Entries with tag faith matters .

Mission: Impossible - Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday

I can hardly believe it, but Great Lent is almost over.

The 40-day Fast is nearing its end, and we have been through it all with Christ. 

We have climbed up the tree to get a glimpse of Him. We have been brought before Him by faithful friends and have had our sins forgiven. We have been thrown to the ground by evil spirits and have been lifted up by His grace. We have asked Him to give us whatever we want. 

And now, we stand on the verge of Holy Week, and we are about to welcome Him into our hearts, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Jn. 12:13)

And welcome Him we should!

After all, our celebration of Palm Sunday is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, as well as the joyful entry of fish into our stomachs for this brief interim between Great Lent and Holy Week. 

(That’s right: Great Lent doesn’t end with the Resurrection, it ends with the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday.  We prepare for our preparation.)

So yes, Christ is triumphant. But exactly what is the triumph?

Just the day before Palm Sunday, we celebrate Lazarus Saturday, in which Jesus journeys to the town of Bethany because His friend Lazarus has fallen sick and died. 

Allow me to set the scene: a few days before traveling to Bethany, Jesus receives news that Lazarus is sick and that his sisters, Martha and Mary, are asking Christ to come heal Lazarus. When He hears this, however, He deliberately chooses to stay where He is for another TWO DAYS. Like a boss.

In fact, Jesus waits until He knows Lazarus is dead. And then He goes to Bethany.

When word gets to the sisters that Christ has finally arrived in Bethany, they each, in turn, say the same thing to Him: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21, 32). “If you had come just a little sooner,” they say. “Didn’t You hear? We told you he was sick, and now he’s dead.”

“Where were You when we needed you?”

Oh, how often my words to the Lord sound like this. 

The sisters offer this lament, their prayer sparked by the nothingness they are experiencing in the loss of their brother (on the one hand) and the faith they have in the One who could have saved Him (on the other hand).

And so they wonder: “Where were You?”

By the time they offer this lament to Christ, however, their brother has been dead four days, long enough for his body to begin to stink. 

He’s buried.

Gone.

But Christ offers them hope – “Your brother will rise again” (Jn. 11:23)

“Yeah, yeah,” Martha says. “I know he will live again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn. 11:24).

But Christ isn’t interested in what Martha knows. He doesn’t want to hear the information she has learned in Sunday school. No, He invites her to trust in Him.  

I am the Resurrection and the Life,” He tells her (Jn. 11:25).

For Christ, belief in the resurrection is not doctrine regarding a future event, but rather, belief in the Resurrection is something to be located squarely in His Person. Jesus invites Martha and Mary not to hope for some future event, but rather to hope in Him, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the One who is coming into the world, He who is the Resurrection of the dead

So do we trust in Him, with the totality of our personhood? Or do we trust in what our brains “know” He can do?

The sisters expected that Jesus would arrive to cure their sick brother. After all, they had seen Him do this with others – certainly He could do it with their brother, who was Jesus’s friend! But Christ deliberately waits until this, the healing of the sick, is beyond the realm of possibility. Indeed, He waits until He is put in a place where He will be forced to do the impossible: raise the dead.

How often do we place our expectations on Christ? How often do we stand in prayer asking God why He didn’t act to do this or that for us? And how often does God subsequently burst through any limits we arbitrarily impose on Him? Our God is a God who raises the dead, for “with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk. 1:37). 

But this movement toward faith is hard.

It’s hard because sometimes God deliberately waits to act. Indeed, He waits until all that can be accomplished by human strength is no longer possible, and then – sometimes only then – will He act. Lazarus didn’t need to be sick or dead to manifest God’s ultimate power over death; Lazarus needed to be really dead – like, really, really dead. This work of Christ’s needed to be the clear and decisive work of God so that none could argue that God had indeed sent Christ (Jn. 11:42).

Sometimes God intentionally withholds His action in order to bring us to that point where we simply cry out to Him, pleading that He do something – anything. And what’s more: it will often be something we could never have anticipated. 

