Bible Quiz: Competition in a Christian SubcultureWritten by Nicole Corrales
Photos courtesy of Nicole Teeny
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with award-winning short film director Nicole Teeny about her first feature documentary, Bible Quiz, which follows seventeen-year-old Mikayla as she memorizes thousands of Bible verses on her quest to win the National Bible Quiz Championship (and the heart of JP, her quiz team captain). Winner of Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Bible Quiz explores coming-of-age in the midst of faith, doubt, fierce competition, and teen love. The film’s protagonist, Mikayla, is portrayed as a freethinking, independent young woman who manages to reconcile her own beliefs regarding God and sexuality in spite of being immersed in a somewhat unforgiving subculture.
Nicole Corrales: The film’s point of view seems to shift between an initial inside perspective to one outside the Bible Quiz world, and that seeming shift is centered on the main character Mikayla. She seems to want to find a place in the world, but after being enthusiastic about Bible Quiz, eventually becomes ambivalent about her involvement. Is this shift a deliberate strategy on the part of the narrative? If so, what is it intended to achieve?
Nicole Teeny: The film plays with audience’s expectations by first showing viewers what they might predict are stereotypical Bible Quizzers, but then honing in on one individual, Mikayla. By getting to know someone specific with clear, relatable desires the Bible Quizzers become human rather than a cardboard stereotype. This also demonstrates that although individuals play a role in the identity of communities, individuals still hold their own agency and independence.
Part of what makes Mikayla relatable is that she has very human desires that propel the narrative forward—she wants to fit in, find belonging, find love, and find her place in this world. During her time at Bible Quiz she is presented with situations where she makes very distinct choices about how she reacts. These choices are part of her growing up, and help define who she is. She initially joins Bible Quiz in hopes of finding a community to belong to and at first it offers her that, but as the film progresses she begins to question her own reasons for joining and the culture of the community.
Nicole Corrales: Outside of Mikayla, the quizzers’ lives seem to be presented almost exclusively in terms of the quizzing. What is the film’s point of view on central activity of Bible Quiz and the lives that the characters are living in relation to the quizzing itself?
Nicole Teeny: Mikayla and JP are unique Bible Quizzers in that they both go to public school and they are not related to anyone on their team. Not all, but many of the other national level quizzers are homeschooled and are on family teams where their parents are their coaches and their siblings are their quizmates. It requires a lot of time to be a top-level quizzer and many teens devote more time to Bible Quiz than they would to a varsity sport—upwards of four, five, even six hours a day. Many of the adults in these teens’ lives also believe that Bible Quiz provides a social community that “protects the [spiritual] investment made by pastors and parents.” It’s safe to say, quizzing is their life.
Nicole Corrales: Watching how completely driven and focused the quizzers are on things that seem completely beside the point is kind of uncomfortable. Do these kids really know scripture? Do they know what the verses they recite so quickly mean? Mikayla seems to be learning the lessons of the scriptures, but the others seem most interested in the competitive aspect. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the quiz process of speedy recitation and the overall competitiveness of this activity.
Nicole Teeny: There is some aspect of Bible study that does happen during practices. Whether or not it is retained is up for debate. In terms of organization structure, the national competition did have worship services every morning but the actual game that takes up 70 percent of the competition seemed to be primarily an intellectual and competitive endeavor. Many of the coaches and parents believe that just getting the scripture into the kids is what counts and that because the Bible is holy, once memorized, either from some trigger in life or from the Holy Spirit, the verses will take on a magical life and start to influence them. As one Bible Quiz leader said to me, “We do all this to trick the kids [in]to getting to know the scriptures; they want to compete, they want to win matches.”
When the team prepares for a big playoff game JP says, “I understand Bible Quiz is about getting God’s word in your heart, but for the quizzing and competition part, this is a really big deal, I really want to be in that top division.” The teens are aware of the end goal but competition speaks louder to them. Competition and ranking is an innate part of humanity and is particularly present in teens as they are beginning to come into their own and find where they stand against their peers. Religious teens are no different. They fight to see who is more spiritual. Who is a better quizzer? Who is the top dog? All of these questions are tied up together and are cathartically released through the game.
