Jesus and Big Fish: film talk

Jesus fishSeventy some years after Jesus supposedly died and a few stories of him had already been penned, the writer of the Gospel of John decided to tell his own tale and to make it very clear that Jesus was a god.  John tells us that his Jesus even existed before the universe was created and that Jesus himself created our universe.

Wow, what a big fish story!

As the gospel writers tell us, fish were indeed a speciality of Jesus.  All the writers share a similar story of Jesus helping his disciples catch fish, and not surprisingly, John’s story is the biggest fish story.  Whether these are two different real stories or just a shared myth is debated, but the stories are remarkably similar.

Mark 4:1-2 and Matthew 13:1-3 tell us that Jesus taught from a boat. Luke 5:1-11 uses a boat story to illustrate the calling of some disciples. And Luke adds a miraculous fish catching section to the story so as to teach his readers that Jesus wants his disciples to catch people and not just fish.

Ducio's (1300s) Miracle of the 153 Catch

Ducio’s (1300s) Miracle of the 153 Catch

John uses the fishing story differently: instead of using it as a literary tool to explain Jesus’ early-career gathering of his disciples and call to missionary work, John’s fish story has Jesus appear to his disciples after his execution. In John’s story Jesus isn’t in the disciples’ boat but yells to them from the shore, “Boys, you haven’t caught any fish yet, have you?”  Then, as in Luke’s story, Jesus directs them to throw their net over the right side of the boat and wham!, they catch so many fish (153 to be exact) that they couldn’t haul in the net due to their weight (while Luke has the net break).

In John’s story, the disciples didn’t know who was talking to them until they caught the fish because Jesus was in his newly-resurrect, special celestial body (1 Cor 15: 35-58). But after the miracle, the ever-so-bright Simon Peter wakes up and says, “Duh, it’s our Master!”

OK, I paraphrased John’s story, but I think it is close.  But are these stories true? Did the original hearers of the stories even care if they were true? What purpose did the stories fulfill? These exegesis dilemmas are addressed differently by different types of Christians. These are questions any fish story demands.

big_fish_08Speaking of fish stories, yesterday my daughter and I watched and thoroughly enjoyed Tim Burton’s film Big Fish (2003) — based on Dan Wallace’s 1998 fantasy novel. It is a tale about a father tells his life story by weaving together huge, complicated fish stories.  These stories estranged the father from his son but though angry at his father, the son returns home when his father is dying, and realizes two important truths:

  1. Fantastic stories can contain important seeds of truth.
  2. Sometimes exaggerated stories are fun and help fill both the speaker and the excited audience with a sense of identity better than bland stories.

Though the father’s relentless fictions alienated his continually protesting son, the movie wants us to look down on the son as being cold, literal and unimaginative.  Further, the writers clearly want us to forgive the self-centered, grandiose, poor-listening father because of the beautiful things he accomplished in his life, the people he inspired and for the wonderful stories he wove which would survive him.  The son realizes that his fathers fantastic stories indeed offer him a sort of immortality.

I enjoyed the film and it made me wonder of some of the strategies of Progressive Christians to redeem the stories of their Jesus.  Instead of viewing those strategies with contempt, the Big Fish movie helped me envision them with a little more sympathy. For like most folks, I too love a great story.

I’m trust my readers see all the parallels I am trying to allude to in this poorly woven  post.


Also see: my other movie reviews here.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “Jesus and Big Fish: film talk

  1. And, of course, there is the ΙΧΘΥΣ word (FISH in Greek, as you undoubtedly know) which became the symbol/codeword of proto-Christians. But what came first? The Jesus fish stories or the usage of the word itself as a code? (Recall: ΙΧΘΥΣ = Ιησούς Χριστός Θεός Υμών Σωτήρ, i.e. Jesus Christ God (of) You, Savior.) It could very well be that the acronym was used first and that the stories were invented later to strengthen the coincidence that a common word can form the initials of a phrase with “divine meaning”.

