Did you see mother!? It’s okay if you didn’t, neither did most of America. Besides being a box office bomb, director Darren Aronofsky’s latest received some of the worst audience responses of any movie in recent memory. Some of this is probably due to the film’s being advertised as a Rosemary’s Baby-style psychological thriller and not the Gnostic-creation-myth-as-domestic-drama it is. But much of the bafflement might have resulted from a collective failure to grasp that much of the film is an elaborate retelling of the early books of the Bible. At a recent showing, a viewer muttered to her partner, “What the heck did we just watch? It had something to do with Catholicism, right?”
Despite the high rates of religious adherence in the United States as compared to other industrialized nations and the innumerable Bibles stocking the shelves of digital and physical storefronts alike, fewer Americans are reading the Bible than at any point in history. For most non-Christians, knowledge of the Bible is acquired through osmosis. In 2004, Peter S. Hawkins recounted being shocked to learn that there “was not one undergraduate among 250 religion majors at a certain university who could name all of the Ten Commandments.” Still, he discovered while teaching a course on the Bible, that many students know biblical texts from other cultural sources, leading him to conclude that American popular cultural “remains oddly connected to the Scripture however unwittingly, indirectly, or superficially.”
If the Bible is just another cultural object—albeit an inordinately influential one—what value is there in reading it? As Aaron B. Franzen argues, even the most pious reader may still make “unexpected discoveries” when she sits down to read the Bible, since every text—even the most pervasive—can “have its own independent and potentially divergent effect[s]” on those who engage it seriously. For the secular student of art and literature, its narrative structure, its ethical precepts, and even its gaps and silences form a vast root system that continues to nourish so many branches of culture. Besides artistic monuments like Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Handel’s Messiah, or Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, creative reappropriations of the bible are occurring all around us, in lyrics, advertising, and, as Aronofsky has demonstrated, Hollywood films. Whether we choose to see the Bible, as the literary critic Northrop Frye did, as “an internally coherent and generative totality,” or as a hodgepodge of poetic flotsam, it remains a through line in our collective life. Yet it is because of the bible’s very ubiquity that we can, as Hawkins noted, mistake osmosis for literacy, or that human capacity for “communication through visually decoded inscriptions.”
During the recent media conflagration surrounding Donald Trump’s attacks on the silent protests of black athletes against state-sponsored racial violence, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks had the unenviable task of singing the national anthem at a football game in Glendale, Arizona. As she sang, people noticed that scrawled on her hand was the cryptic message, “PROV 31:8-9.” This directed thousands of viewers to their Bibles (or, more likely, Google) to read chapter 31 of the book of Proverbs: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. / Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Sparks used the two verses as an act of protest, deploying the Bible as a cultural shorthand for resistance and demonstrating the political and rhetorical power this ancient text still commands.
Sparks’s defiant gesture, like Darren Aronosfky’s most recent foray into scriptural cinema, is evidence of the Bible’s cultural currency in the twenty-first century United States.