The Prince of Egypt was a project many Christians have prayed for. It seemed that Hollywood's high-powered DreamWorks studio, in making this feature-length cartoon on the story of Moses, was actually respecting the religious sensibilities of Christians. And Christians, instead of simply harping on the evils of Hollywood, were working positively to influence the film industry.
But then the New York Post broke a story about DreamWorks pressuring an evangelical publisher to make a Christian author, working on a children's book tie-in, eliminate any references to God as he, and knock out some references to God as "Lord."
The ensuing controversy is raising a host of issues: To what extent can Hollywood and evangelicals get along? Are Christians being consulted, or used? What concessions should Christians be willing to make in working with a secular enterprise for a good cause? And why the insistence on following feminist attitudes toward God, rather than using the language of the Bible?
When stories first surfaced that DreamWorks would make an animated feature based on the life of Moses, some Christians predicted that the outcome would be a Disneyized, politically correct fable with cute desert critters. But the studio, headed by ex-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, made it clear that it would avoid the faux pas (such as turning the Christian convert Pocahontas into a New Age nature princess, and dissing the church in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) that contributed to Christian dissatisfaction with Disney.
DreamWorks consulted with evangelical leaders—including the National Association of Evangelicals' Don Argue and conservative culture warriors like Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell—to make sure that Christian sensibilities would not be offended at the way the sacred text would be portrayed. DreamWorks staffers also worked closely with Jews, Muslims, and others in their efforts to be sensitive to everybody.
The studio also said that it would forgo the lucrative merchandizing frenzy associated with most movie-length cartoons. There would be no McMoses Happy Meal promotions, no Pharaoh action figures, no burning-bush lunchboxes. The project would be faithful to the Bible and respectful of ordinary people's religious beliefs. Scripture would be handled in a tasteful and reverent manner.
DreamWorks engaged public relations firms with church connections, courted influential leaders, and sponsored expense-paid junkets for Christian opinion-makers so that they could screen the film.
The reports thus far have been overwhelmingly positive. Junketers say The Prince of Egypt (due in theaters Dec. 18) is the kind of positive family entertainment many Christians have been yearning for Hollywood to make.
But although DreamWorks swore off most merchandizing, the studio does plan to release a CD of the soundtrack, plus two recordings of songs "inspired" by the movie. (In keeping with their please-everybody strategy, one will feature the "Nashville" sound, and the other will be "urban/R&B.")
The studio also decided to license the publishing of books that will tie in to the movie.
DreamWorks approached the evangelical publishing giant Thomas Nelson, inviting it to put out books in connection with the movie. As a result, the company's children's publishing arm, Tommy Nelson, is publishing five tied-in titles: an alphabet book for children up to 3 years old; three books on moral lessons from the life of Moses for children aged 3 to 7; and, for 8- to 12-year-olds, a book containing the first 14 chapters of Exodus, with illustrations from the movie and notes by Chuck Swindoll.
As is common in such licensing agreements, products have to be approved by the studio. Tommy Nelson spokesmen told WORLD that DreamWorks knew it was working with an evangelical publishing company that had made an express commitment to Scripture. Most of the approval issues had to do with artwork, and DreamWorks respected the overtly biblical content and message of the Tommy Nelson books.
But as Christians were hailing the "amazing" working relationship between Hollywood and evangelicals committed to the project, New York Post movie critic Rod Dreher broke a story that embarrassed both sides. In an article titled "Hollywood's Mushy Spirituality" (Oct. 15, 1998), Mr. Dreher explored how the film world has become enamored of "spiritual" themes, as long as they have little content beyond New Age mysticism and feel-good pop psychology.
In the course of the article, Mr. Dreher cited the experience of evangelical author Eric Metaxas, the author of some 25 children's books and the writer asked by Tommy Nelson to produce the movie-tied-in alphabet book, The Prince of Egypt A to Z. It turned out that the book had too many references to "the Lord" for the tastes of DreamWorks. Plus, the book used masculine pronouns such as he when referring to God.
Mr. Metaxas told WORLD that his Nelson editors negotiated with DreamWorks. Finally, he was allowed to keep four "Lords," but the masculine pronouns had to go. Mr. Metaxas was irritated by these alterations of his manuscript. After all, even the New York Post pointed out that masculine references for God and titles expressing God's Lordship "are plainly part of the Hebrew Bible from which the Moses story is taken."
Although Mr. Metaxas says the changes were not fatal, the Post story has him speculating that DreamWorks' rapprochement with traditionalist Jews and Christians is essentially a matter of public relations. This story in a major metropolitan newspaper attracted attention. The Los Angeles Times covered it, and Internet scandal-emphasizer Matt Drudge put it out in his Drudge Report. Both DreamWorks and Thomas Nelson worried that the whole carefully devised working relationship between Hollywood and the evangelical establishment might come undone.
Tommy Nelson spokesmen told WORLD that the Post article was misleading. They denied that their company was compromising the biblical substance of the Moses tie-in books, whose purpose was to introduce children to a concept of God.
"Our issue is that God get into it," said Tommy Nelson head Dan Johnson, and he specified that he meant "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."
Book editor Laura Minchew stated that the elimination of he was not a problem; she said it will be clearer to young children for short captions just to say God.
The Tommy Nelson representatives insisted that the final product retains its biblical integrity and that DreamWorks was not interfering with the mission of their publishing house, which is to spread the gospel.
"I just think this is an opportunity as evangelical Christians that we've never had before," Mr. Johnson told WORLD. "To have a subject so culturally relevant in this age—Moses as the representation of Divine Law."
The Prince of Egypt will reach millions, the Nelson spokesmen noted, and their children's books will be in the secular marketplace. And Mr. Metaxas, the author whose comments sparked the controversy, continues to speak highly of the film.
"It would be a pity," he told WORLD, if this incident caused "evangelicals to think negatively of this film, instead of thanking God on their knees that a secular studio would make a biblical epic as a family film."
"As a Christian, I can get very exercised about these issues," Mr. Metaxas added, referring to his opposition to recent campaigns to turn biblical prose into feminist-correct language, but he is "grateful that Hollywood is doing a biblically themed story and trying to reach out to those whom Disney has offended and alienated."
The question being discussed in Hollywood, Nashville, and other venues at the end of October was whether an editorial decision concerning a children's book will jeopardize the reception of what may be a good, Bible-supporting film.
Now other DreamWorks statements are beginning to receive scrutiny: Is it significant that producer Penney Finkelman Cox expressed concern that God's voice not be masculine? (She said, "Our ambition is to remove the gender. We don't want it to sound like James Earl Jones," who is known for his powerful bass voice.)
Proponents of the delicate détente between Christians and some of the Hollywood elite fear that DreamWorks and others will give up on trying to please evangelicals, slamming the door on worthy projects. But others, noting that the evangelical market is so big that it will attract profit-seeking moviemakers, are concerned about Christian leaders giving up biblical distinctives.