. “Killer of children?!”
I struggled with that very thought in Sunday school so many years ago. Is this my God? The same God that loves us so much? Where is he in this story? Why doesn’thHe love the Egyptians, too?
I never asked anyone these questions back then. I don’t think most Christians do. We don’t want to rock the boat. Maybe sometimes we’re afraid of the answer. We concentrate on the Gospels and letters to the Romans, take snippets from the nicer Psalms and embroider them on throw pillows. We skim over the “bad” stuff, the stuff we don’t understand, the stuff that doesn’t fit our modern sensibilities, until we almost forget it’s there. And then, when someone like Ridley Scott throws it up on the big screen for all of us to see, it hurts us — not so much because Scott made it up, but because he didn’t.
See, I think in a way, almost all of us wind up making God in our own image — or, at least, imagine him as we’d like him to be. In Exodus, Scott — who’s been quite critical of organized religion — gave us a God that fit his perception of what God looks like, ignoring even the countless Old Testament references to God’s compassion, mercy, and love. But are we so different? Are we so much better than Scott when we turn God into an inoffensive, pocket-sized mascot? A gentle, non-judgmental best buddy? When we overlay our own twenty first-century, first-world predilections on a Lord unfettered by time or space?
Let’s face it: God is troubling. And really, he should be. We’re finite beings trying to understand the Infinite — dime-sized crabs contemplating the Pacific. We go to great lengths to understand and explain him, and I’m sure there have been many, many sermons written that put my own concerns about this and every other troubling bit of scripture to rest. But in the end, as much as God wants us to draw ever nearer to him, we can’t know him. Not fully. We don’t have the capacity to. We don’t have the maturity. And that can be, for believers like me, deeply frustrating. We’re like Moses in Exodus as he struggles to flee Egypt. We ask our questions and receive no answers. Not now, anyway.
I have a lot of questions about God. I always have. As long as I draw breath, I always will. Sometimes, I get answers. Often I don’t. And it’s in those times that I gravitate to Job — a book whose titular protagonist was plagued with his own deeply troubling questions.
“Who is it that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” God booms in Job 38. “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me.”
The Lord goes on for pages and pages, using some of the most beautiful imagery and powerful language in the Bible, to tell Job one simple truth. God doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody.
I’m troubled by Scott’s God, just as I can sometimes wonder about my own. Who are you, really? I ask. Are you the God of Exodus? The God of Romans? The God of Psalm 23 or of Psalm 83? Who are you?
The answer I get is both frustrating and true, the same answer given to Scott’s Moses and the biblical Moses, the answer Christians must, in the end, accept.
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.