Millions of people have tuned into the History Channel these past couple weeks to check out “The Bible,” a 10-part drama airing over 5 weeks, culminating on Easter Sunday. Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (husband and wife) desire to “tell a metanarrative, a grand sweeping love story from Genesis to Revelation.” They also see their film as striking a blow against “biblical illiteracy” in a culture increasingly ignorant of and unaffected by the Bible. In my experience, biblical illiteracy is a problem in the culture, but–more disturbingly–in the Church, and among all generations. Even while many people who have spend their whole lives in church vaguely remember individual Bible stories from Sunday School classes, very few have any clarity about how the whole Story of the Bible flows and connects, how key threads weave their way through, and most specifically, how the Old and New Testaments have everything to do with each other.
I have watched the first 2 weeks of “The Bible” and spoken with people both inside and outside of my congregation who have also watched it. Tough crowd. So far, the reviews I’ve heard have been tepid. In part, I think this has been the result of over-inflated expectations. These expectations could come from two sources: 1) big-time marketing, which always over-inflates a new product and/or 2) our persistent search for some all-encompassing resource or program that will magically take care of discipleship and evangelism for us. So is “The Bible” a success or failure? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Here’s the plan. I’m going to sacrifice all of my St. Patrick’s Day celebration plans (none) and blog through Episode 3 of “The Bible” to offer you my perspective as a pastor.
8:00pm: Ok, so I didn’t forego all my St. Patty’s Day plans. I’m sitting here, thoroughly enjoying my Shamrock Shake. Let’s do this.
8:02pm. To set the scene, so far we’ve we’ve gone from Genesis 1 through the kingship of David (the end of 2 Samuel). Obviously, a lot has been left out or breezed over. Some would argue with how Genesis 1-11 (Creation, Fall, Cain/Abel, Noah, Tower of Babel) was treated as mere introduction. However, that’s exactly what it is in the Bible, a kind of scene-setting for the main storyline of the Bible: Abraham’s family and God’s fulfillment of his promises to Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3. So I think this was actually an astute interpretive decision (though why they chose to abridge those 3 all-important verses is confusing to me). Also minimized were the Jacob, Isaac, and Joseph stories. All amazing stories, but something had to be left out. I’m ok with the focus on Abraham, the Exodus story, and the use of Samson as a representative example of the Judges cycle (the same pattern is repeated over and over in the book of Judges). These are key to understanding the overarching narrative, and the time given to each allowed the viewers to connect with the characters and get involved with the human dimension to these stories. More stories = Less depth when you’re trying to do the Bible in 10 hours.
8:03pm: Wow. We just skipped all the kings from Solomon to Zedekiah. This includes the major division of the Israelite kingdom between North (Israel/Ephraim) and South (Judah with Jerusalem, the Temple, and the line of davidic kings). It also includes the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria in 722bc, multiple reforms (Josiah and Hezekiah), and the entire ministry of Isaiah. That’s a lot. The producers chose to divide the 10-part series equally into 5 Old Testament and 5 New. This, of course, is not proportionate to the Bible itself and is why this episode feels quite rushed.
8:08pm: They haven’t shied away from the gritty humanity of the Bible. Lots of violence, blood (both in battle and sacrificial scenes), dirt, and sweat. Good for them. I’m surprised a bit, because our culture is very sensitive to religious violence and the harming of animals. On the other hand, this is faithful to the reality of the Bible and makes for great trailers. Apparently, they’re not afraid to tell it like it is.
8:18pm: Burnett and Downey have done a lot of reading between the lines: Daniel’s capture scene is not in the Bible and the scene in which Zedekiah’s sons are killed takes up all of 4 verses. I don’t think they’ve stepped out-of-bounds, though. They have tried to connect the dots in ways that are as historically likely as possible.
8:34pm: The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. Here is one of the few biblical stories made for tv drama, with a ready-made script. In this case, I think Burnett and Downey could have stuck directly to the text of Daniel 3 and had themselves a far more compelling scene. Oh well.
