T & T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film

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Editor(s): 
Richard Walsh
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     2018.
     432 pages.
     $172.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567666208.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As an introduction to this hefty volume, it is very adroitly observed that the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ (2004) reinvigorated the biblical film as a genre and legitimated it as attractive to (and profitable within) mainstream consumer culture.

Editor Richard Walsh begins by providing a very coherent history of biblical film studies, sometimes explaining how the theological study of film is interwoven with, or at cross purposes to, biblical film criticism. The most fascinating feature of the introduction is the survey across four decades of the development of biblical film studies as an academic discipline. Kudos are suitably offered to the American Academy of Religion for its pioneering work in the study of religion and film, which had a “major impact on biblical film scholars” (1). Besides the shifting trends in scholarship towards semiotics and cultural studies, technology also made it possible for scholars to study more films, especially silent films that were previously very difficult to access. 

The future of biblical film studies is also a subject of speculation here; clues to a possible reorientation toward reception theory, or greater emphasis on semiotics, are given in some of the contributions to this companion. Walsh’s conclusion delights in touting the main achievement of biblical film studies as offering resistance to any single, dominant approach to biblical interpretation.

What follows the introduction is an amazing array of scholarly work on almost every imaginable niche of the subject area. This companion text is truly a treasure trove for anyone, whether a novice or a veteran of the study of the Bible and film. Walsh has provided a very thorough collection of approaches to the study of biblical film criticism, split helpfully into three sections addressing contexts, theories, and texts. The Contexts section runs the gamut from the popular to the esoteric, from science fiction to comedy. One of the more admirably researched chapters, especially in documenting the “pre-canonical” era of Jesus movies from 1906-1913, is Jeffrey Staley’s “The First Seventy Years of Jesus Films: a Canonical, Source-Critical History.” Kevin McGeough, of all of this section’s authors, seems to have the most fun with his critique of horror and adventure cinema. Stating that “biblical connections make ... fantastic events plausible, serious, and potentially quite frightening” (70), he supports his claim by examining the discomfort of modernity with the “ancient supernatural.”

The second section of this book is by far the weightiest, because the reach of biblical scholarship into film theory and cultural studies makes for more exciting and challenging approaches than more mainstream readings of the films addressed here. Jay Twomey’s exploration of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) employs both Wisdom texts and queer theory. And Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch provides an ethical lens with which to view films that depict slavery and violence, positing that the Bible can and has been used to both rationalize and condemn both of these.

Part 3 allows its authors to concentrate on one film or theme, and here is where we encounter deeply-focused readings of films which span more than sixty years of cinematic history. Caroline Vander Stichele writes about the minor biblical character Salome, who nonetheless had a major influence on the imagination of filmmakers as early as 1908. The epic Ben-Hur gets two treatments: Larry Kreitzer compares the original 1959 Ben-Hur (and five subsequent versions) to the 2016 remake by Bekmambetov, while Jon Solomon focuses on one iconic scene in MGM’s epic, the introduction of Jesus as a carpenter giving a drink of water to Judas, a prisoner who will become his betrayer. 

As thoroughly and skillfully as this esteemed body of authors displays the creative biblical study of film, there are two things that need further attention. One is the focus of Laura Copier’s chapter (“A Return to Form: Film Theory and Film Analysis”), the need for respect for film on its own terms and, especially, more than a passing glance by biblical scholars at film theory; she quotes the much-missed scholar Melanie Wright as questioning the privileging of narrative over form. 

Secondly, of course, is the risk that films become more outdated as trends in cultural consumption shift, and thus those writing within the biblical film studies genre are challenged to keep up. The continual production of films, even since the date of this companion’s publication, calls for yet more breadth and depth into this subject area. Newly-released films like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018), which provocatively interweaves Griffiths’s The Birth of a Nation and modern white supremacy movements with biblical Christianity, will ensure that this fine companion text will at some stage require a sequel.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gaye Ortiz is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Walsh is Professor of Religion at Methodist University in Fayettevile, North Carolina, and is the author of Reading the Gospels in the Dark and co-editor with Aichele of Screening Scripture.

Keywords: 

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