He wants to move us from what we know (or think we know) to genuine faith in Him

Christ’s triumph over death in Bethany paves the way for His entrance into Jerusalem, where the crowd welcomes Him gladly into their midst! Jesus has just done something spectacular, something that no human hand could have done. He has raised a man from the dead, restoring him to those who had counted him as lost forever! What cause is there to prevent fervent festivity and flaring fanfares? 

Let us, with the crowd, welcome Him with joy into our hearts!

But let us also approach this day with trepidation and great solemnity. For within only a matter of days, this crowd will turn their backs on Him. What were previously the shouts of a joyful crowd will quickly turn to the cries of a murderous mob. The mouths that proclaim “Blessed is He” will shortly be shouting “Crucify Him!”

And unfortunately, we are that crowd.

So where will we stand next week when they take Him away to be killed? Will we run away in fear and despair? 

Or will we stand beside Him and die with Him, trusting that He is a God who does the impossible and raises the dead?

-Christian Gonzalez 

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more:

For more on the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

For more on what happens after we die, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on struggling with doubt, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Functions of Religion, and the Symbolism of a Myrtle Tree

The Izmir University of Economics honored His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and New Rome Bartholomew with the title of Honorary Doctor of Sociology on February 9, 2015.  The University’s Faculty Senate resolution conferring the honorary doctorate emphasized the fact that the title was being awarded to Bartholomew in recognition of his All Holiness’ service to humanity and contribution to interfaith dialogue.  After accepting his degree from Ogun Esen, the Rector of the University, Bartholomew delivered a speech, “Building Bridges: Interfaith Dialogue, Ecological Awareness, and the Culture of Solidarity.”  The Ecumenical Patriarch addressed University faculty and students, representatives of the Turkish state, members of the foreign diplomatic community in Izmir, members of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and others. 

The thematic pieces of Bartholomew’s speech, emphasizing dialogue, ecology, and human solidarity, were constructed as part of a fascinating architecture that addressed the timeless functions of religion.  His All Holiness established the context for his discussion by reflecting on “the return of God” in public life and world affairs.  Bartholomew observed that the longstanding modernist expectation of an end to religion has proven to be a flawed secularist prejudice, refuted by myriad expressions worldwide that indicate the reaffirmation of religion as a central dimension in private and public life in the twenty-first century.  Indeed, because of the historical and ongoing importance of religion, it is crucial to reevaluate the role and function of religion in and across cultures and societies.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew identified four crucial functions of religion.  One, “religion is connected with the deep concerns of the human being…which permanently affect the human soul.”  In other words, religion provides answers to humanity’s existential questions; it provides orientation, purpose, meaning, and understanding of life. 

Two, religion is fundamental to the identity of peoples and cultures and to the positive awareness and interaction between groups.  Bartholomew noted, “this is why knowledge of the belief and the religion of the other is an indispensable precondition of understanding otherness and of the establishment of communication and dialogue.” 

Three, religions, more than any other force in history, have created and preserved the greatest cultural achievements of humankind, essential moral values, and respect for human dignity and the living world.  His All Holiness reflected, “Religion is the arc of wisdom and of the spiritual inheritance of humanity.  Culture has in general the stamp of religion.  Even modern humanistic secular movements, for example the human rights movement, cannot be understood and evaluated independently of their religious roots.” 

Four, Bartholomew identified peacemaking as an essential function of religion.  Inasmuch as religion can be, and has been, used to divide people, such conditions and their results, including intolerance and violence, represent the failure of religion, not its essence, which is the protection of human life and dignity.  Reminding us that the revival of religion has a vital role to play in reconciliation and peace, His All Holiness pointed out, “In our times, the credibility of religions depends largely on their commitment to peace.  The way to peace and reconciliation is interreligious dialogue and cooperation in view of the main contemporary challenges, like the destruction of the natural environment and the growing economic and social crisis.”

Invoking the constructive perspective and hopefulness that comes from faith, Bartholomew observed that, although the world is, indeed, in crisis, never before in history have so many human beings, enabled by advances in technology, “had the opportunity to bring so many positive changes to so many people and to the global community simply through encounter and dialogue.  While it may be true that this is a time of crisis, it must equally be underlined that there has also never been greater chances for communication and dialogue.”

