Sunday, June 15, 2008

Provoking the Gospel and Film Studies

Richard Swanson, who teaches Religion at Augustana College, has written a series of books called Provoking the Gospel where he attempts to bring the New Testament stories back to life again.

Swanson, among many others, see that much of the Bible that we have inherited came first through oral traditions…that is in stories that were told over and over. The stories were not simply held as files in ones mind but were lived out in a person’s life. Swanson suggests that we tell stories for two different reasons: 1) because there are things that we need to remember…to keep with us…those things we cannot or should not lose and secondly these stories help make sense of those things that we cannot make sense of or that we cannot stop thinking of.

Swanson says that stories do three important things: 1) stories project worlds. These worlds do not stay on the page, rather they incite our imagination. Think of the world’s of Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Secondly, stories draw readers/hearers/viewers as participants into that world. If we are drawn in, it is a convincing story. Consider again Narnia and Middle-Earth. We are taken in and suddenly live among these characters.

Thirdly, and most importantly, stories create roles, expectations, and ways of seeing the world. What makes these roles and expectations the most important aspect of story is how they live off the page as it were…how they change our life. They can expand our understanding of self and others, the world and what lies beyond. As we live in these stories, we return to normal life with a part of us still in those stories or perhaps them within us. Perhaps some stories radically alter our view of the world that we, in some sense, have become those characters. Now, put that in the context of our own life and the bible. Are its stories so implanted in our hearts that they orient us in action in the world? Perhaps this is what happened to Daniel in Jesus of Montreal.

Swanson has made the analogy between music on the sheet and music heard in the ear. There is a profound difference between them. One is potential one is actual. One is life less one the other is a live. The live music is brought about by someone that reads the notes and plays them for all to hear. Swanson wants to make the connection that our biblical texts are the same…that our text on the page needs to be re-embodied in the present. Here we give “the words a physical home in your body, by taking these stories of real human bodies and re-membering them in the members of real human bodies.”

Swanson states, “if the performing of a ritual re-members a character from the past, makes her a member of the present community, then the performing of a biblical story will also accomplish something similar.” Swanson feel that “when the story is told, remembering becomes re-membering. That is to say, Jesus is made to be physically present, at least provisionally during the telling of the story.” Swanson tells the story that when he was young, he thought the man up front was actually Jesus and not believing it when told otherwise. He had been convinced by the man’s life. He states, “When Jesus is embodied in the story that is told, and particularly when the story is played by an ensemble, ( which allows separation between characters and voices), then Jesus is brought back into the community that re-members him in a vivid and vigorous way. For the duration of the story, Jesus is not just an idea but a physical presence with a voice and body, a location and a presence. The kind of remembrance that can be heard in Christian practices surrounding Holy Communion is extended also to a sort of sacramental presence found in story. If the bread and wine are, in some sense, Jesus’ body and blood, then so, too, is the telling of the story a kind of narrative incarnation.”

Swanson states, “The stories we aim to interpret are not about ideas, at least not in some airless and abstract sense. They are stories about real people and real existence, and real people and real existence come only in bodily form. That means, as we understand it, that one only understands biblical stories when one pays careful attention to the bodies in the stories.”

“If performance of a story re-members a character from the past when that character is embodied in a player, then it will matter in what body that character is placed. When Jesus refuses to heal a woman’s daughter because she is a gentile, Syrophoenician by birth, it will play differently if the woman’s character is embodied by a young white woman than if she is embodied by an older African American woman. Body makes a difference in real life and in exploratory ensemble telling of biblical stories.”

Think too of Mary. Take a look at Luke 1.39-56.

Putting aside our cultural differences, imagine a 12-14 year old girl, be it your sister, daughter, niece, whomever, as Mary. What happens when we put those words into the mouth of an elder Mary…say someone who is 65?

Read it again, but imagine a girl from Mexico or Africa or Cambodia? Does it change our interpretation? Do Mary’s words take on a new meaning when they are taken out of our middle class Sioux Falls?

Could this be a helpful film lens?
How does our context and actor choice color our interpretation of the biblical characters?
How does our film watching culture distort our interpretation of what plays well?
How does our cultural difference and distance prevent this method from working fully?
Could this be the proving grounds following the academic work rather than prior to as Swanson suggests?