Luke Walton, Producer For The Pitch and Creative Consultant For Bible Society
Investing in short film projects may seem a strange project to be involved with but there is a back-story to this work that is very revealing. In the late 20th Century the British & Foreign Bible Society decided to develop a report on the use of scripture in England and Wales. After nearly two centuries of tireless work translating and distributing scripture overseas, it was important not to overlook our own back yard. The report was ironically called ‘The Open Book Project’. The irony was that the survey and work soon showed that the Scriptures were increasingly shut, not open, and that large parts of the population had no idea of the stories they contain.
The report had several outcomes. One was an independent project, only recently incorporated into the work of the Bible Society, called ‘Open the Book’. This work set up teams of volunteers across the country and trained them to take the Bible stories into school collective worship assemblies. Today there are 13, 260 storytellers who each week, with lively costume and dramatic readings, go to over 2356 schools and simply “Open the Book”.
The irony was that the survey and work soon showed that the Scriptures were increasingly shut, not open, and that large parts of the population had no idea of the stories they contain.
The other outcome was a decade of research and development into strategic and effective ways to offer the Scriptures to the culture, creating a conversation around Scripture in the public square. I first encountered this before I had started work at Bible Society. I was attending a Theology and Media conference at Edinburgh University where I had gone to consider starting a PhD in film and theology, and Bible Society were sharing work that they had recently undertaken in association with Vogue – the worldwide bestselling fashion magazine. Bible Society had approached the magazine to see if they would like to explore telling a Bible story in and through their medium of fashion. The resulting fashion shoot (all the clothing was of course for sale) retold in picture form the famous parable of the lost son, or as this version showed it, the lost daughter.
I could say a great deal about this project, but it was part of an emerging work that has taken root at BFBS. Four specific areas were identified as significant “cultural drivers”: Politics, Media, Education and the Arts. These were focussed on as primary areas to offer new encounters with the Scriptures. The four areas may not represent all of our society, but they interrelate in significant ways and have a far-reaching influence. I joined the advocacy team in 2006 with the brief to lead the arts programme and seek a co-ordinated approach with colleagues working in politics, media and education, across individual projects, programmes and even city-wide campaigns.
From the very beginning, it seems Christians felt that they could and should depict their faith in art form.
The place of the arts in the Christian tradition is rich and diverse, complex and simple, ancient and contemporary all at the same time. It is thought that the earliest artistic commission by a church that (hopefully) still exists is at Duros Europos, close to the Euphrates river, in Syria. The wall painting, around the baptistery of the church, depicts Jesus walking on water. This in itself is an interesting choice of image, but perhaps even more revealing is that this is not some gigantic church, nor was it a rich community, but stands instead in the earliest identified house church. From the very beginning, it seems Christians felt that they could and should depict their faith in art form.
Offering the Scriptures to artists is always a fresh and surprising encounter, both with the creative talent we are privileged to meet and with the new light that the work can shed on the Scriptures through their work. Over 8 years we have worked to inspire, support and commission collaborative creative work in theatre, fine art, installations, public art, fashion (including two fashion shows) street art, stained glass windows, even acrobatics and of course film.
Film is not an accidental or even opportunistic choice in all this. As George Lucas (director of Star Wars) would say, film is ‘the newest art form, but it is also the most advanced’. It is a young art form, so we tend not to think of it as offering the same potential legacy as, say, the wall painting in Duros Europas has proved to be. Yet it has all that potential and more. It is the most collaborative of industries, employing everyone from graphic artists to CGI experts, from actors to electricians, from writers to composers and from carpenters to accountants! Not only this, but it has its own particular history of engagement with the Scriptures.
Offering the Scriptures to artists is always a fresh and surprising encounter, both with the creative talent we are privileged to meet and with the new light that the work can shed on the Scriptures through their work.
In the earliest days of film, before cinemas were built, it was often church buildings that offered a venue to screen the moving images that fascinated crowds. However if we think that film is a modern medium now, 120 years ago it was a gimmick and the first cinematographers had to search for stories to tell that would legitimise the medium. The answer to them was self-evident – lots of people knew the Bible stories, so why not bring the Scriptures to life to an audience that wanted to see the miraculous events played out before them? 120 years on and I can’t help reflecting that the roles seem reversed: when secular film is brought into churches today it is often the film medium that is seen to be legitimising the discussion – people are far more likely to know the plot of a well-known film than a Bible story.
What is clear is that simply yelling critique from the side-lines of the sports pitch is never as authentic as training up to join or coach the game.
The relationship between screen and Scriptures has been a complex one and, like the Reformation period, some have held close to the industry, whilst others have preferred to be separated from it. What is clear is that simply yelling critique from the side-lines of the sports pitch is never as authentic as training up to join or coach the game. And it is this that has brought us to the work we do today, not based around a sporting pitch, but rather the film industry concept of an ‘elevator pitch’ – a sudden chance in the lift to sell a film idea to a studio executive before they reach their destination. There is not much time so you had better have your story worked out!
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