Monday, March 4, 2013

Does it matter that Moses was white?

Flipping on the end of the first episode of "The Bible" docu-drama on the History channel last night I was struck by two things. 1) It is a visually beautiful movie, the scenes are colorful and the CGI makes miraculous events such as the parting of the Red Sea come to life. It is something to behold. 2) Once again I was floored that the character playing Moses was clearly a white guy, and no attempt other than clothing was made to make him more realistic to what the actual Moses of history would look like.

The film, in its website, acknowledges and actually seems to celebrate this is an "international cast." And indeed it is. Apparently Saul/Paul will be played by an Irish actor and Jesus by a very handsome young man from Portugal. Are these people qualified to act in this movie, certainly. Can actors take on roles that don't fit their racial makeup? Yes. Are they always be limited by the color of their skin and nationality, of course not. In this claim, it even seems they are hoping to diffuse controversy that would occur if they were to have a cast that was largely from one nation or people-group. However, in being so "politically correct" they leave a big part of the story of the bible untold and rather than make the story of the bible more real, they make it more fictional.

This was yet another opportunity for the filmmakers to accurately portray the world of the bible and present it to an increasingly non-Christian Western audience. In so doing, why not accurately portray the people in the bible? Their skin tone, physical presence and tone of speech does matter. These were actually historical people. The goal is historicity? Moses actually lived. He was a real person. You wouldn't have a portly, blond haired actor with a strong Midwestern accent playing George W. Bush in a docu-drama about the events of 9-11 would you?

The other objection is the issue of continuing to perpetuate white privilege and assumptions about the bible. Unfortunately, there will be those who watch this film and have their suspicions confirmed that the people of the bible looked like them. That the current residents of this land of Israel/Palestine have nothing to do with the history of scripture. Again, the story of the bible, which Christian's claim is a real historical narrative, becomes a fictional and spiritual occasion.

Once again this movie disconnects the scriptural message from the political realities of the world in which we live today. This is even more important in a world in which the Christian faith is growing more "southern" in its make-up. Christians today are looking more and more like the biblical characters. The average Christian today is not a white, euro-american, but a darker skinned, female living on the edge of poverty. (see Phillip Jenkins The New Faces of Christianity to learn more)

Throughout history it has been far too easy and simple for western and white Christians to divorce their faith from the reality of the world around them. The biblical characters just become sort of "spiritual phantoms" who floated through a world concerned only for the things of God and never worried about day to day realities. But of course the point of a "realistic" docu-drama is to make real the stories of the people and show how their lives were. To demonstrate the reality of their suffering, their concerns and their pains which include engaging the political world in which they lived. God's incarnation was indeed a real event in an historical time and place.

To take this argument to its extreme. If the way the actors look does not matter then neither should the costumes they wear or the locations of their sets. They could reenact the stories of the bible on a melting ice flow in the Arctic. And indeed, the content of the story would still matter. The power of the  Christian witness is that the Word became flesh (John 1) and therefore a human being, Jesus of Nazareth  embodied that Word. In the same way the Church, the body of Christ in the world, is to be Christ's embodiment today. 

That body is by no means limited to a certain race, creed or gender. However, if the goal is to tell the biblical story in a way that depicts its realism, then the actors should at least be chosen in an attempt to make them look the part. The makers of the film missed the challenge once again. To take seriously the political implications that God chose to be born to a poor, dark-skinned woman in an occupied nation. To take seriously the claim that Christians make that this ancient narrative, makes a difference for our world today.