    Fish is still considered a symbol of Christianity, isn’t it? How many bumperstickers can you spot today with the fish sign on US freeways? And how many anti-fish stickers (fish with legs)?

    For fun, did you know that, last September, someone in Sweden caught a “holy” salmon with a cross on its side and that it was immediately though of as a holy fish and was put on a show and public display?

  2. @ Takis,
    What do you think about the use of exaggerated, fantastic tales?

  3. Simply that people need to hear these tales. They exist, they get invented to appeal to people whose faith towards the miraculous man will be strengthened. Tales of that sort have existed for long time. The Iliad and the Odyssey contain fantastic tales too. And I’m sure that people back then did believe them and took them literally. They “knew” there were sirens and cyclops. From my personal experience, I’ve heard lots of such folk tales when I was growing up. They were very convincing. I remember being in awe and sometimes scared.

    You ask:

    Did the original hearers of the stories even care if they were true?

    No, I don’t think they cared. I think that most of them believed them because they felt the need to believe. I would also ask: Did the original story teller lie? Did he/she invent these stories having the purpose to propagate false beliefs? Again, I think not. It is not hard to imagine that even the original teller was fooled by some natural phenomenon, he was in need of a belied, and he concocted a story. A few days pass, memory becomes weaker, the story becomes more true and amplified. The story is being propagated, changed little by little, and finally it gets established as a true fact. Just because, by that time, it’s been around for 100 years, say, and so the ancestors, who were wiser, knew better. Lo and behold it become part of the gospel and part of the teaching of the church.

    No, I cannot support the above sentences scientifically, historically, anthropologically, sociologically, or otherwise, but they seem reasonable to me. A much more reasonable explanation than the content of the story itself.

  4. enjoyed the film and it made me wonder of some of the strategies of Progressive Christians to redeem the stories of their Jesus. Instead of viewing those strategies with contempt, the Big Fish movie helped me envision them with a little more sympathy. For like most folks, I too love a great story.

    What do you mean by “redeem[ing]” stories? And what do you mean by “viewing those strategies with contempt?” Which strategies? And why contempt?

  5. So many question, console.
    Concerning “Redeeming Stories”: If you don’t believe Jesus was resurrected, or performed miracles or even existed — some of the stances some progressive Christians take — AND yet, you want to value the Bible strongly (as most also do) then the Jesus stories must be ‘redeemed’ from their fallen fundamentalist interpretations. They must be given other meanings.

    Concerning “contempt”: Many all-religion-is-bad atheists want to wholly criticize Progressive Christians, simply for still being Christian. I am not of that ilk. But I am critical of the role their religion still reinforces the sorts of Christianities I feel dangerous. Thus I am tempted to have contempt for even their strategy of redeeming the obviously false stories of the Bible.

    Well, I hope that make sense and now maybe you can share some thoughts.

  6. @Takis
    We know people back them took them literally, but not all people — there was a mix back then too. People use stories differently.

  7. @Sabio:
    But don’t you agree that many people *need* to hear these stories? I have encountered many such people.

  8. @ Takis,
    I think storytelling is an innate process in humans and thus has highly adaptive value — thus, we all need stories.
    Does that answer your question?
    Do they need *those* stories — no, of course not, but people do love the familiar, the traditional and such as anchors for identity.

  9. Well, I think it is as simple as the “truth” of stories isn’t just about their literal truths. The point of a story isn’t to be literally true. If you read novels from the 19th century onward everyone is approaching these stories with the knowledge that these are made-up characters, but many would still claim that there is a lot of truth in these stories.

    A story is a fictionalized reflection of our reality in which an author uses the plot events, symbols encoded within the story, metaphors, careful crafting of language, and interactions of characters (often with different ways of seeing and living in the world) to focus our attention on particular issues or problems of our experience.

    I don’t see stories of any kind as needing redemption. The progressive Christian is merely interpreting those stories with a different lens in the first place, and therefore find a different set of meanings as its filtered through that lens. Or they are reading the same meaning in those stories, but then once they’ve determined a story’s meaning, its significance is different for them.

