TIME 2016 Election

Jindal Blurs the Lines With Prayer Rally This Weekend

Bobby Jindal
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La. speaks in New York on Oct. 16, 2014. John Minchillo—AP

It is no secret that Bobby Jindal is praying very seriously about a run for the White House. This weekend, his prayer will look a lot like a giant evangelical rally in Baton Rouge.

The governor of Louisiana is keynoting a six-hour worship gathering on Saturday called “The Response: A Call To Prayer For a Nation In Crisis” at Louisiana State University. The event, sponsored by the conservative and controversial American Family Association, aims to spiritually reawaken America in light of “unprecedented struggles” the country is facing: “financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters … fatherless homes, an epidemic of drugs and crime in our inner cities, a saturation of pornography in our homes, abortion, and racism.” The American Renewal Project, a non-profit spearheaded by conservative political operative David Lane that aims to get more Christians involved in politics, is also behind the event. Lane hopes to recruit 1,000 pastors to run for political office this campaign cycle. The Response coincides with the state’s Right to Life March, which is also happening Saturday on LSU’s campus and which Jindal is also keynoting. Together, the events are poised to draw thousands.

Organizers say the Response is purely about spiritual renewal, not politics. But from the get-go, those lines are blurred. Jindal invited 49 other governors to attend the Response. “This gathering will be apolitical in nature and open to all who would like to join us in humble posture before our Creator to intervene on behalf of our people and nation,” Jindal explained to the governors, in a letter obtained by the Christian Broadcasting Network. “There will only be one name lifted up that day–Jesus!”

The irony in the event has several layers. To begin, Jindal’s invitation to the governors, like most of the Response’s promotional materials, draws inspiration only from passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, to support an event aimed at lifting up Jesus Christ. His letter primarily cites the Hebrew prophet Joel, who likely lived in Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 BC). Joel tells the Hebrew people to “declare a holy fast,” “call a solemn assembly,” and “summon the elders,” to “cry out to the Lord.” The Response organizers are trying to imitate those instructions with this event, but conflating Joel’s call to return to the Hebrew God with a contemporary evangelical call to return to Jesus changes the prophet’s original context and the significance of the words for today’s Jewish community.

Next, for the Hebrew prophet Joel, to call the elders is actually a political move, not just a spiritual one. The prophet goes on to lament a plague of locusts, that like an invading army that has destroyed his own nation’s fields and farming prospects. His call to God for aid is a political plea on behalf of his people. Jindal and fellow organizers are using a political Bible passage to promote an event that they say has a solely spiritual ambition. And yet, even as Jindal says the event is apolitical, he wrote an open invitation to the event on official state letterhead, and hosted 72 organizers for the event at the Governor’s mansion in December.

Perhaps most importantly, the Response in the United States is becoming more than a spiritual institution: It is a prelude to a presidential run. Five days after Rick Perry held a Response rally in August of 2011, he declared his candidacy for president. Neither Perry nor Jindal are evangelicals—Perry is a life-long Methodist and Jindal is Catholic—but for both, the Response event is a way to harness the spirituality of the conservative evangelical base for their own political ambitions. It is no small reward, either. Perry’s event drew some 30,000 people in Houston.

The Response may be the largest religious base Jindal is courting, but it is not the only one. After the Response, Jindal is headed to Naples to speak at the Legatus Summit, a annual conference for Catholic business leaders. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is speaking at the event, but Fox News’ Bret Baier and actor Gary Sinise withdrew their participation earlier this month due to controversy over the group’s opposition to gay marriage.

It is not surprising that Jindal would appeal to this conservative religious base. He is a Hindu convert and a Rhodes scholar biology major who supports creationism. He’s continually fought the courts and the Obama administration for his signature school voucher program that uses public dollars to pay for private and religious schooling. This week, he went after the U.S. House of Representatives for failing to pass an anti-abortion measure on the eve of the national March for Life. “It shouldn’t take a lot of political courage to stand up and say we are going to end late-term abortions in America,” Jindal told Fox News Thursday night.

