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"The Bible and Film" courses have become popular in recent years; while curricular limitations often preclude entire courses devoted to the subject, an increasing number of instructors are incorporating movies into existing biblical studies courses on an ad hoc basis. This essay offers a "report from the front," so to speak, a survey of current pedagogical trends in the use of movies in the biblical studies classroom. I will draw on collaborative work with several dozen professors in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia carried on over the last two years.[1] Among the questions to be considered are: What objectives are best suited to the use of film in teaching the Bible? What are some common pitfalls? What are the underlying assumptions in various pedagogical approaches to the Bible via the medium of film? And, by incorporating movies into courses on the Bible, are we simply using different tools to do the same job we were doing before, or have we altered the subject matter in some fundamental sense?

To begin, what objectives have proven to be well suited to the use of film in a biblical studies classroom? As one surveys and attempts to categorize the range of strategies employed in the classroom, four broad objectives seem particularly well served by the incorporation of film.

First, using movies helps to cultivate close reading skills. One simple way to pursue this objective involves one or more of the dozens of Jesus movies that have been produced over the past century. It is very easy to show a clip from, say, The Passion or The Greatest Story Ever Told and have students write or comment on its fidelity (or lack thereof) to the biblical text. What is missing here? What has been added there? What looks or sounds different from what you had imagined when reading the text? Is there a basis in the text for preferring one rendering over another? Biblical narrative tends to be quite sparse—as Eric Auerbach puts it, "fraught with background"[2] —and discussing various attempts at translating it into another medium helps students to discover and appreciate this quality. In the case of the gospels, of course, it quickly becomes clear that in most films the director is presenting a composite, harmonized version. It is one thing to tell students that there are four different versions of the gospel in the NT and to alert them to a few of the problems with harmonizing impulses, but it is quite another thing for them to discover it on their own and to witness what difference it can make for the tone, the plot, and the overall message. Even the most conscientious efforts to present "the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text" (e.g., Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew or Saville's The Gospel of John) inevitably entail interpretive decisions. Movies make this palpably clear to students.

Watching and analyzing Bible-related movies is not the only way to develop close reading skills. A number of other popular strategies play on student knowledge of the film-making process. Many teachers have their classes act out biblical scenes or write screenplays for the performance of specific stories. Some approach this kind of assignment by forming students into groups, who must outline a cinematographic plan for filming a scene by creating an inventory of what is required to stage it (including a detailed description of the setting and a list of the major characters present, along with any necessary props and an estimate of the number of extras needed to portray any crowds).[3] Follow-up discussion of such exercises forces students to articulate the rationales for the interpretive decisions they have made in the process of creating their plans. The issues to be confronted might involve only one part of a narrative (e.g., was all of Jerusalem up in arms over Jesus' cleansing of the temple?) or might entail a radical reinterpretation of the central character (e.g., was David first and foremost a terrorist, an action hero, or "a man after God's own heart"?). With larger blocks of material, such as the Abraham cycle, one must decide which scenes to omit and what effect such omissions would have. A more modest assignment involves students making casting decisions for specific characters in a film version of the story. Who should play Bathsheba? Ruth? Hosea? Judas? Paul? In explaining their answers, students need to show familiarity with the dynamics of the plot and the character traits of the biblical protagonists. Students seem to throw themselves into a short paper arguing why, for instance, Robin Williams would make a good Jonah.

Second, using movies helps to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. A hurdle to be cleared by most teachers of courses on the Bible is the students' familiarity (both real and imagined) with the text. It can be difficult even to get students to read texts that, in their minds, they already know. Again, movies can help in this regard. The traditional notion that Jesus' suffering provides some vicarious benefit for others doesn't seem as shocking as it perhaps should until one sees, in Lars von Trier's 1996 Breaking the Waves, a depiction of unimaginable sacrifice as a means of salvation (in the form of a woman's willing sexual degradation at the request of her paralyzed husband).[4] Those consumed by the question of the historicity of the Eden narrative in Genesis 1-3 might overlook the profound existential questions it raises about the nature of human knowledge and mortality found also in a number of science fiction movies such as Blade Runner, I, Robot, and others that feature androids.

