Reading Religious Texts as a “Cinematic Universe”

By Jake Doberenz

Cinematic universes are becoming more and more a part of our movie watching experience. Vast movie series sharing storylines, characters, and whole mythological worlds are the latest cash grab storytelling tactic to hit the big screens. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, clearly the most famous cinematic universe in existence right now, has a whopping 23 films in the shared universe, with potentially unlimited more films to come. Warner Bros. has constructed a cinematic universe for DC Comics characters, the Harry Potter franchise, and (with Legendary Entertainment) is adding to their MonsterVerse. Star Wars is its own expanding universe with a “Star Wars Story” here and there along with a Disney+ show. But cinematic universes technically extend way back to the 1920s to 1950s with Universal Classic Monster movies which shared universe that featured characters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Mummy.

Maybe you are tired of cinematic universes. Certainly, it becomes a lot of work to have to watch all the other movies just to understand the latest one. Around the release of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame there existed a storm of debate on what movies were “essential” to watch before going into the films. However, many fans were content with marathoning every Marvel movie to date leading up to the thrilling and traumatic conclusion of the longest story ever shown on film. One side wanted to watch these Avengers movies like they were a simply “sequel,” while this other side recognized these Avengers movies could not be divorced from the whole world that had been established prior.

Movies in a cinematic universe are high-context experiences. Properly watching these movies means you should know what comes before, you should be aware of the cultural milieu, and you should understand the background and context.  Sure, you can watch Avengers: Endgame without having ever seen a Marvel movie. But you aren’t going to fully experience the movie as it was made to be experienced. You aren’t going to gasp with glee when Cap grabs Mjolnir because you don’t have that emotional connection, not an understanding of exactly how Mjolnir works. You need the context.

The Universe of Religious Texts

The same is the case with religious texts. We need the context and we probably need to brush up on older texts in the tradition to understand what’s going on. The Bible is a great example of this. It is a single book made up of many books. Those books are roughly divided into two categories—the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) and Christian Scriptures (“New Testament”). Perhaps it is helpful to think of these in the cinematic terms of “Phase 1” and “Phase 2” (at least from a Christian perspective). But this shared universe is incredibly intertextual.  The authors of the New Testament make some 300-odd references to books in the Hebrew canon—and those are just the explicit references. For instance, to understand what Jesus is doing the week he is killed, you need to flip your Bible back toward the beginning to Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy to figure out how the Passover got started and how it works.

Yet according to other religious traditions, the last book of the Bible is not the last text in the “cinematic universe.” Mormons have additional texts that constitute an additional “testament,” which presumes knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. Islam recognizes some of the information in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and the four Gospels in their religion—their texts interact with both Hebrew and Christian traditions. Even mainstream Christians incorporate other resources that presume knowledge of Christian texts, such as liturgies, prayer books, deuterocanonical books or manuals of discipline.

All this means that to be a good reader of one religious text, it requires an awareness of all sorts of other work for background knowledge. Now, scholars know this. That’s how they operate. But the modern world tends to silo information. Reading the Bible on your phone, for instance, means you can jump right to Jeremiah 29:11. Unfortunately, you also key into that verse and can miss the wider literary context that the verse sits in. That Bible app also might mean you missed the several books that chronicle how Israel got exiled to Babylon, which is the situation in this part of text. Anytime we pick out a verse and say “this means this” or “this represents what this religion believes,” we have neglected to watch the previous movies in the cinematic universe—we actually didn’t even watch the whole movie that the verse took place in!

For non-scholars approaching religious texts, one of the easiest things you can do is converse with the universe of the text. Read the previous canonical texts in the literary universe. To understand why Captain America grabbing Mjolnir made the theater audience squeal with joy, you need to first watch the Thor movies. You need to remember that moment in Age of Ultron where Cap just wiggled Thor’s hammer when no one else could budge it a bit. You probably need to watch Cap’s movies too, so you know what kind of guy he is. In other words, read the Old Testament to understand the cast, setting and worldview before you start into the New.

Consider also reading outside a given religious canon. For movies, this might look like going to the comics, lore, or the books. I first watched the Harry Potter movies with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, before I ever read the books. I know, I’m a sinner. But several times in the movies she had to explain why some weird deus ex machina magic saved the day or about some character who popped in randomly. She would say “in the book it explains…” She had the extra context I did not, even though we watched the same movies. Similarly, in the Christian book of Jude, verses 12-15, the author alludes to the Book of Enoch, an allusion rarely noticed on a casual reading. The Book of Enoch, a Jewish book written in a language called Ge’ez, is not in most Christian Bibles, though it is included as a canonical text for Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Enoch will also help you understand what’s going on in that Noah movie with Russel Crowe. Besides Enoch, many books considered “deuterocanonical” (second-level canonical, not quite as “inspired” as the rest) are helpful reads to understanding what happened when production halted on the Bible cinematic universe between the two testaments.

Finally, some level of familiarity with life in the time of a religious text is greatly beneficial. If people are still watching Marvel movies in 100 years, some of the humorous pop culture references Tony Stark makes will be lost on people. And the movies that Tom Holland’s Peter Parker says are “really old movies” such as Star Wars might even move out of the cultural spotlight—unless Disney is still releasing new Star Wars movies then, which is a real possibility. So for any ancient texts, it’s too presumptuous to assume we know what they are talking about. When a writer like Paul in the New Testament uses words like “grace” or “honor” these are loaded terms in that world that the audience would see differently than we might today. Might be worthwhile to crack out a volume about the time period the religious text was written during.

While I’m not suggesting that Leviticus is comparable to a blockbuster film (please don’t make this a movie, Hollywood), good religious reading recognizes that texts take place in a “cinematic universe.” If anyone wants to be a good reader of religious works, they need to dive into the previous works that inform other texts and to learn about the culture in order to get the “pop culture references” you miss when you read the texts a couple thousand years later. It takes a bit of time, but it’s a project that even the average person can do to converse with the world of a given text.

(For a fun song about cinematic universes, listen to Megathruster’s “Interconnected Cinematic Universe”).

Jake Doberenz is a graduate student in the Master of Theological Studies program at Oklahoma Christian University. In addition to being an early career theologian, he works as a minister in a local church and blogs at www.jakedoberenz.com. Recently, he founded a Christian entertainment and education company called Theophany Media, which produces podcasts and plays.

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