Two days before the February 9 event at the Izmir University of Economics, Bartholomew stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence through dialogue between people of every religion, in a sermon following the Divine Liturgy.  Bartholomew officiated that Liturgy in the only Greek Orthodox church in Izmir, historic Smyrna, a city where, less than a century ago, one would have encountered countless churches, chapels, and cathedrals serving hundreds of thousands of Christians.  The Divine Liturgy took place in the church of Aghios Voukolos (known as Ayavukla to the Turks).  Built in 1887 and named in honor of the patron saint of Smyrna, Saint Voukolos, a student of John the Apostle, and the first bishop of the once great cosmopolitan Greek port city, the church is situated in the district of Basmane, where, before their annihilation in 1922, the Armenian and Greek communities converged. 

Although it was charred, looted, and damaged, Aghios Voukolos was the only church to survive the notorious burning of Smyrna by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist Turkish forces in September 1922.  Following the murder and expulsion of Smyrna’s Christian population, the Turkish state authorities seized Aghios Voukolos and, after initially using the building for secular purposes and despite its official designation as an “archaeological museum,” eventually abandoned the structure in a deliberately act designed to promote the church’s erosion over many decades of neglect and decay.  In an arbitrary turn, the municipal government of Izmir undertook a restoration of the church from 2009 to 2012, with the project’s official goal being to save Aghios Voukolos as “a cultural, arts, and education center.” 

During his sermon, Bartholomew thanked Izmir’s current mayor, Aziz Kocaoglu, for preserving and renovating the Church of Aghios Voukolos, and called Smyrna “a city of creation and prosperity, but also a city of pain, grief, and suffering.”  Adding to the poignancy of the setting, the Divine Liturgy was attended by many descendants of the survivors and refugees of the destruction of Smyrna.  Following the Divine Liturgy, His All Holiness planted a myrtle tree in the church’s courtyard and lit a candle where, according to legend, Saint Voukolos’ tomb is located.  

While honorary degrees are well and good, they are symbolic gestures devoid of real meaning when absent the essence of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s message in Smyrna.  His All Holiness’ spoken message of reconciliation, through remembrance and repentance, was amplified in his choice to plant a myrtle tree at Aghios Voukolos.  The myrtle tree was associated in Biblical times with love, repentance, rebuilding, and prosperity.  Today, Orthodox Christians still remember the destruction of Smyrna and its vibrant Armenian and Greek Christian populations.  However, Turkey’s government denies its own actions—there is no remembering, because there is an unwillingness to acknowledge the act of religious cleansing, part of the larger process of genocide against Ottoman Turkey’s Christians, that culminated in the destruction of Smyrna.  Because there is no acknowledgement, there is no repentance.  And without repentance, there can be no true reconciliation, no meaningful and honest dialogue. 

The newly planted myrtle tree at the Church of Aghios Voukolos can bear fruit only if there is acknowledgment and repentance by Turkey of what all Orthodox Christians still remember.  Only then can there be true reconciliation.  Only then will Aghios Voukolos become a living church, an ecclesial space reflecting the potential of reconciliation through love.  In the meanwhile, the newly refurbished Church of Aghios Voukolos and its small myrtle tree will stand as an eternal reminder of what once was.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Sometimes the World is Black and White: Archbishop Iakovos and the Lesson of Selma

March 15 marks the half-century anniversary of the culmination of a dramatic series of events in American Civil Rights history that have been seared into the country’s national consciousness, events now remembered simply as “Selma.”  On that day, captured for posterity in a moving cover photograph for LIFE magazine, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Iakovos, appeared together on a prominent national stage.  They were brought together by recent violence, tragedy, and murder that had taken place in Selma, Alabama.

Risking their jobs, their homes, and their families’ physical safety, African-American residents in and around Selma, Alabama, took the first steps beginning in January 1965 in what would become a fateful civil rights campaign.  Initiated by student activists and organized by ministers from the Southern Christian Leadership Council, local blacks attempted to register to vote, a basic civil and political right that they had been denied for generations after the post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South.  Town and county officials repeatedly turned away all black citizens as they rejected every attempt by African Americans to register to vote.  In response, the disenfranchised black community joined together in marches and peaceful demonstrations.  Despite constant intimidation and provocations from local and state police, civil rights protesters continued to rally and march peacefully in adherence to the Christian principle of non-violent civil disobedience.

