Earlier this week, I sat down with Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ridley Scott and a handful of religion journalists to talk about Sunday night's New York premiere of Exodus: Gods and Kings. You might guess that a bunch of religion writers tried to school the artists on the religious veracity (or lack) of the movie, or criticize the atheist director's reality-based choices. Not so. In fact, I walked away from the earnest conversation feeling I'd just been blessed with something much deeper than a Sunday school lesson.
Only a few men have notably played Moses on the big screen, small screen or stage. Becoming Moses and playing out one of the biggest coups in history surely lends an insight otherwise unattainable at a reader's distance. Listening to Bale talk about his extraordinary opportunity to slip into the skin of Moses and see events from his perspective in order to do the biblical icon justice got me thinking.
Bale's performance of Moses, and his personal reflections about the care he took in embodying him, made me wonder what would happen to the narrative if he weren't so curious and open about Moses' authentic perception of both his own story and The Greater Story. It reminded me of the greatest danger to our narrative as a nation: our propensity for not caring to truly get inside the head of the other, not stopping to question our version of the story, not bothering to understand or find value in what seems foreign to us and not acknowledging the surprising truth present in experiences and realities we have not lived ourselves. In other words, usurping universal stories for our own narrow purposes and proofs, and dismissing the lessons that do not match a rigid worldview.
Considering our discussion in light of the headlines this week, I came away with three lessons that we can apply to American ideological polarization, political leadership, foreign diplomacy, the latest report on CIA activity, views of the Ferguson and Staten Island tragedies and much more. It is up to you to decide how.
1. One person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist. Bale told ABC's Nightline that Moses in his time was "...absolutely seen as a freedom fighter. A terrorist in terms of the Egyptian empire. What would happen to Moses if he arrived today? Drones would turn out after him, right?" He made a quite simple observation about the tumultuous position and brazen actions of his character -- raised in the courts of Egypt and then hand-picked by God to turn and go to dramatic, deadly lengths to free the Hebrew slaves. He referred to the situation in applicable modern language we use today. Yet, rather than stopping to really listen, understand and consider his perspective, the media twisted Bale's comments into treachery and the religious went on the war path.
But what is so offensive about recognizing that Moses heard God's voice telling him he was going to torture the oppressors with plagues and kill them off in a series of miraculously strategic initiatives, down to innocent animals and firstborn babies? And God needed Moses to help make it happen. It's what happened, after all. This statement by Bale is not about whether Moses would or would not have "been thinking about drones," as Father Jonathan Morris, a guest on "Fox and Friends," lamely suggested. It is actually about the most profound mysteries of life and deepest quandaries of humanity. Bale actually gets that.
When it comes to survival, both physical and ideological, right and wrong start to bleed together. 'Thou shalt not kill' becomes a questionable tactical call or a vulnerability, not God's commandment once the Hebrews were out of Egypt. When interests collide, all bets are off. Does choking to death someone we are trying to subdue make us safer? Does ruthless torture reflect the protection of American values, or make us as bad as our enemies? I'll never forget working on a documentary about international relationships post-9/11, and meeting a teenage girl from Pakistan who knew she would never get married because she lost her leg in a drone strike and was forever marred. Or the child holding a baby in Tora Bora who looked into the camera and asked why the American king killed their civilian parents, leaving them alone, hungry and penniless.
In the film, we see Bale's Moses simultaneously awe and reel over the violent terror and death God rains down on even the innocent people of the land under imperial rule. He is both in on it and pissed about it. Unlike other depictions I've seen, the situation in his eyes is not a given for a just or happy ending. We all condemn senseless violence, and today groups like ISIS have certainly taken misguided (pseudo) 'religious' brutality to an unprecedented extreme.
2. We've been demanding the wrong kinds of heroes. Looking to the iconic Great American Hero to lead our fights and protect us, we expect he -- and it's always a he -- to be consistently stoic and strong, unbreakably confident, decisive and sure. He never makes a mistake, changes his mind or admits he doesn't know what to think or do. We tend to demand perfection, or at least the spin to create the appearance of it. Politicians run and win on their records of never changing their stance on issues, which also means they have not thought critically, sought or learned new information, or grown personally and intellectually. Political parties refuse to relinquish a stance, compromise or accept a solution, even when the government is hours from shutting down.
Bale's Moses changes dramatically from a strapping, confident and commanding "prince of Egypt" -- the typical hero of braun and bravado -- to a wan, confused, tormented, exhausted servant. He agonizes, questions every move, doubts himself, doubts God and yells. He bounces between realities, gets flustered and flounders. He struggles. This is the only way he could save his people: to be open to learning everything as he goes and certain of nothing. This is heroic leadership. And it is not acceptable in our modern mainstream, to our detriment.
3. We can't be afraid to look crazy. Bale's Moses really loses it. He's no stoic-heroic Heston, and it is divine. Bale said Moses is "the most intriguing person I've ever come across... He encompasses virtually every single emotion known to man."
On screen, we see this Moses' inner struggle and his shades of grey... the things we always secretly wonder about. Looking crazy was the only way to get the job done. Both Moses and Jesus seemed insane because they believed the unbelievable, saw the unseeable and did the unthinkable. After sacrificing any sense of comfort or security in life and fighting the good fight, Moses missed the promised land and Jesus went to the cross.
What if we were brave enough as a world leader to do the counterintuitive thing? What if the example we set was to do the right thing despite what others do to us, and accept what comes. What if our "Christian nation" actually followed Jesus, who said there is no longer such thing as an eye for an eye, which only results in violence and retaliation? Would we die on the cross? Or would we be resurrected into a new life?
Will we ever know?
It is ridiculous to accuse unifiers, advocates and peacemakers of making our country seem weak... the attempt at finding common ground and making peace is the utmost display of strength. There is something to this loving our enemies thing, that we are promised will pay dividends for the human race. It's what Jesus did in his protest and activism against imperial oppression in his time. But some American Christians want torture, drones, bombs, boots on the ground, tons of guns, stop and frisks, shows of force and towering electric fences, because they are an oddly frightened, distressed moral majority for people who supposedly believe without doubt in an omnipotent, all-powerful God who will deliver them.
In America, it seems easy to take our privilege too far and smugly smother our perceived enemies with rigid religious assumptions and warring cries of pre-ordained victory. It seems easy to wonder why black people are angry and tired and have had it, because we are too lazy and self-righteous and certain and distracted and scared shitless to slip into their skin. What if what we think is God's story is actually another story altogether, from a completely different perspective? What if God is every perspective, all together?
We tend to conduct ourselves opposite of Moses' wrestling humility and Jesus' fearless empathy. We don't listen and understand before we react, and we refuse to turn the other cheek. Yet the ultimate success of this great experiment of ours will require compassion, critical thinking and compromise. It will require having no skin and every skin.
Scott, Edgerton and Bale clearly took the Exodus story seriously, and Scott reiterated that they "chose to play it as if it were historically true." The only way Bible stories remain relevant and approach universal truth is if diverse human beings creatively bring them forward into the light of a new day and the hearts of new generations in new and unique ways. In the end, survival is not about controlling the story's outcome, but having faith in it.