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Author asks: how creative can you get with the Bible?

Fiona Veitch Smith tackles the thorny issue of Bible adaptations – poetic licence and reaching a wider audience, or verging on heresy … ?

Fiona Veitch Smith tackles the thorny issue of Bible adaptations – poetic licence and reaching a wider audience, or verging on heresy … ?

In this last year there have been many books and movies that draw from the Bible for inspiration: from Noah (pictured right) to Son of God to the upcoming Exodus inspired by the story of Moses. In previous years we’ve seen The Prince of Egypt, Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat and of course The Passion of the Christ.  In books there has been The Liar’s Gospel by Naomi Alderman.

Aimed at a general audience, many of these adaptations have drawn criticism from the Christian community for being too ‘loose’ or ‘creative’ with what many of them consider a sacred text that should not be changed.

Other Christians don’t really mind, happy that the stories of the Bible are at least reaching an audience outside of the Church – whatever the motivation of the filmmaker or author. The same tension reaches to children’s books and, increasingly in this digital age, apps and other interactive material.

As a writer who sometimes draws on Biblical material for inspiration, I'm well aware that there is a difference in opinion between some Christians about whether or not we should take "creative license" with the stories of the Bible. The argument is that the stories should be able to stand on their own – they are, after all, the Word of God – and that adding anything to them is unnecessary at best, and heretical at worst.

In my experience, the criticism against creative interpretations of the Bible from within the Church frequently comes from people with a didactic motivation: bible teachers, preachers, etc. (although there are many more teachers and preachers who don't have a problem with it at all). There is obviously nothing wrong with having a didactic motivation – the world needs teachers! But while the artistic and didactic motivation employ different methods to communicate truth, we both have the same goal in mind – sharing God's love.

The important thing about books, movies or plays that draw from the Bible is that they communicate the core truth of the Bible: God loves people and wants to draw them into relationship with Him and into right relationship with one another. Does this mean that we shun the Bible stories as they are told? Absolutely not. We can take what the Bible tells us and use it as a framework.

The use and reference to this framework should vary according to what best serves the intention of the writer (in my case conveying God's love to readers and viewers) and what best suits the medium in which it is going to be communicated. For some stories, this framework is complete in itself and needs no "filling in of the gaps" – my book David and the Giant is an example of this – but for others there are just snippets in the original text that would not be complete as stories in themselves. In my books (example left) the percentage of "core story" to "imaginative speculation" often differs according to the source material available.

In any case, I believe it's a misnomer to say that there is one “true” version of the stories within the Bible itself. Many of the details of the stories differ from one account to another – the timing of things differ (for instance one account suggests that David was called to Saul's palace to play the harp to him before he and Saul had met during the battle with Goliath, and another suggests it was afterwards. Which is the 'true' story?) Also, the names and numbers of David's siblings differ between accounts. Again, which is the "true" story?

I’m often asked: ‘Doesn't this confuse people between what is "real" and what is "made up?"’ Children understand or can be helped to understand that some things in stories might not have happened in "real life" exactly how they appear on the stage, page or screen. Every Christmas, at re-enactments of the Nativity, camels talk, inn keepers ad lib and shepherds and "kings" arrive at the same time at a stylised manger where Mary wears a fetching blue frock and Jesus is a plastic girl doll.

Does this take away from the truth of the story? I don’t believe it does. We don't fret while watching little Mary drop Jesus for the third time that that’s not exactly as it is in the Bible. In addition, we easily lay aside the inconvenient fact that the telling of the Nativity story differs from one Gospel to the next anyway, and are just happy that the story is being told.

Nativity plays, like storybooks and movies based on the Bible, can be used as a springboard to take children and adults to the Bible. They were never meant to, nor will they ever, replace it. But if they can engage their audience and readers with the central truth of the Bible and whet their appetite for more, then that in my opinion, is a job well done.

What do you think?

Fiona Veitch Smith is author of the interactive Young David Books app, available on iTunes for iPad or at Fiona lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK with her husband, daughter and two dogs.


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