What is Ritual? [vlog bibliography]

buddha ritualJonathan Z. Smith and Catherine Bell (who tragically died in 2008) have both heavily influenced scholarship on ritual studies over the past three decades. Ritual used to be viewed as “an outward expression of inward faith”—actions that reflected deeper mythologies, sincerity, belief, or symbolism. Smith and Bell (along with a few other key scholars) helped to turn the focus away from inward states of mind to the outward performativity of ritual. Hence, in the video, I asked: “What does ritual DO?” Ritual is foremost an action, so the best way to go about defining ritual is focusing on the action and what that action seeks to accomplish.

The definition “Ritual is an assertion of difference” is a short way to try to capture the purpose of ritual and turn the focus to its performativity. When we assume rituals exist only to convey deeper meanings, we forget about the bodily actions implicated in a ritual. When you take the Eucharist, the whole body is at work. You might be kneeling, you open your mouth, you taste the food, you might bow your head…the ritual engages the whole body and structures your experience of the event. This is why some anthropologists describe rituals as a “bodily performance.” They recognize that the body generates rituals, and not simply the mind.

This is where Adam Seligman comes in. His co-authored book Ritual and Its Consequences critiques our common assumption that a person’s inward, sincere belief underlies ritual actions. We often assume that if a person participates in a ritual like, for example, the Eucharist, then they MUST believe in what they are doing (ie. believe in the resurrection of Jesus). However, since a ritual is fundamentally an action, what matters most is the person’s willingness to participate in that action, and not their cognitive assent to any mythology that might be associated with that action.



Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. 1992.

Seligman, Adam, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon. Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. 2008.

Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, 1987.

What do Ben Carson and Gregory of Tours Have in Common?

Gregory_of_Tours_cour_Napoleon_LouvreI don’t like wading into political discussions, but ancient history so rarely enters the public spotlight that I just can’t pass this up.

Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate, once again made a baffling statement (adding to the growing Reddit list of bizarre Carsonisms): The Pyramids of Giza were grain silos built by Joseph the patriarch of Israel.

With as many archaeologist friends that I have, my Facebook newsfeed immediately blew up. From the perspective of people that study ancient civilizations professionally, such a statement belies either willful ignorance at best or complete detachment from reality at worst.

However, thanks to BBC, I learned that Carson is not alone holding to this grain silo theory. In his History of the Franks,” Gregory of Tours, the popular 6th century bishop from Gaul, also remarks that the pyramids must have served as granaries in the past:

“And on [the Nile’s] bank is situated, not the Babylonia of which we spoke above, but the city of Babylonia in which Joseph built wonderful granaries of squared stone and rubble. They are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen at the present day. From this city the king set out in pursuit of the Hebrews with armies of chariots and a great infantry force.” (Historia Francorum I.10)

As silly as this may sound, I won’t be too harsh on Gregory. He lived during a time when so few traveled outside of their immediate homeland…let alone travel all the way to Egypt to see the Pyramids in person! Moreover, 6th century Gaul lacked an abundance of professionally trained Egyptologists who could have set the record straight for him.

Ben Carson, however, does not lack this luxury. He has plenty of Egyptologists to ask to corroborate his beliefs, but he’d rather ignore their mountain of evidence.

Or pyramid of evidence?

Or pyramid of evidence?

“So what?” You may ask. “Denying obvious historical evidence of the deep past doesn’t ultimately affect society all that much.” And I would agree on some level. People that deny medical science on vaccines or deny climate change science have the potential to do much more harm to society than Holocaust deniers, Jesus mythicists, and pyramid granary-ists.

But on a fundamental level, blithely dismissing historical research sets a bad precedent of devaluing historical studies and the humanities in general. The humanities is all about understanding other humans, and in order to get along with all these humans, members of our global society need at least a cursory understanding of humanity’s history, religion, politics, art, and philosophy. Thankfully Ben Carson didn’t get a free pass on this bit of historical impropriety, but as the humanities slowly disappear from college campuses and as policy makers increasingly disparage a liberal arts training, I fear such ignorance will become the norm.







