On Cecil B. Demille and liberation
When I was six years old I saw Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" for the first time, when it aired on the ABC network in 1973, sometime around Easter. I was completely fascinated by the film, was overwhelmed by its colour and pageantry and the sheer spectacle of it all. I remembered I wanted to change my name to Moses, because when Anne Baxter - decked in her shimmery gowns, golden jewellery, and perfectly straight bangs - purred "Moses, Moses, Moses" I thought it was about the best thing I'd heard since my Dad had introduced me to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. The spacious and imposing halls of the palace! The great monuments! Charlton Heston's gravelly voice and squinty stare! Edward G. Robinson's slimy demeanour! Yul Brenner's ridiculously perfect bald head! I just couldn't get enough!
The problem was, once they moved on from the grandeur of Egypt, I have to admit I kind of lost interest. Sure, that burning bush was kind of cool ... or hot, I guess. And yes, the voice of God was as commanding as one would expect God's voice to be. (Obscure pub quiz answer: two people provided God's voice: Charlton Heston and Donald Hayne.) And the parting of the Red Sea? Yes, pretty amazing, although in my young mind it raised more questions than it provided answers. No, I have to say: without the glamour of the Egyptian royal court I lost interest. I watched it to the end, of course, but certainly with less attention than the first part.
When I was nineteen I was watching it with a nun friend of mine, and when Moses/Charlton went all grungy in the mud pits I took out my journal and started writing in it. She chided me for not paying attention to the film, and I admitted that from that point on I found it less exciting.
"Less exciting?" she asked with a shriek that was a desert away from Anne Baxter's sultry purr. "Gosh, it's just the history of our salvation that's being portrayed!"
"I know," I said. "But it's less cinematic."
"You," she said, "are a spoiled brat. You obviously don't know what it means to need to be liberated from something."
I wasn't sure what my being spoiled had to do with anything, but she was off the mark - and I told her so. I had had to be liberated from plenty in my young (and admittedly spoiled) life: from confusion, from grief, from sadness, from disappointment, from anger. And, when I thought about those moments of my liberation, I was overcome with gratitude and joy for having been freed from those things which would hold me back. I had known liberation, I told her; and it was glorious.
Whenever I read the Exodus story I think about how fantastic it is that an entire book of the Bible was written to talk about the complexities and wonders of liberation. And just as the Israelites discovered, I know liberation can be a tricky thing. It brings in its wake a responsibility to continue the work that it has begun. And sometimes it's just easier staying bound, longing for the metaphorical fleshpots of Egypt.
In these days when we are perhaps not as free as we would wish, I think our reading of Exodus offers us the perfect opportunity to reflect on those things from which we need to be liberated. For the most part, I imagine that our lists are all very similar. And especially at this strange time, shut up in our homes away from others, there is the very real possibility that such reflections will more resemble mud pits than sparkling palaces. But I hope we also understand that knowing those things from which we need to be liberated points us in the right direction to the Liberator, Jesus Christ. We know liberation in him; and it is glorious. Thank God for the freedom he offers us! Thank God for calling us to come out and be unbound! The voice which calls to us may not be quite as sultry as Anne Baxter's, but since we're being liberated I doubt that's all that important. What's important is that we've been liberated. That, my brothers and sisters, is downright cinematic.
Why, Cecil B. himself couldn't direct a better ending.