A Review of Chronicles of the Nephilim by Brian Godawa
Who doesn’t want to know more about those “giants in the earth”—Nephilim in Hebrew?
I couldn’t wait to read these books. Biblical mysteries elucidated! The bare-bones narrative of Genesis fleshed out! What really happened in that age before the Flood? It’s quite a draw.
And what a disappointment, when I finally read them.
But first I read the appendices attached to each book. These were fascinating, compelling. Delving deeply into Biblical and extra-Biblical scholarship, Godawa relocates Genesis into its original historical and cultural context, that of the Ancient Near East: Sumerians, Babylonians, Canaanites, and how ancient Israel itself was influenced by these neighboring civilizations.
This led him to make an intriguing argument that there are other spiritual beings, angels, some good and some evil, some subordinate to God, Yahweh Elohim, but others in rebellion against Him; and that these rebel entities came down to earth and set themselves up as false gods, worshiped by the heathen nations; that these beings sought to control human history; and that they interbred with mortal women, producing a race of giants and assorted abominations.
He supports his argument with both Scripture and other ancient sources, such as the non-canonical Book of Enoch, Jewish tradition, and non-Jewish mythology. I have not the scholarship to debate his conclusions.
But whatever the value of the scholarship behind them, I cannot endorse these novels.
A Movie in Your Mind
Godawa is a Hollywood screenwriter by profession. His work is in the movies, he thinks in terms of movies, and he writes his novels hoping that his readers will experience them as a kind of movie in the mind.
What he does is string one movie cliché after another. He’s got them all: wise-cracking heroes getting off zingers as they march into mortal danger, like any pair of cops in a buddy movie; beautiful young women who are really good at martial arts; rapid shifts from one scene to another, action-movie style; sneering villains who are only one short step removed from snarling “Curses, foiled again!” My impression was of a comic book without pictures. Godawa prefers to think of his novels as movies without film. Maybe it would be fair to liken them to movies based on comic books.
And of course, as in any movie pitched to eleven-year-olds, these novels feature endless slangy, smart-alecky dialogue. What is the point of having characters that are supposed to be immortal spiritual beings, or great heroes of the Bible, if they’re just going to talk like a twenty-first century screenwriter thinks teenagers talk?
Really—it just seems wrong for archangels to say things like “We saved your rear ends.”
Two more literary offenses must be noted here.
These books present a bad case of “adjectivitis”—way too many adjectives burden the text, most of them unnecessary. There is no need for the author to editorialize about his villains. What they say and do establishes them as the bad guys. There is no need to label them, repeatedly, as “diabolical” or “sadistic.” Not when they’re always shown doing diabolical or sadistic things.
Worse, Godawa puts into the mouths of rebel angels, immortal beings living centuries before the Flood, actual quotations from present-day leaders of the Democratic Party. To list just a few examples, with their original speakers:
“Hope and change” (Barack Obama)
“Fundamental transformation” (Obama)
“I feel your pain” (Bill Clinton)
“It depends on what ‘is’ is” (Bill Clinton)
“You didn’t build that” (Obama quoting Elizabeth Warren)
In addition to verbatim quotations from the twenty-first century, Godawa’s wicked spiritual entities also spout modern catch-phrases of feminism, “gay rights,” “animal rights,” and accuse God of such modern trespasses as colonialism, imperialism, sexism, and being “macho.” As a reader I found this very hard to bear.
Godawa says (in an email to me: I thank him for taking the time for it) that he has done this to demonstrate that wickedness, tyranny, and flimflam have always been with us, they originate from spiritual wickedness, and they haven’t changed. To use current political leaders’ quotes, he says, is to demonstrate that the same sins that afflict us today afflicted us before the Flood.
Fair enough. You can make that argument. But maybe Godawa doubts the readers’ ability to come to the desired conclusion unless he makes things thunderingly obvious.
Elsewhere he himself has written, “Christian movies, though well-intentioned and sincere, often suffer from heavy-handedness in their desire to convert the unbeliever through art.” And he adds, “Which is more to be avoided: a pagan movie that rings true, or ‘Christian’ propaganda that rings false?”1
Physician, heal thyself.
Why Does It Matter?
I’ve taken time to discuss these literary faults because I think it’s important.
Why? Because we as Christian novelists or movie makers are out to win ground for Christ’s Kingdom in the popular culture—not just rent little pieces of it, like sharecroppers, from its secular landlords.
To do that, our work has to be better than theirs, so that people will choose it over theirs. Our work must not be allowed to come across as a mere imitation of theirs—and all too often a cheap imitation, at that. Some may say, “It doesn’t matter if this Christian novel is poorly written, and not up to the standard of a secular novel—the important thing is Christian content.” But I’m not sure it works that way, and I am sure it shouldn’t work that way.