“The Fault in Our Stars” as a Religious Studies Textbook?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsHow do you get a class of 200 college freshmen to realize that they will die one day?

As sadistic as this may sound…this is the stated goal of RN 106: Death and Immortality, a popular class offered at Boston University. Structured like a “world religions” course, Death and Immortality systematically studies how Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism handle the biggest questions: What will happen after I die? What makes a “good” death? What makes a “good” life?

As a teaching assistant, I helped run classes on Socrates, Gilgamesh,and Tolstoy, but few assignments generated better discussion than John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars

Now I’m not one to read young-adults novels. 90% of my daily reading involves slogging through murky academic monographs. But thanks to my Youtuber friend and professional bookworm over at Page Break, I already had a copy of Green’s book sitting on my shelf. Though I was skeptical to see it on the syllabus for a religious studies course, this book’s raw portrayal of death and suffering elicits existential crises just as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Without spoiling too much, Fault in Our Stars tells a heart-rending love story between two teen cancer patients. Death and sickness hang over the entire story (as one would expect from such a book), but not out of any sense of morbid or voyeuristic curiosity. John Green, with the utmost empathy, humanizes his characters not as people defined by their sickness but as full humans with hopes, feelings, and regrets. Since Religious Studies is all about humanizing the Other, I’d say Green’s novel is a perfect religion textbook.

Class discussion started with a simple question: What makes a good death? And it didn’t take long to come up with a list of criteria:

1) A “good death” has minimal pain/suffering.

2) A “good death” is meaningful.

3) A “good death” occurs after a long life.

Though I would say many American college students would agree with this list, The Fault in Our Stars controverts this short definition of “a good death.” The characters, both teenagers, are dying slowly with immense pain. Their deaths, moreover, are largely meaningless, dying without any great political or moral cause by some biological scourge.

The students wrestled with these implications. Some agreed that the main character in question died a bad death. Others argued that the character died nobly and honorably (and therefore “well”). Still others rejected the dichotomy outright: “Is not all death bad?”

We didn’t come to any firm conclusions. Afterall, the purpose of these exercises, from a pedagogical perspective, is to destabilize what we find self-evident and NOT generate easy answers. But I was encouraged by what I saw: students questioning their supposedly self-evident definition of “a good death” and “a good life.”

Although you would sooner expect Tolstoy to rattle freshmen from their perceived immortality, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars offers an incisive and unexpected glimpse into these existential questions.

A Religious Studies Take on the “Evolution of Religions Infographic”

timeline-myth-religionThis infographic has been making its rounds on Facebook today. It portrays the “evolution of religions” as a sprawling family tree stemming out of a primordial religion dubbed “Animism.”

I must admit that I think the infographic is cool. It tries so hard to encompass every religious tradition, and it even gives a nod to some more obscure traditions (shout out to Mithraism!).

However, the religious studies scholar in me can’t help but point out all its inaccuracies and methodological errors.

1) First of all, the infographic makes some odd choices. Why is Mithraism stemming out of Canaanite religion instead of Persian Iranian religions? Why is Gnosticism its own religion with no connection to Christianity or Judaism? Why is quantum mechanics (of all things) labelled as a religion?? The culmination of mistakes makes the whole tree somewhat of a mess.

2) Animism as the primordial religion? Sounds a lot like early 20th century anthropologists. These guys were obsessed with discovering “the most primitive religion,” and they viewed animism as the closest example to that holy grail. Unfortunately, the whole endeavor was hopelessly intertwined with racist and imperialist motivations as anthropologists compared the “primitive” animism of West Africans and Australian aborigines to what they viewed as the moral perfection of Christianity. Scholars have largely abandoned these theories in favor of more fruitful (and less racist) lines of inquiry.

