And I Am One of Them (Adapting Genesis 12-50)

Tents. Camels. Multiple wives. Concubines. Slaves. It's easy to parade the story of Abraham and his descendants as a textbook example of how outdated and irrelevant the Bible is. By the time of the New Testament, the socio-cultural world of the Jewish people had already become quite distant from that of their ancestor, and how much more so is the post-industrial, post-MeToo, socially-conscious world of today. Or is it?


Relatable or Related? The Relevance of Abraham

Many contemporary people assume that the relevance of a story lies in the degree to which it reflects on the social, political, and economic realities of its viewers. As a result, contemporary historical films tend to suggest too many points of analogy between narratives from the past and the realities of the present. Aspects of historical life that are of little interest to broader modern audiences (e.g. religion or tradition) are minimized, while aspects of modern life that were of much less interest to people of past eras (e.g. expressive individualism or gender egalitarianism) get imported or exaggerated. This makes for characters and situations that are easily "relatable" but not very accurate.

Consider how different an experience it would be to rummage through the attic in your grandparents' house and come upon an artifact created by your great-grandfather. Even if it isn't of inherent artistic value, even if it's a note he scribbled in a handwriting that's nearly illegible, you'd be drawn to it out of a sense of personal connection. Whatever you can discover is a part of your origin, your story, and that makes it relevant in a unique way.

But situations don't need to be "relatable" in order to be relevant. On the contrary, the secret to the perennial significance of the biblical stories has always consisted in genealogy. The reason God's people care about what happened to Abraham is that they consider themselves to be Abraham's descendants. Regardless of whether they are biological descendants (the Jews) or "spiritual" descendants (Gentile Christians), the people of God look on Abraham's story with the same interest with which we look upon the stories of great-grandparents. The situations may not "relatable" in a modern sense, but they are related to us and our origin in a very real way.


The idea that biblical narratives compose a kind of origin story for God's people today is often lost in the process of adaptation. More often, the big picture of biblical history is lost and each individual narrative is treated as a kind of a-historical parable of timeless spiritual truths. Some strands of modern preaching and teaching may be at fault for promoting this method of interpretation. But there's probably another factor involved: the venues and distribution methods that lie behind biblical adaptations.

A movie theater is not a synagogue or a church. It evokes its own unique set of expectations and these (often unconsciously) color how we perceive the films that it presents us. Generally, we expect an experience that is either entertaining or emotionally moving, and this leads us to perceive and evaluate the films that we watch with a consumeristic mindset. We don't expect to be confronted with anything personally connected to us and this means that films have to rely on "relatability" to draw in our interest and attention.


Consider how different an experience it would be to rummage through the attic in your grandparents' house and come upon an artifact created by your great-grandfather. Even if it isn't of inherent artistic value, even if it's a note he scribbled in a handwriting that's nearly illegible, you'd be drawn to it out of a sense of personal connection. Whatever you can discover is a part of your origin, your story, and that makes it relevant in a unique way.


Creating a Relational Connection to Abraham

Obviously, Bible Artists aren't going to be able to recreate the exact same kind of experience that we have when rummaging through the artifacts in our grandparents' attic. Nor am I suggesting that adaptations of Genesis should only be presented in houses of worship in order to avoid the consumeristic associations of movie theaters. But there are techniques that Bible Artists can use to reframe the associations of viewers and encourage them to relate to the stories of Abraham from a different perspective. I'll list a few below:

  • Modern Frame: There's definitely a danger that this could come off hokey, but there may be ways to introduce Abraham's story and the idea of his genealogical connection to either Jews or the Church through a frame story in the present. If the Church is the audience, I imagine it would help to involve multiple ethnicities in order to invoke how Abraham was the father of many nations. It would be important though for the modern story to not feel too on-the-nose, a fault in many Christian films.

  • Biblical Frame: Even if Abraham's story is being told in a frame story that is itself distant from today (e.g. the Exodus or in the time of Jesus or Paul), the presence of multiple narrative layers could be used to suggest the idea of perennial relevance due to the connection between Abraham and his descendants.

  • Prophetic Flash-Forward: At different points, God gives Abraham prophetic knowledge of the future. To demonstrate the contemporary relevance of some of God's promises with regard to Abraham being the father of many nations, Abraham could have a brief visionary experience in which we see the faces of the many peoples, ancient and modern, who find their origin (biologically or spiritually) in him.

Have other suggestions? Feel free to Tweet them to me @TheBibleArtist on Twitter.

10 views0 comments