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Filmmaking as a Model for Analyzing Biblical Stories




There is, however, a largely untapped connection between film and the Bible that holds considerable promise for enhancing the study of the Bible, and this is the story nature of both a movie and a biblical narrative passage. To put it another way, just as experiencing a movie involves following a story, so also experiencing a biblical narrative passage involves following a story. This opens up the possibility of drawing upon how a story functions in a movie to illuminate how a story functions in the Bible--a true "movie-to-Bible" form of analysis. This represents a major departure from the earlier Bible and Film work where the focus has been on the content of movie and biblical stories. Here, the focus is on the story-telling technique used in movie and biblical stories, and fortunately, a grasp of the intricacies of film theory is not needed to engage in this type of analysis. For the type of analytical work envisioned here, all that is needed is careful attention to the functioning of the stories in the movies we watch.



See Also: Insights from Filmmaking for Analyzing Biblcal Narrative (Fortress Press, 2016).



By Gary Yamasaki
Columbia Bible College
Abbotsford, BC
October 2016


Since the early 1990s, "Bible and Film" has been a growing topic of interest, but publication in this area has been largely limited to just two aspects. First, there are the books addressing how stories of the Bible have served as source material for biblical movies. Second, there are the volumes uncovering biblical themes in films ostensibly having nothing to do with the Bible. It may appear that biblical scholarship has been significantly broadened by this work on the Bible and film, but a closer look reveals that this is not so.

Consider the efforts to compare the content of films presenting biblical events with the biblical material serving as a source. Here, the content of a biblical text is compared with a movie scene based on that text, but does this qualify as biblical scholarship? Actually, the analysis of cinematic material in light of underlying biblical material falls squarely into the field of film criticism, for it is the film that is being analyzed, not the biblical material. And the same is true of analyzing cinematic material in search of biblical themes; this also is film criticism.

This is not to say that there are no insights into biblical texts to be gained from exploring the intersection of Bible and film. In his classic The Art of Biblical Narrative,[1] Robert Alter uses a discussion of the cinematic genre of "Westerns" to illustrate the nature of type-scenes in Hebrew narrative. Here, Alter travels through the intersection of Bible and film starting from the film side and proceeding to the Bible side, providing insight into how biblical passages are to be understood. Unfortunately, examples of such "film to Bible" movement have been few and far between, and so, insights from filmmaking for the study of biblical texts have provided only isolated sparks of illumination.

There is, however, a largely untapped connection between film and the Bible that holds considerable promise for enhancing the study of the Bible, and this is the story nature of both a movie and a biblical narrative passage. To put it another way, just as experiencing a movie involves following a story, so also experiencing a biblical narrative passage involves following a story. This opens up the possibility of drawing upon how a story functions in a movie to illuminate how a story functions in the Bible--a true "movie-to-Bible" form of analysis. This represents a major departure from the earlier Bible and Film work where the focus has been on the content of movie and biblical stories. Here, the focus is on the story-telling technique used in movie and biblical stories, and fortunately, a grasp of the intricacies of film theory is not needed to engage in this type of analysis. For the type of analytical work envisioned here, all that is needed is careful attention to the functioning of the stories in the movies we watch.

Stories in cinematic form are a major feature of Western culture, and the cumulative effect of each of our thousands of hours of screen time means that the basics of how stories function in movies has been practically encoded into our DNA. In effect, those of us in the Western world have a cinematic-story paradigm embedded in our psyche, even though we may not realize it; the way we process cinematic stories is so second-nature to us that we do so automatically without conscious awareness of the actual dynamics involved. And these dynamics--brought to the level of consciousness in the pages of Insights from Filmmaking for Analyzing Biblical Narrative--establish a new paradigm for analyzing biblical stories.

