Like many Bible and Religious Studies professors, my regular course-load includes an annual Introduction to the Bible course. I have found that assigning students to write a movie review of a Bible movie is an effective way of evaluating student learning about biblical texts, ancient contexts, and the significance of the Bible to the present moment. Many Bible movies are commercially successful; engaging this material allows students to explore the connection between the ancient material covered in the course and contemporary pop culture. Thinking critically about Bible movies also offers an occasion to reflect on questions of representation (particularly of race and ethnicity, though also of gender) and of power that are highly relevant to students’ lives beyond the classroom. And when positioned at the end of the semester, the critical movie review provides a useful summative assessment while also avoiding the pain and pitfalls (for both student-writer and professor-reader) of the traditional analytical paper.
The assignment, in its basic form, is quite simple: students must view a movie based on the Bible and then write a movie review as a biblical scholar. This means the goal of the review is not to assess the quality of the movie as a cinematic experience (as we know, many Bible movies are terrible), but rather to comment on it from a scholarly perspective. As I write in the assignment, “You are writing your review as a Bible expert; therefore, your primary concern is not how ‘good’ the movie or book is, but how it relates to the Bible itself.” To help students with this task, I also include a series of questions to get students thinking:
Based on what we have learned in class, is the film historically accurate?
Is it faithful to the text?
Which text(s)? (For example, a Jesus movie that is “textually accurate” must choose which Gospel account to follow if the Gospels differ)
Does it incorporate non-canonical sources?
What changes does the movie or book make?
How does it represent everyday life?
How does it represent race and/or ethnicity (intentionally or unintentionally)?
How does it represent gender and/or sexuality (intentionally or unintentionally)?
How do you as a scholar/expert view this movie or book?
I also provide students with a list of recommended movies (reproduced below)
I distribute the assignment halfway through the semester, with the review due the last week of class. Additionally, I post several possible Bible movies on the class Moodle page for students to stream, if they so desire. Like many professors in our field, I cancel class to attend the AAR/SBL annual meeting; I encourage students to complete the review during this time (I always teach the class in the fall). Another option is for students to watch the film of their choice with family during the Thanksgiving holiday; this option gives students a chance to talk about what they’ve learned and the new ways they have come to view the Bible in conversation with their relatives.
The trickiest part of the review assignment is getting students to understand what it means to perform expertise as a biblical scholar. To this end, we watch a trailer or brief scene together in class and discuss what sort of issues are appropriate to raise in a review. I have found the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) especially effective for this exercise, as the trailer includes significant extrabiblical material (the film includes Watchers from the book of Enoch), a dangerously enraged Noah, and a brief recap of the entire Eden escapade. Another good option is a brief excerpt from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).
During this in-class exercise, I talk to students about the representation of race and gender in biblical films, which is another easy entry-point for critical analysis. For example, most ancient Israelites and Judeans are represented as white (e.g., Willem Defoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ , or Ewan McGregor in the same role in Last Days in the Desert ); villains consistently darker skinned. Villains are also often represented as queer, as with Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and The Passion of the Christ, or even the swishy, ministrel-y Egyptian priests in Prince of Egypt (1998). It is also important to make students aware of the anti-Semitism, tacit or explicit, in the representation of the Jews, particularly in Jesus movies; this is particularly pronounced in The Passion of the Christ, where the Jews are dressed like nefarious pirates. Orientalism is also a pervasive issue, particularly in the older films (though by no means limited to them).
Raising issues of race, gender, anti-Semitism and Orientalism allows me to connect the movie assignment to our ongoing conversations about difference and representation, as well as to the contemporary media moment in which students live. (Often, there is a conversation on campus about race, gender, or sexuality that can be connected here as well). A final important concern is explaining what kinds of historical critique are and are not useful. Interestingly, I have had the most issues with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Life of Brian is a satirical film about “Brian,” a first century Jew living in Roman-controlled Palestine who happens to be born next to Jesus on the same day. Throughout the film, Brian’s life shadows Jesus’; the film ends with Brian crucified, surrounded by other men on crosses singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as they contemplate their fate. While some students clearly understand the satire, others have devoted their reviews to arguing, e.g., that a British-looking man named “Brian” is not a realistic inhabitant of ancient Palestine, and that groups of crucified men are unlikely to dance on their crosses and sing. Therefore, in presenting the assignment, I now preemptively flag these issues as well, often by showing and discussing several short clips in class.