Jindal has also been hammering radical Islam. During a 10-day economic and foreign policy trip to Europe, Jindal blasted so-called “no-go” zones, supposed communities in Europe where non-Muslims are not allowed and where sharia law runs rampant. Fox News later issued an apology for promoting the term, clarifying that no such zones exist. Jindal didn’t slow down. “Radical Islamists do not believe in freedom or common decency nor are they willing to accommodate them in any way and anywhere,” he said in a speech to the Henry Jackson Society in London. “We are fools to pretend otherwise. How many Muslims in this world agree with these radicals? I have no idea, I hope it is a small minority.” He added: “Let’s be honest here, Islam has a problem. If Islam does not support what is happening in the name of Islam, then they need to stand up and stop it.”

Jindal’s past history of blending of religious and political themes only makes it even more clear that the Response will not be strictly spiritual, despite what organizers say.

TIME faith

How Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage

Rainbow flag
Getty Iamges

If evangelical Christianity is famous for anything in contemporary American politics, it is for its complete opposition to gay marriage. Now, slowly yet undeniably, evangelicals are changing their minds.

Every day, evangelical communities across the country are arriving at new crossroads over marriage. My magazine story for TIME this week, “A Change of Heart,” is a deep dive into the changing allegiances and divides in evangelical churches and communities over homosexuality. In public, so many churches and pastors are afraid to talk about the generational and societal shifts happening. But behind the scenes, it’s a whole different game. Support for gay marriage across all age groups of white evangelicals has increased by double digits over the past decade, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, and the fastest change can be found among younger evangelicals—their support for gay marriage jumped from 20% in 2003 to 42% in 2014.

Here are few of the topline findings of my reporting. (To read the full story, click here.)

This winter, EastLake Community Church outside Seattle is quietly coming out as one of the first evangelical megachurches in the country to support full inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ people. It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of this move. EastLake is in many ways the quintessential evangelical megachurch–thousands-strong attendance, rock-music worship, Bible-preaching sermons. But pastor Ryan Meeks, 36, is on the front wave of a new choice. “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community,” Meeks tells me. “It is a move of integrity for me—the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.”

Conversation about gay marriage is no longer seen as an automatic compromise on Biblical authority. Other big-time evangelical pastors like Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Atlanta and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek do not go as far as Meeks, but they are talking with congregants and other evangelical leaders about how to navigate the changes they are seeing in their pews. Hybels has been meeting privately for the past year with LGBTQ congregants to learn to better understand their stories. At the Southern Baptist Convention’s three-day, October bootcamp to train more than 1,300 evangelicals to double down against gay marriage, Stanley met together with both LGBT evangelical advocates and SBC leaders for a closed-door conversation about whether their different views on gay marriage put them outside the faith. Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, has developed a friendship with LGBT activist Ted Trimpa and the Gill Foundation, and they are working together on topics like passing anti-human-trafficking legislation.

Evangelical colleges are both taking half-steps toward inclusion and then doubling-back to avoid appearance of change. Wheaton College for example, Billy Graham’s alma mater outside Chicago, hired a celibate lesbian in its chaplain’s office to help guide an official student group for students questioning their sexual identity, and yet also invited a former lesbian now married to male pastor to address the student body.

Elsewhere, evangelical leaders like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission deny a generational shift is underway. New activists, leaders like Moore and others believe, often are not actually still evangelicals but revisionists who do not support traditional Biblical authority. Plus, Moore says, for evangelicals to keep views that are out-of-step with societal changes is par for the course. “We believe even stranger things than that,” he says. “We believe a previously dead man is going to arrive in the sky on a horse.”

Then there’s the growing slew of evangelical LGBTQ activists pushing for change. Matthew Vines, 24 and founder of the Reformation Project, represents new momentum to change the evangelical tide. He hopes to raise up affirming evangelicals in every evangelical church in the country. He holds conferences and training sessions for evangelicals, has staff in three states and representatives in 25, and has raised a projected $1.2 million for 2015 to press ahead. Brandan Robertson, 22, is the national spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, an effort started by millennials to help evangelicals support civil gay marriages, if not marriages in churches. Justin Lee, 37, of the Gay Christian Network hosted his 11th annual conference last week in Portland, Ore., and 1,400 people attended, double the number who came last year. Lee’s friendship with Alan Chambers, the former head of the ex-gay organization Exodus International, was one of the key factors that led Chambers to apologize for the hurt his organization caused, and the organization shut down.

For everyone on all sides, the Bible itself is at stake. And, religious change takes decades, centuries even, when it happens at all. But with each passing day it is becoming harder and harder to deny that change is indeed coming. Meeks put it this way: “Every positive reforming movement in church history is first labeled heresy. Evangelicalism is way behind on this. We have a debt to pay.”

