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We live in the "MTV age" and a society saturated with television screens, computer screens, movie theatre screens, Game Boy® screens, and even ticket-ordering screens at train stations and airports. Ours is a visual culture, which particularly influences younger people. It is also a culture increasingly divided between those who embrace secular values of a western post-biblical society and those who believe in conservative religious, often Christian fundamentalist, traditions. Yet even the latter group is not immune to the influences of contemporary American visual culture. Those living a secular life, distanced from a religious heritage, or those committed to a life of church going—say, Pentecostals—are all influenced by visual stimulation because it is everywhere—except in biblical studies courses.

Largely conceptualized as a text-oriented discipline, biblical studies research does not offer many resources for a "visual teaching" of the Bible. Of course, there are the obligatory archaeological slides about the ancient Near East, Israelite cities or early Christian times. Yet, overall, only a few DVDs are available on the history, traditions and readings of biblical literature.

The dire need for DVDs in biblical studies has come to my attention in a very immediate way since I have been teaching undergraduate courses on the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible. The few movies or documentaries on prophetic literature and, for that matter, on the Bible in general, are highly problematic. For instance, Insight Media offers a video entitled "Prophets: Soul Catchers" (1997) which describes the life and message of several biblical prophets, including Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah. With dramatic background music and an emphasis on the mystery of the biblical prophetic voice, the presentation turns prophecy into a strangely removed phenomenon that is alien to the contemporary, western mind. The video&apos;s narrative also belies the fact that we know very little about the prophets as individuals. It does not integrate contemporary scholarly discussions, and the result is ultimately useless for an intellectually, historically, and culturally responsible approach to prophetic literature. In Spring 2003, when I taught a course on prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, I showed parts of the video to my students who found it "cheesy," and I concurred.

Another video that I thought might be useful for incorporating visual materials is the MM Trimark Home Video, "The Bible: Jeremiah" (1998). Following the life of the prophet Jeremiah, the video relies on every imaginable cliché of Orientalism. Dramatic music, overly done "period" costumes, broad and mediocre acting, and a weak narrative all combine to undermine this video&apos;s attempt to visualize the book of Jeremiah. "If Jeremiah lived in a context as presented in this video, no wonder it doesn&apos;t make sense to us anymore!" one student aptly commented after we viewed only a few sections of this 91-minute video. Bad screenwriting and Orientalist Bible telling make for a tedious and ultimately boring viewing experience.

One can, of course, imagine something worse: DVDs of actual talks in which the camera moves very little and is focused almost entirely on a lecturer who reads for about an hour. This is not exactly what the MTV generation finds attractive, making the videos a poor choice if an instructor wants to get the attention of undergraduate students.

So what can be done?



Students of the already mentioned course decided to develop their own video. They filmed the "E! Lives" of several prophets based on a popular television show they liked: "The E! True Hollywood Story." Since the students&apos; technological means were limited, one student was designated as an interviewer who spoke with (or interviewed) the "understudies" of various prophets. Aware of the distance between the biblical prophets and themselves, the students decided to appear only as understudies, and so one student was the understudy of Ezekiel, another the understudy of Amos, and so on. The result, I have to say, was quite impressive: students nicely integrated the course&apos;s primary and secondary readings into their interviews. The students proposed to create a video because, I think, they secretly hoped it would be less work than a research paper. Yet they later admitted how much work it had taken for them to develop the concept, write the interviews, film their conversations and edit the final version.

They did a splendid job and proved to me that theirs is indeed a visual generation. The video contained what many of their papers often lack—a clear introduction, a good structure of their arguments, and many references to the course readings. Students even remembered to edit for commercials—what would be a talk-show without some breaks?! Although the quality of the video was less than stellar because the cameras and the speaker system were not state-of-the-art, the presentation avoided many of the unfortunate pitfalls of commercial Bible videos. Theirs did not include unnecessarily dramatic background music. It also did not pretend to describe an historically "accurate" picture of the prophets and their lives. And it did not include verbose religious or theological speech to emphasize the prophets&apos; holiness. Instead this video demonstrated that undergraduate students thrive on moving images—and that, unfortunately, the field of biblical studies offers few adequate resources for supporting this learning preference.

Why are there few good visual materials available to teach the MTV generation about the depth, complexities, and histories of reading the Bible? It may be that there is not a perceived need for such resources. There may be another reason: I discovered that foundations—those supportive of developing pedagogical resources in general—consider DVDs too traditional, preferring Internet projects, and thus are hesitant to fund DVDs or video proposals. If I had an extra $20,000, I would spend the money developing a DVD series on some aspect of academic Bible study to be used in undergraduate courses. Is anybody out there ready to invest?

Susanne Scholz is Associate Professor of Religion at Merrimack College, North Andover, MA

Citation: Susanne Scholz, " MTV and the Prophets: The Quest for DVDs in Undergraduate Bible Courses," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=247

 
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