Saturday, April 6, 2013

I love The Ten Commandments

Not just the ones from the Bible, brought to us in various forms (depending on your faith tradition) throughout the centuries and the bedrock upon which Western morality was imagined in the Christian era.  Nope, I mean The Ten Commandments, the one, the only, the version that sticks in your mind despite all the knowledge you have indicating that Moses would not look like Charlton Heston.  Fact is, once you see this film, he will forever look like Charlton Heston, no matter how many Middle Eastern, Arabic, Palestinian, Egyptian or African portrayals Hollywood can muster.

The biggest blockbuster of the 1950s, and the first movie to give Gone With the Wind a run for the money, DeMille's TTC is Hollywood splendor at its best.  I know, we tend to chuckle at the acting style, the dialogue, the pomp and pageantry, as we do to anything produced before 1998.  We lament and mourn the bloated love story and interpolations that are added to appease a post-war WASP audience increasingly glued to the one eyed monster of the modern living room.

And yet, I'm not so sure those criticisms are fair, or even true.  Yes, DeMille's farewell masterpiece was a product of the era, as are our films.  As are any films or artistic endeavors.  But let's take a longer look, and see why I get as much of a spiritual jolt from this product of Hollywood dream manufacturing as I did from The Passion  of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth  or any other attempt by Hollywood to show me what the real Ten Commandments or any other biblical story really would have looked like.

First, the criticisms.  The main one for anyone schooled in the biblical narrative is that there are plenty of additions that have nothing to do with the history.  Careful now, some - such as Moses and his Ethiopian campaign - come to us from ancient sources and traditions, not unlike those traditions we Christians have (such as the three wise men versus just a bunch of Magi as it's written in the Scriptures).  DeMille says he consulted other ancient texts than 'The Holy Scriptures', and he appears to have done just that.

Of course not all of the characters or story lines are from anything other than the screenplay writer's mind.  The love story, the relational embellishments, the added fictional characters are a bit like the love story of Cameron's Titanic.  But here's a big difference.  To me, there is actually a point to be made from all of the Commandment's additions.  Cameron uses his fictional characters to drive home the point of 'bad evil rich people/good beautiful not-rich non-conformists'.  DeMille uses it to gradually bring into the story line the idea of God's working in history, despite everything going on in the world.  Despite our day to day living, our going to the fields and coming from them, or grand and selfish plans, God Himself has a plan long before we realize it.  When we're out there, seeing life being what happens while we're busy making other plans, God is ahead of the pack, ahead of the game.

And so first off, one of the reasons I like TTC is precisely because of the buildup, the love story, the embellished relationships.  It wouldn't take much to make this a non-biblical fictional narrative set in ancient Egypt.  And yet, add the biblical narrative, and the entire theme of the movie goes right, and can't be imagined without it.  I'd like to think that's what happens in our lives when we behave and actually listen to God: the narrative of our lives is suddenly altered, and no longer can we imagine it without God, even though we may have imagined it that way earlier.

If anything bothers me about the alterations, it's that DeMille lets God off the hook.  It isn't God who sends the worst plague, but it is Pharaoh who decrees the plague on the first born; God is seen almost childishly turning Pharaoh's words around, rather than being the source of the plague.  Likewise, it isn't God who hardens Pharaoh's heart, it's that rascally and randy Nefertiti.   She hardens it through her woman's ways.  Again, a slight but nonetheless important part of the Christian and Jewish narrative: Pharaoh's heart was hardened precisely because God hardened it.  Something Paul reflects on in his letter to the Romans.  Something that has caused believers to reflect on for eons.  But with everything else he was working through, I suppose it was just one extra thing DeMille didn't' want to grapple with.

Another thing I love comes from DeMille's legendary Cast of Thousands.  With no CGI, he manages to build sets and assemble an army of extras that could invade a city and shame most modern productions.  And though he is overseeing it all, keeping it all from spiraling out of control, he makes sure we see the little things, the small stories.  In the high point of the movie for me, the day of the Hebrews' freedom, DeMille mixes the grand, sweeping, almost boastful view of endless thousands of extras and props, with periodic looks at the little things: children trying to move a stubborn mule, a camel nibbling on a bunch of straw, the birth of a baby, a couple suddenly clasping hands as they march to freedom, an old man turning his fig tree over to be planted in the promised land he will never see.  It's beautiful,  and a reminder for those of us who beat each other over our opinions on the grand movements of history, most of which we will never have any say over, just how important those small times are.  For it's our small times we tend to remember, and can control.  God will get us to the big finish line.  Let's not forget the small times along the way.

The miracle scenes are, of course, cutting edge for their day.  And in fact, it wouldn't be until the recent era that we could hope to surpass them.  Listed among anyone's top ten scenes in cinematic history list is the splitting of the Red Sea.  Never one to mince with scholarly dispute, DeMille delivers it in the most spectacular way imaginable. As he does with everything else: the burning bush, the various plagues, the visions of Mt. Sinai.  It's all straight out of Sunday School and Renaissance art.  Nothing scientific.  None of the minimalist bare nature approach that imagines later biblical writers rewrote the events to make a spiritual point.  This is straight from the belief that our religion is the result of revelation, not inspiration   And the miracles are not some subtle 'strain your eyes with faith and you might be able to see the divine.'  Nope, these are flat out 'here's a miracle people!'  And if we must grapple with the question of unbelief in the face of such awesome demonstrations of God's power, we need only remember the punchline to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: if they don't believe Moses and the Prophets, a man sent back from the dead won't convince them either.  Which is why the pitfall of 'prove God' is an exercise in futility.  Edward G. Robinson's dutifully sleazy Dathan could care less what he saw.  All the grand miracles were merely obstacles to his selfish agendas.  As they always are to those who refuse to believe.

