So, lots of people are talking about the Bible mini-series on the history channel. I only watch Netflix, but if I did have TV, I wouldn’t watch it anyway. I assiduously avoid these types of shows because I think they are damaging to my spiritual life. I did watch Richard Gere’s King David back in the 80s. I also watched the Esther movie. Other than that, I don’t recall watching any others. Here are some of the reasons that I avoid them.
1. Above all, they impose images on your devotional life. Film is a powerful medium. When you sacrifice your imagination and surrender it to a film maker’s vision, you can certainly gain insights. However, whatever work you have to do in the future on a specific text will likely always take on a relation to the residual images from the film. For me, this is very unhealthy. It imprisons my imagination in ways that I don’t like. In some ways, it is also a tacit admission of the failure and weakness of my own imagination. I am unwilling to develop my own imagination, so I ask someone else to imagine it for me.
2. Film may be the worst medium to communicate something like the Bible. One of the weaknesses of the medium is that it tends to render the viewer into an impassive receptor. There are good things about this, but there is also a great deal of distance. In live theatre, it is harder to forget that you are being confronted by actual human beings. In film and television, the separation is greater and thus the tendency toward passivity is greater. Passivity is deadly for an honest confrontation with religious scriptures. In Martin Buber’s writing on hermenuetics, he suggests that our relation to texts should be like the Breton legend of the Ars Vif. The book is living, and one must do battle with it in order to wrestle its text into meaning.
3. Part of the strength of stories and myths is their ability to communicate multivalency. I’m following some Tillichian thinking here, but myth and story arise from deep recesses of existence that transcend subjective/objective distinctions. Stories can unite paradoxical elements of existence. One of the challenges of the film medium is that it tends to reduce the power of story to objective events without being able to communicate the larger realities in which the specific events participate. There is something about seeing something extemely profound boxed in to a single portrayal that is difficult to overcome in my devotional life.
4. Producers inevitably use good looking white people to do the acting.
5. Friends that are theologians are always bent out of shape by these things because the producers use scholarship that is 150 years old. The problem here is that stories make good film. The Wellhausen hypothasis does not make for riviting television. The problem, however, is not that film makers ignore the last 150 years of biblical scholarship. The issue is that (once again in Tillich’s words) they are turning mystery into a commodity. Whenever you do that, it comes out badly even if you are really talented and have the best intentions.
6. If I move to a Kierkegaardian analogy, some of these points are clarified. Imagine a lover has written an intimate letter to his beloved in a foreign language. She takes it into a private room, and since she doesn’t speak the language, she begins with a dictionary and looks up each word. In the letter, he has communicated some specific ideas and requests. She does her best to make a translation and follow through with the ideas and requests he has communicated.
Now imagine if instead of struggling through the process of understanding the ideas and requests in the letter, she instead set out to find out what the nature of his love was in a more formal fashion. She would take the letter to a translator and get his/her opinion on the best version in her own language. She could subject it to a poetic analysis to find out the history and turns of pharse that he utilized. She could take it to a handwriting expert to find out about his emotional state when writing it. She could take it to a psychologist to understand his mental state during composition.
In the end, there is nothing wrong with what she has done, but she can do all that without following through with the ideas and requests. As she does it, she can claim more and more knowledge about her lover in one sense. As her knowledge increases, her relationship is actually becoming more distant. To observers, she is increasingly busy with matters about her lover. To her lover, she is avoiding the central concepts and requests that he wrote.
For me, this is exactly what film as a medium tends to do. Passive receptivity, objective portrayals, and good looking white people. Those are three of the things in the world that can really hurt your devotional life. You’ll do better to avoid it.