WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Although many Baptists have trooped to the theater along with most “normal” Americans, Baptist pulpits have consistently inveighed against Hollywood, in general, and the theater, in particular. And even if you think that this is just another silly plank in “fundamentalist, legalistic, pulpit rhetoric,” you have to grant that other less doctrinaire elements of society have called attention to the possible connections between graphic, gratuitous violence in the movies and the present state of a rather ruthless society.
So why would a president of a seminary existing to train Baptist preachers suggest what I am here suggesting — namely, that parents put the kids in the car and do the unthinkable — take them to see DreamWorks’ animated flick, “The Prince of Egypt”? If that scenario itself is not sufficiently odd, did you see that I said, “animated,” as in “for children.” Now, no red-blooded, over-machoed, American adult male would stoop to watching cartoons. The Roadrunner and the Coyote are my favorites on Saturday morning, but that’s a private matter! Oh yes, … well, I did see “The Lion King,” but I wore a wig, sunglasses and a trench coat one hot summer evening. Worse, I really liked it.
But why The Prince of Egypt? Well, there are four reasons why every adult and child ought to see this movie.
First, it is good, clean, highly professional, exciting entertainment, and that is sufficiently rare in the motion picture industry that citizens longing for a more moral society should vote with their greenbacks to let Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Katzenberg of DreamWorks know that we are genuinely grateful for the course correction.
Second, the film is reasonably faithful to the Exodus record. Oh yes, DreamWorks took some artistic license. When Jochebed puts Moses in the basket and places the basket in the Nile, it does not rest in the papyrus rushes. Instead the baby floats down the Nile Interstate providentially eluding the “eighteen-wheelers” of Nile shipping, a scrap between two hippos and the teeth of a snapping crocodile before coming to rest in a cove where he is discovered by Pharaoh’s wife. And Moses, while rescuing the daughters of Jethro, turns out to be a bit of a klutz, falling in a well and necessitating his own rescue. Also, Moses is presented as a prankish lad who keeps getting the Pharaoh’s real son, Rameses, in trouble with just about everyone. For example, there is a wild chariot race, reminiscent of the one in “Ben Hur” (oops, did I admit seeing another movie?), a scene that didn’t make the Exodus 1-20 text.
But on the whole, the movie is astonishingly accurate, especially where it counts. For example, in the Passover scene where God says correctly, “When I see the blood I will pass over you,” and in the scene of the miracle crossing of the Red Sea, the biblical storyline is flawlessly maintained. In fact, the film is overwhelmingly faithful to the “storyline” of Exodus.
This leads to a third reason for patronizing this movie. Do not get to the theater late, or you will miss the most incredible part of the whole display. Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks asked a few evangelicals to see the film and make suggestions. I have now had the privilege to view it in three different stages of preparation. Catholic clergy and Moslem clergy were also brought for screenings, as were, of course, Jewish rabbis. We asked for a “disclaimer” of sorts at the outset of the movie. And there it is, first pop, a statement that imagination has been used but for the story as it actually happened, read the Exodus text.
Finally, everyone ought to see this movie because it is compelling and profoundly moving. Somehow, even through the medium of animation, the pathos and horror of human slavery, the fear of death and the joy of life and liberty are powerfully present. And for theistic humans, the grandeur and glory of God and his providence are keenly felt. All of this is augmented by an enticing musical score, some of which will be, in this reviewer’s estimation, enduring. Such, for example, is the plaintive refrain of Jochebed as she releases Moses to the Nile. Another song that kids will sing for some time to come is sung by the two Egyptian magicians attempting to match the miracles of Moses tit for tat. “You’re playing with the big boys now,” is their musical taunt.
Critics of this critic will doubtless opine, “Katzenberg flew him to Hollywood and wined him (I passed) and dined him (I heartily indulged), and now he endorses the movie.” Maybe so, but I am under no illusion about Katzenberg or Hollywood. Nor was Katzenberg deceptive. DreamWorks is a business. And he hoped that Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Jewish and Moslem clergy would like it and talk about it. He indicated clearly that they hoped the flick would strike it big in the box office. Going into the making of the film, which involved more than 400 artists and a host of Hollywood stars, this was probably about all there was to it. But not a few of the participants, including Katzenberg himself, have said openly that they had, in the preparation of the film, come to a new appreciation of their own Jewish heritage.
But someone will say, “There is no change — it just happened that a blind hog found an acorn for once.” Very well. You may be correct. But good folks everywhere, especially evangelical Christians, ought to be in the commendation business at least as often as we are in the condemnation mode. So, if a “blind hog” found an acorn, we ought to commend him and encourage him in the hope that he will forage more often beneath the stately oaks of God’s revelation, the Bible. See “The Prince of Egypt” and my bet is that you will soon see Hollywood flicks on David and Abraham before many moons have passed.
Patterson is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.