Nicole Corrales: There are some interesting issues surrounding sublimated sexuality in the film’s subtext. Sexuality seems to be parsed out in recognizably Southern Protestant Christian ways, especially the peeling of sexuality into layers. An example of this is when a young female quizzer is explaining the levels of virginity, including “lipginity” and even “footginity.” Mikayla claims she doesn’t need a boy because “Jesus is her boy.” There is also a suggestion of repressed homosexuality with JP and other male quizzers who seem to be averse to female affection. At one point, JP mentions he will get married eventually because his mom “will make him.” What should the audience be taking away from this?
Nicole Teeny: These teenagers have hormones and are going through puberty just like others their age. On the other hand, their culture and religion has many rules, spoken and unspoken, that encourage them to repress and denounce almost all aspects of acting on or talking about sexuality outside the context of marriage. Sexuality becomes the elephant in the room for these teens who are just beginning to discover their own bodies and feeling new hormones rush through their blood. This natural aspect of being human is blooming and desperately anxious to be exercised so it comes out subconsciously or consciously in alternative ways deemed appropriate. Sometimes it gets expressed through language (lipginity, footginity, etc.) or in relationships where physical demonstration is considered appropriate. It can be seen when Jenna Jo talks about hugging her brother; in JP’s apprehension to hugging girls but his comfortableness hugging his male friends; and Mikayla’s exclamation about Jesus being “her boy.” In fact, many teens are taught to bring their cares and love to Jesus, the “lover-of-their-soul” so we can see why they look starry-eyed when they sing romantic-sounding worship songs and refer to themselves and the church as “the bride of Christ.” Worship service becomes catharsis for built-up sexual repression.
Nicole Corrales: Aside from the woes of dealing with an absent mother and living with a family that shies away from orthodox religion, why is Mikayla’s character stigmatized as dysfunctional? She seems worldlier than the other participants because of her life experiences. Couldn’t this entire Bible Quiz obsession be considered dysfunctional?
Nicole Teeny: The film shows one girl’s coming-of-age story and her quest to win love and acceptance. It’s a story about finding one’s identity and growing up. The audience is taken on her journey and sees the world through her eyes and is given the opportunity to decide for themselves what they think about Bible Quiz. One popular approach in documentary is to didactically spoon-feed the audience telling them to think these people in column A are crazy and these people in column B are saints. I tend to think life and humans are more complicated than that and I want the audience to feel challenged to participate in the narrative and think for themselves. No doubt some audience members will walk away condemning it and others condoning it but hopefully everyone learns something new. I think giving the audience a chance to decide where they stand themselves, rather than forcefully manipulating them is a more strategic form of challenging assumptions.
Nicole Corrales: Do the Bible Quizzers have misconceptions of God?
Nicole Teeny: This is a hard question for me to answer because the question assumes there is a correct conception of God and that there even is a God/god. I think audiences will have different answers to this question depending on what they believe. Atheists and theists will have widely varying answers to your question. I have had Christians and Bible Quizzers come up to me after the film saying they loved it and felt it was accurate, and I have had secular folks come up to me and [say they] loved it but took something else away from it. The people, though, that seem to be most touched by the film are people in flux, who maybe grew up in a particular religion but then left it. My hope is that there is a little something in the film for everyone regardless of religious orientation or upbringing that both plays to their expectations while at the same time challenging their assumptions.
Nicole Corrales: How do you think this activity has conditioned these kids in a positive way? Is there something positive that the culture presented in this film is portraying?
Nicole Teeny: The one thing the game does prepare kids for is massive retention. Coaches say the ability to memorize is like a muscle, if you work it out it gets stronger, faster, and can memorize more. Many of the teens echo this and say studying for school or college memorization is much easier because they have been trained on how to do it.
Even though Mikayla is ready to move on by the end of the program, Bible Quiz did play a valuable part in her life and provided a community for her when she felt alone. Whether it was as genuine as she thought it was is up for debate, but there was a time when it was important to her.
Nicole Corrales: I like how the film ended with updates of the main characters and where their lives have taken them. Unlike the other participants, Mikayla ultimately understands Christianity less rigidly and recognizes that while religion should play a role in one’s life, it should not completely saturate one’s life experiences. Was this similar to your experience of the Christian lifestyle? How do you identify with Mikayla?
Nicole Teeny: Ha ha, I think I can answer this best with a video.