Frustrated by their failure to silence the Selma protests, Alabama police authorities, now joined by members of the Ku Klux Klan, militant segregationists, and other white supremacists, turned to open violence.  On February 17, state troopers fired on and attacked a group of marchers in the nearby-town of Marion, killing a young Baptist deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and wounding several others.  In response to the killing and violence in Marion, the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council prepared a march to take place from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, a distance of more than fifty miles.

On Sunday, March 7, some 600 marchers assembled outside a black community church in Selma to begin the journey to Montgomery.  As they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge (ironically, named in honor of a Confederate general) over the Alabama River they were blocked, mockingly ordered to disperse, and then violently attacked by state troopers and local police.  Firing teargas canisters, mounted police and police on foot charged into the column of marchers, clubbing and beating both male and female protestors, ultimately hospitalizing more than 50 people.  The police rampage was broadcast by television around the world.  News and images of the violence stirred outrage across the country.  In the view of many scholars, “Bloody Sunday,” as the violent event came to be known, and the following week of developments culminating on March 15, marked the critical turning point in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In response to the events of March 7, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent telegrams to prominent religious and civic leaders urging them to join him in protest in Selma against the recent violence.  Hundreds of supporters responded and began arriving in Selma over the next several days.  Shortly after his arrival in Selma, one of those supporters, Rev. James Reeb, a young white Kansas-born Unitarian Universalist minister and community organizer from Boston, was brutally beaten and murdered by a group of Klansmen.  Rev. Reeb’s death, on March 11, produced a national uproar, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to address the nation in a televised broadcast in which he decried Reeb’s killing as an “American tragedy.”  A memorial service for James Reeb was planned to take place in Selma, on Monday, March 15, at Brown Chapel, the church where marchers had first assembled on “Bloody Sunday.”

From his headquarters in New York, the head of the then Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Archbishop Iakovos, had been following the escalating events in Selma with growing alarm.  On March 12, the day after the death of Rev. Reeb, the Archbishop telegrammed the minister’s widow: “The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and our communicants extend deepest condolences and sympathy on the tragic death of your beloved husband, a minister of God who fought oppression of Human Rights and dignity and died heroically on the battlefield of mankind.”  The following day, March 13, Archbishop Iakovos was asked by Rev. Robert Spike, Executive Director of the National Council of Churches Commission on Religion and Race to fly to Selma in order to represent the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the World Council of Churches (Iakovos was one of its presidents), and the National Council of Churches (Iakovos was its vice-president), at the memorial for Rev. Reeb.  On March 14, Iakovos met in New York with his staff and advisors, made up of both priests and lay people, who counseled him against going to Selma.  Iakovos’ advisors were concerned about the highly charged atmosphere in Selma, they were fearful about the Archdiocese taking any action that might prove to be politically unpopular, and they feared for the Archbishop’s personal safety. 

Against the opposition of his staff and advisors, Iakovos resolved to go to Selma.  On the morning of March 15, Archbishop Iakovos, accompanied by only one assistant priest, Fr. George Bacopoulos, and twenty other prominent clergymen representing various denominations flew into Selma on a small aircraft, which their pilot landed in a nearby cow pasture because he feared a violent reception awaited them at the town’s airport.  Iakovos soon arrived at Brown Chapel where distinguished religious and community leaders from around the country had already gathered to eulogize James Reeb.  As the highest-ranking religious leader at the memorial service, Iakovos was given a place of honor on the dais, from where he spoke to the nearly 4,000 mourners who filled the church to capacity and poured outside, saying:

I came to this memorial service because I believe this is an appropriate occasion not only to dedicate myself as well as our Greek Orthodox communicants to the noble cause for which our friend, the Reverend James Reeb, gave his life; but also in order to show our willingness to continue this fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution.  In this God-given cause, I feel sure that I have the full and understanding support of our Greek Orthodox faithful of America.  For our Greek Orthodox Church and our people fully understand from our heritage and our tradition such sacrificial involvements.  Our Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind; and many of our Churchmen have been in the forefront of these battles time and again….The ways of God are not always revealed to us, but certainly His choice of this dedicated minister to be the victim of racial hatred and the hero of this struggle to gain unalienable constitutional rights for those American brethren of ours who are denied them, and to die, so to speak, on this battlefield for human dignity and equality, was not accidental or haphazard.  Let us seek out in this tragedy a divine lesson for all of us.  The Reverend Reeb felt he could not be outside the arena of this bitter struggle, and we, too, must feel that we cannot.  Let his martyrdom be an inspiration and a reminder to us that there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for the basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive.  Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.”

Some time later, Rev. King arrived and offered his own stirring eulogy to the congregation.  Eventually, as the mourners moved to exit the crowded church, Rev. King paused for a moment over the threshold of the doorway of Brown Chapel, locked hands with Iakovos, and spoke quietly and privately to the Archbishop.  From there, the two religious figures led the crowd of thousands in a solemn, peaceful, half-hour-long procession to Selma’s courthouse.  At the center, leading the march, was Dr. King carrying a purple and white memorial wreath, next to King on his right was Archbishop Iakovos, and to King’s left were Rev. Ralph Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young.  A resolute Iakovos, appearing stoic but dignified in his flowing black cassock and skufia, and clutching his archiepiscopal staff, towered physically over all others around him, capturing both the awe of spectators who had lined the streets and the curiosity of hundreds of reporters, photographers, and cameramen who followed the procession along its entire march.

When Rev. King and Archbishop Iakovos reached the courthouse, they found the building locked from the inside.  They and the other dignitaries leading the procession climbed the courthouse steps and then turned to face the almost 4,000 people who had followed them.  At that precise moment a photographer captured the image of Iakovos and King together that would appear on the front cover of the March 26 issue of the immensely popular, ubiquitous Life magazine, an indelible and still incomparable visual impression of the presence of Orthodox Christianity in American history and society. 

Following the conclusion of the memorial, Fr. Bacopoulos left for New York and Archbishop Iakovos flew to visit the Greek Orthodox parish of Holy Trinity in Charleston, South Carolina.  Since his enthronement as Archbishop in 1959, Iakovos had begun a concerted effort to visit all of the parishes in the Archdiocese, and his return from Selma afforded him an opportunity, which he had not previously realized, to meet his fellow Orthodox Christians in Charleston.  However, upon his arrival in Charleston the Archbishop experienced bigotry and a backlash from his own people.  Not a single member of the Charlestown Greek Orthodox community appeared for scheduled events, and Iakovos found himself alone in a hotel room fielding a stream of hostile phone calls throughout the night from Greek Americans across the country that were enraged by his presence in Selma earlier that day.       

In the years that followed Selma—marked by the subsequent legislative triumphs initiated by the Civil Rights Movement, and the expanding enlightenment of society around race and equality—more and more people, including the vast majority of Greek Orthodox Americans, came to appreciate Archbishop Iakovos’ role in the Civil Rights Movement.  Today, Greek Orthodox Christians in America rightly take reflective pride in the courage, vision, and dignity that Archbishop Iakovos displayed in the face of hatred, racism, and persecution.  Iakovos, unlike most of his white hierarchical contemporaries in the Roman Catholic and major Protestant Churches, especially during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, was a consistently outspoken foe of racial intolerance and inequality throughout his entire period of archiepiscopal leadership.  Indeed, eulogizing the Archbishop’s death in 2005, Rev. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, reflected that “at a time when many of the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop Iakovos courageously supported our Freedom Movement and marched alongside my husband, and he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism and violence throughout his life.” 

