Audiences often go into documentaries to learn about topics with which they are unfamiliar. They (and this includes critics) are willing to forgive a lot from even the most uninspired work as long as they’re taught something they didn’t already know. Going into Bible Quiz, I was in the rare position of having nothing to learn from a documentary. I grew up in an Evangelical Christian household and participated in competitive Bible quizzing for four years. I’m intimately familiar with the world that director Nicole Teeny and her crew are exploring. So what could this movie have to offer me?
Quite a bit, it turns out. Bible Quiz isn’t just a film about an obscure form of competition, or even the specific subculture within which that competition takes place. It’s a nicely drawn character piece that hits so many chords about what it’s like to be a teenager. While the tiny budget and team of newbie filmmakers are almost always in evidence, this doc more than makes up for it in heart.
Youth Bible quizzing is one of many facets of Evangelical culture that evolved in the 20th century as a Christian alternative to secular entertainments. Instead of joining a mainstream game of knowledge, why not do something that is not only fun (theoretically) but will also deepen your knowledge of scripture and thus strengthen your faith (theoretically)? There are slight rule variations among different quizzing organizations, but most stick with concentrating on one book of the Bible during a given school year. The middle and high school participants memorize the material to the point where they can not just recite answers but anticipate the questions. To get an idea of how intense quizzing is, consider this: the movie opens with a judge asking a kid to recite every chapter of the Bible in which Jesus is mentioned by name, and the kid is able to do so with no trouble.
For Bible Quiz, Teeny and company follow the teens from Life Center Church in Tacoma as they journey to a national quizzing tournament. The team consists of captain J.P., newcomer Rachel, and wild card Mikayla. Mikayla is the movie’s main character, an outcast in an already out-of-the-way social sphere. While most Evangelical teens come from stable, attentive families, her parents are divorced and her mother is often absent. She goes to public school and is given to probing her faith, as opposed to her homeschooled, more in-line peers. She can’t memorize the text as well as the experienced J.P. or the savant Rachel and doesn’t feel like she can claim much of the credit for getting the team to nationals. And on top of every other cause for angst, she has a huge crush on J.P.
When going for talking head interviews, explaining the world of quizzing, or focusing on the details of the competition, there’s nothing to set Bible Quiz apart from every other documentary that’s already been made about some subculture. But when it sits down with Mikayla pouring her heart out to the camera or with some kid just shooting the breeze, the film becomes something special.
There’s still a great documentary waiting to be made about contemporary Evangelical youth culture, which is a fascinating subject. These are kids raised to be apart from the world, but confronted with influences from outside their bubble all the time. They are suspended between two radically different modes of thinking, and that’s a confusing mental burden to bear on top of everything that’s already frustrating about adolescence.
This doc explores both the spiritual confusion and the everyday issues these kids face. In one scene, Rachel is more than a little perturbed by an encounter with a street singer who loudly decries all religion. In another, J.P.’s sister explains the various “ginities” that there are besides “regular” virginity. She tells of how she still has her “lipginity” and “footginity” and every other one save her “handginity” (which is holding hands, not what you were probably thinking of … pervert). Of course, she held hands with that boy she liked during prayer, so she doesn’t know if it counts or not.
But it all comes back to Mikayla and her painfully relatable maneuvers through pubescent confusion and infatuation. The Bible quiz competition is just a vehicle for her to work out her feelings for J.P. A string of uncomfortably candid confessions make Mikayla an achingly sympathetic protagonist. She’s smart, considerate, and exactly the kind of kid you hope everything works out for. The film finds so many great little moments with her, such as when Teeny, from behind the camera, breaks doc protocol and advises her on how to do her makeup.
Bible Quiz is a remarkably pleasant surprise. It takes a completely neutral stance on every view expressed within, making it one of the most apolitical documentaries to deal with Evangelicalism to come out so far. Certainly, the viewer could draw conclusions about how this brand of entertainment shapes these kids, and how it ties into the broader concerns of the Evangelical movement. But one doesn’t have to be a Christian to empathize with what the characters are going through. And that’s what’s important. At the very least, I can endorse the movie as completely accurate in its portrayal of the Bible quizzing world.