  10. Well, I defined I was was using “redemption” in that phrase, you want it to have your own meaning — you are not listening. I am in no mood to quibble. Your stuff about what a story is told me nothing but jargonized common sense – yawn.

  11. @Sabio:
    Yes, it does. Thanks. By the eay, I like your ying-yang-andathirdthing symbol, although I don’t know what the third thing is. The path to enlightenment? 🙂

  12. @Sabio

    I don’t believe I was using a different definition of “redeem.” I’ll use the substitution method to demonstrate below:

    I don’t see stories of any kind as needing “to be ‘redeemed’ from their fallen fundamentalist interpretations.” The progressive Christian is merely interpreting those stories with a different lens in the first place, and therefore find a different set of meanings as its filtered through that lens. Or they are reading the same meaning in those stories, but then once they’ve determined a story’s meaning, its significance is different for them.

    So I don’t understand where you think we disagree. As far as I can tell I shared some of my thoughts like you asked and everything I said related to the topic. I answered what I think stories do and how they work and what strategies progressive Christians use, which relates to some of the things you said in the post.

    So seriously, what is the problem? Considering you don’t want to quibble, it seems to me you’re doing exactly that!

  13. @ Consoled,
    OK, the Progs got their interp and Conservatives got theirs.
    Leave “redeem” out if it suits you.

    If you read church sermons and church books from the 19th century onward, you see they take it literally.
    Novelists may have done otherwise, I don’t have the data.

  14. Speaking of not listening, I’m not sure where you got the last line about novelists. I never said anything about how 19th century Novelists interpreted the Bible. My point was once someone isn’t working within a literal belief framework, they can find meaning from a biblical text the way they would find meaning from a 19th century novel that they know is completely fictional, although perhaps with some slight twists (maybe they might believe certain parts are literally true, while other parts are just fictionalized).

    As for exaggerated, fantastical stories themselves I suspect fantastical elements play a number of roles: the fish are obviously symbolic for the role of apostle, it helps reveal Jesus’ divinity or support by G-d since its his presence that causes the many fish (so a type of characterization), and consequently a potential message for the reader might be to spread the message of Christ to others (catch your own fish!). For a conservative Christian, besides believing it to be a literal event that actually happened, they would probably understand the catching fish as a call to duty to spread the good word and converting others to the “correct” faith. The hypothetical prog, might see this as just a story with an important message reflecting the teaching of a, let’s say, an historical Christ (but not a literal event that occurred), and view the catching fish as a call for them to spread the core “progressive” ideals of Christ by doing good works and helping the poor. And in that way they are catching their fish!

    I think the fantastical also plays on our psychological-emotions, particularly our desire for something beyond the ordinary (the transcendental) and our fears of the unknown (such as when fantastical elements are employed for the sake of inspiring horror). I was thinking about my reactions to certain supernatural horror movies especially and how it still scares me, and my heart still pounds a bit when I hear an unexplained noise at night, despite not believing in such things.

  15. @ console,
    Oh, you are right. I miss read that.
    My bad.
    I think fantastical stuff is fun and useful.

  16. @Takis,
    Glad you like the symbol change. The third thing is mixing up the expected (two, that is).

  17. Earnest

    I watched Big Fish and recall that it was a fun ride but I felt the conclusion was a let-down. Probably because it was all just a big fish story 🙂 !

    No one likes to listen to boring pedantic stories, however useful and true they might be. Embellishment of key action points probably enhances tribal learning of survival-enhancing concepts. These stories were probably used during initiation ceremonies, where the elders were trying to educate 12 year olds. Having 2 boys, the youngest of which is now 12, I can tell you it takes a lot of excitement, either enthusiasm or fear of punishment, to get them to pay attention to much that I try to teach them. So wise big fish storytellers may have given their tribe evolutionary advantages by intensifying the imprinting during tribal survival didactics.

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