To write an ostensibly Biblical novel that copies all the conventions and clichés of a dime-a-dozen Hollywood summer action movies is, I think, to risk getting the Christian message lost in the sauce. There is a point where the Christian imitation comes so close to the secular original that the audience will not be able to tell the difference anymore.
Gods Other than God
No one can deny that the Bible mentions spiritual beings other than God, inferior to Him, as in Psalm 82:1, “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.” Note the small “g” in “gods.” And of course we are all familiar with angels and demons.
Here the verse that most concerns us in Genesis 6:2, “[T]he sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” And the result, for Godawa, is seen in Genesis 6:4, “There were giants in the earth in those days—“ the Hebrew word translated as “giants” is Nephilim—“and also after that, when the sons of God”— the Hebrew word for “son,” ben, Strong’s Concordance defines as sons or offspring “in the widest possible sense (of lit. and fig. relationship…)”—came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” For “man” Strong’s has the Hebrew adam, meaning a human being, and then enowsh for a mortal man, but in a less dignified sense, as with our word, “guy.” So “mighty men,” with enowsh, connotes “tough guys.”
Godawa’s “sons of God” are rebels, spiritual beings who invaded the earth and committed the profound sin of mixing mortal with spiritual, giving birth to monstrous giants that are a bit of both.
Needless to say, this is hardly the only possible interpretation of those verses.
But I don’t wish to get into a theological debate, nor am I prepared to judge which group of scholars has it right. It’s just that certain questions spring to mind:
How, exactly, do these rebel spirits take on flesh? And why is their fleshly form gigantic, virtually indestructible, and not really very nice to look at?
Why is their agenda identical to that of today’s prominent liberal politicians, and expressed in the same words the politicians use? Wouldn’t immortal entities be cleverer than that?
Since they are obviously not human, how are they able to interbreed with humans?
Again we find ourselves, as it were, inside a blockbuster Hollywood movie pitched to an audience brought up on a steady diet of comic books, video games, superheroes and super-villains, non-stop action, unrealistically flip dialogue, and gaudy special effects. Maybe we ought to salute Godawa for trying to capture that audience.
But what we don’t want is for that audience to capture the Bible and reduce it to just another source of cheap thrills.
Is This the Right Way to Do It?
Godawa says he has received letters and emails from many readers, including pastors, who said his books made the Bible “come alive” for them.
Well and good—but I can’t fathom it. To me, these novels only make the Bible seem like some kind of video game or summer movie. For me, the heaping-up of action movie clichés, the modern slang and political quotations, the superfluous adjectives, and rather more violence than I can fit into my comfort zone, translate the Biblical narrative into something sensational but not especially holy. And not very serious, either.
Finally—if a storyteller is dealing with Biblical material, which is often short of detail, to what extent is he justified in making up the details? After all, the details he invents might not be true.
Take Methuselah, for instance. What does the Bible tell us about him?
He was the son of Enoch (Genesis 5:21); his son was Lamech, father of Noah (v. 25, 29); he lived 969 years, then died (v. 27). That’s all.
In Godawa’s books, Methuselah is a great warrior, a doting, lusty husband with a decidedly sensual and earthy turn of mind, which sometimes brings him into conflict with his father, and always quick with a sarcastic quip: a real smart-aleck. He’s also an expert giant killer, thanks to his mastery of secret martial arts.
You can’t make Methuselah a major character in two novels (Noah and Enoch) without inventing things about him. The risk here is that some readers don’t understand poetic license. I remember a made-for-TV movie about Napoleon that falsely depicted him as epileptic: which one of my wife’s co-workers unshakably believed because, she said, she saw it on TV.
What about readers who can’t tell where the Bible ends and Godawa’s inventions begin—especially that vast host of readers who have never read the Bible? Is this much invention really what we ought to be feeding them? I’m not saying it’s the author’s fault—if it were, a Christian in good conscience couldn’t novelize the Bible at all: a position taken by any number of Christian commentators. This problem of invention has always been a criticism leveled at “Christian books” and “Christian movies,” ever since Lew Wallace published Ben-Hur in 1880.
The thing about “Bible stories” is, we profess them to be more than just stories. We profess them to be true.
I think we must be very careful when we try to create Bible-based fiction. It may wind up being perceived as nothing more than fiction. It may lead to wonderful personal success for the artist—but at what cost in credibility?
I write Bible-based novels, too. Mine are based on Biblical principles, not facts. The Biblical teachings that shape my Bell Mountain novels are real, but everything else is purely imaginary and all the readers know it. Writing scenes in which I put words into the mouths of Scriptural heroes, archangels, and even God Himself is rather more than I would ever dare presume.
But Brian Godawa has, and his boldness has rewarded him. Whether his approach has pleased God is more than I know.
1. Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), p. 14.
Topics: Fiction, Media / Arts