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Are you ready for the plagues?

With The Prince of Egypt showing that the story of Moses can be molded into an animated feature, kids will surely walk away from the film entertained. Adults, however, may leave theaters wondering what this Old Testament God might do next, and to whom.

Like everybody else I know, I go to movies to be entertained. Occasionally I'm educated or edified by something I see in a film, but that's not why I bought the ticket. I go to the library or church for those things. If I'm sitting in one of those cushy stadium seats at the local cineplex, then I came for a great story, one that will engage, distract, perhaps even enchant me for a couple of hours.

By those standards DreamWorks' new animated feature, The Prince of Egypt--a rendition of the Moses story--is a great success. For most of its 90 minutes the narrative moved with the grace and speed of a chariot race, while the animated vistas of Egypt made me feel like a wide-eyed tourist agog in some ancient wonderland. Even in the computerized and cynical wake of Titanic, DreamWorks' animators managed to draw a couple of major "wows" for their special effects. In the theater where I saw the film, it wasn't just Moses who was dazzled by the Burning Bush. And as for the parting of the Red Sea, well, eat your heart out Cecil B. DeMille.

Still, Jeffrey Katzenberg's film is more than just entertainment. Or at least it seeks to be, attempting as it does to retell a biblical story important to three major faiths. Spinning a yarn about Moses isn't the same as refashioning fairy tales or even bringing The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Anastasia to the big screen.

Botch the job with Snow White or Cinderella, and you might get an unfriendly letter from Mother Goose's attorney. Make a mess of the Moses story, and synagogues, mosques, and congregations around the country could be crying sacrilege--and perhaps boycott. Maybe that's why DreamWorks decided to make this particular animated movie without the comic relief of talking camels and singing locusts or merchandising tie-ins like Pharaoh Burgers and Burning Bush night-lights. It's certainly why the studio consulted more than 500 religious experts and previewed the movie at last November's meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Katzenberg and his staff understood that regardless of any disclaimers about artistic license, most of their audience would be comparing the film's story to the biblical narrative.

Moses on the couch

That was my experience. In the days and weeks after seeing The Prince of Egypt, I found myself contrasting this highly entertaining film with the story told in the first 15 chapters of Exodus. I'm not sure if the conversation between these two narratives was edifying or educational, but it did raise a couple of questions for me, some of them pretty unsettling.

To heighten dramatic interest the folks at DreamWorks decided to tell the Moses story as a tale of sibling rivalry, with Moses and Rameses acting out the sort of fraternal competition gone bad that boomers like myself remember seeing Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston do in Ben Hur so many years ago. (Moses, born a Hebrew but raised as a prince of Egypt, believed Rameses, heir to Egypt's throne, was his older brother.) In The Prince of Egypt, the story of Yahweh sending Moses to set the Hebrews free of their Egyptian taskmasters forms the backdrop of a more personal, psychological tale about two brothers who grow up to be deadly foes.

Moses learns that he is not the Pharaoh Seti's son and is crushed and then liberated by this knowledge. Firstborn Rameses, however, is ultimately destroyed by his own fears of disappointing the father who had expected so much of him.

On the one hand it's hard to fault this sort of storytelling as unbiblical, given that both Hebrew and Christian scripture are rife with tales of fraternal conflict: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, not to mention the prodigal son and his righteous older sibling. All of these stories rely on the personal to say something profound about our experience of the sacred.

Still, it seems like a particularly modern and American conceit to believe that the deepest truths of our humanity and our faith can be found in the sort of personal, psychological details that we are likely to hear confessed on Oprah. It is the sort of conceit that allows us to focus on the inner workings of Moses' emotional life instead of facing the imponderable mystery of the God who will not be named or known. You can understand the appeal of this approach, for in the end a focus on the psychological is a focus on ourselves, and not on the divine.

As a result, the personal, psychological approach of The Prince of Egypt makes for engaging entertainment. It lets us walk around inside the mind of Moses, reveals his humanity to us, and portrays him as a heroic figure who lifts our spirits. But it is not so clear that it is good biblical storytelling. For biblical narratives are largely not about heroes and heroines. They do not tell us something wonderful about the human spirit. Instead, they are about the greatness of God and about the mysterious workings of that God, breaking into and often undoing human history. In Exodus, Moses does not come across as brave, heroic, or larger than life. Rather he is a man in the hands of a God who is determined to set the Hebrews free.