Without a doubt, Iakovos’ personal life experience growing up persecuted and discriminated against as an Orthodox Christian in Kemalist Turkey significantly influenced his unique perspective and distinguished him from other white major religious leaders in America.  Archbishop Iakovos knew all too well the harsh realities that defined life as a member of a minority traumatized by a history of enslavement.  Growing up as a Greek Orthodox Christian and citizen of the Republic of Turkey he had confronted daily the legacy of enslavement: the humiliations and insecurity that came with living in a society where his basic freedoms and rights were denied, where persecution, oppression, and arbitrary violence against his community were commonplace and justified by law.  Given his past, Iakovos identified with African Americans in ways that most Americans, including most Greek Americans, were never aware of or could never fully comprehend.

Ultimately, it was Iakovos’ faith that decisively determined his engagement with the world.  In short, the Archbishop was an unwavering, consistent advocate of the Civil Rights Movement because he was an Orthodox Christian, in deed and action, not only in word.  For Iakovos, some of the most basic principles of Orthodoxy—freedom, equality, justice, and the dignity and worth of all lives—were existential realities for all of humanity, because of God’s grace.  Denying people basic rights, persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of race, religion, or culture, constituted a rupture with God because it desecrated our sacred responsibility to accept and love all of humanity and to recognize that each and every person, regardless of race, is created in the image of God.  At Selma, Iakovos took the very unpopular action, at that time, to stand alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in defense of the powerless, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the poor because the Archbishop not only preached theology, he lived Orthodoxy.  Iakovos was determined to bring the beauty of his faith and Church into the real and sometimes ugly and brutal world, locking arms with Rev. King as a sign that we all must participate in transforming the world around us.     

There was no ambiguity in Archbishop Iakovos’ decision to embark upon the road to Selma—for him it was a moral obligation.  He truly revered and practiced the tenets of Orthodox Christianity, including the realization that there are moral absolutes, that often there is a right and a wrong, that, indeed, the world is sometimes black and white, and that such truths warrant recognition and action in their defense.  This is the fundamental lesson to be drawn by the noble, inspiring example set by Archbishop Iakovos at Selma. 

Rev. King often stressed that silence and inaction in the face of injustice and persecution was a betrayal of Christian principles.  Indeed, King famously noted “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  Today, the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States—its hierarchy, clergy, and laity—has a moral obligation and a religious responsibility to rededicate itself to the things that matter, meaning that the Church must work unceasingly to contribute to the societal goals for which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Iakovos marched together on that fateful day in Selma in 1965.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Selma at 50: No Longer Master and Servants, but Friends

Inclement weather throughout the country, hours of traffic, long lines and hours of waiting couldn’t keep tens of thousands of U.S. citizens from convening in Selma, Alabama on March 7-8, 2015 for the weekend marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. As in 1965, people from various parts of America rallied around a common cause, namely, the rejection of racism. This was not achieved through the mandate of any single person, but because such action was consistent with the inscription in our hearts from the moment of creation. We were not called to live in isolation, in fear, and in opposition of each other, but rather in communion.

In this way, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not merely one of many Civil Rights leaders in our nation’s history, but rather, someone who responded to God’s calling to faithful and liberating servitude. And this he did not consider to be his own mission, but the ultimate purpose in life for all men and women. He encouraged all people of all faiths to search their hearts and rediscover the primordial quality that made us more than flesh and blood, more then men and women, more than black and white, more than self and other; to harness the faith to put on as our own mantle that which makes us images of God, namely love.

This was what visitors experienced as they encountered each other in the chapels, museums and streets of Selma. The brotherly love present in Selma reminded clearly reflected the love of Christ for His disciples. And this love was never condescending and never divisive. As was the case with Christ and His disciples, we in Selma had reached the point where we no longer carried ourselves as master and servant, but rather as friends, for indeed, all things that have been heard from the Father have also been made known to us (John 15:15). 

Ridley Scott’s Biblical Film—"Exodus: Gods and Kings"—and Its Discontents

Holy Moses, what a God-awful film—I promise that this essay contains no other insipid puns.  I am fascinated by film, ancient history, and Biblical stories.  Quite rarely since the 1960s, do all these things come together in big-budget, grand-scale Hollywood moviemaking.  Consequently, and especially because I had missed an opportunity to see Noah last spring, I resolved to experience the other 2014 Old Testament epic, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, before it left theatres.  I looked forward to the film’s December release with great anticipation and interest, which was magnified by my respect for Ridley Scott’s large body of impressive work as a director—especially for his highly original, early masterpieces such as The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner—which has had an enormous influence on film over the last almost four decades.  Unfortunately, my excitement about Exodus and my expectations of Ridley Scott were entirely misplaced.

