What’s the Bible for, Anyway?
The entertainment industry is money driven. Period. If people will pay for it, they will produce it, no matter what it is. The number of Biblically based productions lately is a testament to the fact that there is still a thriving “evangelical” base in the American populace. What about Bible movies? Are they okay for Christians to watch? Should New Testament Christians support the entertainment industry with dollars that could be used elsewhere, when we already know what the Bible says? To say “no” might be splitting hairs over something silly when we (the church) have much bigger fish to fry. Besides that, Paul addresses certain cultural differences within the church in Romans 14…”who are you to judge the servant of another?” One objection might be raised at this point, however: movie makers, while they are free to exercise poetic license, disrespect the Christian world when they insert anti-Biblical messages into their work.
While the question “should Christians watch Bible movies” is an irrelevant waste of time, I think a deeper, more important question is in need of addressing in church culture: What is the purpose of the Bible? Did God intend for us to be entertained by His Word? That is a distinct possibility, as he inspired the original authors to use every means of literary communication available at the time…auditory as well, when you consider that the Psalms were sung and played on instruments. (I wonder if the Bible were being inspired today, would authors use film or other visual arts, or would they stick to written communication?) However, entertainment is not the sole purpose of the Bible. John explains that he wrote his gospel in order that we would know that Jesus is the son of God. Paul explained to Timothy that scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Is there another, overarching synthesis of these and other passages that can explain the purpose of scripture?
It would seem that the purpose of the Bible as a whole is to show us that God has made a way for our broken relationships to be repaired, especially our relationship with Himself. And the way is the person of Jesus. Does using the Bible as entertainment create a problem? Not really. But that’s not what it was intended for. How about this angle–does using the Bible as a moral guide create a problem? Many people assume that’s what the Bible is. A compilation of rules by which to live. The problem with this approach is that the Bible itself doesn’t champion the rules as a means by which to achieve morality. Let’s unpack that a bit.
The Hebrews were the chosen people of God, privileged above every other nation. They were chosen, not because of any particular moral qualities, per-se, but because of Abraham’s faith. Abraham took God at his word. Hundreds of years after Abraham, God gave his chosen people a moral code, as they gathered in fear at the base of Mt. Sinai. There were blessings promised for adherence to the code, and curses for disregarding the code. It was a solemn and binding oath, a covenant. The Israelites, having seen God’s deliverance from Egypt, had every reason and incentive to keep the covenant. But they didn’t. In fact, the Old Testament tells us that, in spite of their KNOWLEDGE about God, they were sometimes WORSE than the Canaanite pagans they displaced!
How does this principle apply to the Bible as a whole? Both Old and New Testaments contain moral injunctions. But the net result of the moral efforts of Old Testament Hebrews was abject moral failure. If we can learn anything from the history of ancient Hebrews, it is that having rules does not make us good people. If this is true, why would New Testament followers of God through Christ Jesus try to interpret the Bible as a set of rules? Trying really hard to follow rules didn’t work under the Old Covenant, human nature being what it is, trying really hard won’t work under the New Covenant. That’s why the focus of the New Covenant is the person of Jesus, foreshadowed by the Tabernacle, succeeded by the Holy Spirit in power. Only God has the power to take a morally broken and failed person and make him or her good. No rules can do that.
This is why the method of taking characters in the Bible and holding them up as moral role models is problematic. I don’t believe God intended them to be role models (nor did he intend for them to be entertainers!) People are portrayed in the Bible exactly as they were: morally bankrupt, but still bearing the image of God. David failed in the matter of Bathsheba. Joseph failed in his hubris toward his brothers. Noah was a drunk. Jonah was a racist. Peter was a loudmouth and a flake. Paul had a thorn in the flesh. (On a side note, the fact that nearly all of the Biblical “heroes” had feet of clay is strong evidence that the Bible has not been touched up by editors over the centuries.) Top to bottom, people in the Bible were people…except Jesus. He was a complex person, prone to telling off the Pharisees and keeping company with gluttons. He claimed to be God in the flesh, which would have been blasphemy for any mere mortal. But the illegal court that convened to send him to his death had to make up a charge because there was no one who could ever say they had seen him sin. Jesus BECAME our morality. He fulfilled the entire moral law at the cross. He empowers us with his Holy Spirit to be redeemed from habits of sin. On the contrary, the Bible “heroes” merely provide us with a backdrop, an historical context for the long-view of God’s redemptive work in humanity. They fill in the gaps of the story between creation and redemption.
Sometimes I think we tend view Jesus as simply one of a field of Bible heroes. Probably the best. But in the same class, to a greater degree. We see him as the professional version of what his predecessors were trying to be. This is a false idea. Jesus isn’t a better version of ourselves. He is in another class altogether. He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because He took on human flesh, but the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in that body. He is far superior to any person who has ever lived. The Old Testament “saints” predicted his coming, the worship and rituals foreshadowed his atoning sacrifice, everyone who ever met him was astonished by his presence. Three short years of his ministry precipitated the birth of the Church, and the calendar started over. His impact on history is unparalleled. If there is a moral role model in the Bible, it is the step-son of Joseph. This is why we can say with confidence that the Bible is not primarily a source of entertainment. Nor is it a moral guide-book. It introduces us to the person and work of Jesus, in order that we might know him and be reconciled to God!