Reading The Bible Is Like Watching Foreign Cinema
I saw a tweet recently that said “contrary to what people on twitter will tell you, watching 1960s latvian arthouse films or whatever doesn’t make u a better, smarter or more interesting person. in fact, it usually just means you’re extra annoying]. watch whatever u like. the fast and the furious is perfectly fine.”
For whatever reason, this tweet got under my skin. What’s wrong with movies made in the country of Latvia? My wife is from Czech Republic; is it “annoying” to watch movies from there, too? And how do you define arthouse, anyway? Something made for less than $200 million?
Is my barrage of questions for this innocuous tweet an extreme reaction? Sure, maybe. But the more you think about a declaration of pretentiousness and elitism against the entire filmography of the country of Latvia, the more extreme it feels. At best, it’s artistically close-minded and ignorant; at worst, it’s downright ethnocentric.
All of this is part of a broader trend of anti-intellectualism, especially in spaces like TikTok, where there’s been an ongoing meme about “pretentious cinephiles” supposedly becoming enraged when you tell them you’d rather watch a Marvel movie than “a 2 hour movie about the Serbian government shown through the eyes of a pigeon,” or “some 40s Italian film about the loss of a man’s bike in the midst of poverty,” or “a Croatian film about a man’s divorce process with his wife.” These are all direct quotes from viral TikToks in the last year.
Ignoring the fact that all of those movies sound like total bangers, there’s an even more pressing fact to acknowledge: contrary to the claims of the tweet from earlier, watching foreign cinema can make you a smarter and more interesting person. At least, it certainly makes you more well-rounded and thoughtful. Sure, for the odd self-righteous nerd here and there, a little taste of obscure art can make them feel enlightened and above their “normie” friends who still only watch films made in America. But for the vast majority of people who truly broaden their horizons, watching foreign cinema has the opposite effect; it makes you feel humbler, less knowledgeable, more curious about the areas of cinema and art that you don’t know and haven’t explored. There could be something amazing lurking around every corner if you’re willing to put aside your preconceived notions, “overcome the one inch barrier of subtitles,” and see the world with fresh eyes.
This is all prelude to what I actually wanted to talk about: the way that foreign cinema can train and prepare us to understand and interpret The Bible, or any other ancient text. Does that feel unrelated in a vacuum? Sure. But if you know me, you know I’m all about connecting unrelated things.
It all started when I was (once again) rewatching RRR this month with some new friends. RRR is an amazing movie, and part of its amazingness arises because it is equal parts specific and universal, culturally particular yet wildly accessible.
There’s a scene at the end of the movie, though, when that accessibility might start to wane for American audiences: the film ends with a lengthy musical sequence as the stars dance together in front of massive portraits of seemingly-random Indian people in the background, none of whom are characters we’ve seen. Shortly after, another grey-bearded Indian man (who hasn’t appeared in the rest of the film) shows up onscreen to much fanfare and starts to dance with our characters, too.
In order to view things with new eyes, sometimes we need to allow ourselves first to simply be re-enchanted again. Houston Coley
It’s only after some gaining further context that Westerners can piece together what’s going on: the portraits are well-known Indian revolutionaries being honored for their sacrifice. The bearded man is the director of the film, SS Rajamouli, a huge star and beloved storyteller in India’s cinema landscape. The musical sequence is a celebration of the film, but also a celebration of Indian independence. Suddenly, it all clicks into place.
RRR is an accessible movie, but there are still a good amount of little moments that are likely to confuse American audiences—especially when something happens that is clearly significant but we don’t quite understand why. When Bheem puts on a white “kufi” prayer cap on his head before going into Delhi, I usually whisper to the person watching with me that it’s important to know he’s going undercover as a Muslim. If you don’t pick up on this detail, the movie still works just fine—but if you know it beforehand, you’ll really understand the big twist on display when Ram sees Bheem bowing to the statue of a Hindu god, revealing that he’s not who he thought he was. I didn’t pick up on that detail during the first viewing. Many repeated watches (and subsequent research) made it click.
I don’t say all of this to brag about my oh-so-cultured understanding of Indian cinema, because to be honest, I’m still just trying to watch through SS Rajamouli’s filmography before even branching out into anything else. I’m a total newbie. Rajamouli’s movies aren’t even remotely the most layered or complex stories I could be watching, either. But they’re still stories from another culture, and that means there will be significant beats and symbols and undercurrents that fly completely below any Westerner’s radar on an initial viewing.
My argument is this: humility and curiosity fueling our search for meaning and context and significance in an alien storytelling landscape is a very healthy feeling to experience. And it’s also what reading The Bible should be like.
During my time at L’Abri in England back in 2020, one of the dilemmas that was most plaguing my mind was why, if The Bible was indeed some kind of transcendent book, the so-called divine author would have made it so difficult and complex to understand. If The Bible is from God, why did he make it so capable of different interpretations? Why did he make it so dense and historical? Why did he choose to root it in the particular culture of Ancient Israel? Why are there still so many things about it that I feel like I need to study and re-read to grasp, or other things that feel like they completely contradict each other?
I posed these questions to a friend of mine at a lunch discussion during that term at L’Abri. He didn’t answer me right away.
Around that same time, in the spring of 2020, I was still just getting off the high of seeing Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite in theaters eight times and recommending it to anyone who would listen, including everyone at L’Abri. Parasite was one of the first true experiences with foreign cinema I’d had in a packed theater, and I kept going back because it felt like there were still so many layers to unpack—layers to the social commentary, layers to the visual language and symbols, and layers to the cultural specificity that were foreign and overwhelming to me in all the best ways.
