Doing Violence to the Bible on Stage and Screen: When Writers Make a Sham of Theology

I remember when “Godspell” was on Broadway in the 1970s. My mother told me that it was anti-semitic (in those days, my parents, and especially my  grandparents saw anti-semitism in a lot of things). When the movie was out and I saw it, I was looking for the anti-semitism, but I really didn’t see it. Certainly it was pro-Christian (it’s pretty much the Gospel of Mark), but being pro-Christian doesn’t automatically make something anti-Jewish. But sometimes the story we see isn’t the whole story.

Some time ago, I had an opportunity to see a local theater production of “Children of Eden” also by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Godspell.”  While the production itself was well-done, the musical was, well, it was horrid. It made God out to be petty, jealous, juvenile, and nasty. Noah, who is described as a tzaddiq or a righteous man in the Bible, is also made to be hateful and petty.

Now, in Judaism, there is a great tradition of madrash. This is when we re-tell stories in a new way, or when we tell stories about the bits that aren’t told in the text – the so-called white fire on the page. There are well-known midrashim about, for example, Abraham smashing his father’s idols, or Moses being made to choose between sparkling gems or hot coals as a baby in the presence of Pharaoh.  But a madrash must never, in the words of Rev. Dr. Bruce Birch, *do violence to the text. That is, in telling new stories around a biblical story, or in re-telling a biblical story, we must not make the story into something completely different. If a story is about God’s mercy, to make God into a petty being seeking vengeance would be to do violence to the text. And that is exactly what Stephen Schwartz did with “Children of Eden.”

In looking at “Children of Eden” in the light of what Schwartz did with “Godspell,” it gets even worse. “Godspell” becomes supersessionist. Supersessionism is the theology that holds that the New Testament supersedes the Hebrew Scriptures – and by extension that Christianity supersedes Judaism. It is a very anti-Jewish theology.

Because Shwartz presents the Gospel of Mark as the Gospel of Mark in “Godspell,” his presentation of God as such a small and vengeful being in “Children of Eden” (based entirely in the book of Genesis) turns “Godspell” into a supersessionist work. Very disappointing. And he does great violence to the text in the process.

But Schwartz is not the only playwright/screenwriter/composer to do violence to biblical texts in the name of entertainment. Writers Andrew Birkin and James Costigan committed a major assault on the text of Samuel with the 1985 movie “King David” starring Richard Gere. There is one wonderful scene with David dancing with the ark of the covenant upon re-entering Jerusalem, but for the most part, this movie is so far off target that it’s landed in the next range. Apparently the writers didn’t like that David was a rapist and a murderer, so they just left that bit out. Which made nothing else in the story make sense. And this is just one example. There are many others.

If you don’t understand the Bible, you probably shouldn’t be making movies or plays about the Bible. The problem is that people go to see these movies and plays, and this is often where they get their ideas of the Bible. So now I have to explain to people that no, God is not a petty toddler who completely destroys people because they don’t pray the right way.

Oh, and if anyone knows Stephen Schwartz, tell him to call me. I’d be glad to help him understand the Bible.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

*Birch, Bruce, Hebrew Bible Goes to the Movies class notes, 2011

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