The assignment calls on students to write a review of 800-1200 words. This is slightly shorter than the two analytical close reading papers for the course, which are each 1000-1500 words. Interestingly, the writing on the reviews is often stronger. This may because the review constitutes the final writing assignment, but I believe it also disrupts some of their bad stylistic and compositional habits associated with traditional essay writing, such as overreliance on the five paragraph form and the use of “opening devices” or boilerplate analysis. In addition, it is easy to recommend well-written movie reviews to students as examples (I am especially partial to Manohla Dargis in the The New York Times; a few cinephiles often volunteer their own favorites). Discussing what makes a review “good” or successful writing also provides an opportunity to smuggle in a discussion about composition and literary craft without necessarily alerting the students that this is happening. I assess the reviews based on argument, accuracy, persuasiveness, and style.
A few other brief comments on the assignment: though I allow students to choose from a wide range of films, Prince of Egypt is the overwhelming favorite, followed by The Passion of the Christ and other fairly recent blockbusters (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Noah, Son of God). I ban the Veggie Tales movie, not on strictly pedagogical grounds, but because I am unwilling to read 25 reviews about a singing cucumber. Students do not typically watch movies older than the 1980s. Not infrequently, a student will choose either Jesus Christ Superstar or Life of Brian without being aware of the genre (musical or comedy, respectively); this provides an interesting learning experience. I also give students the option of reviewing a novel, in case they dislike films, and provide a list of recommended novels. However, in the five years I have done this assignment, no one has chosen the novel option. Occasionally, students wish to review a TV series, such as the miniseries “The Bible”; however, the series format makes it difficult to review, so I tend to steer them away from this option. I also exclude historical documentaries (e.g. Nova’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets ). It would also be possible to have students review movies with biblical and/or religious imagery and themes (e.g. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi , the Cohen brothers’ A Serious Man , Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter , Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal ); however, this would be a different sort of assignment. It is the limitations of the genre of the Bible movie – the limited repertoire of stories, the reliance on heavyhanded moral narratives, the tacit racism and sexism of many of the filmmaking choices – that train students to watch closely and that give this assignment its pedagogical value.
Dr. Rhiannon Graybill is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.
Appendix: List of Suggested Movies and Books
Hebrew Bible Movies:
Noah (dir. Darren Aronofsky, starring Russell Crowe, 2014)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, starring Christian Bale, 2014)
The Red Tent (starring Minnie Driver and Morena Baccarin, 2014)
The Ten Commandments (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, starring Charlton Heston, 1956)
Prince of Egypt (Dreamworks, 1988)
Samson and Delilah (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, starring Victor Mature and Heddy Lamarr, 1950)
David and Bathsheba (dir. Henry King, starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward 1951)
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (dir. David Mallet, Starring Donny Osmond, 1999)
A Serious Man (dir. Ethan Cohen and Joel Cohen, 2009)
New Testament Movies:
The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, starring Willem Defoe 1988)
The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004)
Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, musical, 1973)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
Jesus of Montreal (dir. Denis Arcand, 1989)
Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, Monty Python, 1979)
Son of God (dir. Christopher Spencer, starring Diogo Morgado, 2014)
Hebrew Bible Novels:
The Secret Chord (Geraldine Brooks, 2015)
The Red Tent (Anita Diamant, 2007)
East of Eden (John Steinbeck, 1952)
Joseph and His Brothers (Thomas Mann, 1943)
New Testament Novels:
The Gospel According to the Son (Norman Mailer, 1997)
The Last Temptation of Christ (Nikos Kazantzakis, 1960)
Quarantine (Jim Crace, 1997)
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore, 2002)
The Testament of Mary (Colm Tóibín, 2012)
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Philip Pullman, 2010)