Home > History, Judaism, Study of the Old Testament > Culture, Entertainment and the Bible

Culture, Entertainment and the Bible

  • Title: Culture, Entertainment and the Bible
  • Author: edited by George Aichele
  • Series: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 309
  • ISBN 10: 184127075X
  • Publisher: Sheffield Academic Press
  • Published: October 2000
  • Pages: 229
  • Format: PDF

To be personal: I love this book. All articles. The opportunity to have fun with biblical texts and ‘culture’ by juxtaposing them. And the remarks I’m going to offer by way of a Foreword, although critical, are in the spirit of love.

One of the things I learnt from Roland Boer, in his response to the Ruth articles of 1997, is to classify articles and group them into coherent units, before discussing them within the space limit available. And so, immediately upon reading the articles here collected, I run into difficulties. Should they be classified by the biblical texts referred to? That would have made two groups. The first would contain articles referring to Hebrew Bible texts, a majority here—either to the Hebrew Bible in general (Walsh and Black, for instance) or to specific texts in it (like Kramer and Rowlett on Rahab, Joshua 2 and 6). The second group would contain articles referring to New Testament texts (Graham, Pippin and Aichele, Vander Stichele). All these biblical texts, be they from the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, are read together with extrabiblical intertexts, intertexts from ‘culture’. Such an arrangement, foregrounding the Bible, would have made for a more traditional, conservative book: a collection of reflections on/reflexions of biblical texts, proceeding from the canon outward into various instances of its manifestations and reinterpretations in contemporary western life.

The articles presented are organized not in accordance with divisions of the Bible, but along divisions of ‘cultural types’. ‘Lowbrow’ culture (popular media, especially films but also press and books), ‘highbrow’ culture (literature, visual art, music and education), and ideology are the organizing principles. This choice turns the tables around. The point of departure is> now external to the Bible, not internal to it. The basic criteria, the focus, move away from the Bible (he it Hebrew Bible or New Testament) to its presentation, representation and materialization.

The materials here presented are too varied to discuss en bloc, which is highly satisfactory. On the other hand, detailed argumentations are left for the authors themselves to perform. This Foreword is not going to present the contents of individual articles. So here we go—some personal reflections on some of the points raised, mostly in the form of a series of critical, overlapping questions.

The genesis of this book was, again, in a session of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, although several of the essays here included were not presented in that session. was the respondent to the papers of that session, and would like to pose the same questions I posed then to the authors in this collection. After all, if Bible scholars are to go beyond their traditional pursuit into the ‘Bible and/in Culture’ dangerous arena, a minor and less rarified place no doubt, some problematization seems to be in order. Although the questions are directed at the authors (whose works presumably contain the answers), they are also directed at the implied readerly audience of this volume. And although ‘low culture’, that is, entertainment, is possibly more of a hazard for the serious-minded Bible critic, problematization of reading the Bible with fine art intertexts seems worthwhile as well.

Question One to each of the participants in this project (and to their readers) is as follows. Why did you choose god, Yhwh or the Christian god, or Rahab the prostitute or Babylon the whore, or a prophet like Elijah, or a ‘good Christian’, and so on, as the focus of your articles? Putting aside the simple condition of availability—our children bring in a cartoon film; or we happen to watch television when a certain movie is shown; or a friend recommends a book; or an art piece is viewed at a museum by chance, etc.—what sparked your interest in the particular analogic and dialogic process you have presented to us? Why did you, why should we, go outside the Bible for reading a certain passage? What can we gain by it? What pleasure, of any kind, did/can we achieve this way?

Question Two. Some general concerns are apparent in most articles— about God, about sacred texts, about the millennium, about science fiction and film and education of the young and inexperienced and the ignorant and the existential issues of reality vs fantasy. I understand that you, each of our authors, have a serious reading agenda, over and apart from the simple basic wish to understand, enjoy and also play with the biblical material. May I ask you what your agenda, as a Bible scholar and an individual with personal convictions and tastes, is? This would help me to understand your rich paper. You made a choice of reading culture in/about serious religious/textual issues. I presume that the subject matter attracted you. For instance, therefore, I would like to know whether your readings of the cultural artifacts you chose to juxtapose with the Bible, be they what they may, have enriched your life in any way (before I confess whether they have enriched mine)? And if so, how? And has this exercise made a difference to your work as a Bible scholar? Does the Bible, as I suspect, remain your personal primary text for defining the divine and godly imagery and religious sentiment anytime, anywhere? If so, what parts of the Bible? These are not rhetorical questions, far from it.

