Binge Watching Scripture
My daughter is being confirmed this year. Now I understand why parents always say that they don’t know where the time goes. It feels like it was just yesterday that she was baptized. Now she is claiming all those baptismal promises we made on her behalf as her own.
At our church, the confirmation program capstone is a “faith statement” that confirmands write in response to a series of questions based on what they’ve learned. Then they meet with a pastor to discuss it. This year, being both pastor and parent, I met with my daughter to talk about her faith statement (while she sipped on a chocolate chip mocha latte, of course).
One of the faith statement questions asked about how her image of God has changed between third and eighth grade. Here’s what she wrote in response:
I can barely remember third grade. But what I do remember is that I don’t think I really believed in God. I knew that I should, but I didn’t. … But then, last year, I started to watch [the TV show] “Supernatural.” It’s not a religious TV show or anything, but it does have God, angels, and demons—really everything. But whenever they talked about God, I had all these thoughts in my head—ones that I never knew that I had. Now I don’t have an image of God, he’s just there. I believe in him now, that he’s always there, always watching. Maybe he is just a hand in the clouds, maybe not. Maybe he is one of us. Maybe he does make mistakes. That’s what I now believe; in third grade I didn’t.
Now, you might expect my reaction as a pastor, or even a parent, to be disappointment that binge watching 12 seasons of “Supernatural,” which she described to me as “fan fiction about the Bible,” cemented my daughter’s faith more than her church experience and two years of confirmation classes, retreats, sermon notes, and more.
Actually, I think it’s awesome. Here’s why.
This past Lent, Martin Malzahn, chaplain at Wagner College, and I created “The OA for Lent,” a Lenten study guide based on the hit Netflix show “The OA.” We broke down each of the eight episodes’ spiritual themes, offered reflection questions, and suggested spiritual practices for use by groups or individuals.
One of the driving forces of this project was Martin’s conviction that media itself can be a form of scripture. He pointed out how the act of engaging these stories on the screen can help us to critically engage and understand our own stories. Admittedly, this took a while for me to understand. After all, I thought, it was just a TV show. However, once we had exegeted several episodes together, I finally saw the ways in which shows like “The OA” or “Supernatural” can function as not only as literature—as texts that can reveal more to us about themselves and ourselves as we spend time with them—but also as scripture, in that they can reveal something about the divine and our relationship with God. For example, for all its themes of the angels and the afterlife, “The OA” takes a profoundly incarnational approach to faith, and it has renewed my own commitment to embodied faith and finding God—and perhaps even angels—in the everyday.
Thanks to Martin, my daughter’s reflection made perfect sense, and I rejoiced rather than resenting it.
Similarly, in her wonderful new book, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, Laura Everett, the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, describes the city as a form of scripture.
She writes, “Moving through Boston by bike has shown me that the city is a sort of scripture, a holy text to read and reread, to study and memorize, to grieve, to celebrate, and, finally to make sense of the world.” In a prayer offered before the Boston City Council, she prayed,
If the city is scripture, teach us to read carefully each place we do not understand, every confusing parable, everything that seems intractable, impossible, unclear. … If the city is scripture, teach us, O God, to see all that is sacred, all that is beloved, all that is holy.
The approach Laura takes to reading the city itself as sacred text—as something capable of revealing important truths about God and our relationship with God—is not always a smooth ride. Indeed, Everett often finds God in her city’s scars. One of the challenges in thinking about media or our neighborhoods this way is that we are not in the habit of reading our own actual sacred Scriptures, the Bible, in this way either.
This is one of the themes of Rob Bell’s new book, What is the Bible? In his work, Bell tries to help people read the Bible in a more expansive way. He encourages readers to avoid Biblical literalism, which can limit, and also warns against dismissing the Bible as a fairytale. Ultimately, Bell promotes a form of literary criticism, or scripture as story, that may be familiar to some, but is made more accessible by Bell’s unique writing style.
When you’re reading the Bible, you’re always asking questions. You’re asking questions about the details of a particular passage, and then you’re asking larger questions about the passage as it relates to everything around it. What comes before it? What comes after it? Is there any action or phrase I’ve seen before? Sometimes the meaning is in the story itself, other times the meaning is found in how the story sits among a number of other stories and sometimes it’s a larger pattern that is the point. (70)
Most people, I would venture, don’t read the Bible in this way, let alone other potential forms of “scripture.” Most of the time when it comes to movies and TV, we tune in so that we can turn off. Meanwhile, cities and streets are something to be managed and endured, rather than “read” and plumbed for meaning. And the Bible? Well, it is often simply avoided altogether.
However, as Bell writes, there is more below the surface if we pay attention. I can’t tell you the number of people, for instance, that told me that they had already watched “The OA” but missed many of the most prevalent spiritual themes.
Later on in his book, Bell writes,
You dance with the Bible, but you also interrogate it. You challenge it, question it, poke it, probe it. You let it get under your skin. You let it get under your skin. We read it, and we let it read us, and then we turn the gem, again, and again, and again, seeing something new over and over and over again … (82).
We read it, and we let it read us. Scripture is always a two-way street, where we seek for God and God finds us.
That’s precisely what Supernatural did for my daughter in her faith. It’s what “The OA” did for me this Lent. And what the city of Boston has done for Laura Everett.
The holy and sacred often lurk just below the surface of our everyday lives, if we are willing to look—or binge watch, as the case may be.