A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Jack Black, Year One, and Biblical Literacy

Columbia Pictures will release Year One on June 19th.  Starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, the comedy follows two hunter-gathers after they are kicked out of their tribe and embark on adventures throughout the ancient world.

A friend who saw the long version of the trailer noticed multiple references to the Bible and sent me the link:  http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/yearone/site/ (Look for “video”)

One scene shows the Jack Black character picking a golden apple and chomping down.

Michael Cera’s character protests.

Cera: That’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Black:  Got sort of a knowledge-y taste.
Cera: Yeah?  Does it have a forbidden taste?  Cuz that’s what it is.

In another scene, the two encounter the brothers Cain and Abel. Cain is a jerk. And when a priestess invites Black to enter the Holy of Holies, he of course takes it as a come-on.

I doubt this movie will offer any insight into the meaning of the Bible.  But I do find fascinating the way that pop culture continues to presuppose some level of biblical literacy.  Of course, the scenes shown in the trailer could make sense on their own, but they will get more laughs from those who know the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the architectural layout of the First Temple.

For a long time, intellectuals have claimed that biblical literacy matters. English professors interviewed in the 2006 Biblical Literary Report:  What University Professors Say Incoming Students Need to Know agreed that the Bible is indispensible for understanding world literature and culture, even more so than Greek and Roman mythology.  But Jay Leno also has made a schtick out of laughing at people who don’t know key Bible stories.  In a March 2007 segment of “Jay Walking,” he invites us to laugh along him at the young woman who thinks that Jesus helped build Noah’s ark, that Cain and Abel were friends of Jesus, and that there are 12 commandments.  Her claim that Jesus lived 250 million years ago competes for smirks with the guy who suggests the much smaller figure of 400 years.

I wonder where this assumed biblical literacy will come from in the future, as fewer people join religious institutions and fewer within religious institutions systematically study the Bible.  Every year that I teach, I face fewer seminary students who know the basic narratives of the Bible. Paradoxically, students are coming with stronger beliefs about what the Bible is while they know less and less about what it actually contains.

It’s my conviction that the Bible can and should be read within religious institutions and outside of them.  That its value goes beyond its support of creeds and its cultural refences.  Of course, reading the Bible helps you “get” movies, U2 lyrics, and Southpark references. But it can do a lot more than that.  It can be the kind of rich and nuanced reading in which people can lose– and find–themselves.  That’s where I find my interests currently headed:  in helping people interact with the Bible in deeper and more meaningful ways.



5 Responses to Jack Black, Year One, and Biblical Literacy

  • You’ve raised some interesting questions in my mind with this post:

    Someone in Hollywood still believes that to be American is to be Christian. Is this one way of saying, “if you don’t get our jokes, you’re not one of us?”

    Should I be looking forward to the day when Hollywood makes a similar movie about the Qur’an with jokes I won’t get because I’m only too familiar with Christian writings?

    I guess I’m also concerned about what this movie says about where our society is at (or isn’t) on including other faiths in the religious conversation. Thanks for picking this up.

  • I wonder if “they” really assume America is Christian (or Jewish), or if they assume the stories have made their way into broader culture. There is some truth in seeing the stories as cultural vocabulary–most people know the basics of Adam and Eve, along with classic episodes of TV shows. I agree that the stories that have made it into popular culture have been primarily from the Christian Bible–and that true religious literacy requires knowledge of classic stories in multiple traditions. What would have to happen, though, for Quranic stories to be accepted as appropriate fodder for comedy? Would a culture have to become culturally Islamic but not religiously so?

  • I’m not sure what would have to happen for Quranic stories to be fodder for American comedy. But the American dream for religious diversity should strive toward that day. [Though I’m certain there are many who would take offense at the notion.]

    I know that I would be embarrassed by my ignorance if Jay Leno caught me on the streets of L.A. and asked me ‘common knowledge’ questions about the Qur’an. And that most people watching wouldn’t find it funny is my point.

    It doesn’t seem hospitable to our Islamic immigrant sisters and brothers to continue to perpetuate the “of course all Americans should know that” attitude. Or should we assume Islamic (or Hindu, or Buddhist, etc.) immigrants ought to (want to) become biblically literate?

    I guess if I emigrated to Iraq I would want to become literate in classic Islamic literature. But the United States hopes to welcome religious diversity. I’m (very much) for biblical literacy, but I push back against “cultural messages” that blur the line between “Americanization” and “Christianization.” I think Jay-Walking and movies like Black’s demonstrate that Americans are a people who aim to welcome the world’s “huddled masses” yet send unintentional messages to newcomers that they need to adapt themselves to prevailing patterns within our existing culture.

    Is the decline of biblical literacy the cultural crisis it is made out to be in light of immigration?

  • These are good, important questions. Does advancing the cause of biblical literacy serve to reinforce the privilege these texts have enjoyed in U.S. culture? Is there a way to share the stories with people outside the church without insisting that they are the only stories that matter? I don’t know that I see biblical illiteracy as a crisis. I do believe these texts have something to offer and I find it equally sad when (1) they aren’t read at all, and (2) they are read in ways that choke the life out of them.

  • Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy by Barry Taylor covers this idea of pop-culture using the bible to convey spiritual means. like that of the short-lived “Kings” series, and the Matrix, Truman Show, Fight Club, and Sixth Sense, all having references to the bible and Christian philosophy. as we move into the post-modern era and all that means, things will get even more fluid. but i think it’s one thing to get the reference, it’s another to understand it and see if the artist used it with something other than a surface knowledge.

    great post! that movie looks like stupid fun.

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