The limits of biblical adaptation fascinate me. This is especially vivid in conflicts over film retellings like Noah, The Last Temptation of Christ, or The Passion of the Christ, but printed texts also raise these questions. Texts that are aimed at a younger audience or serve a teaching purpose seem to have more acceptance within a religious community than retellings like the Brick Testament, where scenes from the Bible are recreated verse by verse in LEGOs, or R. Crumb’s illustrated Genesis. It’s tempting to try and explain why one version is better, truer, more real than another, but it’s more productive to look at how readers make that distinction – and what that tells us about religion and texts.
Modern American readers rarely come to a text like the Bible without some kind of context for it. Whether a reader is Christian or not, his or her first time reading the Bible isn’t an isolated or “pure” event, separated from preconceptions about the book. This is true for many books, but the cultural Christianity of the United States increases this kind of pre-reading more than it would for, say, a new author’s first New York Times bestseller. Readers come to the text thinking they already know the stories within it.
How do they learn those stories? For people not raised in Christian settings, these stories and characters are often filtered through media that re-use the concepts (e.g., books with angels and devils, television shows that reference Adam and Eve, and video games that draw on the story of Abraham and Isaac). Many other people encounter Bible stories through retellings designed for younger readers: children’s Bibles. These are often illustrated and simplified; to make this simplification, authors and publishers choose which details to leave out in order to make their points clearer to the juvenile reader.
But, readers don’t treat these “Children’s Bible Stories” collections in the same way that they treat the Bible; there’s no search for deeper meaning, no unfolding of the text, no exploration of connections and concordance. Of course not – it’s a children’s Bible, not the “real thing.”
So, what makes the children’s Bible stories different from another adaptation – say, the Brick Testament or the collection From God to Verse, which retells the Five Books of Moses in rhyming couplets?
Instead of trying to identify those differences, it might be easier if we looked at the differences in how they are treated (if any exist). To begin with:
1. Some adaptations are granted a legitimacy that others are not. I can’t see a Sunday school class using R. Crumb’s version of Genesis, at least not an elementary-level one. The simplifications, omissions, and illustrations that are performed in adapting the children’s Bible stories are somehow more permissible than the simplifications, omissions, and illustrations of Crumb or the Brick Testament. ((This also points us to the fuzzy line between translation and adaptation, or adaptation and retelling/reinventing. Roughly put, translation attempts to preserve the meaning of the original text; adaptation attempts to preserve the original stories; and retelling takes the original stories and embroiders, changes, deepens, or inverts them.))
But, once we are seeing this as a difference in legitimacy, we start looking at how this difference gets created, which leads to:
2. An adaptation’s legitimacy is not granted through a formal process involving institutions. Yes, a church can decide which version of Bible stories it’s going to approve for Sunday school. More often, the pressure on adaptations comes from unspoken cultural pressures, not just the cultural pressures of an individual church or congregation but pressures from educational systems and cultural narratives about what count as “good” books. These pressures can include anything from a distaste for “comic books” to a desire to keep sex and violence away from children. If a group of Christians feel that passion plays are good for teaching about the Gospels, the plays are legitimate; if they feel that passion plays are too much theater and not enough religion, the plays lose their legitimacy as an adaptation of scripture.
But, Christianity isn’t a monolith, and different groups grant legitimacy to different adaptations. If the same text is seen as legitimate by some and flawed by others, what has changed?
3. Instead of trying to join the debate over which adaptations are better, truer, more useful, or more legitimate, we can learn a lot more by looking at how and by whom those unspoken cultural pressures are applied. Who is objecting to something like the Brick Testament and who is supporting it? What criteria do parents use when picking out a child’s first Bible? This can tell us a lot about different fields:
Religion: For groups that use children’s Bibles, simplifying the Bible in this way (and holding off on teaching the actual texts) implies that what is most important about the text is not the words, the actual language, but the stories.
Genre: Which genres are still seen as less valuable, or inherently childish? Graphic novels, for example, have only recently received attention as “real” literature, despite decades of rich and beautiful stories. From God to Verse’s rhyming couplets or the LEGO creations can seem undignified in comparison with the source texts – or like a much-needed, joyful revision of the stuffy King James Version. Tracking these genre pressures can show us what associations are carried by each genre of text.
Communities: What criteria are valuable to each religious group and subgroup? Which ones value close adherence to the original language, and which are more interested in preserving the stories? When an adaptation departs from the original text, is it considered acceptable in order to make a point or a step too far?
Exploring these adaptations can reveal boundaries and norms that go beyond religious communities, into our identities as readers as well as religious persons. It would be fascinating to map the tides of adaptation, not only within the acceptable uses of texts such as children’s Bibles, but on the inventive and playful edges of adaptation. Instead of debating which adaptations are better, truer, or most faithful to their sources, individuals and communities might ask which ones are more meaningful, more important, or more useful in their religious lives. What makes an adaptation useful to you or to your community?