3) I also take issue with the term “evolution” when describing the development of religious traditions. The term works just fine for biologists. DNA makes categorizing animal species a somewhat more concrete endeavor than categorizing religions. Biologists can clearly differentiate between two separate species not simply because of superficial appearances but because of fundamental differences in their composition.

“Religion,” on the other hand, is a far more subjective category. Oftentimes, the differences between religions are borders enforced by scholars rather than real differences on the ground. Many Christians in the first few centuries, for example, happily attended synagogues, practiced Jewish dietary laws, and were circumcised. What do we call these people? Jewish Christians? Christian Jews? Their actions confound our tidy religious categories. Still others in Late Antiquity worshipped the Roman Emperor and regularly attended sacrifices at the Greek temples. Do we call these Christians “pseudo-pagans” or “half-converted Christians?”

When you claim that one religion evolved out of another, you are claiming that each religion has a perfect “essence” with which to compare to other religions. An essential Hinduism. An essential Islam. An essential Christianity. But “on the ground,” we seldom find people that fit these perfect archetypes, especially in antiquity before our modern obsession with codifying and categorizing existed.


Fixing Biblical Illiteracy: Newsweek, Leave It to the Professionals

NewsweekJournalist Kurt Eichenwald recently published an article for Newsweek titled: “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Unsurprisingly, a firestorm exploded on the Christian blogosphere in response.

“Inflammatory” is too polite a term to describe this article. Maybe “polemical?” “A blistering screed?” In the opening fusillade, Eichenwald paints a caricature of American Evangelicals, calling them “God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.” The distinction between Southern Baptists, charismatic snake-handlers, and fundamentalists either eludes him or means little to him as he lumps all of these groups into a uniformly petty and small-minded bunch throughout his piece.

His stated goal is to expose the hypocrisy of American Evangelicals who hold to the Bible as the ultimate authority yet are also ignorant of the text and what it really says. He more subtly criticizes Evangelical politicians such as Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, who he views as demagogues twisting the Bible for political gain.

The problem is…he does this very poorly.

I’m not writing an apologetic treatise here. Those who might remember my critique of the laughably bad Evangelical movie God’s Not Dead will know that I am not one to offer up a knee-jerk defense for American Evangelical culture. I’m writing because I see Eichenwald undermining the complex and oftentimes stressful mission that my colleagues and I strive for every time we write or teach: to promote religious literacy. Ostensibly we share this goal with Eichenwald. I agree with him that “America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.” I agree with him that many Christians are more interested in reading John Grisham novels than opening a Bible in a New Testament 101 course. But I don’t see how his piece would inspire someone to sign up for one for two reasons:

1. Poor Scholarship

Many have pointed it out, but it bears repeating: Eichenwald’s grasp of biblical scholarship appears clumsy at best, particularly to someone steeped in these issues professionally. He parrots Bart Ehrman on occasion, but overall, he unreflectively lectures about Greek philology, translation, canonization, and the Synoptic Problem without so much as a footnote. This was most obvious when he claimed “scholars” have dated the famous story of the adulterous woman (usually placed at John 7:53-8:11) to the early Middle Ages. Although it is widely recognized that this story likely did not appear in the original Gospel of John, to say that it dates to any time after Late Antiquity is simply false. Moreover, his claim that “scholars” have said as much falls flat because I have personally read the latest scholarship on this passage, which traces the story to traditions in the 2nd century CE (check out the excellent monograph by Chris Keith called The Pericope Adulterae and a forthcoming book by Boston University professor Jennifer Knust if you’re interested).

If we are to combat biblical illiteracy getting the facts right should be the BARE MINIMUM goal, let alone presenting it in an understandable, engaging, and inspiring manner. By offering such a buffet of scholarly inaccuracies and exaggerations, Eichenwald has unwittingly provided fodder for gleeful Jesus mythicists everywhere—something none of us wants.

