By Elizabeth Prata
I wrote on Facebook that I’d discovered a recommendation from Stephen J. Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, of a book that Johnny Cash had written. Nichols had said that Cash, yes, the singer/musician, had novelized the life of Paul and it was “A piece of genius.”
Excited, I made mention of this on Facebook. A question came up, a good question. It was asked sincerely. I decided to follow it up here because it bears discussion.
Here was the question: “How does a novel about a Bible character not “add” to scripture? This is something I’ve been struggling with whenever we go into the realm of dramatizing scripture by any author or screen/play producer… by the very nature of these works, they affect how we view that Bible character and take us outside the realm of what God has given us.”
There are two questions.
1. Does media that present characters or events from the Bible add to scripture?
2. How can we guard against an insidious shifting of how we perceive biblical characters or events when consuming Christian media?
Answer 1: The main way to determine if a novelization or movie is adding, taking away, or replacing scripture is the author’s intent. What is the purpose of this particular media’s existence? Is it to honor God, the Jesus of the Bible? I phrase it that way because Dallas Jenkins’ intent was to honor Jesus, but it is not the Jesus of the Bible, it is a different Jesus.
In the fictionalized book I’d read about the Flood, called The Rain by Chris Skates, the author made it clear that it was a piece of fiction. He wasn’t claiming to be hearing from God or having inside knowledge, but was simply using a literary talent to spark imagination. The book blurb outlines its purpose, stating: “a fictional but Biblically accurate account of a popular story of the Old Testament. … answering the question: “What might it have been like for Noah and his family as they embarked on the journey of a lifetime?“
John Pollock is a noted biographer. As a matter of fact I’m reading his work on DL Moody right now. In the past I’ve read his novelization of the Apostle Paul, The Apostle: A Life of Paul. The blurb states: “The Apostle masterfully combines careful adherence to biblical text, detailed research, and a storyteller’s gift to create a book equally relevant for both casual readers fascinated by Paul’s life and serious biblical scholars.”
CS Lewis’ famous book The Screwtape Letters takes the true biblical concept of spiritual warfare between demons and humans, and puts words in various demons’ mouths, bringing to life the characters from the Bible of unholy angels. It’s known as a masterpiece of fictional religious satire.
In other cases though, the authors functionally are adding to scripture. When they say “God told me” or in some cases, “God told me to write it down and to tell you” it’s the same as the Prophets Isaiah or Jeremiah saying “Thus saith the Lord.” These false teachers who claim to hear from God are adding to scripture when they teach what God has supposedly said. Beth Moore has said that God, with the Holy Spirit, took over her mind and wrote an entire book through her. If she had not complied, the rocks in her yard would have cried out. So, her book is scripture, correct? (Note: The Spirit didn’t possess and channel through the Bible writers, He inspired them, so Moore’s statement is even less credible right from the get-go.) But writers or musicians who say “God told me” or “God gave me this” are adding to scripture, functionally. They may deny it with their words, but the actuality is the opposite.
In one recent case the writer is adding to and replacing scripture. Dallas Jenkins wrote the television mini-series, The Chosen. He has said in numerous interviews that God communes directly with him in different ways. One way is that God “pressed on him so hard telling” him something it was almost audible, also that God was “laying it on his heart”, and that he “felt like God was saying”, etc. It all adds up to the same thing: God told me. And if you write it down saying it was from God, it’s scripture. In Jenkins’ case he goes further:
Here, Dallas is quoted thus: “I felt like God was saying that ‘this will be the definitive portrayal of My people and this is what people are going to think of around the world when they think of My people. And I’m not going to let you screw it up.’”
So The Chosen functionally replaces the written word of the Bible with the visuals in the movie that God supposedly gave Dallas Jenkins. The Bible is no longer the definitive portrayal of His people, but Jenkins’ movie now is. See? Adding to AND replacing scripture.
