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17 Surprising Influences on Bible Art & Adaptation (Part 3)

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

This is the third and final part of my exploration of influences on Bible art and adaptation. Whereas as the first part looked at the influence of History and the second part looked at the Bible Artist(s)’ contribution, this segment looks at economic and social factors in the contemporary context in which the Bible artist works.

12) The Market

There’s a romantic notion that art should be made for arts sake. In reality, most art is made in response to a market, a perceived need or demand, and this is true for Bible Art as well. It’s not a coincidence that the releases of Bible movies are often clustered together. Some may object that only Bible Art produced on account of greed will follow this model, and that true Bible arts will only create in response to personal inspiration. In reality, whether in the Renaissance era or Modern times, most Bible artists have created in response to a demand, and this doesn’t negate their personal inspiration. Inspiration occurs when we perceive a need in the world (i.e. a market) and we create in response to that need. Creating to serve the needs of the market isn’t greedy; on the contrary it is far more empathetic and caring than creating solely as a means of self-expression.

Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • What was there a demand for at the time when this Bible adaptation was created? How is this adaptation meeting that demand?

13) Expectations of Supporters

Unless a Bible artist is independently wealthy and able to support and fund his own work, the Bible Art he creates will inevitably reflect the expectations of the web of supporters on whom he depends and to whom he is accountable. Where the support comes from will depend on the era – it might be a handful of wealthy patrons, the Church, government funding, mass-market consumers, or crowd-funding. Regardless of who they are, these supporters will have agendas and preferences that will affect who they fund, and few artists will be able to avoid shaping their Bible Art so as to garner new supporters or please current ones. We can talk dismissively of how big budget Bible films include sex and violence to please the taste and values of mass audiences (their source of support), but Bible Art created for the Church, government, elite art patrons, or hipster crowd-funding is just as likely to bend toward the tastes of those support networks.

Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • Who supported the creation of this adaptation?

  • In what ways does this adaptation conform to (or challenge) the expectations and tastes of its supporters?

14) Competing Bible Art

It’s okay for new Bible Art to resemble previous Bible Art as long as those adaptations are either in a different genre or have been lost as a result of cultural amnesia. But when two adaptations of the same story are made in the same genre at roughly the same time period, the demands of the market will require those adaptations to differentiate from one another. Simply put, if there isn’t a big difference between two adaptations, there’s no reason for audiences to view both of them, and so either one will succeed (and the other fail) or both will receive a mediocre response.

Because the life of Jesus is the most popular subject matter for Bible Art, competition is often a factor that Bible movies about Jesus have to deal with. The Passion of the Christ, The Son of God, and The Visual Bible: the Gospel of John are a good case study in how Bible movies need a distinguishing. The Passion distinguished itself from prior Jesus films with its focus on the crucifixion, the R-rated gore, and all Aramaic dialogue. The Son of God took a more optimistic and family-friendly approach and included scenes from all of Jesus’ life. John, meanwhile, followed an ultra-literal adaptation philosophy, including the entire Gospel word-for-word, without any omissions.

Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • Did this Bible adaptation need to differentiate itself from other adaptations of the same story? If so, what made this adaptation unique?

15) The Audience’s Biblical Literacy & Ability

Until relatively recently, Bible artists could assume that most people were relatively familiar with the stories that they adapted. An educated audience could reconstruct an entire biblical story based on only a couple scenes or draw complex symbolic conclusions on the basis of only slight gestures. Now, however, with precipitous declines in biblical literacy, even among Christians, Bible artists can’t trust popular audiences in the same way; this means their adaptations will either prove more niche or they need to fill in more of the gaps. Alternatively, for artists seeking to subvert their biblical sources, this degree of illiteracy may allow them to play more fast and loose.

Audiences differ not only from era to era but also from life stage to life stage. Bible Art made for children, who have much more limited emotional and interpretative capacities, will tend to be more straightforward and less intense than adaptations created for adult audiences. Too often Bible-literate adults will lambast children’s Bibles for over-simplifying stories, failing to appreciate the challenge of meeting children where they are at. Even among adults, Bible artists have to make choices regarding whether they will aim for a more sophisticated and cultured population or a broader audience that may not be as versed in the subtleties of the medium or genre. This will affect how much simplification needs to take place, the complexity of themes and plot devices, and also the types of appeals that are fronted in the adaptation.

Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • How well did the audience of this Bible adaptation know the original story? How much knowledge (or ignorance) does the Bible artist assume and what does this allow him to do?

  • What capacities did the audience of this Bible adaptation have or not have? How is the Bible artist adjusting the story to the abilities of his audience?

16) The Venue or Distribution Method

Bible Art does not exist in a void. It must be produced, housed, and/or transmitted in particular spaces, whether physical or virtual. Consider what a difference it makes whether a Bible drama is meant to be performed in a playhouse or on a church stage, whether a Bible painting will hang in a family home or as an altarpiece, or whether a Bible movie is meant for theatrical release or immediate distribution via PureFlix. The venue can limit or enable a variety of artistic or dramatic techniques, in addition to contextualizing the meaning and purpose of an adaptation, and framing the way that the audience can or should respond. To take a recent example, binge-watching ten hours of content was virtually unthinkable when viewing was tied to a particular location (i.e. a movie theater) and time (i.e. a movie or TV schedule), but the advent of a new distribution venue (Netflix) that allowed content to be accessed anywhere, anytime, and without commercials created a whole new way for long-form storytelling to be experienced.

Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • How is the adaptation of the biblical story shaped by the limitations and potential of its venue and/or distribution method?

17) Politics

Since the time of Constantine, western Bible artists have generally been able to create adaptations without the fear of intrusion or punishment. When Bible artists work in a politically hostile environment, however, a unique form of creativity is required. As in the Book of Revelation, messages and themes need to be presented and hidden in the very same gesture. For example, when Jesus is represented as the good shepherd who cares for his sheep, this message is simultaneously hidden because Jesus is depicted using the traditional iconography of Hermes. Non-Christians could therefore view the art without recognizing (and punishing) the underlying Christian symbolism. Even in cultures where Christianity or Judaism are established, Bible art can still be perceived as politically subversive or, conversely, can be utilized to justify a particular political order or ruler.

Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • How openly is the Bible artist able to communicate his message due to his political and social environment?

  • In what ways does this Bible adaptation subvert and/or justify the reigning political order or ruler?