Do Americans Have an Unjustified Double Standard When it Comes to Religious Violence?

In the wake of the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI) called attention to a 2011 survey they conducted, which found that Americans generally give Christianity the benefit of the doubt when it comes to violence carried out for religious motives. According to the survey, Americans are much less likely to accord Islam the same benefit of the doubt when Muslim adherents carry out violence in the name of Allah.

“More than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans say that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians,” says PPRI. “In contrast, less than half (48 percent) of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.” To the powers-that-be at PPRI, this represents a “double standard when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims.” While PPRI may see a “double standard” in the survey, I would argue that such a disparaging comment regarding American public opinion is unwarranted.

Let me first say that I do not hold all Muslims responsible for violence carried out in the name of Islam. Almost every time a violent act is carried out by a self-professed Muslim, there are a rash of retaliatory attacks against Muslims by people who fail to (or who refuse to) make similar distinctions. Most Muslims live their lives in peace and do not support terrorism. And many Islamic leaders have appropriately condemned what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

While I do not blame Islam as a whole for the violence carried out under its banner, I nevertheless reject the insinuation (often made at times like these) that Christianity is equally responsible for its own share of violence and extremism. And I utterly reject the intellectually lazy and rhetorically tired accusation that religion “in general” is to blame for such atrocities as what we just witnessed in France. This tendency to lump all religions together and blame them all en masse for incidents like the Charlie Hebdo shootings should be rejected. And what PPRI sees as a “double standard” in its 2011 survey of the American public is encouragement (at least to me) that such a rejection is taking place.

The PPRI conclusion that Americans have a “double standard” rests upon the unsubstantiated premise that all religions are basically the same. If all religions are the same, then it would be arbitrary and unfair to hold one religion more responsible for violence and/or extremism than any other religion. The premise, however, is patently absurd, and (if the PPRI survey is indication) it would seem most Americans understand this. Most people who spend any time considering religions recognize very quickly the following irrefutable fact: All religions are not the same. What’s more, not all religious beliefs are created equal. Sure, the world’s various religions overlap in some of their beliefs (the supernatural is real, there is an afterlife, good deeds are preferable to bad deeds, etc.), but they also make mutually exclusive and wholly contradictory claims. Christianity, for example, maintains that Jesus is the Son of God. Islam says he was merely a prophet. Christianity says Jesus was crucified for our sins and then rose from the dead. Islam says Jesus never even died on the cross! The point is that Islam and Christianity, like the other religions of the world, embrace beliefs that are quite often irreconcilable. While it may be popular to say “all religions are basically the same,” it’s simply not accurate to do so.

A variation of the sloppy “all religions are basically the same” supposition is that violence and/or extremism should be laid at the doorstep of religion in general. In other words, extremism is the culprit and all religions must accept equal responsibility for such extremism, especially that which leads to violence or terrorism. Once again, this argument – though often heard – is fallacious and frankly incoherent. It would be like saying “science” is responsible for the barbaric experiments many Nazi doctors and scientists conducted on Jews during the Holocaust. Science was not responsible for that. Hitler and his Nazi regime were responsible for those evil acts, among many others. Yes, a great many despicable things have been done in the names of various religions over the years, but that hardly merits a blanket attack on all religious adherents. Once again, not all religions are the same.

The reason why Americans, by and large, give the benefit of the doubt to Christianity when it comes to surveys like the one conducted by PPRI is because of the founder of Christianity. Most Americans are at least remotely familiar with the teachings of Jesus (“Love your neighbor,” “Love your enemies,” “Do good to them who persecute you,” “Go therefore and teach…” as opposed to “Go and slay the infidel,” and so forth). And anyone who is at least remotely familiar with Jesus’ teachings immediately sees the disconnect between Jesus and an abortion clinic bomber or some other terrorist claiming Jesus’ name. When someone commits a hateful or violent act, while naming Jesus, that person sets himself (by his actions) apart from the legacy of Jesus — and most people recognize this intuitively and immediately. Thus, the reason most Americans believe true Christianity isn’t to blame for most of the violence committed in the name of Christianity is because of the legacy of Christianity’s founder.

Reading the Bible in 2015? Here are 3 Things to Keep in Mind

Will you read the Bible in 2015?

Will you read the Bible in 2015?

