• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Friday, April 10, 2020

    Reflections on "Popular Visual Media and the Bible" Conference


    As someone who is not a paid academic attached to an institution I don't get to go to many biblical studies conferences so it was a real bonus to be able to attend this one. Due to covid-19 the original conference in Exeter was rearranged as an online conference. There was a fair bit of apprehension as to how this would all work, but I think it's fair to say the organisers, Rebekah Welton (University of Exeter) and Zanne Domoney-Lyttle (University of Glasgow) did an excellent job not only in getting everything working seamlessly, but also in making things easy for those presenting papers. These things are hard enough to do in person, let alone when you can't even see if a speaker is "in the room". The result of the smooth running of the conference meant that people actually began to reflect on the fact that for this particular conference the online version was fairly appropriate (given the subject matter), though the networking and chats between sessions was the obvious casualty. Still it'd be great for the planet, and those with more limited budgets, if a result of this online success was more conferences offering good remote options in future.

    Session 1 featured Siobhan Jolley (University of Manchester) and Laura Carlson Hasler (Indiana University) looking at two recent hit comedies. In “I can’t be physical with you” – Reimaging John 20:17 through Fleabag" Jolley drew out rather well the similarities between the never formally named protagonist of Fleabag and the reception of Mary Magdalene, cover both biblical texts and their artistic outworkings. The quote from the session's title was linked with Jesus saying "Touch me not" in John 20:17 and other comparisons were made such as "Fleabag does not want to be part of the Christian community; she just wants to be close to the priest". There were also observations about how such comparisons and fresh interpretations "can make space in the text". For me, it also got me wondering about how Fleabag's famous looks to camera have something in common with the author of John's occasional interjections, particularly as some have used the designation "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as a reference to Magdalene. I'm not sure I'll ever read/hear John 21:25's "I suppose that even the whole world" in quite the same light again.

    Laura Carlson Hasler had been planning to fly in originally to deliver her paper "The 'Good' Book?: Protestant Television Without the Bible". Her paper offered some interesting reflections both on Netflix's The Good Place and the BBC/Amazon's Good Omens (my comments), particularly the role that physical books seem to play in the series. I won't go into spoilers, but it made interesting use of the term "the Good Book" given the series' title and how, despite the array of ethical and philosophical texts and arguments referred to and shown in both series the Bible almost never features. Yet the worldview the series seeks to escape not only clearly originates in Christianity, but specifically Protestant Christianity.

    After the break there were three sessions again with a strong emphasis on recent television shows which mix religious elements in to their contemporary entertainment. Bea Fones (Durham University) gave her paper on "Daddy Issues: Angelic(Mis)Conceptions and Gender Binaries in the CW’s Supernatural", but sadly disruptions meant I was unable to catch the whole session, and my complete unfamiliarity with the show made it difficult to catch up. There was some good stuff at the end about how may filmed takes on angels adopt a more binary approach to angelic gender than the Bible itself.

    Mat Collins (University of Chester) was next, on one of my favourite topics, Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Abraham. This formed a significant chunk on the talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival in 2009 "Biblical Horror Stories for Children" which is sadly not available for download at the moment (though I can share it with anyone who is interested). Collins' "Subversive Screenings: Rethinking Genesis 22 in Popular Visual Media" looked at three works which subvert the Bible's take: Aronofsky's Noah (2014), a storyline in Lost and this Mitchell and Webb sketch on Abraham. I've written before on the link between Noah and Abraham in my own review, and don't know Lost, but despite being a fan of Mitchell and Webb didn't know that particular sketch which is brilliant as always. I really like Collins' observation that the moral of the story has changed from the Bible's original test-of-obedience, which Abraham passes, to a test-of-morality which, in the modern examples, he ultimately fails. The pre-lunch session saw Rebekah Welton (University of Exeter) presenting on "Sibling rivalries and reconciliation in Supernatural: God, the Darkness and Genesis 1:1-5". Again I'm not at all familiar with the series and unfortunately, again, I was sadly distracted by the day job.

    The conference organisers had stated their intentions to avoid just going back over the biblical epics so while the sheer wealth of recent televisual material justifiably dominated morning's sessions, the post-lunch session always promised to be the most intriguing. In Tom de Bruin (Newbold College) "Reception of the Bible in My Little Pony and Christian Apocrypha" basically looked at how Christian fan fiction created by fans of the show My Little Pony has reflected their Christian theology. De Bruin used the term 'Christian Bronies', and while I can't recall if the term was de Bruin's own or one they had adopted themselves, I was surprised to learn these were often adults. The whole thing was fabulously bizarre, featuring conversion narratives for the characters from My Little Pony, yet somehow de Bruin linked it back to parallels with the way in which some early Christians created their own fictional narratives.

