By Jonathan Decker (Clinical director, LMFT)
For centuries the Holy Bible has been the primary source of guidance in the lives of billions. Unfortunately, some readers get hung up on those long lists of genealogy, are intimidated by Isaiah or the Savior's parables, don't care much for ancient history, and are confused by biblical language. So how do we get them interested in stories, people, and messages that are as relevant today as ever? Behold the power of cinema! Consider these “gateway movies” that can spark the interest of children, adolescents, and adults in the Holy Bible
BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1959).
Winner of eleven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this classic epic has battles at sea, betrayal, an escape from slavery, tragic romance, a quest for vengeance, and one of the greatest action scenes ever shot (the incredible chariot race). How's that for a hook? Along the way, the life of Judah Ben-Hur intersects fatefully with that of the Son of God, and the title character finds himself forever changed by the message of the Prince of Peace. While Ben-Hur is a tale of fiction, it provides a fascinating backdrop of true history, capturing Jewish discontent with Roman rule, the hope of a promised Messiah, the trials faced by the people (leprosy, poverty), and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for humanity.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005)
A fallen world, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the battle of Armageddon, and paradise on Earth; all of these are portrayed in beautiful and clear symbolism in this fantasy, based on the novel by Christian author C.S. Lewis. Two “daughters of Eve” and two “sons of Adam” journey from our world circa WWII to the magical land of Narnia, where they are caught up in the struggle between the forces of the evil White Witch and those of the noble lion Aslan.
FINDING FAITH IN CHRIST (2003)
Highlights from the life of Jesus Christ, as found in the New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), condensed into thirty sincere and well-produced minutes. Produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to share a witness with the world the Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the World.
JOSEPH: KING OF DREAMS (2000)
DreamWorks Animation's solid adaptation of the story of Joseph in Egypt is surprisingly faithful to the source material. It's got lovely animation and stirring music. The story is found in Genesis 37-46.
JONAH: A VEGGIETALES MOVIE (2002)
A great pick for kids (and adults, as it's quite funny), this take on the story of Jonah adds a lot of humor, music, and general silliness, but at its core its true to the actual biblical tale of the famous prophet who's swallowed by a whale. The film has some nice scriptural insights as well.
THE NATIVITY STORY (2006)
The Nativity Story is a spiritually edifying film with a keen sense of historical insight, emotional authenticity, and scriptural accuracy. By examining what life would be like for a pregnant unwed teenager claiming God was her son's father, by chronicling the hopes of the shepherds and wise men, by giving historical insight into Herod's corruption, and by portraying the perils of the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the film keeps our interest and broadens our insight.
It is also quite moving, as Mary and Joseph go from nervous near-strangers to inseparable husband and wife through persecution, tender service to one another, and the daunting task of raising the Messiah. This is a well-written, well-acted, testimony-building film with gorgeous music and lovely cinematography. I've rarely had such a spiritual experience at the movies. Suggested reading: Matthew 1:18-25, 2:1-15; Luke 1-2; 1 Kings 19:11-12).
ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING (2006)
The story of Queen Esther is given a lovely treatment in this fairy-tale romance with lavish production values and a solid cast including Tiffany Dupont (The Work and the Glory), Luke Goss (Hellboy II: The Golden Army), John-Rhys Davies (Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings), John Noble (Fringe), Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago), Tommy Lister (The Dark Knight) and Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia). Older fans of Disney princess tales will adore this; the love story is tender and the third act gives teenage girls a heroine for the ages as Esther courageously puts her life in God's hands to save her people.
THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998)
Make no bones about it, The Prince of Egypt is an excellent movie first, a Bible history lesson a distant second. Its opening titles admit it openly: “The motion picture you are about to see is an adaptation of the Exodus story. While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.” Watch it with your kids, feast your eyes on the gorgeous animation, get swept up in the drama and the incredible music, be inspired by the storytelling…then crack open the Book of Exodus to compare.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
My favorite adventure film centers around an actual Old Testament artifact: the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments, was kept in the Holy of Holies, and was carried by ancient Israel into battle. The recreation of the ark built for the film (see above) is quite accurate to the description found in the Bible (see Exodus 25:10-22). Though the film certainly has some Hollywood flourishes (melting Nazi faces, etc.), it is actually true that unholy men were destroyed by God for stealing the ark (1 Samuel 5:8-12) as the Nazis were in the film, while others died from looking into it, as Indy warns Marion not to do (1 Samuel 6:19).
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
Does anything really need to be said about Cecille B. Demille's quintessential masterpiece that hasn't already been said? Really, the trailer below speaks for itself. Like The Prince of Egypt, this adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the story if not the letter, but a look at the Book of Exodus will set that right. This is both a phenomenal landmark in film-making and a profoundly spiritual experience in and of itself.
BONUS: JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
Technically a 6-hour miniseries, not a movie, this is still rightly regarded as the quintessential screen depiction of the life of Christ. The running time allows for a meticulous attention to biblical and historical detail, and while a few interpretations (mode of baptism, celibacy of the apostles, etc.) are up for debate, this is still a glorious recreation of the Gospels, highlighted by fine production values and great acting by an all-star cast.
UPDATE: Since writing this article, I've seen a few more first-rate Bible flicks that you don't want to miss.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.