When my parents moved back to the States after living overseas as missionaries, they made a deliberate decision to put my sisters and me in public schools. As full-time Christian workers who came from Christian families and would be attending church regularly, putting us in public schools would at least mean we—and they—knew some people outside the Christian “bubble.” Now, as an adult who has worked primarily in Christian ministry, I find myself continually grateful for that decision. Without it I could easily wrap myself in the Christian world and rarely engage with those who do not believe as I do. Instead, I regularly interact with old school friends who help me remember that the world I live in is a subculture within American society. They remind me that in their eyes, I’m weird.
The evangelical Christian world is full of words, phrases, practices, and ideologies that are familiar and comfortable to me, but these words and ideas are increasingly unfamiliar to the culture around me. A recent article in the Boston Review exemplifies this. The author writes of a supposedly new movement taking place there, something the evangelicals call “church planting”—a centuries-old Christian practice. But to the author the idea is entirely new. She lives squarely in post-Christian culture. Meanwhile, I’m left trying to figure out how to engage with a culture that speaks a different language than I do. The strangeness of my subculture hit home when I watched the documentary Bible Quiz, directed by Nicole Teeny, currently available streaming on Netflix.
The film focuses upon Mikayla Irle and J.P. O’Connor, two members of a Bible quizzing team competing to win a spot in the national tournament. These teens, to some extent, represent both those within and those outside the subculture—and in their interactions we see some measure of what conversation between “in” and “out” could be.
For the first 20 minutes of the film I kept thinking, It’s no wonder people think evangelicals are crazy. Some of us memorize thousands of Bible verses and then get together and compete in tournaments against others who have done the same.
Then another thought struck me: How is this any more strange than thousands of people dressing up like superheroes and gathering to talk about comic books? Don’t get me wrong: I think ComicCon is amazing; I’d love to attend one day. But I have been to a Bible quizzing tournament, and yeah, it tends to be a weird gathering of a bunch of slightly geeky teenagers getting together to rattle off long passages of the Bible. What’s so bad about that?
Bible Quiz raises that question in a non-abrasive manner. The film walks the line between condescending and saccharine, and captures a lovely coming-of-age story as Teeny follows Mikayla through the quizzing season. In part, the documentary format lends itself to the balance. Side by side with the teen girl talking about still having her “lip-ginity” (she’s never been kissed), Teeny shows Mikayla taking her younger teammate out of the hotel for a walk through Green Bay’s 4th of July celebration to escape “Bible Quiz village” and “get out with the…heathens.”
Unlike JP and the others, Mikayla doesn’t quite fit the Bible quizzing box. One of her coaches, Rich Nelson, says, “In all my kids I’ve had, I’ve never had a quizzer do well who didn’t have a mother and father at home, married.” Mikayla, on the other hand, recently moved from the custody of her alcoholic mom to her dad, who at best is vaguely disinterested in her Bible quizzing.
But Mikayla is on the team in part because of the genuine kindness of the team members. One reached out to her and asked her to come, telling her that it was okay that she didn’t have anything memorized, she should just come by for practice. “They continued to show me this love that I didn’t feel like I was getting at my house,” Mikayla says. “They have no idea how good they made me feel…I wanted to be with these people all the time. I never wanted to leave.”
“I really don’t care about Bible Quiz that much,” Mikayla says, hushing. “But I do care about my team.” Teeny’s film makes us care about them, too. Wisely, she often places her viewer in Mikayla’s shoes—slightly on the outside of the group. We watch JP in the bubble, born and raised, and he’s such a typical teenager—but he jumps on board and welcomes Mikayla in. So, like Mikayla, we find ourselves wanting to be a part of this strange subculture full of kids who memorize whole books of the Bible. Because along with that, they also love one another and support one another—and that’s something worth being a part of.
I was on a Bible quizzing team with my church in middle school and found myself reliving those days with some nostalgia as I watched Teeny’s film. But more than nostalgia, I found that she managed to capture my experience growing up in the “Christian bubble” and display it without ire or mockery.
One powerful scene takes place when various quizzing teams are visiting Seattle’s Public Market and stop to listen to a street performer playing guitar. When he finishes playing a song, a girl says, “Praise Jesus for music!”
“Oh, don’t do that!” the man says, “Be an atheist and be smart.”
“Oh, but I love Jesus,” the girl replies.
“I’m sorry you must believe in a man’s religion like that,” says the man, “it’s kind of pathetic and sad. How can you say that God is a man? How can you say that God is anything? Your best religious experience can’t be named in words and it’s pathetic to try. That’s why the Bible or any other book is inadequate.”
There are a few awkward looks among the teens, and then the girl responds: “I strongly disagree!”
Others chime in, “Me, too.”
The man begins to play again, and the girl tries a parting repartee, “Jesus died on the cross for you. ‘Cause He loves you that much. Even when you don’t believe it.”
I remember being that girl: knowing what I believed, and knowing that I deeply believed it, but not having the tools or experience to be able to express that belief well. I rarely encountered people who were antagonistic to my faith and most of my non-evangelical friends were at least somewhat religious—whether Catholic, Muslim, or Hindu. We didn’t talk much about faith. Beyond them, my circles consisted of church, my parents’ ministry coworkers, and other Christian friends.
The scene between the girl and the street musician is powerfully punctuated by a visual: as most of the teens stand around awkwardly listening to the man play, Mikayla leans forward and drops a dollar into his guitar case.
We are all products of our subcultures. We all know the lingo and norms that brand us as part of subculture x. That’s the nature of culture. To someone who is outside of our subculture, we can look pretty odd, whether we’re gathering to dress up like superheroes, starting a church in a school auditorium, or getting together to compete in a Bible quizzing tournament. Interacting outside of our own bubbles is challenging, but sometimes it means simply taking the time to listen.
In the end, Bible Quiz is a story about a group of teenagers. They are still discovering who they are and how they want to do this thing called life. Mikayla, the outsider, has a less rose-colored view of the world than some of the others. As the team goes their separate ways after competing in the national finals, JP says, “We’ll stay in touch,” and Mikayla replies, “Perhaps.” She recognizes that this team was valuable to her, that she was part of it for a time.
I wonder what JP thought when he watched the film. According to the title card at the end, he went on to study biblical literature and become a pastor. Does he look back at the high school senior he was and shakes his head a little bit? He was an excellent Bible quizzer and a budding theologian, but he could have learned a bit about being a Christian from Mikayla. She says in the film, “He didn’t understand that I wanted to tell him my life story. I kind of knocked and no one answered that door.”
My Facebook newsfeed often looks like a shouting match. People in every camp want their memes and blog posts and news articles to be louder than the others. Bible Quiz reminds us that, in all of our shouting at each other, we may be missing the sound of a knocking on the door: the small voice of someone who might be quietly asking to be heard. We may be missing a chance to listen to the life story of someone who doesn’t quite fit in our box, but who could, if we’d just listen, make us a better version of ourselves.