In what way does this approach represent an advance in the practice of analyzing biblical stories as stories? For over four decades, biblical scholars have been looking to the research of literary critics studying the modern novel in hopes of gaining insights helpful in the interpretation of biblical stories. Unfortunately, the literary-critical studies most used by biblical scholars in this endeavor have focused on establishing typologies listing all the options available to novelists in the crafting of characterization, plot development, and other various literary components. What's missing, however, is that these studies for the most part did not go on to explain how the choice of one option over another might make a difference in how readers actually interpret a narrative text. With this new cinematic-story paradigm, the process of interacting with a biblical story in the same way we interact with a movie story is able to lead to significantly different interpretive results than those reached by conventional scholarly wisdom.

For the purpose of demonstrating this point, consider a scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), one of the many movies discussed in Insights from Filmmaking. One of the story lines of this movie has protagonist Luke Skywalker training to become a Jedi knight, and he is instructed to go to the planet Dagobah to seek out a Jedi Grand Master named Yoda to train him. When he gets to the planet, he encounters a short, green creature of a species unknown to him who makes a pest of himself in the camp Luke has set up, with Luke growing progressively more irritated. Somewhat later, however, Luke is shocked to discover this pesky little creature is actually the Jedi Grand Master himself, and from the crafting of this whole sequence, it is obvious that director George Lucas intended the viewers to be shocked as well.

How do we know this? From our thousands of hours of watching movies and TV shows, we have been conditioned to interpret any given scene with information drawn from earlier scenes only, and not with information from scenes yet to come. This is not something anyone has taught us, but has rather been picked up almost by osmosis from our thousands of hours of screen time. This idea that the story in a movie is intended to be experienced sequentially is just one component of the way cinematic stories work--an element of a cinematic-story paradigm.

Now, suppose someone were to propose a different interpretation: "When this creature enters Luke camp, he is obviously intended to be understood as Yoda, because in all the later scenes, he is clearly understood as Yoda, so he must be understood as Yoda in the scene where he appears at Luke's camp as well." The obvious rejoinder to this argument is, "The content of all those later scenes is irrelevant to our assessment of the camp scene, for viewers at this point in the story line are unaware of the content of those later scenes," relying on the principle that a movie is meant to be experienced sequentially.

Of course, this principle does not apply only to the stories of movies. It applies to stories in general, including stories in biblical texts. Let us observe what happens when this principle is applied to an analysis of Matthew's version of the feeding of the five thousand (Matt 14:13-21). The reference in verse 19 to Jesus taking the five loaves and two fish, looking up to heaven, blessing and breaking the loaves, and giving them to his disciples is almost universally interpreted as an intentional allusion to the Last Supper, thus providing a eucharistic backdrop to this feeding story. Note, however, that this interpretation can only stand if the details of the subsequent Last Supper account (Matt 26:26-29) are available for use in the interpretation of the chapter 14 passage.

On this insistence of seeing eucharistic overtones in the account of the feeding of the five thousand, Robert Fowler asserts that it "tends to violate the author’s text by reading it out of order. It can scarcely be overemphasized that the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Feeding of the Four Thousand precede and prepare for the Last Supper narrative. . . . To read casually the former stories in the light of the latter is simply to over turn the gospel . . . we prefer to examine how a reader operating with the intrinsic knowledge provided by the text itself would read the feeding stories. Far greater authority must be accorded the text itself to inform, control and mold its reader. . . . This approach restores to the text its rightful measure of autonomy."[2]

Fowler is, of course, appealing to the principle that all stories are intended to be experienced sequentially, and he correctly makes the point that when this principle is taken into consideration, the widely held position that the feeding account carries eucharistic overtones is called into question. This is but one example of how attention to just one of the components of a cinematic-story paradigm can change the interpretive landscape of the research on a given passage.

Space does not allow a recounting of all the components in a cinematic-story paradigm, but one more will be addressed here for the purpose of providing some sense of the scope of this interpretive approach. Consider Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), another film discussed in Insights from Filmmaking. This movie tells the story of two notorious bank/train robbers in the Wild West of the 1890s. With such characters engaged in anti-social behavior, one would expect the viewers to feel distanced from them and hope that they are captured and brought to justice. But this is clearly not the case when a posse catches up with them during one of their train heists. In the long chase sequence that follows, Butch and Sundance first develop a substantial lead, but the posse's relentless pursuit makes up the lost ground, and Butch and Sundance end up trapped on a rocky ledge a hundred feet above a river below.