It’s a New Year! And that means “New Year’s Resolutions” – at least for a good many Americans. And for those Americans who embrace Jesus as their Lord, many will be setting goals to read the Bible through in 2015. If you plan to read the Bible in 2015, I’d like to offer three things (three thoughts) for you to keep in mind…

First, don’t read the Bible in 2015 for any reason that may be rooted in pride. I know of one pastor who openly bragged in his sermons about how many times he’s read through the Bible. Reading the Bible through isn’t about bragging rights. (Though admittedly, the first time I slogged through the Torah, I wanted to get a T-shirt that read: “I survived Leviticus.”) Reading the Bible is about worshiping God and hearing from Him. That’s it. And if you have any other motive in mind, you need to do some serious prayer and soul-searching as you dig into God’s word.

Second, many people will set goals or resolutions for the New Year, and then life happens. They get distracted or fall short, and they get discouraged. Listen, reading the Bible is about your relationship with God. All you can do is give God your best. In Ecclesiastes, we’re told: “Whatever you hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10a). If you dive into the Bible with “all your might,” but only make it through a third or half of the Old Testament, then that’s your best. If you sign up for a Bible reading campaign that your church is doing (ours is doing The Bible in 90 Days this year), but only make it through the Book of Numbers by the end of the 90 days, then listen…if you did your best, then that’s what matters. God looks at your heart. That’s all God expects from you. If you’ve never read the Bible before, maybe you want to start with just the New Testament or perhaps just the Gospels. If you can only read the New Testament in a year’s time, then so be it. Reading the Bible should be a source of encouragement, not discouragement.

Third, some people have a difficult time reading the Bible fast. The reason is that they like to stop and study. So when it comes to rapid reading campaigns especially (like The Bible in 90 Days for example), they struggle. I can relate. I love to not just read; I love to STUDY. Listen, do you think God is going to be mad at you if you study the Bible in 2015 as opposed to reading it quickly through? Hardly.

Bottom line in all this….Read the Bible in 2015 at your own pace and to the best of your ability. Just make sure you read it. Make sure you dive into God’s word, especially if you’ve never done so before. Trust me when I say…it will change your life.

The Ridley Scott Version of the Exodus — My Review of Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ridley Scott's epic film Exodus: Gods and Kings is more about Scott than the Bible.

Ridley Scott’s epic film Exodus: Gods and Kings is more about Scott than the Bible.

The new Ridley Scott epic Exodus: Gods and Kings is full of spectacle, grandeur, violence, and controversy. The commercial success of Exodus, at least in the United States, will likely hinge on that latter point, for it is the controversial aspects of the film which dominate most of the reviews, interviews, and articles on the movie. Not only has Scott filled his sword-and-sandal, ancient Egyptian epic with a virtually all-white cast, but he takes massive liberties with the Bible and even portrays God as a petulant pre-teen boy! Of course, Cecil B. DeMille’s beloved classic The Ten Commandments was also not very racially diverse and also took a few creative liberties with the Scriptures. So, are the creative and racial transgressions committed by Exodus too much for Christians to enjoy the film? Not being one who likes to make such a judgment on a film I haven’t seen, I invested $10 and 154 minutes of my time to see Exodus for myself. Here is my review…

Ridley Scott is one of the leading directors of our time. He fills Exodus: Gods and Kings with lots of spectacle and his talents are on full display. And that’s part of the problem. In any great film, an audience forgets who the director is. They even “forget” they are watching a movie as they are immersed in the world of the filmmaker. While I found parts of Exodus compelling, even moving, I was never really immersed in the film. For me (and I imagine many others who watched Exodus), the star wasn’t Christian Bale or Moses. The star was Ridley Scott.

Scott’s Exodus is not as offensive or certainly not as over-the-top ridiculous as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. There are no rock creatures and the main character doesn’t turn into a homicidal maniac trying to kill his own grandchildren (although there is an interesting, and wholly fictional, sequence of Moses leading a guerrilla army against Egypt, but more on that momentarily). Thus, if you measure Exodus: Gods and Kings against Noah, this film isn’t that bad. But it’s sad to set the bar so low. I prefer to measure against the Bible, and by that measurement, Exodus lacks a great deal.

First, reading the Old Testament story of Moses is far more enjoyable than Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Books are usually better than movies anyway, but it’s certainly the case here. Despite its enormous budget and an admittedly talented director and cast, parts of Exodus are, in the words of film critic John Nolte, “butt-numbing tediousness.” Indeed, there seems to be a consensus among film critics that Scott’s film underwhelms. Writing for Time, Richard Corliss calls Exodus a “stolid mess.” I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but I definitely see his point.

