It started with a phone call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, a director in Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks film company. Katzenberg is the former Disney executive who produced Aladdin and The Lion King. Now he is busily at work on a new animated blockbuster called The Prince of Egypt.
Hollywood hasn’t made a Bible movie in many years, and DreamWorks is about to bring the Exodus story to the silver screen. Would I come out to Universal Studios to view the footage of the new film and offer my critique and feedback? This would be a new experience for me and, since I needed to be on the West Coast in a few weeks anyway, I agreed to be a theological film critic.
After a short tour of the Universal lot (complete with the town square from Back to the Future, Western streets that looked vaguely familiar, the Bates Hotel with a vacancy sign up, and dinosaur movie props), my co-worker Mark Farr and I were warmly received by the DreamWorks team. Two hundred theologians and religious workers were being brought to Hollywood to offer their opinions of Moses, we were told. So much for Tinseltown’s demand for my unique perspective.
In the next two hours, I learned a lot about animation. Did you know it takes one million individual drawings to make an 88-minute animated feature? The complexity and artistry of the project was impressive indeed, as was the emotional impact of the pieces of the film already completed. This is going to be a big box office success.
After our preview, we sat down with Katzenberg to talk theology. I had mostly one comment to make: Don’t make Moses into a superhero. I recalled the conversation between Moses and God, in the book of Exodus, where the great liberator receives his calling to set the people free. I think this is one of the most extraordinary conversations in history. It’s an argument, really, between God and Moses. God describes how the cry of the Israelites has reached his ear, and that he, Moses, has been chosen to go to Pharaoh and tell the Egyptian ruler that God says, "Let my people go."
But Moses isn’t exactly thrilled with the idea. He’s just a simple goat herder now, out in the desert, with a family and without great ambitions. "Who am I to go to Pharaoh?" Moses pleads, and tries to persuade God to find somebody else. The scene is arguably the most famous divine calling in human history, but Moses’ less than heroic response hardly makes this a Hollywood moment. Moses is, in other words, a reluctant leader right from the beginning. The discussion he carries on with God about his reticence is something each of us can relate to.
Moses gives a whole list of excuses about why he is not the best choice for the assignment. "They won’t believe me," he complains. "They won’t believe you sent me." God promises Moses to be with him in Egypt. But even after God performs a whole series of rather extraordinary miracles, and then offers to repeat these wonders in front of Pharaoh, Moses still demurs.
My favorite excuse from Moses is his claim that he is not a good public speaker. "I am not eloquent," Moses says, suspecting this mission will require persuasive speeches. Some biblical scholars suspect Moses might have been a stutterer, terrified by public verbal confrontation. God gets angry with him: "Moses, who made your mouth?" And God tells Moses that his brother Aaron can go along to help. Throughout the whole discussion, Moses never really agrees to go to Egypt. God simply tells Moses he is going.
As they say, the rest is history. A slave people is freed through the mighty acts of God. The Exodus story has been an inspiration for oppressed people ever since, and Moses’ name is synonymous with the word "liberation." The Prince of Egypt will bring this powerful story to center stage in American popular culture.
But Moses is no Charleton Heston, who performed the role of Moses in Hollywood so many years ago (or at least the larger-than-life hero that Heston made him out to be). No, Moses was more like us. He didn’t feel up to the job, he didn’t feel self-confident, he didn’t want to be a hero. "Please God, send somebody else," he kept saying. Moses is not a good superhero role model. Moses is a better example of how extraordinary things can be accomplished through ordinary people—like us.
Most of the people I know who made a difference were not superheroes either. They were really quite ordinary. They just felt a sense of call and commitment that enabled them to do important things. It’s a commitment that anyone can make and when you do, things begin to happen. The call may not always be as clear as a voice from a burning bush, but most of us have a pretty good idea about what we should do. Just listen to your heart, trust it, and act on what you believe. That’s what begins to change the world or at least our little part of it.
Boycotts and Splits
The real reason I was in California was to teach a one-week course at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. The weather was great and the class was terrific—a theologically diverse group of mostly mainline church pastors and Catholic religious. The title of the course was "Seeking Common Ground." We spoke of many issues throughout the five days and, one day, someone brought up the recent decision by the Southern Baptist Convention to boycott the Disney Corporation for allegedly being "pro-gay."
