USIH on Biblical Epics

Mark Edwards

Recently, the bloggers over at U. S. Intellectual History ran a series of essays on the meaning and impact of biblical epic films.  For those of you who missed their posts, I offer this brief recap.  First, Ben Alpers opened the conversation by making a case for biblical epics as proper subject matter for intellectual historians.  Andrew Hartman then offered reflections on the gendered aspects of biblical epics, including The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as a "biblical anti-epic."  Hartman's post is also a sneak peek into his forthcoming history of the culture wars, A War for the Soul of America  (Chicago, May 2015).  Tim Lacy asks to what extent Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ (2004) could be considered "Christian torture porn" (a Saw for the sacred).  Andrew Seal then considers the film Exodus (1960) as part of a larger "mediterranean genre."  Here's a selection from this fascinating essay:

The mediterranean genre, I’d argue, was a way for Americans—Jews and Christians alike—to swing from an interwar geography that emphasized the U.S.’s ethnic and cultural roots and affinities with Northern and Central Europe to a postwar geography that played up the nation’s temporally deeper roots in the Mediterranean world as part of a common and even primeval civilizational heritage. . . . Exodus is not just about Israel or even just about the US and Israel. It is really part of an enormous and unrecognized cultural pivot to the culture of the Mediterranean after the Second World War, a desire for a common cultural heritage that would solidify and perpetuate the tentative steps toward “Tri-Faith America” and the “Judeo-Christian tradition” that had been taken before World War II. Exodus, like Spartacus or Ben-Hur, was about renewing “Western Civilization” as a more “Southern Civ”—as a combination of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, and an excision of Berlin and its satellites, which for Uris included London.

L. D. Burnett then reviews Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings.  SPOILER ALERT: "dudes and dirt."  Personally, it seems that the recent "revival" of the biblical epic (if two films could be considered a revival) represents more Hollywood's effort to capitalize on Americans' endless desire to spend money on the same old CGI-based mother of all battles than it does renewed mainstream interest in old testament narratives.  What do others think?

PS  Happy 65th, Mom!!


Tom Van Dyke at: December 23, 2014 at 1:45 AM said...

What do others think?

Regretfully, unlike RIAH, the USIH-blog limits access to its comments section so discussion takes place only between approved parameters.

[Did you see what they did to Bill Fine? Heinous.]

In reply, Mark, what I think is that

“Tri-Faith America” and the “Judeo-Christian tradition” that had been taken before World War II. Exodus, like Spartacus or Ben-Hur, was about renewing “Western Civilization” as a more “Southern Civ”

has too damn many "scare quotes" to be comprehensible.

The real debate should be whether Hollywood's "religious" movies matter atall.

My vote is no, since they're theologically bullshit anyway.

I liked "The Cardinal" with Tom Tryon though, where he explained to the Jewish guy Benny why the Catholic Church insisted that the kids be raised Catholic because it was the True Faith. I was only 8 or 10 when they showed it on TV but it sounded logical.

I don't recall any other movie that made a Judeo/Christian doctrinal argument coherently, but maybe the scholars at the United States Intellectual History blog can come up with one.

Good post, Mark, and it's a great mom who actually reads one's blogging! Cheers, Ma!

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