Exodus: Gods and Kings tells the well-known story of how Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, a Biblical narrative that communicates the theological purpose of God’s relationship with the ancient Jews.  Underscoring the power of film, the solemn Technicolor spectacle of the 1956 Cecile B. DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments, featuring Charlton Heston in his unforgettable role as Moses, is arguably so deeply imbedded in our popular culture that this cinematic account, rather than the Bible narrative itself, has become the Exodus story for most Americans.  Obviously, any challenge to the preeminent position long held by The Ten Commandments in the pantheon of Bible-inspired films would require extraordinary filmmaking talent and vision. 

The acclaimed English director, Ridley Scott, seemed a perfect candidate for retelling the story of Moses and the Exodus.  Scott is certainly no newcomer to historical film.  His first film, The Duellists, takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, 1492: Conquest of Paradise considers Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, while Gladiator, one of Scott’s most successful films, is set in the Roman Empire.  Furthermore, Scott has directed works that have focused on the intersection of history and religion.  Kingdom of Heaven, for example, looks at the Roman Catholic Crusades against Islam.  Finally, over his long career, Scott has also developed a remarkable ability to successfully bring nuance, complexity, and emotional depth to epic historical dramas, whose mammoth size tend to promote two-dimensional portrayals in the hands of less talented filmmakers.  Yet, despite his impressive record of technical and artistic accomplishments as a director, Scott proved to be poorly suited to bring life and meaning to the subject of his film.  In short, Scott’s religious prejudices and ignorance of history undermined his effort to produce a film worthy of his reputation as a brilliant filmmaker.

The most successful Bible-inspired film of the last several decades remains Mel Gibson’s 2004 global sensation, The Passion of the Christ, an emotional juggernaut which forced Hollywood to take note of a largely ignored and undervalued Christian audience.  The Passion of the Christ was written, produced, and directed by Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic who aimed to reproduce through film as accurately as possible the scriptural description of Christ’s historical martyrdom.  Conversely, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was directed by an atheist, Scott, who curiously accepts the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus as historical truth, but, paradoxically, dismisses the religious content and divine attribution of the narrative’s key events. 

Rather than reconstructing the Exodus story to reflect its religious content and meaning as elucidated in the Old Testament and the Torah, Scott uses his film to posit a materialist interpretation of the story, premised upon putatively historical and “scientific” evidence.  While Gibson was inspired to make his film because of his religious reverence for his subject, Scott was motivated by his rejection, if not also contempt, for the religious understanding of the events described in the story of Moses and the Exodus, a central figure and a watershed moment, respectively, in the evolving revelation of God for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  Indeed, in recent interviews, Scott recounted memories of his boyhood in the 1950s when he scoffed at Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments.  Scott has noted on several occasions: “I didn’t believe it then, when I was just a kid sitting in the third row.  I remember that feeling and thought that I’d better come up with a more scientific or natural explanation.”  

Scott’s celebrated career and enormous influence in Hollywood, along with a budget exceeding 140 million dollars, enabled him, finally, to indulge his childhood hubris.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result is a cinematic disaster.  The respected film critic, Scott Mendelson, offered a straightforward, unvarnished assessment in his December 2014 Forbes review, writing: “Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a terrible film.  It is a badly acted and badly written melodrama that takes what should be a passionate and emotionally wrenching story and drains it of all life and dramatic interest.” 

The failure of the film, however, extends beyond the cinematic conventions of passion and drama.  Scott’s film is a disappointment because of its conceptual and ideological underpinnings, which produce a ludicrous assault against both history and religion.  Here I want to be clear, that I do not advocate some crude religious litmus test for filmmaking: any director of a Bible-inspired film does not need to be a person of faith in order to produce a work of integrity, but producing such a work of integrity requires a director to be faithful to the film’s textual source—the Bible.  After all, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a feature film, not a documentary or religious symposium.  Filmmaking allows for, and for technical reasons often requires, creative latitude in the adaptation and transformation of textual material, including Biblical literature, into a motion picture.  However, Scott goes beyond merely making artistic or technical adjustments to the story of Exodus.  He has essentially created an alternative narrative. 