TIME The Pope

Pope Francis Speaks Out on Charlie Hebdo: ‘One Cannot Make Fun of Faith’

SRI LANKA-VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE
Wind blows Pope Francis' mantle as he delivers his speech at Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 13, 2015 Ishara S. Kodikara—AFP/Getty Images

But: “To kill in the name of God is an aberration”

For Pope Francis, there are limits to free speech.

The Holy Father spoke to journalists in a broad interview on the papal flight to the Philippines about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the controversy about the magazine’s new cover this week. Religious freedom and freedom of expression, he said, are fundamental human rights. But they are also not a total liberties. “There is a limit,” he said, speaking in Italian. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.”

The Pope also condemned the Paris violence. “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God,” Francis said. “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”

He broke it down in everyday terms, something that is coming to be known as classic Francis teaching style. “If [a close friend] says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose,” he explained. “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

His words come as he leaves Sri Lanka, on a trip that focused on interreligious harmony and inclusion. The Pope made an impromptu visit to a Buddhist temple, home of the Buddhist monk Banagala Upatissa, and he paused to listen and meditate as the monk offered a prayer. That move, along with his comments on the plane, again show his interest in interfaith engagement.

Twelve people were killed last week at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris. The satirical magazine was known for its controversial cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

TIME’s new cover, “After Paris: Lessons From the Attacks” is out today.

Read next: Charlie Hebdo Is Giving Us a Lesson in Humanity

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME 2016 Election

The Possible Presidential Candidate Who Agrees the Most With Pope Francis

Bernie Sanders
Senator Bernard "Bernie" Sanders, an independent from Vermont and chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, waits to begin a hearing in Washington on May 15, 2014. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is Jewish. He’s also the likely 2016 presidential candidate whose political philosophy lines up most closely with the economic and social theories of Pope Francis.

As he mused on the possibility of a 2016 campaign during an hour-long visit to TIME’s Washington bureau Thursday, Sanders hit the Pope’s main talking points before even mentioning his name. Health care as a universal right for the elderly. The economic injustices of income inequality. Climate change.

Unlike many leaders who name-drop Pope Francis to score political points — he is, after all, likely the most popular man on the planet — Sanders quotes the Pope because he actually believes his message. When asked about casino capitalism, Sanders points to Pope Francis, who says that is not what human life should be. “He’s saying, you know what … the economy should serve people, not people serving the economy,” Sanders explains. “The market is the billionaire class who want to get richer, that is what it is. I don’t think we should have an economy serving their needs.”

Sanders adds: “The bottom line should be how well we are doing as human beings … The bottom line means that we should not have 20% of our kids living in poverty and elderly people in this country trying to get by on $12,000 a year.”

Sanders’ social-media accounts are filled with quotes from the Holy Father about the need to reform socioeconomic systems. Some examples include:

  • “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
  • “Inequality is the root of social evil.”
  • “We must say ‘We want a just system! A system that enables everyone to get on.’ We must say: ‘We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm!’”
  • “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”
  • “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to states, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”

Pope Francis’ economic and political views were shaped in Argentina during the Juan Perón years. Peronism is a genre of socialism powered by working-class populism that rejects both communist and capitalist extremes. It is an ideology that resonates in some of then-Jorge-Bergoglio’s early writings, especially his appreciation of people. In this view, the poor are not just poor people who need help, Gustavo Morello, professor of sociology at Boston College, once explained to me — they are people who have a contribution to make. For Francis, this translates into “an appreciation for the folk Catholicism or the street wisdom, the things that the academia and officials tend to dismiss,” he said.

It is a side of Pope Francis that often gives pause to many conservative Catholics, especially in the U.S. Already, it sets Sanders apart from almost every other potential 2016 presidential candidate. The irony is that nearly all of them actually are Catholic. On the GOP side, there’s Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Bobby Jindal. Sam Brownback and Marco Rubio have Catholic histories but worship at evangelical churches, John Kasich was Catholic and is now Anglican, and Ted Cruz is not Catholic but is making plays for the Latino, and largely Catholic, vote. On the Democratic side, Joe Biden and Martin O’Malley are Catholic, while Hillary Clinton is a lifelong Methodist.

The sheer number of potential Catholic presidential candidates means that political jockeying around the Pope will only rev up this year, especially because Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S. coincides with the launch of 2016 campaigns. It will be all the more important to parse the difference between claiming Catholic kinship with the Holy Father and actually sharing the same political ideology.

