Philosophy, Film, and Biblical Studies: Two New Treasures

In addition to being generally remiss in cataloguing my reading here, I've not commented on any books in philosophy or theology for a long time. That's largely because I spend most of my evenings reading poetry and literature now. I don't often find myself picking up theology or philosophy for enjoyment. However, in the course of working on a project this summer, I had occasion to read two new books from very different fields that are both provocative in different ways--but which also share some surprising resonances.

Ian W. Scott's Paul's Way of Knowing: Story, Experience, and the Spirit (Baker Academic, 2009) is a book in a bit of a growing field, exploring the epistemology of Scripture and biblical authors (cp. The Bible and Epistemology recently released from Paternoster). As the title indicates, Scott analyzes of “Paul’s way of knowing” inviting us to look to Paul as a contemporary resource for thinking about knowledge precisely because “[i]n Paul we have the opportunity to see how someone approached religious knowledge who was at one and the same time foundational in the development of Western culture and yet relatively untouched by epistemological currents which so many now suspect are bankrupt.” Scott unearths a “narrative structure to the Apostle’s knowledge,” a distinct narratival “logic” that is operative beneath his speech. In doing so, Scott brings “to the surface [Paul’s] tacit assumptions about how people in general can come to knowledge,” discerning “assumptions which the Apostle himself may never have brought to full consciousness.” In this articulation of Paul's implicit epistemology, Scott discerns a fundamentally narratival structure to Paul's understanding of what counts as "knowledge." And what's fascinating is that this is so counter-intuitive: Paul, of course, is the author of epistles, not Gospels. Yet Scott makes a convincing case that Paul thinks in story. I hope some Christian philosophers working in epistemology will venture into a dialogue with this strain of biblical studies.

On quite a different front, I've been absorbed by Carl Plantinga's new book, Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator's Experience (University of California Press, 2009). (Carl is a colleague of mine at Calvin, sort of the resident philosopher in our Film Studies department.) Plantinga has long been analyzing the role of affect and emotion in film (his earlier work considered non-fiction film or documentaries; in this book he's considering "Hollywood" cinema). Here we find him contesting reductionistic paradigms in film theory that want to reduce a film to its “message.” Some film critics and scholars talk of “reading” a film, implying that “film viewing is a cool, intellectual experience.” Thus the critic decodes the film by boiling it down to the hidden meanings which can be simply articulated in propositional form. But such a paradigm of criticism assumes that films are basically just elaborate vehicles for information that is ultimately propositional and intellectual. "This way of thinking about film," he comments, "diminishes the art form by reducing it to a bare bones propositional message.” And as a result, all that is “moving” about movies is relegated to the non-essential and superfluous.

But as Plantinga rightly asks, “Are all of these affective elements of film spectatorship mere epiphenomena, the throwaway detritus of what is worthwhile about the film viewing experience?” The burden of his book is to suggest otherwise: that the affective, emotional aspects of film—precisely those aspects of movies that move us—are essential and irreducible. As he comments, “Any abstract meaning that a film might have is ancillary to the experience in which that meaning is embodied.” What a film means cannot be reduced to the proposal “message” that might be gleaned from it. This is because “[e]xperience creates its own meaning, and in some cases the meaning to be taken from the experience of the film may contradict the abstract meaning an interpreter might glean from film dialogue, for example. Affective experience and meaning are neither parallel nor separable, but firmly intertwined.”

The book is rich with concrete analyses from both the "classical" era of Hollywood film-making as well as the "New Hollywood" (the running commentary on The Royal Tenenbaums was one of my favorites). Anyone interested in film will find this is a fascinating read. Indeed, one could read it as a kind of cinematic analogue to James Wood's How Fiction Works. Plantinga shows us that movies work by moving us, not just telling us; they tap our affective centers and emotional life, not just feed information into our intellects. And the narrative force of cinema is tethered to film's visceral ability to connect with our emotions; we feel stories.