2. Empathy, NOT Polemics!

I’ve made religious empathy a running theme on this blog because I see it as a central component to religious studies. Religious empathy involves avoiding caricatures of another’s belief, recognizing the contingency of one’s own faith, and an honest attempt to understand the Other’s perspective.

Polemics have no place in this forum because they do little else but create rifts and reinforce age-old suspicions. Eichenwald’s opening insult, for example, immediately incites the wrath of hardline conservatives and fundamentalists, alienating the very people he seeks to persuade as they raise their defensive screens against yet another angry anti-god liberal journalist. Teaching religious studies demands a finer touch than this, an even greater dose of empathy honed by performing before dozens of students with a staggering multiplicity of deeply-held convictions.

Other scholars have offered far more gracious and nuanced critiques of American Evangelicalism than Eichenwald’s. Molly Worthen excellent Apostles of Reason, for example, digs into the heart of Evangelicalism’s anti-intellectual streak. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has long stood as a primer for these matters as well. Though any press is good press I suppose, I would rather have one of these scholars stand on such a high profile platform as Newsweek than Kurt Eichenwald when it comes to religion.

In the end, I appreciate what you’re trying to do Eichenwald, fixing biblical illiteracy, but please, leave it to the professionals. I’m afraid you’re making things worse.

Video Blogging Religious Studies

Video_blogAfter nearly a year of development (mostly me being bogged down by other responsibilities), I have finally released the first Religion for Breakfast video blog episode on YouTube: Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Episodes that soon will follow include: How did the New Testament Form? What are Demons? Why do we believe in God/gods? Are Religions Inherently Violent? Who Invented Magic Wands?

I will tend toward my own expertise on ancient Greco-Roman religions, but I hope to include as many topics that broadly fall under Religious Studies.

I see this as the culmination of what I wanted Religion for Breakfast to be…an educational outlet that bridges the gap between the academic study of religion and the public. Religious Studies is one of the most provocative fields within the humanities. Few fields elicit such excitement, vitriol, and passion as religion…so why hide the greatest advancements of religious studies within jargon-laced academic journals with an audience that never exceeds a few thousand readers? Reaching a broader audience should take greater precedence in academia than it currently does.

Because religion evokes such passion, though, misinformation abounds in visual media. Inflammatory documentaries, silly movies, and pro/anti-religion screeds populate the airwaves. Moreover, YouTube is devoid of accessible educational videos that engage the most basic topics of religion (particularly my own sub-field of Ancient Christianity). I don’t want to presume that my videos will be accessible, educational, or even enjoyable…but this is my goal, because, seriously, this is important.

As I’ve been saying all over this blog, studying religion taps into the deepest concerns of humanity. Whether you are religious or not, we all wrestle with the questions religion seeks to answer. Studying the cultural, sociological, and philosophical concepts of religion not only fosters a deeper understanding of ourselves but ultimately humanizes others who are different.

On a less grandiose note…religion is just freaking awesome. Do you need a reason to watch a video on the Dead Sea Scrolls? On invisibility rituals? On sacred space? No…I didn’t think so.

So, I hope you enjoy the videos…and please subscribe!


Religious Literacy, Ted Cruz, and Being Booed Off Stage

1381498024000-tedcruz-vaRealizing every liberal democrat’s dream, Ted Cruz was recently booed off stage speaking at a ritzy gala in DC.

On September 10th, 2014, one day before the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas and presidential hopeful, stood before a crowd of Middle Eastern Christians to offer some remarks on the persecution of Christians at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS.

Apparently, he was unprepared for a strong backlash when he called for the unilateral support of the Israeli government and its policies. The crowd erupted into two factions, with a chorus of boos attempting to drown out the smattered applause at his statement: “Those who hate Israel hate America.”

News outlets and blogs have already roundly criticized Cruz for his alleged insensitivity and inflammatory remarks, so I don’t want to heap more vitriol upon the guy. However, I do want to call attention to what I see as a missed opportunity for religious empathy.

