Book Review

Faith Odyssey: A Journey through Life
Erdmanns: Grand Rapids, 2000, 2003

By Richard A. Burridge
Reviewed by Bill Jenkins

Faith Odyssey: A Journey through Life

Reviewed by Bill Jenkins

[1] Faith Odyssey: A Journey through Life (2003), by the prominent British New Testament scholar, Richard A. Burridge, is a unique book for those exploring the connections between religion and film. It was originally conceived as a fifty-day study guide for Lent and it probably works best when it is being used for this purpose. The revised edition, however, can serve as a general introduction to the Christian faith or as a study for those who wish to regain a feel for the sweep of the Christian vision, according to Burridge's comments in the preface to the new edition. In either case, Faith Odyssey is designed to help Christians understand or interpret their faith and the practice of their faith from the perspective that Burridge provides. As such, Faith Odyssey is one in a long line of books that use film to encourage Christian faith and practice, a line that includes such works as Sarah Anson Vaux's Finding Meaning at the Movies (1999), Bryan P. Stone's Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema (2000), Robert Johnston's Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2001), Gareth Higgins' How Movies Helped Save My Soul (2003), Robert K. Johnston's Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film (2004), and Johnston’s and Catherine M. Barsotti's Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith (2004), among others.

[2] Burridge uses scenes and plots from popular film (and fiction) to introduce his readers to the arc of Christian faith, and this pairing of contemporary stories with the prime Christian narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and resurrection gives the book its structure. The book includes eight sections and each section is divided into several chapters. The book begins by identifying the condition of alienation and estrangement in which humanity finds itself, what Burridge calls "The Mess." It moves through stages of redemption ("The Way"), and community ("The Company") to practices of the community of faith ("Finding the Way" and "Healing and Feeding"). The book ends with the promise of trans-mortal existence ("Greater Love" and "To Infinity and Beyond").

[3] Throughout the first half of the book, Burridge provides some interesting insights into religiously charged archetypal patterns in pop culture narratives, patterns on the level of the large scale Christian narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Though Burridge almost never uses the terms "archetype" or "archetypal," he is most enlightening when working on the large scale. Here his categories tend toward universal themes and there is an easily recognized resonance between the films or novels and the elements of Christian faith he pairs with the fictional narratives. Calling these pairings "intertextual," Burridge shows in chapters such as "Stardust and Ashes," "East of Eden," "Under the Thumb," and "Stranger in a Strange Land" that movies like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or books like The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (seven volumes, 1950 - 1956), or even a television series such as Star Trek: Voyager (created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Taylor, 1995 -2001) depict fundamental human experiences of limitation, estrangement, and reconciliation, experiences that are central to most of the narratives of the Bible. As Burridge puts it early on, "Both the Bible and our contemporary films and novels tell the same sad story of the context in which we start our journey. But there is hope, so 'set the course for home'."

[4] As Burridge gets into more specific Christian doctrines such as Eucharist, resurrection, and church, some of his "intertextual" readings become a bit more problematic. For instance, in the chapter "Phone Home," prayer is likened to Morpheus in the Wachowski brothers' film, The Matrix (1999), keeping in touch with the real world of the hovercraft by using a telephone while "in" the Matrix. Another example from David Lynch's Dune (1984) is comparing the water recycling on the desert planet by the Fremen to baptism: "Our baptism may have been a refreshing experience of water once, but now we plod on, just recycling our perspiration" (158). Or, in possibly the only place in the book where the term "archetypal" is used, Judas is compared to a character on the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller, 1993 - 1999). In this case, as in many others, the reference is obscure to those who have not kept up with the series.

[5] If the connection between specific Christian doctrines and particular elements of film and fiction is problematic, then another limitation of the book is the narrow selection of stories that Burridge chooses. An admitted sci-fi and fantasy buff, Burridge relies on a highly limited reading and viewing list, ranging from 2001: A Space Oddessey to The X Files (1998). But, even with this already constrained list Burridge favors an even smaller handful of narratives that includes the Narnia stories, the Harry Potter series, the Star War films, and the world of Star Trek – the last mostly from the various television series.

[6] Burridge acknowledges at the beginning of his book that his interest resides mostly in this sci-fi/fantasy genre and that the meditations are pitched toward readers who share his love of these stories. In a brief lecture on the book, a lecture that can be viewed on the Journal of Religion & Film web site, Burridge refers to a time he led a discussion using this book in a church setting.1 An elderly lady rightly pointed out that someone could use a Jane Austen novel and get similar results, he admits. Burridge more or less sidesteps this comment and simply acknowledges his attraction to the material he has chosen, but it might be asked if any material will do in making the points Burridge wants to make are there good reasons for selecting the material he has chosen, other than his own personal interest? As it is, readers are free to follow along if they prefer, and since there is a substantial overlap between fantasy/sci-fi and religion, the book probably will have a solid, if small audience.2

[7] Another limitation of the book is Burridge's own commitment to a moderately evangelical Anglicanism. Writing this book initially as a guide to be used for discussion groups in the Church of England, Burridge makes use of the liturgical calendar, though within the framework of a slightly developed sacramental context. In America, the kinds of readers who could be tempted to use this book as it was designed to be used would probably include those whose spirituality has been formed by use of traditional practices such as Lenten meditations, but who are not strongly progressive or liberal in theology – those who might become impatient with the Evangelical and occasionally charismatic theology in the book – or who are not traditional orthodox Christians and who would probably use more time-proven forms of Lenten meditations.

[8] One genuinely helpful aspect of the book is the occasional nugget of information on the social or historical context of some biblical material, though the author keeps this to a minimum in light of the devotional intentions of the book. Burridge currently might be recognized as a distinguished New Testament scholar, but he wears his learning lightly in this book. This is not a criticism, however, because Burridge stands here more as a retreat leader than a scholar, speaking more as a pastor than a theologian. He manages to balance wit with gravity, with the light touches coming from the author's immersion in the details of his pop culture texts.

[9] Faith Odyssey does not really advance or newly illuminate the intersections of religion and film, though to be fair the book was not intended to do this. Instead, students of religion and film can see the book as an example of a non-academic attempt to understand how film can become religiously significant to some people. Christianity has in its healthier forms always interacted with the arts. The attempt by books like this to engage with film on a level that is approachable by the average church-goer has become more frequent in recent years. There is a growing interest in studying film and religion from a sensitive, committed perspective. Instead of shying away from film as something toxic produced by nefarious Hollywood characters, Burridge and others turn toward film as a narrative art form that utilizes characters and situations not all that different from the messy, all too human figures we find in the Bible.

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