"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Exodus: Kicking and Screaming into the Kingdom

By now, it should be no shock to anyone that I've come to enjoy this latest wave of Biblical epics.

Personally, I'm not threatened by a revisionist take on a narrative that I hold closely to my heart.  I believe it reveals so much about our culture's understanding of the very stories that we proclaim as truth that I can't help but get a little excited about the opportunities for conversation that seem to sprout up around the release of such films.  (In fact, Noah may very well make it into my Top 10 this year... we will see...)

So, let's talk Exodus: Gods and Kings.  (Caution:  This will be Spoiler-Heavy...)

Directed by Ridley Scott, Exodus: Gods and Kings is (another) revisionist tale on a popular Biblical narrative, this time examining the life of Moses.  Without question, Ridley Scott's vision is far closer akin to Aronovsky's Noah than De Milles' The Ten Commandments.  Instead of taking a traditional reading of the story, Scott feels free to play with the narrative, cutting out scenes and details that will leave many Christian viewers frustrated.  (What?  No baby in a basket?  No staff into serpents?!  No "Let My People Go"?!?)  What's more, while Scripture depicts Moses as a man of intimacy with God (after the Burning Bush anyways), Scott's vision creates a spiritual void within the film's hero.

In essence, Scott's vision of Moses is one of skepticism.  For example, as Pharaoh consults the mystics early on, Moses stands by and sneers.  However, his attitude stems not from a worshiping heart of the Hebrew God, but rather his disbelief that there is anything truly spiritual beyond what we can see.  This vision of Moses is a man of strength, courage and, above all else, self-reliance.

No, this Moses does not carry a staff.  He carries a sword.

This leads to an incredible tension within his own life, especially after his exile.  When he finally encounters God on the mountain at Horeb, Moses literally has to be held down in order for him to listen to God speak.  He neither needs nor wants a God.  So, when he is enlisted to free the Israelites, he is the one who intentionally tries to do things by the sword.  In a scene reminiscent of Scott's recent reimagining of Robin Hood, Moses even turns the people of Israel into a revolutionary army--or at least attempts to.  (Even the visual omission of the 'baby in a basket' suggests that they should not show Moses in any vulnerable position.)It is only in those moments when Moses comes to the end of his rope when God is finally allowed the freedom to move miraculously.  Furthermore, during the plagues, the one who is most disconcerted by the circumstances is not Pharaoh, but Moses.  While Pharaoh clings to his son and attempts to understand, Moses glares angrily at the sky, screaming "Is this meant to humble me? Because it will not!"  As such, Moses refuses to acknowledge what is directly in front of him on many occasions: That the God of the Hebrews is the one true God.

Ironically, one thing the film really got right was the fact that Moses was a 'runner'.  Although he doesn't flee for his life into the desert, he is running from truth from the get-go.

He can't face the fact that he was born of another family.

He can't face the fact that there is anything beyond the physical realm.

And, it is not until the very end that he can truly except his faith in Yahweh.  (Maybe he's in... De-Nile? Bah hahaha).  This Moses may be full of courage but he fears anything that he does not understand.

And I believe Ridley Scott wants to understand.

Personally, the most interesting thing to me about this movie was the sense that it was less about Moses and more about Scott himself.  Having dedicated the film to his brother Tony (who took his own life last year), Scott focuses the film very much on his own personal life.  After having watched the film, one has to ask the question about whether or not this is really describing the journey of a man who desires to understand how other people can cling to faith in a world that has completely gone awry.  Grieving the loss of his brother, it would make total sense that Scott should be grappling with such issues.  (Incidentally, I am also drawn to Scott's previous 2012 sci-fi epic, Prometheus, in this regard.  Although sold as an alien horror flick, the film was really asking much larger questions about the meaning of life and the beginnings of the human race.)

As if he were trying to explain the story to himself and the world, Scott imbues his film with a sense of pragmatism.  Can't explain water into blood?  It must have been metaphoric.  (Enter horde of crocodiles!)  The parting of the Red Sea?  It must've been an earthquake/tsunami.  In fact, even the very centre of the Exodus narrative--Moses' privilege of communicating with God directly--is given an official 'explanation' by suggesting that these visions could simply be delusions as a result of a blow to the head.  In most instances, the miraculous is displayed as something that can be proven scientifically and quantified.

And yet.

There is also a strong sense within the film that there are things that cannot be explained.  Although Pharaoh's mystics appear to have a grasp on the scientific reasons behind the plagues, even they eventually give up.  Although one could argue that God is portrayed as distant and ineffectual (after all, He is only a Junior High kid...), I would take the opposite stance.  To me, I felt that the film portrayed God as ferocious, especially when it comes to His people.  His portrayal as a boy offers him a sense of innocence which makes him accessible to Moses--even understandable, if you will.  Although he struggles to believe, Moses also definitely wants to show God what he is capable of.  Yet, while Moses attempts to prove his worth to this new King, he is constantly reminded of his own failures.

But when God moves, He shakes the earth.

Without question, this leads to my favourite moment within the film.  While confronting God after his inability to muster an Israelite rebellion, Moses angrily blasts Yahweh and begs, "What would you have me do now?"  His response?

"Nothing.  Just watch."  [Cue the plagues.]

Personally, I found this the most poignant moment within the film as God reminds Moses of his ineffectiveness while displaying His own raw power.  Despite any misgivings that Moses may have about Him, this vision of the 'I Am' is not to be trifled with.  He appears both innocent and authoritative.  In fact, Yahweh appears so powerful that, eventually, Moses cannot help but own his faith in a way that humbles him.  (In this moment, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' quote of his own life when he states that he was 'dragged, kicking and screaming--into the Kingdom'.)

Is Exodus: Gods and Kings the 'must see' movie of the Winter?  Likely not.  Still, I hope that Christians will take the rare (albeit, increasingly less rare?) opportunity to hear the heart of a man searching for answers simply out of disgust that it doesn't meet their 'expectations'.

Even if it doesn't show a single baby in a basket.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
Directed by Ridley Scott
*** out of 5

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