As I said in my last post, our culture, peer group, and privilege shapes our religious experience. This means that two Christians, despite holding to ostensibly similar doctrine and practice, can have vastly different opinions on key issues that we take for granted.

Ted Cruz assumed his Christian worldview as normative. As a white American Evangelical, he is accustomed to fellow white American Evangelicals agreeing with him on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Afterall, most Americans in this particular demographic strongly support the Israeli government.

However, he made a fundamental attribution error when he equated his own worldview with all Christians and assumed he was speaking to a sympathetic audience simply because they were all Christians.

This exemplifies the vital importance of literacy in your own religion. Simple knowledge about your own religion will go far in fostering dialogue and empathy.

Indeed, the most difficult type of religious dialogue is between closely related traditions. As the “proximate Other,” our narcissism leads us to flog the Other over small differences rather than enjoy the similarity. This is why you see such vitriolic arguments between the Evangelical Left and Right in the blogosphere rather than Evangelicals debating Hindus.

On the spectrum of religious traditions, Cruz’s tradition did not differ drastically from his audience’s in terms of doctrine; yet, he allowed a political difference to destabilize an opportunity for dialogue. Perhaps if he reflected on the life experience of a Middle Eastern Christian, even just for a moment, something edifying would have come from his speech rather than a flurry of gleeful rebuttals from the pundits.

Meteora: Where Divine Solitude Meets Latent Nationalism

meteora1When choosing divinely inspired real estate, few can outclass monks. To maximize their peace, solitude, and proximity to God, monks have proven time and again their penchant for property that dances between the mundane and the ethereal.

Chief among these fortresses of solitude is Meteora in northern Greece…a place, even by its own name, that reinforces our Aristotelian notion that God, somehow, is located “up.”

Meteora looks like something out of Middle Earth (or Westeros…as it was the inspiration for the Eyrie in the TV series Game of Thrones). Great pillars of rock, dark and smooth after eons of erosion and earthquakes, jut out of the landscape, creating a skyline that manages to be both awesome and eerie. It is likely because of this geography that Meteora has come to be a center of Greek Orthodoxy second only to Mt. Athos.


The Great Meteoron Monastery.

A collection of active monasteries cling to these rocks, seemingly ready to slough off despite their age and sturdy construction. Today, the halls teem with tourists, shuttled to the heights by fleets of buses to witness the modern iteration of an ancient faith.

Although most of the monks and nuns that I saw were selling icons at the gift shops rather than chanting or tending bees (as every stereotype tells me monks do on a daily basis), I certainly felt a profound spiritual zeal pulsing through the communities.

A spirituality, though, vaguely tinged with Greek nationalism.


One of the placards praising the monasteries’ tenacity.

Housed within the Great Meteoron Monastery is the “Folklore Museum,” a dim, vaulted room which, despite its name, is a political museum that details the monks’ struggles over the past few centuries from the Greek war of independence to World War 2.

Military uniforms, machine guns, and cavalry sabers adorned the stone walls juxtaposed strangely beside icon niches of the saints and Christ. The image of a steely-eyed monk, gripping a sword in one hand and a crucifix in the other, glared down at me from the wall while placards around me related tales of heroism and success on the battlefield.


A painting of a Nazi soldier falling from the heights of Meteora. Note the priest planting the Greek flag in the background.

I found myself caught between Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:52 (For all who take the sword will perish by the sword) and acknowledging the indisputable courage that these revolutionaries showed to repel foreign invaders. As militant as the room was, though, how could I criticize it when, by and large, the antagonists in the room were the Nazis? Can we conflate religion and war when the enemy is evil enough? What role should religious leaders and clergy play in war and peace?

Obviously there is little I can contribute to topics as weighty as these, but at the very least, the Great Meteoron Monastery illustrates how church and state may mingle even in the most sacred halls.

Will Christianity Survive to 2364?


