Often you will hear Christians say things like ‘The Bible is full of sex and violence. If you could turn it into a film, it’d be R-rated.’ When they say that, I don’t think they’re hoping someone will do it – it’d be too rude. But it turns out someone has tried it at least once. They may have heard their Sunday School teacher say that familiar line and taken them up on the challenge. So of course, I watched the movie.
I watched it because recently I read through the Bible. I did this for my daily Bible time, but while I was at it, I was keeping an eye out for every problematic passage in the Bible for a book I’m preparing to write. I’ve got plenty of material.
King Richard Gere
As I was finishing up the books of Samuel, I decided to watch the 1985 film King David starring Richard Gere as David. I didn’t even know the film existed until last year, when a fellow speaker on a camp showed me a clip of David dancing when the Ark of the Covenant entered Jerusalem. Someone had added Lady Gaga’s Just Dance as audio to the clip and it was a bit funny. Having seen that, I looked up the film and discovered there was an entire Hollywood production based on Israel’s greatest king (apart from Jesus, of course).
The film seemed like someone had taken up the challenge to show the Bible in all its gory details. King David isn’t actually rated R, but it has plenty of ‘80s violence and, like any aspiring action flick of the era, some of sex and nudity thrown in for good measure. That said, while the film told David’s story rather well, the filmmakers didn’t have the guts to show David in all his morally ambiguous detail.
In the David and Bathsheba saga, David sees his neighbour bathing on the roof, but does nothing about it. He has a peek then heads off to bed. However, later she turns up in his throne room. It’s not clear if David summoned her or she turned up by her own volition. She tells David how her husband, Uriah, refuses to sleep with her and only touches her to beat her. She then offers herself to David, asking him to give her a child, but first David must deal with Uriah. David orders that Uriah, the wife-beater, be placed in the front of a battle so he might be killed, leaving David free to marry Bathsheba.
The Worse and Better King
If you’ve read 2 Samuel 11, you’ll appreciate that’s not how things really went. David sees Bathsheba, he summons her, and sleeps with her – essentially raping her (what other choice would she have before her king?). Then, after finding out that he has impregnated her, David has her husband, Uriah, murdered. There is no sign that Uriah abused his wife. Only that he was a faithful soldier who refused to enjoy the comforts of home and sleep with his wife while his fellow soldiers were deployed. The film swapped the roles, Uriah became the abuser, David became the (somewhat) faithful one.
What interested me about the Hollywood portrayal of David was the squeamishness the filmmakers had in having such a flawed hero. These days we’re pretty used to the antihero trope, but they always have to be the right kind of antihero–still a character we can cheer on. But David, like almost all the characters we meet in the Bible, is not painted as wholly hero or wholly villain. He does impressive things and terrible things, and throughout he has a genuine faith in God.
We find it difficult to handle stories like that because we need heroes and villains. As you read the news, you’ll see the heroes and the villains, and the heroes who became villains. In the world of Christian celebrities we see the same thing.
We the Heroes and Villains
I think we imbibe this polarisation of people’s characters and start applying the same categories to ourselves. When we look at our lives we feel driven to display the life of a hero and hope that no one sees our deeds of villainy. Or we hope that one day what we think are our good deeds won’t be redefined by our society as villainy. Sometimes we think we’re winning, but then when we weigh our own life against our own standards of what is good, it is clear that we haven’t been the people we want to be.
Isn’t it then wonderful to know that God has plenty of room for nuance? He can handle you with all your complexities. Your best deeds are not weighed against your worst deeds to calculate the total value of your life. He hasn’t judged you as a hero or a villain and he doesn’t need you to be any better than you are for him to love you.
The gospel tells us that we are not who we want to be, nor are we who we were created to be. We have rebelled against the divine. The judgement of God is greater and more consequential than the wrath of any human judgment. But God’s judgement is not the entire story. Jesus’ death for our sin shows us a God who will never write us off, if we’re willing to trust in him. His mercy means we can become, bit by bit, the people we were created to be.
The power of God’s grace is that our sin may shape us, but it doesn’t define us. We can look honestly at who we are, knowing that God knows us even better than we know ourselves and has welcomed us into his family despite our sin.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be accountable for our actions. The prophet Nathan called David to account, and he paid the hefty consequences for his sin. We too will have to seek forgiveness and make restitution for our own wrong choices. Sometimes our reputations may take a hit, and they may never properly recover. But whatever labels you give yourself, or others give you, you are not the sum of our actions. You are who you are because of what Jesus has done for you and is doing in you. He is the only true biblical hero.
We might not be able to handle the complexity and nuance of our sin and our goodness, or the sin and goodness of others, but God can. You’re not a hero and you’re not a villain – you’re a loved child of God.
Did I mention I’ve got a book with a good load of Biblical sex and violence in it? Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude: The Bible Exposed is my book full of Bible stuff and dumb jokes. Get it right here, or from Amazon, Audible, iBooks, and more.