The Mightiest Stories Ever Told

How Cinema Was the Future of Religious Education

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published March 04, 2009, issue of March 13, 2009.
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On or about March 13, 1929, readers of The New York Times were informed that Noah’s Ark had taken Broadway by storm. Those who had not yet had their morning coffee must have taken the news quite literally, especially since it was accompanied by a two-page spread that featured an enormous boat washed up amid the apartment buildings of midtown Manhattan. But a closer look at the Times story revealed a different reality. It wasn’t that of an authentic meteorological disaster or a freak accident, but the stuff of a no-holds-barred advertisement for a Warner Bros. Vitaphone Talking Picture version of the biblical tale, which had just opened at the Winter Garden Theater. The film’s promoters, promising “thrill after thrill — climax after climax — that outreach (sic) human imagination,” sought to catch the public’s attention by any visual and linguistic means possible. They succeeded: “Noah’s Ark” became a huge hit.

No False Modesty Here: Perhaps more important than this film’s religious message is the introduction of Paul Newman.
No False Modesty Here: Perhaps more important than this film’s religious message is the introduction of Paul Newman.

You can see the advertisement for that film, along with dozens of other equally arresting film posters and a clutch of costumes, at the Museum of Biblical Art (or MOBIA, as it calls itself). Located in New York, the museum is currently home to an exhibition titled Reel Religion: A Century of the Bible and Film. Spanning Western Europe, as well as the United States, and moving from the early years of the motion picture business on through the 1960s, Reel Religion showcases posters that once sung the praises of filmed Passion Plays, Los Diez Mandamientos (The Ten Commandments), King of Kings, Ben Hur, Samson and Delilah, The Story of Ruth and a host of other films that infused tales from the Old and New Testaments with sex, violence, mayhem, heroism and all manner of special effects. As the exhibition makes vibrantly clear, the point of lavish advertising campaigns, with their “eye-smiting colors” and overheated language, was not to encourage people to re-engage with their Bibles, but to get them into the movie theaters. From that perspective, film posters were just as critical to the success of any given film as that film’s actors, sets, script and pyrotechnics.

At a time, earlier in the 20th century, when movie-going had not yet become an established cultural practice, and the notion of rendering the sacred as celluloid raised more than its fair share of eyebrows, the film industry and its champions had to work overtime to convince the public that the motion picture enhanced rather than detracted from the biblical narrative. “Satan has a new enemy,” provocatively declared Motography, one of several publications devoted to the film industry, referring in 1911 to the growing popularity of “flickering films” with a religious theme, such as “The Life of Moses,” a 1909 five-reeler that had audiences cheering. “The moving picture machine has become a great preacher and its sermons are most effective because they are addressed to the eye rather than to the ear.” A few thousand feet of film does far more good than the boom of the organ or the tint of stained-glass windows, Motography insisted, hoping to lay to rest, once and for, all the concerns of doubting Thomases everywhere about the value of moving pictures.

The American Hebrew, for its part, also forcefully touted the virtues of the movies, devoting one issue each year throughout the 1920s entirely to the silver screen. With so many co-religionists involved in this embryonic industry, how could it not? More to the point, the Jewish weekly, much like Motography, discerned in films a force for good, not just a means of gainful employment or, for that matter, a source of mindless entertainment. Heralding the movie theater as a “community institution, like the school or the church,” it both cataloged and celebrated the many ways in which the motion picture introduced audiences to high-minded ideals, contributed to viewers’ musical education, expanded their horizons and “gave spice to the dryness of religious education.”

When it came to making the case that faith and film went hand in hand, Cecil B. DeMille, that “Hollywood Zeus,” as The New Yorker once dubbed him, took the lead. Not only did he devote much of his career to translating the Bible, especially the Old Testament, into film — it was DeMille who directed not one but two extravagant, eye-popping films about the Ten Commandments — but he also extolled the motion picture as the most efficient and effective medium of religious instruction. In articles such as “The Screen as a Religious Teacher,” published in Theatre magazine in 1927, the Hollywood director insisted that film, and film alone, was capable of conveying essential religious truths, of stirring a sense of the sacred and, above all, of educating American youngsters in the “essential factors of history, geography and other literary studies…. Bible pictures will enable the boys and girls to get the outlines of the Old and New Testament stories in [the] briefest time with the greatest pleasure and with the utmost reverence for the subjects and the arousing of the religious emotions.” All that while sitting in a darkened movie theater for a couple of hours!

Filmmakers like DeMille were not so much concerned with literalizing the Bible as they were with bringing it to life for contemporary audiences. Pressing movie magic into service, they drew on all the razzmatazz at their disposal to underscore the sheer visual power, much less the continued hold, of the ancient text on the modern American imagination: Hundreds of chariots and their mighty steeds dashed across the screen in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites; the Red Sea was miraculously parted through the creative deployment of gelatin, while the Ten Commandments were hurled down from the sky, accompanied by shimmering rays of light.

Earlier generations of Americans had made use of illustrated Bibles and pressed flowers from the Holy Land to further their understanding of biblical phenomena; modern America looked to the movies. But it wasn’t knowledge so much as spectacle that lifted America’s spirits and took its collective breath away. As a critic from The Wall Street Journal observed of “Noah’s Ark,” the “destruction by water, wind and lightning… is not more impressive for its illusion than for the fact that it is accomplished with a lense (sic), a megaphone and a laboratory. It is for the illusion, however, that men and women will go to the Winter Garden.”

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