Not only does it not live up to its potential as an entertainment vehicle, the film’s cast doesn’t adequately reflect the racial makeup of ancient Egypt. As I said in a previous blog post, Scott’s casting gives us a film lacking in both racial sensitivity and historical accuracy. Al Mohler, the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading Christian commentator, writes: “Not only are they all white, the central characters speak as though they were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. This is rather typical of Ridley Scott’s films, with gravitas presumably added by a British accent. Needless to say, the skin tones and accents do not match the actual story.” (For more of Mohler’s review, check out “Moses Without the Supernatural”).

The film doesn’t provide much emotional attachment to the central characters either. Film critic John Serba writes: “If you don’t already carry a significant emotional attachment to Moses’ freeing of the Hebrew slaves from the tyranny of Egyptian heir Ramses (Joel Edgerton), Exodus will be nothing more than a movie that starts slowly with a lot of dull dialogue, gets a bit goofy with the crocodile, frog and locust plagues, shows us some cool computer-animated effects during the big climax, then ends.”

To be sure, I found parts of Exodus: Gods and Kings compelling, even moving. Scott’s presentation of the ten plagues was poignant. The death of Egypt’s firstborn was especially heart-wrenching. The death of Pharoah’s son was definitely one of the most emotional sequences of the entire film. Kudos to Joel Edgerton especially. He does a great job playing Ramses (or Rhamses as spelled by Scott’s film), and nowhere is his portrayal more gripping than his turn as a grieving and outraged father. But even with the plagues, Scott undercuts this otherwise outstanding part of the movie by seemingly trying to provide a naturalistic explanation for them. The waters turn red, not because Moses touches the water with his staff, but because alligators go on a feeding frenzy!

Another problem I have with Exodus: Gods and Kings is the timing of the exodus. Like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments as well as DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, Scott places the exodus at the time of Ramses II. The Bible itself indicates the Hebrew exodus took place in 1446 B.C. That would place the exodus during the reign of Thutmose III or Amenhotep II. (For more on this topic, check out Ted Wright’s “Who Was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?”)

Getting the dates wrong isn’t the film’s worst departure from Scripture, to be sure. Many parts of the biblical narrative aren’t shown in this film at all. For instance, Moses doesn’t perform any miracles with his shepherd’s staff. There’s more focus on his sword, specially engraved for him by Ramses’ father (and Moses’ adoptive father). And many things are made up completely, such as Moses getting hit on the head before seeing the burning bush and later Moses training the Israelites to fight before leading them on guerrilla raids. “God” grows annoyed with this and finally tells Moses to sit back and “watch.” That’s when the plagues come in.

And that brings us to the most disturbing aspect of the film. In my mind, Scott’s most offensive transgression in Exodus is the portrayal of God. In the Old Testament, God is presented as holy, awe-inspiring, worthy of reverence, and (yes) not to be trifled with. By about a third of the way through Exodus: Gods and Kings, it is clear Ridley Scott has a different take on God altogether. To Scott, it seems God is little more than a mythological character in need of a contemporary, creative makeover. Scott has admitted in interviews that he considers religion “the biggest source of evil” and never really believed the biblical account of the Hebrew exodus. Thus, for Scott, the whole story is just that – a story. And he feels the freedom to get creative with the story just as filmmakers do with any film property based on ancient mythology. The Old Testament God is as sacrosanct to Scott as the Greek god Zeus. Accordingly, Scott casts 11-year old Isaac Andrews as the voice and stand-in for Jehovah God. The result: God is presented as a petulant pre-teen boy. This alone (at least for me) destroyed any credibility the movie had.

If you’re on the fence about seeing Exodus, I’d recommend you save your money – and your time. I cannot recommend it. If you’re a mature, discerning Christian and would like to see the movie for yourself, I’ll leave that up to you. For my own part, I’d rather just read the Bible. It’s more gripping, more inspiring, and more accurate.

Is Exodus: Gods and Kings Racist in its Casting?

Ridley Scott’s latest film Exodus: Gods and Kings is generating a great deal of controversy. And the controversy getting the most attention is the racial one. White actors and actresses are cast in all the major roles. But, this isn’t the full extent of the problem. Yale University Professor Joel Baden explains: “What makes it worse for many observers is that, on the flip side, virtually every black actor in the movie is playing a part called ‘Egyptian thief’ or ‘assassin’ or ‘royal servant’ or ‘Egyptian lower class civilian.’” For those of us wishing for a more biblically accurate and racially sensitive film, it’s sad that Scott’s movie misses the mark.

