By Rusty Wright
So, if there is a God, and he punishes evildoers, whom would you especially like him to judge? And if he gave that person(s) a second chance – to follow him – would you be pleased or disappointed?
Maybe you can identify with Jonah – the biblical prophet, and subject of a new movie – whom God told to offer his hated enemies the opportunity to repent. Our hero ran the other way, spent three days and nights in a fish's belly, and became angry when his foes turned heavenward. Go figure.
Ancient stories, modern relevance
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Biblical stories, of course, have informed western literature and culture for ages. Mark Burnett's and Roma Downey's highly acclaimed 2013 TV series, "The Bible," helped demonstrate the Good Book's relevance for modern society, acquainting or re-acquainting 100 million viewers worldwide with many of these timeless tales.
"Jonah: On Stage!" the movie, offers a similar opportunity but in a different format. It's a highly successful musical and stage play that now brings its music, humor, excitement, angst and irony to the big screen, filmed before a live audience. And, I'm somewhat surprised to say, it works.
I had heard of Sight & Sound Theatres' successful live productions of biblical stories in their first-rate venues in Pennsylvania and Missouri. But those were in-person affairs, with all the advantages of face-to-face communication, group dynamics, and three-dimensional sizzle. How could that translate to film?
In the movie, camera angles and close-ups capture facial expressions, glances, words and body movements that might be lost at live-performance mid-theater or back-row seats. Most moving to me were depictions of Ninevites realizing their flaws, sincerely and humbly asking God for forgiveness and mercy, and rejoicing when it comes.
Ninevites lived in Nineveh – a city near modern Mosul, Iraq – part of despised Assyria. Assyrian military campaigns featured brutality and gore: beheadings, slaughter, mutilation and more.
Responding to Jonah, Nineveh's king decreed that his people should "pray earnestly to God … turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence" in hopes of divine forbearance. It was quite touching to see this play out in the film, a reminder that even the most reprobate can find forgiveness.
Do Nineveh's excesses remind you of anyone today?
My own Ninevites
I confess that ISIS and its fellow travelers are my own Ninevites. My sister had a 9:00 AM appointment at the World Trade Center … on September 12, 2001. I've often thought that if her appointment had been a day earlier – or Osama's attack a day later – I could have been walking the streets of Manhattan with her picture.
Once, in the distressing days after 9/11, bin Laden's image appeared on my television screen when I was watching alone. "I hate you!" I shouted at the screen. The spontaneous reaction was visceral. I knew I was supposed to love my enemies, but emotions and rage were trumping wisdom and spirituality.
When I think of al Qaeda's ideological cousins like ISIS, I sometimes wish they were squashed like the cockroaches I frequently smashed growing up in the tropics. They deserve it.
If they desired, would the biblical God accept them? Without a doubt. Would I be happy? I like to think I would be. In reality, I acknowledge it could take some adjusting.
Similar perhaps to the adjusting Jonah faced when Nineveh repented. This film interprets the story in a way that everyone wins. As Forrest Gump might have said, God shows up … in a denouement that helps the characters learn and experience what they should and lets the audience reflect on profound applications to their own lives. And isn't that what good art should do?
JONAH: On Stage! the movie is showing in over 700 theaters across the US on May 2. Well worth seeing.
Not rated by MPAA, but family friendly
Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.