The class was about equally men and women, included gay people, was somewhat racially mixed, and drew pastors from both liberal and evangelical backgrounds. It was a stimulating environment to ask how the church might find common ground on a whole host of contemporary questions like the Disney boycott.
First, someone said that a decision by a church to boycott a huge corporation had positive and hopeful elements, regardless of the reasons for the boycott. Others wished the Southern Baptists would have shown a broader concern for the sweatshops Disney runs in Haiti or that its chief executive officer, Michael Eisner, reportedly makes $97,000 an hour. But the heart of the Baptists’ concern seems to be Disney’s decision to grant health benefits to same-sex partners of their employees, as many other companies, including IBM, are now doing. This, the SBC said, is inappropriate for a company supposedly committed to family values.
I told the class the story of a "dialogue" I had just over a year ago in Colorado Springs with John Eldredge of Focus on the Family. The interchange was arranged as a workshop for the Evangelical Press Association annual convention. We found agreement on the importance of building strong and loving two-parent families—something my own inner-city neighborhood in Washington, D.C., desperately needs. We also found wide agreement in the room about the critical need to reverse the nation’s abortion rate, though many think criminalization is not the answer. Then Eldredge asked me about gay marriage.
I responded by asking three questions to the packed room of conservative evangelicals. Would anyone want to deny a gay person the right to have their partner beside them at their death bed, because of a hospital’s "family" visitation rules? Nobody said they would. Would anyone want to deny that gay partner the opportunity to help shape their loved one’s medical treatment? Again, no hands went up. Finally, if the gay person died, would anyone want to require that their worldly possessions be sent back to the family who rejected them 30 years ago, rather than be given to the partner who had been with the person for the last 25 years? No one in the EPA workshop thought that was just.
In effect, people who are theologically opposed to homosexuality are willing, in a pluralistic society, to grant basic domestic protections to a gay relationship. Other conservative Christians have told me they believe gay partners should, of course, be able to put each other in their wills. At the same time, many gay people I’ve spoken with don’t think it’s a very good idea to demand that the whole concept of marriage, religiously and societally, be changed to accommodate them. They frankly don’t want gay people to take the blame or responsibility for such a momentous social and cultural change. They just want fair domestic protection.
I suggested to the class in Berkeley that there is potential common ground here, though some on either side might not accept it. People in the class, both gay and straight, saw that potential and thought the Baptists might want to think about that.
We then turned our attention to some of the larger and thornier issues in the homosexuality debate, especially because there were Presbyterian pastors in the class from the two groups who are threatening to divide over the question. We first agreed that the issues of "family" and homosexuality should be "delinked." Today the two are often confused in tragic ways. Both are important issues on their own merit but have little to do with each other.
At a subsequent Call to Renewal town meeting in Colorado Springs, a Focus on the Family representative stated, "The breakdown of the family is primarily due to heterosexual dysfunction, not to homosexuality." That admission felt to me like a real breakthrough and the beginning of more common ground.
For example, health benefits to cohabiting heterosexual couples could reasonably be denied because it might undermine marriage, but it’s much harder to see how granting them to gay couples who can prove a long-term commitment undermines heterosexual marriage. On the other hand, unless that long-term commitment is clear, gay couples could be demanding health benefits for a series of different partners, which would hardly be fair. If gay couples are ultimately to receive domestic benefits as heterosexual couples do, they should also be held to similar standards of accountability, which some may or may not want. Underneath the painful debates over the ordination of gay clergy and other ecclesial issues lie strongly felt differences, both in theological and biblical interpretation and in pastoral applications. Common ground in these areas may be harder to find. With the stridency of the debate on both sides, however, it seems that too few are really even trying.
The consequences of splits in historic denominations are quite ominous as we approach the 21st century. Our class wondered if we can avoid them. We certainly won’t if we abandon the principles of Christian unity: What unites us is the way to address what divides us, and the first requirement for finding common ground is the commitment to seek it. Are we truly doing that, or just eyeing property and resources for an imminent ecclesial divorce?