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!

 

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.

CB-in-Exodus

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.

“Noah” Will Ruin Your Sunday School Memories…And That’s Good

5201999-161742-noah-ark

Noah and friends happily floating above utter destruction

A few weeks ago I predicted that Noah would be both mediocre and forgettable. It seems, though, that my cynicism was only half-correct. Noah is indeed mediocre. It is uneven, overwrought, and missed many opportunities that the source material provided.

However, I can’t say that it is forgettable. I’ve been hearing the story of Noah’s Flood since childhood. When I think back to these Bible lessons depicted via flannel-graph, I remember images of happy animals on a cartoonish ark and rainbows, but leave it up to a movie to bring to the forefront that this story is about the annihilation of humanity.

Of course people drowning is implicit in a story that says things like, “and the waters prevailed above the mountains…and all flesh died that moved on the earth,” but such perfunctory language, so characteristic of a Near Eastern deluge myth, does not do the terrible image justice.

And this is why Noah is not a forgettable movie. If for no other reason, watch this movie for the horrifying image of people­—men, women, children—clinging to the final outcropping of land while Noah and his family listen to their wailing screams over dinner. It has ruined my Sunday School image of this story…and that’s a good thing. It reminds me how easily we are desensitized to violence, not only in the Old Testament but in ancient history in general. We read the decimation of the Egyptian firstborns in Exodus with the same dispassion as when reading the death of the 300 Spartans and their compatriots in Herodotus’ Histories. Temporal distance and cultural difference render us so far removed from the events that we forget to empathize with the victims. A quick glance at these ancient histories and myths should remind us of antiquity’s brutality.

Further Reading:

Seibert, Eric. The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. A confessional book but this doesn’t detract from Seibert’s scholarship. His thesis caused quite a stir in the Christian intelligentsia: “We shouldn’t celebrate or condone God’s violence in the Old Testament.” Check it out.

 

A few final thoughts on the movie:

What I liked: God never speaks but communicates only through premonitions and visions. Although the biblical narrative implies God’s speech was actual illocution, by keeping the “Creator’s” communication so vague, Noah’s task is all the more terrifying. He encounters the same dilemma that people of faith face today, namely: “I could be completely wrong…what am I doing?”

What I disliked: Noah’s murderous insanity near the end is weird and out-of-character. I would have rather seen him portrayed as a tortured soul overcome with guilt than a delusional maniac.

Missed Opportunity: The Watchers. I was so excited to see the Watchers made famous by 1 Enoch. There is such a rich mythos surrounding these creatures…their initial decision to descend to earth, wed human women, birth giants, and teach men about industry. Although the movie references much of this, the Watchers are just too goofy to take seriously. Regal, fallen angels (or at least terrifying cherubim) would have been much more fitting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“God’s Not Dead” and the Evil-Philosophy-Professor Trope

Tekken_SorboFloating among the detritus of literature known as “chain emails,” you may have stumbled across the following scenario:

“An atheist philosophy (or biology, chemistry, physics) professor at a major research university was speaking to his class on the problem science has with God. He then asks one of his new Christian students to stand and proceeds to interrogate the student on his faith. With a barrage of logical proofs the professor corners the student in a seemingly impossible quandary disproving the existence of God. The classroom sits in stunned silence.

But then, the student rallies.

Imbued with spiritual enthusiasm, the student fights back: ‘You’re wrong sir…what about [insert anthropic principle, Anselm’s ontological proof, prime-mover argument, etc].’”

Invariably, the student’s retort is some iteration of the proofs of God that theologians have been repeating for centuries. And without fail, the professor capitulates to the student’s incisive intellect.

Versions of this chain letter, including a spurious exchange between Albert Einstein and an atheist professor, have been circulating for over a decade, but March 21, 2014 marks the day that a studio will earn the ignominious title of being the first to bring it to the big screen.

God’s Not Dead, produced by the Christian film company Pure Flix Entertainment, is a drama that pits the unimaginatively named Josh Wheaton, a young Christian college student, against his atheist, and unsurprisingly vitriolic, professor in a philosophy smackdown over the existence of God. Bolstered with cameos from the Newsboys and the Duck Dynasty cast, I’m sure this film will be a blockbuster within (and only within) the Evangelical demographic.

I have every intention of watching God’s Not Dead and reviewing it here at Religion for Breakfast, but for the time being, the teaser trailer alone has troubled me enough to share my thoughts.

The very fact that this film exists illustrates that the all-too-familiar stigma of anti-intellectualism is alive and well in Evangelical Christianity. Worse, it capitalizes on the fears of home-schooling mothers everywhere that their sons and daughters will lose their faith in the lecture halls of their university.

Evangelical Christianity has an uneasy relationship with higher education. As a whole, the tradition has shown incredible enthusiasm for it. Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, the Nazarene universities, and my own alma mater Messiah College all illustrate that Evangelicals are happy to emulate the American educational system, participate in professional associations, and publish in academic journals.  At the same time though, theological hangups with academic criticism in archaeology, biblical studies, and the sciences have caused evangelical scholars to lag behind the curve in academia, leading to what Mark Noll has dubbed “the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.”

In her recent book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Mary Worthen suggests that this academic bipolarism stems from a confusion over authority. Their allegiance is divided between two authorities: the Bible, seen as the final authority in all faith and practice, and the academy, which they embrace only when it doesn’t threaten their presupposed theological paradigm.

God’s Not Dead is a product of this authority-confusion. The academy is conceptualized as antagonistic and vitriolic, thereby requiring proper apologetic training to maintain faith in its hostile coliseum.

As an aspiring educator of religious studies, this troubles me. My colleagues hail from a variety of faith traditions—Muslim, Christian, Hindu—with many others self-describing as agnostic and atheist. Some are committed pastors and lay-leaders while others are ex-Christians having undergone de-conversion experiences. But, by and large, they are tolerant, studious, and passionate teachers. Inflated academic egos aside, I cannot think of a single professor or graduate student colleague of mine that would act like this farcical philosophy professor in the trailer.

Teaching religion does indeed require empathy. Professors of religious studies recognize that students in their classes come from all walks of life, and we must be sensitive to their deeply held convictions. Moreover, though, it requires extreme patience, particularly when a student openly challenges the professor on the minutiae of New Testament historicity (which happens more often than you think). We aren’t there to destroy anyone’s faith nor do we relish the cognitive dissonance that the academic study of the Bible may cause. I’m in this profession to share my enthusiasm for religion and hopefully foster a deeper appreciation for it among my students. As I’ve said before, religion is a profoundly existential aspect of human culture. Regardless of your religious convictions or lack thereof, studying religion brings us up against humanity’s most pertinent questions of our origins, purpose, and future. It certainly may be uncomfortable, but demonizing experts in philosophy, religion, and science does little to encourage self-reflection and personal growth.

I’m sincerely hoping God’s Not Dead will surprise me. Perhaps it will acknowledge the very real phenomenon of cognitive dissonance without disparaging the pursuit of higher education. In the meantime, I’ll strive to explode the evil-philosophy-prof stereotype as long as I am in front of a class.