My friend didn’t respond to my question about the overwhelming complexity of the Bible that day. A few days later, though, we were cooking a meal together and he brought it up again.
“I was thinking about your question about The Bible from last week. Do you think Parasite would have been a better movie if it was less complex? Would you have seen it eight times if it was simple to understand?”
That question totally changed my outlook on studying The Bible.
Suddenly, the heavy layers of culture and ancient history and literature—layers that had once felt like an obstacle to understanding the Bible—were reframed to become the very things that made it so special. Like Parasite, maybe I needed to go back and see it again—but probably more than eight times. It might take a lifetime. And maybe that was what made it so divine and mysterious and inexhaustible.
There’s an author named John Walton who wrote a book called The Lost World of Genesis One. In the book, he tries to take back the “strangeness” of the first chapter of Genesis and remind the reader of how many modern suppositions we have about science, story, planet earth, and reality that were not shared by the original audience of Genesis. It’s called The Lost World because the world of Genesis 1 should seem truly foreign and alien to us—until we remove the baggage and assumptions and questions we’ve gleaned from post-enlightenment modernity and enter the story again through fresh eyes.
These days, I think it’s pretty fascinating that God chose to communicate (if you believe that sort of thing) through the extremely specific culture of Ancient Israel during an extremely specific time in ancient history—and I’ve lost all interest in trying to divorce it from that context or try to make it somehow speak directly to my situation. Maybe the very nature of understanding a foreign culture (to better understand God in turn) is part of the heart posture we were meant to develop toward this text all along: abandoning our pride, abandoning our assumptions, and trying our best to “incarnate” our eyes and ears in a different context. John Walton said, “The Bible’s message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism. Its message transcends the culture in which it originated, but the form in which the message was imbedded was fully permeated by the ancient culture.”
In order to view things with new eyes, sometimes we need to allow ourselves first to simply be re-enchanted again. That’s why CS Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia: to steal past the prim-and-proper terminologies of religion and get at people’s hearts with a story that hit the same beats as the Bible—but to do so without the baggage.
This is going to sound like a contradiction to the intense study and humble understanding that I described moments ago, but I promise it’s just as necessary: I re-read the entire Tanakh (also known as the Old Testament) last summer, and one of most significant things during that process was a reframing of my mindset; rather than pausing at every individual instance of confusion to try and understand the ethics of a story, the science of a story, or the reliability of a story, I tried to take everything I read at face value and divorce myself from analysis, at least at first. I trained my brain to react to every piece of insane information with the same phrase: “Woah, dude! That’s WILD.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a furnace and somehow survived unscathed because of a mysterious figure in the fire with them. “Woah, dude! That’s WILD.” Saul went to find somebody called The Witch of Endor to try and get advice from the spirit of the prophet Samuel? “Woah, dude! That’s WILD.” Samson tied a bunch of foxes together by their tails and set them on fire to destroy a field of crops? “Woah, dude! That’s WILD.” God parted the entire Red Sea for the Israelites to escape on dry land? “Woah, dude! That’s WILD.”
As I’ve eluded earlier, I don’t think this approach is the only step to reading The Bible; you have to dive into it with a more analytical eye at some point, too, and there can be a danger (especially for protestants) of taking everything at face value and assuming that we can “get it” without any additional expertise or wisdom beyond our own. But just as RRR is capable of first being viewed as a story with some confusing points of a foreign culture that can be unpacked with repeated viewings, I do think it’s important to experience something before you understand it. When something seems significant and you’re not sure why, it’s all the better to try and figure out what the original audience would have made of it. When something seems to contradict itself, it’s worth asking questions rather than writing it off.
One of my favorite authors, Rachel Held Evans, said in her book Inspired that reading The Bible is often “not just about knowing what is true; it’s about knowing when it’s true.” This is something that can only be discovered through repeated immersion. More study. More context. More pondering. More discernment. More life experience. More fresh eyes.
Recently, I’ve come to more deeply understand the great importance that oral, communal storytelling (and questioning, imagining, and re-enacting) would have played in ancient Hebrew culture, in a way that makes our one-on-one intellectual “quiet time” study of The Bible feel quite individualized by comparison. That’s an interesting point on its own merits, but it’s also something that I’ve only come to understand as I’ve continued to grow, read, listen, and learn about another culture.
John Walton said this:
“Given God’s decision to communicate, he had to choose one language and culture to communicate to, which means that every other language and culture has their work cut out for them. As readers from a different language and culture, we have to try to penetrate the original language and culture if we are to receive the maximum benefits of God’s revelation…It is relieving to recognize that the basics of God’s revelation of himself (including his Creator role) are easily skimmed off the surface, but it is not surprising that God’s Word contains infinite depth and that it should require constant attention to study with all the tools we have available. God is not superficial, and we should expect that knowledge of him and his Word would be mined rather than simply absorbed.”
There are a lot of things about Walton’s quote that remind me of how any film fan approaches foreign cinema. Just like with RRR—or anything, really—there are things we can “easily skim off the surface” and things that must be “mined” to be fully grasped. Exercising these muscles of both humble, wide-eyed experience and thoughtful, studied analysis is a good and healthy thing to do.
And so, circling back to that tweet we read at the start: maybe to some, watching 1960s Latvian arthouse cinema will make you more annoying. But that annoyance should pale in comparison to the wisdom and discernment—and hopefully humility—gained from broadening your horizons. It’s worth it. And it might be worth it for more reasons than good movies.