This would seem a positive development in that the good guys are about to prevail over the bad guys, and yet, that is not how the viewers respond. Rather, the chase sequence has been designed so the viewers feel anxious at this point, wondering how Butch and Sundance are possibly going to escape this predicament. How is it that the viewers have been swayed to side with the bad guys here? The answer is "point of view." One of the components of a cinematic-story paradigm is that even negatively portrayed characters can draw the empathy of a viewer if their actions are depicted through their point of view, as opposed to the point of view of some other character.[3] And an examination of director George Roy Hill's crafting of the chase sequence reveals it to be a masterpiece in having the viewers experience the chase through the point of view of Butch and Sundance. Again, we have a component of a cinematic-story paradigm which, when brought into consideration in the analysis of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, yields insights helpful in the interpretation of the story presented in the film.[4]

Of course, the idea that a story's point-of-view crafting can be significant to the interpretation of the story is true for all types of stories, including biblical stories. Consider, for example, Charles Aaron's point-of-view analysis of the story of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19).[5] Aaron begins by countering suggestions that the story is told through Abraham's point of view. He points to the fact that Abraham's emotions are revealed in the preceding account of Sarah sending away Hagar and Ishmael, but they are totally absent in the Genesis 22 account. From this, Aaron suggests a deliberate strategy in Genesis 22 to keep the readers from being exposed to Abraham's inner life, a strategy that contributes toward the readers not experiencing the action through his point of view. Aaron also observes that at a number of places in the story, the readers are not made privy to certain pieces of information known to Abraham. For example, with reference to Abraham's words, “the boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you” (v. 5), the readers do not know whether or not Abraham intended to deceive his servants. The readers are thus forced to experience the events from a point of view different from that of Abraham.

Aaron then highlights pieces of evidence pointing to the conclusion that the readers are actually led to experience the events through the point of view of God. The most prominent of these occurs after Abraham's demonstration that he is willing to sacrifice Isaac. In verse 12, an angel is represented as announcing that God now knows. . . (v. 12), indicating that God did not previously know, just as the readers did not know. In other words, the readers have been led to experience the events from the same informational point of view as God. Aaron's analysis of the point-of-view crafting thus results in a new interpretation: “The passage becomes, not so much an affirmation of Abraham’s faith and obedience, but of God’s relinquishment of control so that Abraham could make choices. . . . Throughout Genesis the narratives about the patriarchs affirm that God’s will cannot ultimately be thwarted. . . . Yet, here in Genesis 22 stands a powerful testimony that God does not determine our actions or take away our freedom to act and decide.”

These discussions of Matthew 14 and Genesis 22 have focused briefly on just two components of a cinematic-story paradigm. Both passages receive chapter-length examinations in Insights from Filmmaking, demonstrating the potential of this new approach for generating fresh insights in the interpretation of biblical narrative.



Notes

[1] Robert Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), pp. 48-52.

[2] Robert M. Fowler, Loaves and Fishes: The Function of the Feeding Stories in the Gospel of Mark (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), pp. 140-41; Fowler is here addressing the Markan version of these passages, but his comments are equally applicable to Matthew's versions.

[3] This is the dynamic in play in all "anti-hero" movies.

[4] For more studies of point-of-view crafting in film, see the "point of view on SCREEN" section of the Perspective Criticism website (https://perspectivecriticism.com/category/point-of-view-on-screen/)

[5] Charles L. Aaron, “A Perspective Criticism Analysis of Genesis 22 for Preaching,” unpublished paper presented to the Homiletics and Biblical Studies Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2013.





Comments (1)


Yes, indeed. Thanks for this, looking forward to seeing the book. I've been trying to argue for similar 'reverse' work on "Bible and Film" for years (my two articles in RART for instance), but it is often not in the interest set of the "reception" crowd or the historians.
#1 - Jason Silverman - 01/07/2017 - 12:47






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