At the same time, much of the Bible and the world that produced it seems so utterly alien to most students that they write it off as being irrelevant or unintelligible. To counter this sentiment, many teachers have found that showing the opening scene of The Godfather helps to explain the ancient patron-client system or that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is useful in elucidating the theological concepts encountered in Paul's Letter to the Romans.[5] Once they are acquainted with the standard elements of the genre, students can also be trained to identify the apocalyptic aspects of contemporary cinema (in, e.g., Armageddon and Twelve Monkeys) and thus find such literature somewhat less daunting.

Third, movies often provide excellent analogies for specific concepts, methods, or patterns one encounters in the field of biblical studies. When we interpret the Bible, for example, should we concern ourselves with the final product or should we delve into the compositional history of the text itself? Do the biblical authors retain some kind of theological veto power over what the text means? Or may other factors, such as the tradition in which the text has been canonized or the social location of the individual reader, come into play when determining the meaning? Or, translated into cinematic terms, is the movie shown at our local theaters the real thing, or should we hold out until the director's cut is released on DVD, complete with commentary and deleted scenes? Should we take into account pre-release screenings that aim at gauging initial audience reaction before the final version is produced? While some students may be suspicious of theories about Priestly redactors or Matthew's use of Mark, it is easy to illustrate the process and the goals of redaction criticism by viewing movies based on biblical narrative. How has the director edited the narrative and what overall effect do the changes have? Does it change the tenor of, say, the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) when Martin Scorsese leaves out the final line ("Go forth and sin no more")? And is the shift in emphasis intended or accidental? Does it fit into a pattern of other tendencies?

Examples of this way to employ movies are plentiful. Do you have trouble getting students to remember the basic elements found in the prophetic call narratives in the Hebrew Bible? They are all there in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the scene where Arthur and his knights have their initial encounter with God and receive their quest for the grail.[6] Do you want to help students appreciate Luke's method of linking his gospel with the Book of Acts? Perhaps you could compare it with the ways in which George Lucas links the different episodes of the Star Wars franchise or Peter Jackson begins The Lord of the Rings. (One might also use the separate but related Star Wars episodes to illuminate how Isaiah should be read as three different works as well as to emphasize the ways in which the entire book hangs and functions together as a whole.) For an end-of-term assignment in the fall semester, help your students appreciate Mark's storytelling technique by having them watch It's a Wonderful Life and pay close attention to the plot, characters, and settings. (The parallels are quite striking.[7])

Fourth, the incorporation of movies can provide a painless way for teachers to include group work in their courses. Group work is anathema to many professors and also to many students, especially the good ones who feel weighed down by their less industrious classmates. Requiring students to watch movies is one way to make a pedagogical virtue out of a logistical necessity: In most cases, only one or two copies of a movie will be available, and so the formation of viewing groups is essential if the students are to be prepared for the subsequent in-class discussion. Small groups are moreover conducive for generating and articulating detailed insights about the film in response to any questions posed by the instructor. For whatever reason, students are more ready, willing, and able to participate substantively in discussions about movies. An additional advantage identified by many teachers is that integrating movies—which, for practical reasons, must be viewed outside of class—allows a teacher to make greater demands on the time of students without causing undue resentment. Recent surveys reveal the woefully small amount of time most college students spend on coursework. Together with philosophical commitments to a student-centered model of learning, this has caused many teachers to seek out ways to shift more responsibility for learning to the student outside the classroom. Time spent watching movies is perhaps not "quality time," but then again, odds are that the five total hours spent by the average student on all courses combined was not all "quality time," either.[8]

So much for the objectives for which movies have proven conducive. What are some of the pitfalls? First, many teachers have found that follow-up discussion can flounder very quickly if they have not primed the pump by distributing a long list of specific questions and viewing suggestions before the students go off to watch the movie. This preparation frequently requires additional time on the instructor's part even when he or she has seen the movie in the past. Second, while movies may provide a way to create distance, to make the familiar text of the Bible appear in all its foreignness, and to help students overcome preconceived ideas about what the Bible is and how one goes about interpreting it in a critical manner, it is sometimes possible to invoke analogies or parallels of such utter strangeness that the average student throws up a wall of resistance and is unable to consider matters in a dispassionate manner. For example, more than one colleague has reported mixed results (at best) from attempts to explore certain discursive practices in biblical literature with reference to the proclivity of Canadian directors for stories involving pedophilia, incest, and necrophilia.