Rare Christian imagery in Star Trek

Rare Christian imagery in Star Trek

By 2364, according to Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, humanity will have achieved the unthinkable: the complete eradication of poverty, inequality, and war. Earth itself will be a paradise with climate control facilities stifling hurricanes before they form and medical science easily treating most of the diseases that ravage us here in the 21st century.

However, something uniquely human is largely absent from this fictional utopia: religion.

Despite Gene Roddenberry’s own disdain for religion, Star Trek is not overtly hostile toward it. Not only are some prominent characters deeply religious, but many episodes across its five series also explore both religious and ethical themes. Nevertheless, as a whole, the major religions that we know on Earth in the 21st century simply do not factor into the lives of the human characters of Star Trek. Tolerant though they may be, humans constitute a primarily secular society in which “abandoning belief in the supernatural” is a goal all advanced civilizations will eventually achieve.

Although this vision of the future is 350 years away, the American blogosphere is already anticipating the persistent and inevitable decline of religion in the coming decades. Conservative Christian groups long ago sounded the red alert, with Answers in Genesis predicting a mass exodus of Millennials from their ranks due to the insidious creep of secularism. Even Sojourners Magazine, a popular outlet for progressive Christianity, has heard the death knell, publishing a blog series titled “Letters to the Dying Church.” Recent research showing the rising population of the religiously non-affiliated (the so-called “nones”) only seemed to confirm these suspicions.


The only remains of the Temple of Artemis.

But are these predictions accurate? Religions, like languages, certainly go extinct. Renewal movements notwithstanding, no one worships Artemis of Ephesus anymore. Even though her cult flourished in Asia Minor for over 900 years, it simply died out through mass conversions and invasions from the Visigoths. But in terms of absolute growth, what will the religious landscape of the future look like?

Simple population studies show that these prophecies of religion’s downfall smack of alarmism and, as is the case of Sojourners Magazine, no small amount of melodrama.

In 2013, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, a subsidiary department at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, published a sweeping study on religious populations around the globe. The researchers analyzed population and demographics data from 1970-2010 in order to extrapolate the likely trajectory of religious populations through to 2020.

The study found that in 1970, 82% of the world population self-identified as “religious.” By 2010, this number had grown to 88% with a likely projected 90% by 2020. During the same time period, Christianity in particular grew more rapidly than population rates. By 2020, it is expected to comprise 33.3% of the world population, up from 33.2% in 1970.

So if Christianity (and religion in general) is actually increasing worldwide, why the predictions of a secular world-to-be?

This discourse of Christianity’s downswing stems from two factors: our Western bias and a failure to recognize large-scale historical changes in favor of immediate causal factors.

Christianity’s greatest gains in population have occurred in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In east Asia alone, the Christian population skyrocketed from 11.4 million people in 1970 to 127.8 million in 2010 (a jump from 1.2% to 8.1% of the region’s population). During this same time, the Christian population in Europe and North American markedly decreased. Western Europe has experienced the steepest decline from 89% in 1970 to 69% in 2010. The US followed suit with a drop from 90% to 80%. However, the gains in the global south outstripped these losses in the global north, yielding a net increase in the Christian population worldwide.christianity-graphic-01

So, from Star Trek producers to Christian bloggers, it seems that we all suffer from an inherently Western bias, fixating on our neighbors at the expense of the vast majority of the world’s population. Christianity is not on a downswing any more than it is on the verge of a cataclysmic collapse. Rather, we are witnessing a population shift away from its historical centers.

This leads to the second motivator behind our alarmist rhetoric: the generational snobbery that we are the first to experience titanic cultural shifts. Even a cursory glance at the longue durée  of church history shows this to be false. Christianity’s geographical center has shifted before when Jerusalem’s influence waned in favor of Rome and Constantinople. Since then, Christianity has experienced schisms, reformations, and revitalizations that no one could have expected at the time. Ironically, the “end-is-nigh” attitude has remained constant from St. Paul to now despite Christianity’s continued growth through these upheavals.