Another thing DeMille's simplistic pre-critical approach shows is the real power and divine supernatural presence of God, and those he chooses.  There are no subtleties there.  There are no wimps.  There are no losers.  DeMille makes it clear that Moses was destined for something great.  He was just that good.  The man didn't sneeze that he didn't accomplish something grand.  And so it is, if you look at the Bible.  Despite the other Hollywood narrative, that religious types are typically good for little, in the biblical narrative, the movers and shakers picked by God were basically movers and shakers anyway.  Peter, based on what evidence we have, must have been a successful fisherman.  Matthew a tax collector  not bad in that day and age.  Paul was clearly an up and coming rock star.  David a shepherd who knew his way around big, bad guys before he ever met Goliath.  And Moses, at least somehow connected to the court, and in the film given enough talents and skills to right the US economy.

God is about big things.  Sometimes God is there, if we're not careful, to help us find our car keys or get jobs or get healthy.  While that can clearly happen, which is why we don't want to overlook the little things, God is also about the big things: humanity, the world, the universe.  God laid the foundations of the earth.  God draws the line of the seashores.  And in the end of days, God is a nightmare, a terror for those who reject him, so much so that they ask for the hills and mountains to fall upon them to escape his wrathful visage.  It is from this fate that we are saved.  It is from slavery that God intervenes to save us, and it is from the slavery of death that God intervenes to save us on that Christmas morn.  No need for rethinking what it may have been, just taking the stories as they come, and perhaps our religion should be bigger than we allow it to be.  In an age of religious minimalism, where hedonism and narcissism can shout from the rooftops but we've been convinced that religion must shut up and stay in the closet, it's nice to remember that perhaps that's not the way it should be.  Instead of churches that look like shopping centers, perhaps a good old grand cathedral that says 'here be God' would be nice.

Maybe it's me, but I miss some of that simple 'It happened because God made it happen.'  Moses and the biblical events actually occurred.   I don't mean six literal days or we have to get hung up on Jonah and the fish.  But the key events and people were real.  I've read too many Catholic scholars who seem to have tossed in the towel, and adopted a modern Catholic approach: whatever scholars say about the Bible being myth is true, but Jesus did too raise from the dead.  Sort of the same approach to science: everything science says about the universe and evolution is fine with us, but God does too exist.  As a result, I've read more than one Catholic bible study that relegates this entire foundational event to the realm of myth and legend.  Not myth as discussed by Tolkien and Lewis, but myth as made up fairy tale, lies, baseless fiction through which inspirational insights were gleaned by those with the cranial capacity to do so.

Call me odd, but sometimes I prefer the old meat and potatoes approach.  Moses was and did what the Bible says.  And if the miracles didn't look like DeMille's, they weren't just a bunch of natural things that insightful people spun accordingly.  I prefer the revelation rather than inspiration approach.  There's a heaven.  There's a hell.  Jesus came to save us from the latter, which is a definite possibility.  And when God does things  he does them Big, often with big people prepared to step out into the desert, even though they have no way of knowing how it will work.  The still small voice?  Sure. It has its place as well.  The foundry of  the wilderness, the deserted places where we must go to be tempted? They're out there, too.  And sure, a Babe in a manger is not an invading army.  But if Moses can really split seas and lead multitudes, perhaps it becomes less important to rethink the grand and glorious miracles of Easter and the Resurrection.  You never know. Anyway, that's why every Easter, we sit down with the kids, and reflect on a time when Moses was big, Heston was bigger, and the country that spawned this account thought better days were before us.  It is, after all, just what the Hebrews thought, and sometimes that's not a bad thought to have.


  1. I've read too many Catholic scholars who seem to have tossed in the towel, and adopted a modern Catholic approach: whatever scholars say about the Bible being myth is true, but Jesus did too raise from the dead.

    Which is a nutty position to have. If you believe that Jesus was really, truly raised from the dead, it's crazy to say that he didn't know what he was talking about when he endorsed the Jewish scriptures and claimed to be the fulfillment of the promises made to Old Testament saints, or to believe that lesser miracles like the parting of the Red Sea must be made up.

    As a result, I've read more than one Catholic bible study that relegates this entire foundational event to the realm of myth and legend.

    If Moses was a fiction-person, I'd like to know who that was standing with Jesus at his Transfiguration. Wait, don't tell me, those "studies" claim that that was made up too. Btw, while it's nuts to believe the Resurrection but not the parting of the Red Sea, it's also nuts to dismiss all the miracles of both the Old and New Testaments as make-believe, but to then turn around and believe in the Resurrection based on the Biblical testimony. Of course, those Catholics don't actually believe in the Resurrection either. They're atheists for all intents and purposes. They just aren't willing to admit it, because they wouldn't be able to pass off their studies as being in any way "Catholic" if they publicly denied the Resurrection.

    It's both bizarre and sad how many Catholics have become the foremost modern-day adherents of the speculations and excesses of 19th-century liberal German Protestants.

  2. Tell me about it. Well said. I've been shocked at how common it is in the Church. A priest friend gave me a book on the Bible, written by a priest, impremater and the whole nine yards. He didn't just dismiss most of it as yarns and tales, he even went so far as suggesting that much of the NT was written well past the 1st century, and the Church just made up that apostolic authorship stuff to give weight to the books. I've learned impremater doesn't exactly mean as much as I thought, or at least I hope it doesn't.


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