First, we live in a beautifully diverse world, and to the extent possible, Hollywood needs to reflect this racial and ethnic diversity in its films and television programs. I recognize that, in some cases, it’s not possible to do this. No reasonable person, for example, can criticize the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams for having a virtually all-white cast. The cast in the miniseries accurately reflected the racial demographics of the Colonial American lives the miniseries focused on. But where possible (such as in a film set in ancient North Africa), racial diversity should be reflected.

From a purely historical standpoint, it’s unlikely that Moses looked like Christian Bale (or, for that matter, Charlton Heston), though (being from a Hebrew family) we should acknowledge that his skin tone may have been lighter than many Egyptians. Does this mean it’s wrong to cast a white actor as Moses? No, but we must understand that casting American or European white actors as biblical characters from the Ancient Near East or Ancient Egypt is almost certainly a step away from historic authenticity. If we’re going to do that, then we must also be okay with the casting of black actors in some of those parts as was done with the role of Samson in the recent The Bible miniseries.

Most scholars agree that the Egyptian civilization attracted people from all over Africa and the Middle East. And the core of its population, while African, was made up of people from north and south of the Sahara. This would make Egypt a “melting pot” of sorts. From the standpoint of skin tone, you’d have a lot of variety in Ancient Egypt. And this variety, while reflected in the background (extras, small speaking parts, etc.) of Exodus: Gods and Kings, is not reflected with the major roles in Scott’s film, and that is the reason for the controversy.

For example, while Joel Edgerton does a fine job portraying Rhamses (or Ramses), he’s not exactly a big name actor. Thus, it’s difficult for me to see why Scott had to hire a white Australian to play an ancient Egyptian ruler as opposed to someone like Boris KodjoeMichael Ealy, or even Wentworth Miller. Edgerton gave a talented performance, so I mean no criticism of him personally. However, from a purely physical standpoint, the aforementioned three actors probably more closely resemble the actual Ramses of history more than Edgerton, regardless of his compelling performance in Exodus.

In spite of my disapproval of how Exodus: Gods and Kings handles race, hurling the “racist” label at Scott or the Exodus film is neither fair nor helpful. The fact is that it takes a lot of money to make a movie in Hollywood, especially one as grand as Exodus. That means raising money from investors, who look at casting purely with dollar signs in view. Investors care about one thing: getting a return on their investment. That means big name actors and directors. That means you not only wind up with Christian Bale as Moses, but you also get something of a momentum effect (all other cast choices are made with Bale in mind) as well as “tunnel vision” which ignores issues such as racial diversity or historical authenticity. That’s how Hollywood rolls. It’s sad, but it is what it is.

The solution to this problem isn’t name-calling (though I think the adjective “racially insensitive” certainly fits). The solution is:

  • Increasing the market/investment value of more non-white actors,
  • Tasking at least one person in the development process of each film or TV program to concentrate on racial diversity, perhaps not exclusively, but certainly as part of their overall responsibilities, and
  • Getting the movie-going public to care more about history and authenticity than simply about entertainment or watching a familiar and/or pretty face on screen. And, yes, as I type these words, I realize that’s a tall order. Hopefully, controversies like this one will help things along in a positive way.

As for whether we should watch Exodus in spite of the casting controversy, that’s a decision each person will need to make for himself or herself. For my own part, having seen the film, racially insensitive casting isn’t the only problem with Exodus. Not by a long shot. And I’ll have more to say about those other problems in a future blog post. On balance, I would not recommend Exodus, simply because it is neither historically nor (most importantly) biblically accurate. But I also won’t condemn anyone who chooses to see it. To do so would make me a hypocrite since I myself forked out $10 to see the film.

To close out this article, I will simply say this. I hope future biblical films will put more emphasis on historical authenticity and biblical accuracy. And, whenever possible, I hope they will reflect the diversity God has blessed us with. It’s true that Cecil B. DeMille’s beloved Ten Commandments likewise doesn’t reflect an appropriate level of racial diversity, but we’ve come a long way in scholarship, civil rights, and racial sensitivity since Charlton Heston’s turn as Moses. It’s unfortunate that Scott’s film doesn’t reflect this progress.