    Stephanie O’Connor (Dublin City University) took on "The Batman and the Bible" looking at religious interpretations of comic book heroes in general and, in particular, contrasting the Dark Knight with the more familiar Christ figure of Superman. Batman is a Christ figure we can identify with. Unlike Superman he is fully human, capable of being hurt, reliant on effort and discipline. But it was host Zanne Domoney-Lyttle's paper that was the real eye-catcher. "Wrestling with the Bible: Crucifixions, Kingmakers and a Monday Night Messiah in Sports Entertainment" - a paper born out of Domoney-Lyttle's husband love of wrestling - discussed the unusual biblical narratives that some networks have adopted. David and Goliath is an obvious one, but also the narrative that led up to the line “Austin 3.16 says I just whooped your ass”.


    For me at least, the final session moved into areas with more serious implications. Tim Hutchings (University of Nottingham) presented "'My Jesus Would Be Chunky' Visualising Virtue and Vice in a Christian Videogame" which examined Scripture Union's surprisingly successful video game / app "Guardians of Ancora". Hutchings research involved actual interviews both with representatives of Scripture Union, who had been involved in the commissioning process, and the game's producers who were contracted to complete the work. Hutchings didn't waste any time getting to his point, showing the above screengrab in the opening minutes. It's a shockingly careless piece of unconscious antisemitism via cultural bias. We can, perhaps, give the games company the benefit of the doubt - while you would hope they would do their research, they're not expected to be experts on the text - but this was a project Scripture Union oversaw and frankly they should know better. Just on this shot alone (and adopting for a moment the SU's position that the Gospel accurately record what actually happened) we can see how this moves away from the actual text in a way that negatively portrays Jewish people and blames them for Jesus death. You have the crowd calling out "Kill him", (not what was said) no nuance as to who these particular Jews are, attractively built roman soldiers and Jewish characters who are somewhat other than that, almost a reversing of the power dynamics at play, and so on. Hutchings' interview excerpts only highlighted the issue - it didn't seem like the huge numbers of Jewish deaths that Christian-inspired antisemitism has contributed too had even been considered - but of course there had been plenty of thought about giving Jesus an appropriately modern-looking hairstyle and so on. One of the SU team involved in the project was actually present and brave enough to add her own perspective. I'm not sure that even then she really appreciated the problems. It shouldn't shock me - I've not always been so aware of these issues and I know plenty of people who are both horrified by antisemitism and yet unknowingly perpetuate it. I guess I just though that Christians in general, and particularly those Christian organisations seeking to promote fidelity to the Bible, had become more aware of the issues.

    David Tollerton (University of Exeter), who himself found the above paper "unsettling", then presented on "Anti-Judaism in English History and the strange moment when Doctor Who appeared to propagate biblical supersessionism". He was looking at the episode from the latest Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) called The Witchfinders (S11E8) where the Doctor materialises in 17th century Lancashire and attempts to dissuade the locals from burning a witch. When they argue "As King James has written in his new Bible,'Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.'", the Doctor counters "In the Old Testament. There's a twist in the sequel. 'Love thy neighbor.'". As Tollerton points out this verse actually originates from Leviticus 19:18 and the portrayal of King James is interestingly anachronistic.

    Finally Holly Morse (University of Manchester) gave her keynote on "Serpentine Saviours and Woke Women: Twenty-First Century Television Goes Back to the Beginning". Morse spoke particularly about Netflix's recent remake of Sabrina and converted me from someone who was not particularly interested in it (I was already a man when Sabrina the Teenage Witch landed in the 1990s) to having it fairly near the top of my TV list. Morse particular drew on Sabrina's reimagining of Eve.

    Morse's paper felt like a good end to an excellent conference. Certainly I wasn't alone in feeling that not only was the overall standard of contributions very high, but that there was a real consistency to them, both in terms of quality and theme. It would be great if something like this were to happen again, and whilst the absence of a real meet-up was sorely missed, as someone who only operates around the fringes of academia, I felt I got to connect with a whole bunch of people who share the same research interests as me. You can follow others' thoughts on Twitter via #VisualBible. Thanks to Zanne Domoney-Lyttle and Rebekah Welton and of course all the speakers who made for a great day.

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