At our recent Bible study, Bonnie pulled up the King James Version on her smartphone. She wanted to compare a Scripture passage to her hardcover print Bible. Today, you can purchase audio Bibles on CDs at your local discount store or download dramatic readings to your personal device.
But what happens when the words — whether read silently or aloud — become transformed into images?
On the “big screen,” what come to mind are the Hollywood epics “The Ten Commandments” and “King of Kings.” Or for the younger set, the sophisticated animation of “The Prince of Egypt” and “Veggie Tales” are still popular with families. Then there are films that were the center of controversy when they were released: “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”
On theater stages, biblical material came alive in song and dance with “Godspell,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” all of which became movies.
Hollywood mined the Bible for God and mammon. “The Ten Commandments,” Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 last and greatest epic and the highest grossing Bible film (by today’s figures, over $1 billion), is about Moses’ life from birth to death. By today’s standards, it’s the third most profitable movie ever made (#1— “Gone with the Wind,” 1939; #2 — the pre 3-D version of “Titanic,” 1997).
In the genre of the 1950s Hollywood Bible epic, moviegoers were entertained by scenes of muscular male leaders, underdressed “femme fatales” and battle scenes with blood and gore. The Hollywood Bible was hot property (and still is — Russell Crowe is slated to star in the upcoming epic “Noah”).
It’s safe to say that even without expert close examination and comparison to the text, many of these films were not “translations” of the Bible. They did not conform to the “book-Bible” (e.g., the 1955 version of “The Prodigal” starring Lana Turner turned Jesus’ parable into a 113-minute love story complete with dancing maidens and pagan worship).
But is that necessarily bad?
In words, sound and image
And is it possible to be a “translation” if images are involved?
That was a key question a research group, comprised of biblical scholars, artists and software designers grappled with 20 years ago under the auspices of the American Bible Society. The intent was to produce biblical translations for a modern audience, an audience that spends more time handling electronic devices than books. In so doing, the project brought forward the discussion of “translation” — a discipline historically reserved for words — to another level: that of words, sound, music and moving image.
You might say that this doesn’t sound new. Many books have been made into movies. Fans of J.K. Rowling flocked to buy her Harry Potter book series and to see them transformed for the cinema. Both forms were wildly popular. Purists will say that the book is always better than the screen renditions. Others will say that the movie was nothing like the book.
So does that naturally mean that any form of the Bible that is not the written word is a poor substitute for “the original”?
History reveals that people who translate biblical texts are dedicated believers who are passionate about their work.
In the 1380s, John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, scholar and theologian, produced English translations of the Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate (the “officially sanctioned” Bible). This was considered such a great offense that 44 years after Wycliffe’s death, the pope ordered his bones to be dug-up, crushed and scattered in the river.
After the Diet of Worms (1521), Martin Luther was declared an outlaw for not recanting his defiance of corrupt church authority. In hiding, he translated and published the New Testament into German for the first time from the 1516 Greek-Latin New Testament of Erasmus. In 1534 he would go on to publish the entire Bible in German.
In 1525, William Tyndale was forced to flee England because of the wide-spread rumor that his English New Testament project was underway, causing inquisitors and bounty hunters to be constantly on Tyndale’s trail to arrest him and prevent his project. In 1525-1526, the Tyndale New Testament became the first printed edition of the Scripture in the English language. They were burned as soon as the bishop could confiscate them.
There is a difference between Hollywood and what Wycliffe, Luther and Tyndale accomplished. Although DeMille and other directors may claim that their Bible films are personal projects from their hearts, Hollywood hath no other god but the box office. Films are expensive to produce and if they don’t intend to make money, there’s no point. But much can be learned from the box office and the power of the visual medium.
The American Bible Society project produced a number of translation experiments: six short movies, a website and some software. When these movies were screened by test groups, some said they were not biblical because the actors were not dressed in period costumes. Others thought it was heretical that the soundtrack did not utilize any of the “approved” print translations of the Bible.
And then there were those who were moved by the films and commented that they “saw” the particular biblical passage in a new light. The American Bible Society project mirrored what Wycliffe, Luther and Tyndale did — all took God’s word from their original languages and transformed them into languages understood by their contemporaries. For today’s audiences, that language is not only found between two covers, but on a glowing screen — be it a 1-inch square or 100 feet long.
In 2007, an article in Time magazine stated that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels. Other anecdotal, and sometimes humorous, studies (from late-night television), show that fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible’s first book; naming the Ten Commandments could be a major challenge. The Bible, of course, is more than a quiz show. A 2009 study by the Barna Group found that little progress has been made toward assisting people to become more biblically literate. Before that study, the ELCA acknowledged this problem and responded with the Book of Faith Initiative.
If the Bible is a critical tool for Christians, does it need to be translated into today’s new “language” of sound and images? How does your congregation study the Bible? How can your congregation take advantage of commercial movies as you encourage individual and group Bible study?
Can you name the Ten Commandments?
Fern Lee Hagedorn is the Friday morning voice of WJFF, public radio in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. For 10 years, she spearheaded a project to translate Scripture into new media for the American Bible Society.