The Recent Buzz over The Secret Life of Bees's "Bible Study Guide"

Last week, Christianity Today Movies.com published a report on a “Bible Study Guide” for the film version of The Secret Life of Bees—a report that included scathing quotes like that from Mark Nelson: “I wouldn’t use it. There is no biblical content. There isn’t even enough spirituality in this for Oprah.” 

Ouch.  

After reading the article, I thought maybe those interviewed were being a little harsh on the study guide simply because it didn’t include scripture references. I thought, well, perhaps the author was trying to address the movie’s spiritual themes while avoiding proof-texting (taking random verses out of their scriptural context and using them to support a particular view).  

Then I looked at the study guide.  

Not only does The Secret Life of Bees “Bible Study Guide” (PDF) include no scripture references, but it also makes no mention of any themes that could be interpreted as distinctively Christian. In fact, it’s little more than a plot summary of the movie, interspersed with pretty photos and a few generic inspirational quotes from the movie’s actors and director. Actor Alicia Keys tells us, “Leaving home, leaving your comfort zone, can be scary at times. But I believe it ultimately leads you to somewhere better.” That’s about as deep as it gets. Even if the movie is shallow, a study guide could take that quote about stepping outside your comfort zone and try to relate it to cultural conflict between Jews and Greeks in the New Testament. But this guide makes no attempt to connect such statements to Christianity.  

The guide’s lack of spiritual content is especially puzzling, because the pamphlet is authored by Dr. Craig Detweiler of Fuller Theological Seminary and the Reel Spirituality Institute. Now, I’ve never personally read any of Detweiler’s books (such as A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture and Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century), but I think it’s safe to say that he’s a fairly well respected Christian cultural critic. I took a look at some of his other movie guides produced in conjunction with Grace Hill Media (as the Bees guide was), and all of them, with the exception of Bees, contain scripture verses and reflection on Christian themes. I may not always agree with how the verses are used (the guide for The Great Debaters, for example, uses Matthew 14:31 to discuss why we should have faith in our abilities—a message which is not particularly biblical and is certainly not Jesus’ meaning in that passage), but at least the references are there so that you and your study-mates can discuss whether or not they apply to the movie.

 The Christianity Today article reports that Detweiler would not speak to them on record, but that he “implied that his early draft did address some of those issues [the film’s shaky theology], and did include Scripture references. He wouldn’t say who had the final decision over editing the study.” Apparently Grace Hill Media and Fox Searchlight were among the parties responsible for the editorial decisions, but that’s all we know at this point.  

Given that the other study guides by Detweiler with Grace Hill do include Christian content, the finger of blame seems to point at Fox Searchlight. I’m purely speculating at this point, because I’m no investigative reporter, but if it is true that Fox Searchlight was responsible for removing the Christian content from The Secret Life of Bees “Bible Study Guide,” are the recent “friendly” overtures between Hollywood marketers and Christian organizations really worth it? Studios are all about tapping into the Christian “market” because we’re a substantial moviegoing population, but, let’s face it, they’re in it for the dough. They’ll use us when it’s convenient and drop us when it’s not. Should we continue to partner with studios when they begin dictating the content of promotional materials produced by Christians (and again, I don’t know if that’s what happened here)? 

What I don’t get is that the shallow study guide for The Secret Life of Bees hardly seems in the studio’s best interest, either. Ted Gartner of Grace Hill Media excuses the lack of Scripture references by sayings that the study guides are intended “for use by pastors and ministry professionals to develop programs best suited to their own individual ministries” and that they are “not meant for the layman.” But if pastors are the intended audience, it seems like the study guide allows pastors to gather sermon illustrations from the movie without actually seeing it (since the guide is mostly a plot summary). That’s not good for the studio, not to mention pastors and congregants. 

Besides, given how overstretched pastors are anyway, wouldn’t it make more sense to write materials suitable for use by lay leaders in the church? I don’t know many pastors who have the time to lead movie-discussion groups. However, I can see lay leaders getting involved, using movie viewings and discussions as a way of reflecting upon the Christian truths taught in sermons, etc.—with or without studio-funded study guides.  

*On a side note, I also feel that I should comment briefly upon the “shaky theology” the Christianity Today article mentions in connection with The Secret Life of Bees (but which the study guide ignores). I didn’t comment much upon the “sacred feminine” aspects of the movie in my review last week, mainly because I had other things to say and because that emphasis is much stronger in the book than in the movie. All the “sacred feminine” references in the movie seem randomly thrown in, and perhaps therefore less dangerous than in the book. Let me be clear: Bees author Sue Monk Kidd has, over the past fifteen years or so, moved from Christianity to a sort of neo-pagan goddess worship, and her personal heresies do come across in her novel. But I’m disturbed by Christians referring to her heretical theology under the umbrella label of the “Black Madonna.” Black Madonnas are simply images of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that depict her with dark skin. If that’s heretical, then so are images of Mary that have depicted her with European features. Calling the black Madonna “odd spirituality” is, frankly, associating dark skin with “oddness,” and that’s problematic. There is a black Madonna image in The Secret Life of Bees, and there is a separate figure, a statue of a black woman that the characters refer to as Our Lady of Chains. This latter figure is in many ways associated with Marian characteristics, but she is not the black Madonna. The troubling “church” centered around Our Lady of Chains has very little to do with the historical phenomenon of black Madonnas. Let’s just watch our language and make sure we’re not conflating “different” appearance with “weird” spirituality. There. Rant ended.

About Carrisa Smith

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