Back in the days when I was teaching intensive summer courses, I frequently used movie clips to help break up the three-to-four hour class sessions. I would find movies in which the Bible featured in what I’d call a minor supporting role—almost as a character—and would try to get the class to discuss it. One of the immediate observations is that such an exercise is starved for choice: the Bible appears frequently in films, both secular and religious. Sometimes its role is pivotal, at times incidental. Last night as my family prepared to return to work and school, we watched a movie to say goodbye to summer. The movie was Muppet Treasure Island.
Like most children of the 60’s I learned about Muppets from Sesame Street. By the time I was a teenager The Muppet Show had emerged on prime-time. Before long Muppets made their way onto the silver screen. Muppet Treasure Island was a movie I had missed until my daughter saw it in primary school. I have used it as an example in my summer classes for years. The story follows, as faithfully as Muppets can, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Tim Curry—selected for Long John Silver because of his fame in the Rocky Horror Picture Show—makes a believable singing pirate. In this version of the story, when the pirates reach Captain Flint’s treasure it has been absconded by Benjamina Gunn (Miss Piggy). The pirates, now guilty of mutiny, give Long John the black spot. (For a generation raised and weaned on Pirates of the Caribbean, the black spot requires no explanation.) Long John, playing on the superstitious nature of the other pirates, sermonizes them because they used a page of the Bible to draw the black spot. Terrified of this sin, the pirates beg Long John for forgiveness.
This is a textbook example of the Bible acting as a magical book. Often in the movies it functions in that role; the Bible has the invisible authority to bring mortals to their knees. Pirates in need of paper might dismember any other book (I might suggest Going Rouge: An American Life), but the Bible is itself sacred. This particular role for the Bible reflects American sensibilities about the nature of religion particularly well. Without ever reading the Bible many people venerate it as if ink on paper is a little piece of God. There is a grain of truth in that, for literacy is a little piece of God and books do guide us. The problem is limiting that role to one single exemplar. Perhaps after all the Muppets shall guide us to a deeper truth.