Question Three. This volume contains social critique of various hues, arrived at through cultural analysis, predominantly directed at contemporary or near contemporary North American socio-cultural phenomena. Is this critique valid or instructive for other times, other places? And if so, to what extent?

Question Four relates to the millennium fever. Several articles have millennial uneasiness and apocalyptic anxieties as underlying strata. For many readers, the millennium change is a scene of deep interest. For me, it provokes only the mildest anthropological interest. This fever is once more a Western European/North American phenomenon, certainly non-Jewish, hence I occupy the position of the new-born squid in the Men in Black film here (see Black’s article). Would readers of this volume share my stance? Who would, who would not?

Question Five, after a small introduction. I love reading about the Bible in our lives, although ‘straight’ reflections on the Bible and Bible interpretation interest me profoundly too. Nevertheless, I find the analogy of the Bible to popular, sensational journalism and ‘lowbrow’ media very apt. I often wonder about the so-called ‘original’, implied audiences of biblical pieces, about their incredulous reactions to miracle stories for instance (I would), about the historical accidence that metamorphosed some imaginative canonical fantasies into scriptural revelations leading to dogmas. I worry about the absolutism of many biblical passages, about their claims for truth, about their claims on the reader, about their trickery and manipulative character. I worry about my own tendency to listen to that very tiny voice in my thoroughly non-religious being, whispering gently, ‘and what if, incredulous as it may seem…’

So, where do we go now—does the millennium count in biblical studies, should it? Should we believe, everything or some? What criteria should we employ? Should our attitudes to biblical stories/claims be different from our attitudes to media claims—and how?

Question Six. For most of us, reading the Bible together with literary giants (such as Kafka) or esteemed artists (such as Rembrandt) or influential theorists or philosophers (Freud, Zizek) and musicians (Handel) has been accepted practice for a while. Does the fact that the practice is accepted and acceptable by most make it better and more valuable, say, than examining Bible residues and interpretations in films, children’s books, yellow journalism and the like?

Question Seven. Does the Bible-as-popular-entertainment, as it is done in North America and Europe, we’ve had some examples, get our approval? Is it a ‘good thing’, even when we dislike a particular performance or presentation, or is this approval reserved for when we like it? Do we see the analogies to our guild’s practices in the Entertainment practices? Would we join the topical rush and write a children’s Bible story, like Alice Bach and Cheryl Exum and Klaas Smelik have done?

Or shall we participate in a documentary series, like Carole Fontaine has done? Or shall we do a children’s movie like the Israeli serious author Meir Shalev? Or do we dare to bring popular culture into our classrooms as exegesis, on the same level as our own be labored efforts? Or shall we adopt a superior attitude in our dealings with the Bible in/and popular culture, a ‘we-know-better’ slightly caustic sarcasm, donating a knowing wink and a nod to our cultural environment while retaining our rather sedate equanimity, as befits solemn ‘scholars’?

The questions raised here, and by the articles in this book, are serious and go to the core of both biblical studies and the Bible in culture, which are as interconnected as the two heads of the same Janus figure. The Bible has always been an elitist object—produced, consumed, transmitted and studied by elites variously defined by religious praxis, age, gender, class, ethnicity, occupation and status. This applies in different yet also similar ways to the Jewish Bible as well as to the Christian Bible. Although the Bible’s democratization was greatly enhanced by its translations into vernaculars, it remained confined in elite secrecy. As scholars, we do of course sustain this legacy of secrecy and perpetuate it, thus hoping to perpetuate—as scholars would—our own influence in the texture of our culture.

But the second half of the last century saw the beginning of changes. The social/normative evaluation of gender, class, ethnicity, patterns of work and even religion have changed. Democratization entails popularization; easy dissemination of information and knowledge requires the abolition of copyright restrictions together with trade secrets. As a secret society, the future survival of the Bible Scholars Guild is in jeopardy.

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