The Bible, Reality, And Theology


Abraham_with_IsaacAs many of you know, Roma Downey (star of the TV show Touched by an Angel) and Mark Burnett (successful producer of a number of TV game shows including Survivor, Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? The Voice, and Shark Tank), spearheaded the production of the TV mini-series The Bible which began airing on the History Channel last Sunday. Apparently it’s a ratings success and most likely a financial one too, but how does it stack up in the areas that really matter?

What, in fact, would be the areas that really matter? For viewers, undoubtedly the important elements would be the quality of storytelling, acting, and cinematography. In other words, is it good on an entertainment level? But for those of us who believe the Bible to be true, not a collection of myths, there’s another level that matters–the truthfulness of the production, the adherence to Scriptural intent, if you will.

But should that matter?

My friend and writing colleague Mike Duran recently took to task a reviewer for slipping into the role of “Theology Police.” I don’t know if it’s possible to agree with someone in the midst of disagreeing with them, but that’s kind of where I find myself. Toward the end of his post on the subject, Mike said

In their attempt to be “discerning,” many Christian fiction reviewers are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. (emphasis in the original)

Understand, I haven’t read the book in question or the review. But in principle, I agree with what Mike is saying there. No one should be so consumed with minutia that they miss the big picture. What I find myself disagreeing with, however, is what appears to be Mike’s guiding principle in looking at reviews:

Being “discerning” about theology is different than being “discerning” about art. (emphasis in the original)

Really?

Is bad theology ever OK, even for a fiction writer, even for a speculative fiction writer?

I don’t understand that–not that Mike is advocating such. Rather, it seems he’s expressing his belief that theology shouldn’t be held up as a guide by which someone judges fiction. Back in November in a guest post at Spec Faith discussing this very issue, Mike said

So am I suggesting NO theology in our novels? I’m not sure it’s possible for an author’s worldview or theology to not seep into a story. But “seeping” into a story and showcasing it therein are huge differences. Am I winking at BAD theology? Absolutely not. My question is: Is fiction the right vehicle for reinforcing and/or expounding good theology in the first place? (emphasis in the original)

So MY question is this: is it ever right for a Christian to knowingly portray bad theology? Hence, since I know God to be loving, should I write a speculative story showing the One True God as less than loving? Or Satan as less than rebellious? Or man as less than sinful by nature?

Those particular issues might seem to be a little easier to answer than some of the “minor issues” that crop up. Can a Christian work portray “magic” as good? Or can The Bible skip Abraham’s name change from Abram or God making a covenant with him?

One reviewer of the first episode of The Bible had this to say:

I know there’s such a thing as creative and artistic license, that’s fine. But the entire reason a theological advisory board was brought on was to ensure that Biblical details were accurate. And they’re not. I’m not saying I’m surprised. I’m saying this reveals that the theologians involved either knew the details and did not tell them (or production changed them, in which case why bother with advisors) or they didn’t think them important enough to include in the stories.

So how important is accurate theology? Or should artistic license overrule adherence to theological particulars?

I feel very strongly about Truth, which is why I bristle when people seem so willing to throw it aside, even when they clamor for “realism” in fiction. We need to accurately portray people in our fiction, the argument goes, and those people cuss and swear. So our fiction out to be allowed to reflect these people accurately.

But what about God? Apparently it’s not such a big deal if we get things about Him right.

But what does “right” mean?

Are the makers of The Bible mini-series trying to transcribe the actual Bible onto screen? Absolutely not. When interviewed on Focus on the Family shortly before the first episode of their project aired, Mark Burnett said he considered the TV series to be a ten hour commercial for the real thing.

So my thinking is this: a work of fiction needs to be judged by what it’s attempting to do. If it’s a commercial, then it shouldn’t be judged as a documentary.

C. S. Lewis was not attempting to portray Christ in allegory. Consequently his first Narnia tale shouldn’t be criticized because Aslan died on a stone table and not a cross or because he came to life the next day and never spent an hour in a tomb.

The theology issue, then, should be judged according to intent. No work of fiction will ever portray all the truths of the Bible, even The Bible–that much should be clear from the start. But this fictionalized story does carry a burden, as should all fiction Christians write, to tell the Truth about God as it works to fulfill its intent.

Agree or disagree?

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