There have been many thousands of depictions of biblical events and characters. More than we think. In addition to Skates’ novelization of the Flood, Lewis’ Screwtape, Pollock’s Apostle Paul, or Cash’s Apostle Paul. There’s the Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston as Moses. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was written in 1880, and was the best selling book of all time till Gone With the Wind in 1936. The Robe movie shows the crucifixion of Jesus from the perspective of Marcellus Gallio, the Roman tribune who commands the garrison that carries out the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Jesus Film is a movie using only scripture, with long gaps of no dialogue in between scenes, so as to be scrupulous. Even with that level of scrupulous care, some people dismiss The Jesus Film because they say it violates the second Commandment not to make any graven images of God.
Answer 2: How can we guard against an insidious shifting of how we perceive biblical characters or events, or even what we believe when consuming Christian media?
That is a danger. Sometimes the false teachers or writers who novelize Christian material into books or movies DO have an agenda and DO want to shift your perceptions. It is easy for us to get a picture stuck in our head or a characterization from words written about Paul or Noah or any other character the author decides to write about. That is where Christian liberty comes in. I’m grateful the Lord gave us precepts to live by where there is no command. We discern, and decide for ourselves according to conscience.
I would happily view the Jesus Film (and I have) because I’m settled on my conviction about the Second Commandment and I like that the movie uses scripture as dialogue. However, I refuse The Chosen because of the above, the author is trying to deliberately shift our perceptions of the disciples. He also goes far from the biblical narrative in lifting Mary to positions she did not occupy, and used pagans to help him with the theology. It’s fine by me when authors fill in gaps of the narrative with their own imaginations, but not fine by me when those gaps are widened deliberately and the author has an agenda.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
It’s up to each individual Christian’s tolerance for certain benchmarks. Some tolerate things more than others. We all have hot buttons and weaknesses. If a person feels convicted watching a certain movie or reading a certain book, by all means accept that it’s the Spirit pricking the conscience and stop.
No media is agenda-less. Not secular, not Christian.
Whenever we consume anything secular or Christian, there is danger of our perceptions shifting. It’s up to us to stay trained in discernment and employ wisdom with what we consume. We do not remain unaffected by anything we read, watch, or listen to. Everything is insidious, except the Bible. Even some Bible translations are insidiously and craftily made in order to sway us!
The best way to stop our perceptions from shifting into areas unhealthy for the Christian woman is to remain in the word of God. It’s the Rock that we cling to and will allow us to stand when cultural portrayals buffet us. As always, be careful what you absorb, stay prayerful (so the conscience remains sensitive,) and enjoy whatever media to whatever lengths you feel is appropriate.
Questions to ask yourself:
–Is this media making me uncomfortable?
–Is this media honoring to the Lord- the Jesus of the Bible?
–Do I feel that my understanding of the event or character is being shifted away from the Bible?
–Am I protecting my eyes, ears, and heart with my consumption of this media?
–Am I setting a good example to those around me with reading this book or watching this movie or listening to this podcast or hearing this music? Or am I allowing a stumbling block to intrude on another’s conscience? (1 Corinthians 8:7,10, 12).
As RC Sproul would say, “Is it good? Is it beautiful? Is it true?”
The Bible teaches that we should meditate on the words of God (Psalm 1:2). It also teaches that, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). In other words, other books that encourage holy living can be helpful in our walk with Christ. Commentaries, Bible studies, devotional literature—there are many writings that can deepen our understanding of Scripture.
[S]ome fiction is useful for both learning and enjoyment. As long as the book honors the Lord, a novel can communicate truth, just as Jesus did in His parables. First Corinthians 10:31 teaches, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” This is the standard for the believer. If a particular book is read for the glory of God, then there is a legitimate reason for reading it.
Tony Reinke’s book Lit! was written expressly to help the Christian make good choices for his book consumption: As Al Mohler said, “Reinke helps us to understand how to grow through disciplined reading, not only as readers but also as Christians.” Trevin Wax said, “How to read, what to read, who to read, when to read, and why you should read―Tony Reinke answers all these questions and more in this very good and (surprisingly) brief book on reading. As he shows how reading can bring glory to God and growth to the church, Reinke encourages Christians to take up the discipline of reading widely and wisely.”