Sanders hopes to meet the Holy Father during the trip. In the meantime, he says he is continuing to read up on what the Pope says.

“I’m not quite as radical as the Pope is,” he smiles. “But.”

TIME faith

Pope Francis Surprises Again: 20 New Cardinals, None from USA

Pope Francis Attends His Weekly Audience In St Peter's Square
Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the end of his weekly audience on Nov. 19, 2014, in Vatican City Franco Origlia—Getty Images

There is only one English speaker in the group

Pope Francis announced his new picks for Cardinals on Sunday, and the lineup continues to diversify the top leadership in the Catholic Church.

Francis selected 20 new Cardinals from 18 countries — not one is from the U.S., and only one is from the Vatican bureaucracy. These Cardinals, Francis said in his Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, show that the Church of Rome and the particular churches across the world are connected by “indissoluble links.”

Selecting Cardinals is one of the most important choices a Pope makes. Cardinals are the Catholic Church’s senior leaders, lead the largest dioceses, and are the church’s highest-ranking advisers. Most importantly, Cardinals under the age of 80 vote to select the Pope. Pope Paul VI set the limit of Cardinal electors at 120, and Francis’ new picks will push that number to 125.

Francis, once again, showed that he wants this top church leadership to reflect the changing global Catholic population and priorities. Seven of the new cardinals come from Europe, five from Latin America, three from Asia, three from Africa and two from Oceania. Three countries — Burma, Cabo Verde and Tonga — will each have a Cardinal for the first time. The only English speaker in the group is Archbishop John Dew from New Zealand, and the only Vatican official in the group is the Moroccan-born Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, who leads the Vatican’s Supreme Court. The last time the U.S. did not receive a Cardinal for two years in a row was nearly four decades ago.

Sunday’s move is another play in Francis’ efforts to reform the Roman Curia, and not just geographically. In mid-February, he will call all the Cardinals to the Vatican for a two-day meeting “to reflect on the orientations and proposals for the reform of the Roman Curia.”

The 15 new Cardinals under the age of 80 and eligible to vote for the next Pope are:

  • Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura
  • Archbishop Manuel José Macario do Nascimento Clemente, Patriarch of Lisbon (Portugal)
  • Archbishop Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, C.M., of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
  • Archbishop John Atcherley Dew of Wellington (New Zealand)
  • Archbishop Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona-Osimo (Italy)
  • Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Hanoi (Vietnam)
  • Archbishop Alberto Suárez Inda of Morelia (Mexico)
  • Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, S.D.B., of Rangoon (Burma)
  • Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Bangkok (Thailand)
  • Archbishop Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento (Italy)
  • Archbishop Daniel Fernando Sturla Berhouet, S.D.B., of Montevideo (Uruguay)
  • Archbishop Ricardo Blázquez Pérez of Valladolid (Spain)
  • Bishop José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán, O.A.R., of David (Panama)
  • Bishop Arlindo Gomes Furtado of Santiago de Cabo Verde (Archipelago of Cape Verde)
  • Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi of Tonga (Island of Tonga)

The five additional honorary Cardinals — Archbishops and bishops emeriti, who are over the age of 80 and therefore unable to vote in papal elections — are:

  • José de Jesús Pimiento Rodríguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Manizales (Colombia)
  • Archbishop Luigi de Magistris, Major Pro-Penitentiary Emeritus
  • Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, Apostolic Nuncio
  • Luis Héctor Villaba, Archbishop Emeritus of Tucumán (Argentina)
  • Júlio Duarte Langa, Bishop Emeritus of Xai-Xai (Mozambique)

The new Cardinals will be elevated formally at the Vatican on Feb. 14. Pope Francis will then have appointed a total of 31 cardinals.

TIME Foreign Policy

How Pope Francis Helped Broker Cuba Deal

Pope Attends His Weekly Audience In St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis on Dec. 3, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

President Obama thanked Pope Francis for his role in negotiating a more open policy on Cuba and the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross from Cuban custody.

In a 15-minute speech announcing that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, Obama said that the pope helped spur the change and personally thanked him. The Vatican then released a statement noting that the Vatican hosted delegations from both countries in October to negotiate the deal after Pope Francis had written to both leaders.

A senior administration official said that the appeal from the Pope was “very rare” and unprecedented.