We see a similar Western and generational bias when pundits gripe about China’s economic resurgence in the past half-century, forgetting that China was the dynamo for global trade and technological innovation for 2000 years. This same myopia tells us that Christianity has always been the most populous and powerful religion, when, in fact, this wasn’t the case even 500 years ago. Short-term memory loss, it seems, thrives when our status quo is at risk.

So, what will Christianity and the religious landscape look like in 2364? Painful as it is to contradict my favorite science fiction series, the ancient historian in me must disagree with Star Trek. I fully anticipate religion to continue playing a critical role in human culture, economics, and politics for centuries to come. However, whatever form it may take over the next 350 years, it will markedly differ from 2014. Globalization will demand from us to think broadly in a rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world. Rather than a secular utopia, the Earth-to-come will be a religiously pluralistic society in which we, as global citizens, will find it increasingly difficult to shelter in our own religious bubbles.

However, we don’t need to wait 350 years for this…it is already happening now.


What is the Future of Bible Films?

In March 2013, the History Channel’s miniseries The Bible surprised everyone…it actually was popular. Despite its poor production quality and uneven acting, millions of (primarily) Christians tuned in to watch their favorite Bible heroes on the small screen. A sequel series, tentatively titled A.D.: Beyond the Bible, is already in the works.


Christian Bale as warrior Moses

Little did anyone realize: Hollywood had found its new cash cow.

In the past year alone, a steady procession of theological and biblical movies has marched through the hallowed halls of Hollywood including Son of GodGod’s Not DeadHeaven is for Real, and Noah. If that’s not enough, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale as Moses will hit theaters December 2014.

I’m surprised it took Hollywood this long. Despite near-constant cries that the Millenial generation is abandoning the Church en masse, Christianity remains a sizable (and wealthy) religious majority in America. Add to that the growing Jewish and Muslim populations, and you have a robust potential audience for big-budget Bible productions. But what will this look like and how should it be done?

I’m personally hoping for a streak analogous to the superhero movie craze that has gripped audiences for the past decade. Not only have popular characters like Batman, Spiderman, and Superman each received their own treatment, but even previously unknown heroes like Thor and the Green Lantern have garnered cult-followings.

The Bible offers just as much source-material as the entire American comicbook corpus. Why not bring minor characters like Ehud to the big-screen? Or what about an epic trilogy about King David from his humble beginnings as a shepherd to his reign as king of Judah? Between the political intrigue, massive battles, and sex, a savvy director could rival Game of Thrones or the Lord of the Rings with these stories.

But if the recent films are of any indication, I need to temper my expectations. Son of God and God’s Not Dead were almost universally panned with criticisms ranging from simply poor film-making to downright racism (just Google how Muslims were portrayed in God’s Not Dead and you’ll see what I mean). Noah, although marginally better, is an uneven film that barely rises above mediocrity.

Whoever helms future Bible films needs to be a risk-taker, someone who can produce works of art despite the vitriol that so often stems from religious convictions. Movies that don’t take risks are not good. Think how much better the Christian drama Facing the Giants would have been without the fairy tale ending in which God fixes everything (Deus ex machina anyone?). Or if Josh Wheaton’s faith in God’s Not Dead was genuinely shaken when he realized atheists have very good reasons for their non-belief. Noah’s one redeeming quality is Aronofsky’s risk to reserve God’s communication to vague visions and premonitions. A booming male voice from the sky as we see in the History Channel’s series would only have made the film cartoonish.

Having said that though, if future Bible films are going to succeed, they just need to stick to the source material: a compendium of men and women struggling through a broken world. Just as today, there are stories of abuse, genocide, oppression, ethnocentrism, suicide, inequality, and yes, debilitating doubt that a Deity even exists and has a grand plan for the universe. Only by exploring these themes openly and honestly will anyone produce culturally relevant Bible films for years to come. I’m personally excited by the prospects and am hoping that bold film-makers of any and all religious convictions can bring out the raw emotions from these stories rather than the tepid installments we have seen so far.