Deus ex [movie] machina

If focusing on the personal makes a story more dramatic, however, that's nothing compared with a miracle or two. And it's hard to imagine a medium or a studio better suited to give us the illusion of miracles. After all, if anything is possible at the movies, then anything--and then some--is possible in an animated film, particularly one made with the always improving array of technical toys available to modern moviemakers. And with 10 years of experience at Disney and a partner like Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg came to The Prince of Egypt with a kit of movie magic tricks that would put Houdini to shame. If the point of the miracles in Exodus is to show forth the power and glory of God, it must be admitted that Katzenberg's renditions of these signs are impressive, even breathtaking.

Still, after seeing the film I found myself wondering just what the real miracle of the Exodus story was, or indeed what the lesson of the various miracles were. Do the miracles reveal a God who is masterful and wonderfully powerful, capable of breaking the laws of nature itself? Or do they point to something else? Something even deeper?

On one level these miracles seem to be about revealing the power of God, intimidating the Pharaoh into letting the Hebrews go. And yet the author of Exodus repeatedly tells us that God hardened the heart of the Pharaoh so he would not let the Hebrews go until the final plague, and that the real point of these signs was to show the Hebrews God's unflinching determination to set them free.

Perhaps, then, the miracle of Exodus is not found in the wonder of the Burning Bush or the parting of the Red Sea, but in the fact that these signs reveal a compassionate God who is moved by the suffering and cries of a nation of slaves and who can hear this cry over the din of an empire. For the ,God of Exodus is a God who comes to the rescue of the powerless, who hears the cries of the weak and downtrodden.

Let my people go

For all of this, however, it wasn't Katzenberg's focus on the personal and miraculous that really bothered me when I thought about the Moses story. It was something about the original biblical text itself, something The Prince of Egypt portrays very well. I was disturbed by the tale of a God whose miracles are sometimes plagues, a God who once sent an angel to kill the children of the Egyptians. What sort of God is this? What sort of story is this?

I get the point of the Exodus story that God heard the cry of the poor and, raising up a mighty hand, delivered them from bondage. I understand that the oppression of the Hebrews, and indeed all forms of slavery are heinously wrong. It's simply that I am troubled--really troubled--by the story of God sending plagues and killing children.

In part the tale disturbs me because I am used to thinking about the slayers of children as monsters. When the Pharaoh slaughters the firstborn of the Hebrews, it is a monstrous act, just as it is when Herod orders the massacre of children under the age of 2. And today, when zealots and terrorists "purge" and "cleanse" communities by killing the young it is equally heinous, maybe even more so when they have the audacity to claim that they are acting as God's agents. So just what does it mean for us to tell this story? And, even worse, what would it mean to discover that this is a tale that does not make us uncomfortable? That we feel we can justify the behavior attributed to God here?

Could it possibly mean that way down deep we are OK with this sort of conduct? That in our real religious view of the world we see the defeat and destruction of our enemies as an act of God? Is it possible that it only bothers us when bad things happen to good people, or at least to people we think of as good? Could it be that, in spite of everything else we say, we remain deeply impatient with a God who leaves the chaff to grow with the wheat, with a God who tells us to turn the other cheek? Does this tale of pestilence and slaughter fail to scandalize us because we are still so profoundly uncomfortable with a God who rides on an ass instead of a chariot and hangs on a cross instead of raising a sword?

Personally I am disturbed that God sends plagues against mighty and powerful empires. I worry that this same God may be out there right now listening to the cries of the poor and homeless in our streets. I worry that such a God might be upset that the richest and most powerful nation on the planet abandons its poor and gives so little to the underprivileged around the world.

I worry too about just how this God will react to the great number of poverty-stricken people we put into prison. This is, after all, not a God who wants to place the children of the poor in bondage. And I worry about the response of this God to the huge increases in our military budget. If you're going to show the marginalized that you're a powerful deity capable of bringing down the proud and mighty, who better to take on than the last remaining superpower? If the God of plagues and pestilences is out there, and if this God does not take kindly to the oppression of the weak and downtrodden, then I think I need to worry a lot.

By Patrick McCormick, an assistant professor of ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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