Scott’s film makes no effort to be true to the narrative of Moses and the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt.  Even this deficiency could perhaps be overlooked if Scott invoked the defense of artistic license.  However, because Exodus: Gods and Kings bears almost no resemblance to the Biblical narrative, it ultimately pretends to be something that it is not, and this is a deliberate deception that cannot be justified.  It is difficult to understand why one of the most gripping and suspenseful Biblical narratives needed so much ultimately strange altering, including the infusion of Arthurian mythology into the life of Moses.  For those familiar with the Biblical narrative, Scott’s version of the story is virtually unrecognizable.  In fact, given the omission of some of the most crucial and exciting elements of the Biblical story, coupled with the injection of entirely invented features, one may reasonably question whether anyone involved with this film ever read the Biblical account.  Were that not enough to raise concerns about the disingenuous approach to its subject, the film’s historical inaccuracies, as well as blunders in the depictions of Egyptian architecture and material culture, are too many and too vast to recount. 

Ultimately, most of the film’s problems stem from the director’s hostility towards religion.  Scott’s prejudice was clearly identified by the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society, Ellen White, a University of Toronto Hebrew Bible scholar, who observed: “The movie [Exodus: Gods and Kings] is manipulative in its anti-religious polemic.  All the supernatural elements of the story (which are in the Bible to make theological points about the God of the Hebrews and thus are literarily important to the characterization of God, regardless of one’s faith position) are stripped away or given a scientific explanation within the dialogue.  It is amazing that in the movie…Moses is a firm atheist until he suffers a traumatic brain injury, which makes him hallucinate a boy-god.  Which brings us to the petulant, malicious boy-god, who plagues the Hebrews alongside the Egyptians, ignores Moses’ pleas for mercy and binds the Hebrews to him without choice in the final plague.  All of these alterations were designed to make religion look senile.” 

The highly accomplished British actor who plays Moses, Christian Bale, apparently enthusiastically embraced Ridley Scott’s outlook in preparing for his role.  In an October 2014 pre-release interview in Los Angeles, Bale noted that, although he had not been knowledgeable about the Bible before his involvement in Scott’s project, by the time of the completion of the film he was convinced that Moses was as a terrorist and “was likely a schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about.”  Bale also opined that Moses “was a very troubled man, tumultuous man and mercurial.  But the biggest surprise was the nature of God.  He was very mercurial.”  Bale’s unintentionally comic reflections on God are instructive because they reveal that the God of Exodus: Gods and Kings is not the God of the Bible, but exclusively the God of Ridley Scott’s imagination. 

Two months before the release of his film, a confident Scott declared with no irony or humility: “it’s always interesting to address all the facts.  Out of the facts comes the logic, and out of the logic comes reality.”  Scott’s desire to produce “rational scientific” explanations to account for the events found in the Exodus narrative ultimately led him to change even the most well known Old Testament image—God’s parting, through Moses, of the Red Sea, for the Hebrews to flee to safety ahead of the pharaoh’s pursuing army.  According to his belief, Scott attributes this dramatic climax of the Biblical narrative to a propitiously timed tsunami triggered by an underwater earthquake rather than divine intervention.

Through Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott aims to discredit the religious interpretation of a pivotal Biblical story not by questioning the veracity of the story but by constructing a “scientific” explanation to replace the story’s religious explanation.  However, Scott fails to understand, among many things, that the historical authenticity of the Bible is not dependent upon material evidence, or, furthermore, that scientific explanation and divine intervention do not necessarily negate each other.  Scientific evidence is not needed to affirm the essential truths of the Bible.  For those truths, in the framework of Christian thought, are revealed and affirmed through the life and message of Jesus Christ, for whom the world was inexorably prepared, in part, by Moses.  This is a theological and historical reality that, not surprisingly, does not find its way into Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.                                 

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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