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” said the official. “The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

American officials have also noted Francis’ deep familiarity with the Americas, being the first pope from the continent. The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” a white House official said. “Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else the two of them discuss.”

The move is perhaps Pope Francis’ boldest foreign policy move yet, but it is not his first.

• He showed letter-writing prowess in September 2013, when he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 Summit which Obama was attending, urging world leaders and the United States to oppose a military intervention in Syria.

• After visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May, Pope Francis hosted both Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican for a joint prayer service for Middle East Peace.

• When he visited South Korea in August, he sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping when the papal plane crossed into Chinese airspace—a historic step toward improved relations since the last time a pope visited East Asia, Chinese officials did not allow the plane to fly over Chinese territory.

When it comes to Cuba, Pope Francis is continuing the work of his predecessors. Just over half the Cuban population is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and the Vatican stepped up its relations with the country over the past two decades. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 2012. At an outdoor mass, he urged Cuba to “build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

The announcement of the Vatican’s role in the U.S.-Cuba negotiations is particularly noteworthy as Pope Francis plans his first trip to the United States in September 2015. The Vatican has not said whether or not Pope Francis will travel to Cuba or other US cities on that trip.

TIME faith

Exodus: 4 Differences Between Film and Bible

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is not exactly a documentary, so a comparison of the film’s adaptation to Scripture is not the point of the movie. But it can be helpful to understand the underlying poetic truth.

Here are four ways the two Exodus stories diverge.

1. The Bible: Exodus is a story of ethical and political redemption.

The Film: Hebrew slaves are freed, but racial controversy surrounding the film clouded the story’s overall message of liberation. Scott selected white characters as Egyptians and Hebrews in the film. The only visible black characters are other slaves in Pharaoh’s palace who do not appear to be liberated with the Hebrew people.

2. The Bible: God is depicted as a king and man of war, who takes on Pharaoh, the God and King of the Egyptians.

The Film: The God-character is depicted as a child, played by eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews. It is unclear whether he represents God or a figment of Moses’ imagination or an angel or something else. Moses is not sent to Pharaoh by God, but goes on his own. The drama in the film is inter-human, between Moses and Pharaoh than between God and Pharaoh.

3. The Bible: Moses flees Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave.

The Film: Moses is kicked out of Egypt when Pharaoh realizes Moses is a Hebrew. Moses does appear to kill an Egyptian soldier, but that was in retaliation for the soldier calling Moses a slave. It was not Moses defending an oppressed brother or sister.

4. The Bible: The Pharaoh is unnamed.

The Film: The setting is the reign of Ramses. Hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves are portrayed in the movie, but the actual population of all slaves and of Hebrew slaves is unknown. Scott appears to try to bring the historical setting of the time to life, but the reality is that the “historical” Exodus story is hard to pin down. “There is a deliberate lack of specification [in the Bible],” explains Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School. “Pharaoh is the sort of quintessential oppressive ruler in the Bible, and that is how he is remembered in later literature, so he stands for the oppressor of the moment in a sense.”

TIME faith

How Ridley Scott’s Exodus Strays From the Bible

The biblical story was poetic, the history is murky at best

The Biblical story of Exodus hits the big screen on Friday with the release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The story is one of the most timeless in Western history, like the Odyssey or Shakespeare, only imbued with deeper spiritual significance, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim the hero as their own. This newest adaptation is classic Scott-style, very Gladiator, set in an ancient Egypt where Ramses is Pharaoh and Moses is Christian Bale.

Like any retelling of a classic, Scott’s blockbuster invites questions about the Exodus’ story’s origin and meaning. Most of the basic plot elements of the Biblical story are included in the film’s adaptation—Moses is a Hebrew boy raised in Pharaoh’s house, he leaves Egypt and encounters the divine in a burning bush; he returns to Egypt to free God’s people from slavery under Pharaoh; there are a bunch of horrible plagues; and the Red Sea parts so the Hebrew people can escape Pharaoh’s armies.

From a strictly historical perspective, the Biblical Exodus story is murky at best. While there is some evidence that a people named Israel were emerging in Egypt in the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, little information exists about Israel’s presence there during the time. The general picture is clearer—Egyptians were in power in the region most of the time, various people groups migrated to Egypt during times of famine because the Nile made Egypt’s agricultural system more stable, and slavery was a part of the economic system of the ancient world. Most likely multiple people groups would have been enslaved, not just Semitic peoples, as slaves were often debt slaves or prisoners of war.