Having considered these self-assessments of what works (and what doesn't), I want to turn briefly to the underlying assumptions at work in strategies that use film in the biblical studies classroom. First, it is assumed that incorporating movies has pedagogical value in that it humanizes the professor. We are not only teaching a subject; we are at the same time teaching students. Students like watching movies. Therefore, if we show movies, students will enjoy the course. Since most people perform better when they enjoy the task or are favorably disposed toward the taskmaster, movies can help to accomplish course objectives.

Second, there is a widely held assumption that students are more eager to broach weighty theological questions when they appear in the guise of a movie. What is the proper relation of creature to creator? How does our awareness of our mortality form an essential component of human nature? Play Blade Runner. What would it look like to serve mammon rather than God, indeed to use mammon to make oneself into a god? Watch Michael Douglas' performance in Wall Street.[9] Do we interpret the text or does the biblical text in a deeper sense stand over and interpret us? Consider Samuel Jackson's recitation of Ezekiel 25:17 at the close of Pulp Fiction.

Third, it is generally assumed that the process of "reading" a film is a good analogy for reading a text. On this score, it would seem that many professors are simply putting into practice one of the foundational principles of critical exegesis (famously articulated in 1860 by Benjamin Jowett in Essays and Reviews) to read the Bible "like any other text." Or, conversely, it may be the case that the impressive level of pedagogical energy and innovation seen in cinematic approaches to the study of the Bible actually demonstrates the implicit (perhaps unacknowledged) assumption that the Bible is not, in fact, just like any other book. After all, how often does one see movies in classes devoted to Plato, Milton, or Dostoevsky?

It may be too early to tell whether we are seeing some kind of paradigm shift in the increased popularity of movies in biblical studies courses. It is the nature of things that paradigm shifts become fully visible only in hindsight. It would perhaps be unwise to believe that every method instructors are currently employing is truly effective or results in desirable pedagogical outcomes. This applies even to those methods that the majority of competent, reflective pedagogues deem to be praiseworthy. And it is sometimes the case that good teaching meets resistance, even from competent, reflective pedagogues. My modest aim here is to begin to provide some empirical basis for our deliberations about what is (or ought to be) happening on the ground when we teach the Bible.

1. The fruit of this collaborative work has just been published (Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray, ed., Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction [RBS 49; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005]).

2. Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (trans. W. R. Trask; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).

3. Cf. Matthew Skinner, "Jesus in Jerusalem: Visualizing the Synoptic Accounts of Jesus' Final Week," in Roncace and Gray, Teaching the Bible, 281.

4. Cf. Carleen Mandolfo, "Film as a Resource for Theological Reflection on Biblical Texts," in Roncace and Gray, Teaching the Bible, 321-24.

5. On the distinctive parallels between Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Romans, see Philip A. Quanbeck II, "The Letter to the Romans and Pauline Theological Concepts," in Roncace and Gray, Teaching the Bible, 360-62.

6. Cf. Brad E. Kelle, "Prophetic Call Narratives," in Roncace and Gray, Teaching the Bible, 167.

7. Cf. William Sanger Campbell, "Mark at the Movies," in Roncace and Gray, Teaching the Bible, 324-26.

8. According to a 2001 recent survey ("The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2001,"), sixty-five percent of students reported spending fewer than six hours per week on homework and studying (

9. Cf. Michael Barram, "Jesus, Wealth, and Wall Street," in Roncace and Gray, Teaching the Bible, 293-95.

Patrick Gray, Rhodes College.

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Citation: Patrick Gray, " The Bible and Film: Current Pedagogical Trends," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2006]. Online:


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