Pop Goes the Bible

BiblePopularCultureIn keeping with a theme, I followed up The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film with The Bible in/and Popular Culture, edited by Philip Culbertson and Elaine M. Wainwright. It is pretty clear that my professional interests have shifted towards reception history. That is to say, how the Bible has been interpreted over time. Not so long ago—perhaps even when I was a student—Bible interpretation was the purview of experts. Serious biblical scholars tended to look askance at the hermeneutical efforts of mere clergy, just like clergy tended to treat lightly the opinions of the mere laity. The respect of opinion was expected to flow from bottom to top. I have to admit a kind of heady satisfaction with learning to read languages unheard for thousands of years. Who wouldn’t be impressed to find you standing before Hammurabi’s stele, reading away? Like most aspiring biblical experts, I took languages very seriously. As I was teaching, however, it was clear that all my learning failed to sway those who came in with opinions firmly fixed.

One of the takeaways from a study like The Bible in/and Popular Culture is that the Bible changes with those who read it. Who is to say the opinion of the tweedy, bespectacled professor is any more valid than a country-and-western singer, or a novelist, or a screenwriter? Certainly all of them reach much larger audience than just about any biblical scholar. Their ideas about what the Bible says become, in a very real way, the truth. The essays in this slim volume are diverse, showing the wide range of biblical interpretation taking place in a strangely religious secular culture.

What emerges is a somewhat uncomfortable truth—especially for the biblical scholars who’ve spent thousands of dollars and many years to receive a parchment declaring them experts. The truth is, anyone can be an expert. The Bible is out there for the reading. Churches have historically gotten around this by adding tradition next to Scripture as a counterbalance. The culture, however, has decided that the Bible alone bears the weight of verisimilitude. Not all share the same tradition. The Bible, an iconic book, is instantly recognized as authoritative by Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. Even Muslims recognize its status as a holy book. Books, however, change with the reading. Popular culture reflects what the people are willing to believe. What they believe is the Bible. What they mean by that, however, is open to anyone’s interpretation.

The Film’s the Thing

BibleFilmIn the context of teaching, I often described how movies portrayed the Bible. There is an aspect of this that may go overlooked since the Bible is, in the nicest possible way, inert. That is, the Bible frequently functions as a character in movies. In a minor, or supporting role perhaps, but clearly it has an impact on what the other characters do or say. The story wouldn’t be the same without it. So it was that I finally got around to reading The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film, edited by J. Cheryl Exum. This is a collection of 11 academic essays about the Bible in various cinematic guises. A number of the essays focused on Jesus, being the most obvious biblical character to star in movies; he had another one this past summer. The collection, however, is wide-ranging in its biblical characters.

More interesting to me, and this is just a personal preference, is the way that the Bible shows up in movies. Those who decry the study of sacred writ seem to be in denial concerning just how deeply embedded in our national psyche the Good Book is. As the various contributors to this volume show, the Bible appears in ways both subtle and overt in many films. Like it or not, the stories represented in the Bible are classics, and many film-makers find a rich source of material here (when they’re not busy making sequels). The Bible is, to a large extent, who we are.

That’s not to deny a religious pluralism to the United States. We are diverse and that is one of our strongest assets. Still, even though our founders were primarily deists, and not evangelical Christians, their culture was pervaded by the Bible. A large difference between then and now is that, although they weren’t “Bible believers” our founders knew their Bible. In a sense that is almost incomprehensible today, they realized that you don’t have to believe it to see its value. The Bible does have some good things to say. Even now when I get overwhelmed, I can still find some balancing sanity in parts of Sacred Writ. It’s not all about killing your enemies or keeping women silent in the churches. It is a very human document. That’s why, in my humble opinion, we keep coming back, as a society, to the Bible. Anything that is so momentous is bound to find its way into our movies and our other art forms. How we take that is, of course, a matter of personal taste.