The origins of the written account of the Exodus story in the Bible are equally hard to pin down. “We don’t know when it was written, by whom, and it appears to come from multiple traditions in Israel which were probably both oral and written traditions and probably developed over centuries,” explains Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School.

But drilling the Biblical story for proof of its narrative elements—that the Red Sea split, the Nile turned to blood, that flies attacked and frogs covered the land—misses the poetic power of the story itself. The Bible as a whole is not designed as a history textbook. It is a collection of different types of writings. Some are historical records, others are laws, poems, prose, and prophecy—written over hundreds of years and in various cultures and languages. The core of the Exodus narrative is actually a song, recounted in Exodus chapter 15, and it is one of the oldest fragments of all Biblical texts, likely dating to the earliest period of Biblical literature. Songs, as Davis explains, are the kind of thing people pass on orally and remember. “Exodus 15 may well be one of the kernels out of which the book of Exodus as we have it grew over centuries in the process of oral and written traditions gradually getting consolidated,” she says.

The truth of the Exodus story is poetic—it is the quintessential story of oppression and liberation. The Pharaoh of Exodus, Davis points out, is not named. “It is, you might say, the generic Pharaoh,” she says. “There is a deliberate lack of specification. Pharaoh is the sort of quintessential oppressive ruler in the Bible, and that is how he is remembered in later literature, so he stands for the oppressor of the moment in a sense.”

That is one reason the narrative has resonated powerfully generation after generation—there is not just one Exodus story. “Let my people go” is a timeless refrain for redemption. It is at the core of the African-American religious traditions in the United States. In some parts of the world, the Exodus story still is very concrete. Davis worked in South Sudan with the Episcopal Church a few weeks before the new state was declared in July 2011. Women is the region often carry babies in baskets on their heads, and many of the people she works with, she says, have seen baby baskets torn from women’s heads and boy babies thrown in the Nile—the river runs through South Sudan. “They don’t want those boy babies to grow up and be soldiers,” Davis explains. “It is not a story that disappears.”

One of the most striking aspects of Scott’s Exodus is that God is portrayed as young boy. Eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews plays the God character, and the choice is both brilliant and scary. It plays on Scriptural images about becoming like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven and—with the Christmas time release—it makes it impossible to forget that God being born as a child is the New Testament’s own liberation story. But the film’s God-child is also more King Joffrey than let-the-little-children-come-unto-me. He actively inflicts plagues of frogs, gnats and boils upon the Egyptian people, and ultimately kills the first-born of all Egyptian families. It is impossible to escape the irony—a child becomes the killer of children.

That raises questions of what kind of God the God of Exodus really is. The film purposefully papers over whether Moses is imagining the child-God, if he is having a vision, or if he is mentally unwell. The Biblical narrative of Exodus portrays God as a king and a man of war—the main drama, Davis explains, is a battle over sovereignty between Pharaoh and Israel’s God.

“You have to remember that Israel was most of the time in its history in a situation of being oppressed, and if you are an oppressed people, it is good news to know that God is going to render judgment, because you are not worried about God’s judgment nearly so much as you are worried about what is going to happen to you from the oppressor,” Davis says. “People have always understood that ultimately God renders judgment and brings down the powerful and raises up the lowly, and you have that in the New Testament just as much as you have it in the Old, that has always been viewed as good news.”

And spiritual questions like these are the ones that never go away, which means Scott’s version of the Exodus story won’t be the last, no matter what happens at the box office.

Read next: Ridley Scott Explains Why He Cast White Actors In Exodus: Gods and Kings

TIME faith

Obama Misquotes the Bible Defending Immigration Action

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the Summit on College Opportunity Jacquelyn Martin—AP

President Obama jumbled his Biblical metaphors in an immigration speech on Tuesday in Nashville–the center of the Christian music industry, and a city that has of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country. “The good book says don’t throw stones at glass houses, or make sure we’re looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks’ eyes,” he said.

The first part, “don’t throw stones at glass houses,” is a generic proverb around since the days of Chaucer. There is a Bible verse in the gospel of John about not casting stones against a woman who has committed adultery, but that includes no mention of glass houses.

The log-in-the-eye passage is however in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. “Mote,” which the King James translation of the Bible uses, is more commonly translated as “speck,” and has caused some confusion with reports that the president said “moat.” The passage was also a favorite of President George W. Bush, who often quoted it “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

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