By John McAteer
“Do you believe in coincidence?” This is a key question in Exodus: Gods and Kings, the 2014 film directed by Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner fame. Joshua’s father Nun (played by Ben Kingsley) believes his chance meeting with Moses (played by Christian Bale) has been ordained by God. At this point early in the film, Moses is skeptical. Sometimes it is hard to tell if something is meaningful or a coincidence. Sometimes the coincidences pile up until we have no choice but to believe they are the intentional design of an intelligent Being. At other times, an unusual occurrence may just be a coincidence that we are reading too much into. Not every natural disaster is God’s judgment, and not every dream is a message from God.
Exodus establishes the theme of ambiguous coincidences right from the start. The film begins with an Egyptian priestess examining the entrails of a sacrificed bird. “What do the entrails say?” Pharaoh asks her. “They don’t say anything,” replies the priestess. “They imply,” and thus they are open to “interpretation.”
As a film, Exodus is also open to interpretation. It can be hard to see this if we approach the film unaware of our own assumptions. As believers, we are often so familiar with biblical stories, we read into cinematic portrayals things that are not there. To evaluate a movie’s interpretation of the Bible, we should ask ourselves how a non-Christian would interpret the movie if he or she didn’t know anything about the Bible. We have to be sure to see only what is there and not what we assume is there.
In the case of Exodus, the film is ambiguous. Director Ridley Scott is a self-described atheist, so why would he make a film about religion? He has something to say about religion, but he can’t say it unambiguously, or Christians won’t go to see his movie. And he needs Christians to see the movie in order to recoup his $140 million budget. So he doesn’t say anything about religion. He implies it.
For those who have eyes to see, Exodus: Gods and Kings presents an important picture of American cultural attitudes toward religion today. Scott has updated the old-fashioned biblical epic for the twenty-first century. But he does more than simply add computer effects to a story we’ve already seen before. He uses the biblical story to reflect a new idea about religion. For Scott, as indeed for many people these days, religion is an irrational superstition, and the God of the Bible is a moral monster. This is a biblical epic Richard Dawkins could love...
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