9:06pm: One critique I’ve heard is that there is lots in the movie that isn’t in the Bible. For instance, the big fight scene in the synagogue on the day Mary finds out she is pregnant. This is not in the gospel accounts, nor is much of the interaction between Joseph and Mary. But we must remember, the Bible itself would make for a poor movie script. Burnett and Downey had to use some artistic imagination 1) to make a watchable movie with an engaging script, 2) to allow us to connect with the characters, and 3) to make up for their lack of time. So, perhaps there wasn’t a fight on the exact day that Mary encountered the angel, but these 2 images were put together to allow the producers to give the reader a feel for Jewish life under Roman occupation without adding a bunch of extra scenes. To me, this is valid use of artistic license. It is also faithful to the concept of the story genre. Stories draw us in and invite us to engage imaginatively with the characters and scenes. So are these scenes necessarily exactly how they played out historically? No. But do they give us images to help us get into the story? Very much so. And I think this is a good thing.
9:20pm: I loved the back-and-forth scenes of Herod’s anxious anger and the grateful and joyful nativity scenes. This is a contrast–Empire vs. God’s Kingdom–that we see throughout the gospels.
9:24pm: From Lauren (my wife), “Maybe they could’ve fit more in if they didn’t have so many commercials.” True. This isn’t the Bible in 10 hours; it’s the Bible in 8. In addition, the targeted marketing of Christian Mingle and Jeff Foxworthy’s Bible Challenge are kind of embarrassing. Oh, and is it weird that all the Viking commercials are so easily confused with The Bible movie? Enough about commercials.
9:35pm: This episode included a lot of extra-biblical events. For instance, the story of Herod’s eagle on the temple is only found in other ancient sources. The image of the child Jesus returning to Galilee and witnessing the crucified man beside the road is another extra-biblical insertion.* These events either actually happened or were very possible, and they provide important context for us about Jesus’ time. But there have been other key things left out (Notably, the Ezra/Nehemiah stories including the return to Jerusalem, rebuilding of its walls, recovery of the Torah, and rebuilding of the Temple). In fact, the Temple–a central piece to the Story–has been pretty much neglected. This is a tough one, but in a movie called “The Bible,” when so must has to be cut already, I don’t know if these choices make sense to me. As I said earlier, I think they made a lot of good choices in the first four hours, but am not as sure about this episode.
9:47pm: Great scene–Jesus’ temptation, especially the last part where Jesus pictures Satan’s promise to give him an easy road to a comfortable kingship versus the way of suffering to true Kingship. This was artistic license at its best. It conveys the exact thrust of the gospel accounts while imaginatively taking us into Jesus’ mind. This is what any sermon on Jesus’ temptation could only attempt to convey with mere words.
9:59pm: Loved the scene with Jesus and Peter. If you read the gospels, you know Jesus had flair, and it looks like this movie is picking up on that. ”What are we going to do?” ”We’re going to change the world.” Good stuff.
One quick story. Every other week, I meet with 6th-8th graders who are preparing for Confirmation. We have been going through the Bible’s Story since October, focusing on the key movements (and skipping a lot). Each week, we recap where we’ve been from the beginning, and each week, the recap goes slowly. This past week, we flew through it. Why? They had watched the first episodes of “The Bible.” They had pictures in their heads now of Abraham and Moses and the Red Sea, and had connected with the characters in new ways. People in our culture are used to receiving stories visually, whether via tv or movies more than via reading. That’s the reality. And that means, we tend to be able to process and digest visual stories more easily than we do written ones. So will “The Bible” disciple and evangelize people for us? No. But might it be a helpful tool to help people grasp the major movements of the biblical Story, and help people know what’s going on when they land somewhere in the Bible? It certainly can. And hopefully, “The Bible” might lead to more modern, artistic, historically accurate, and–dare I say–non-cheesy efforts of conveying the Story of the Bible to people in our image-saturated culture. All of these are good things. Not the magic bullet. But good things. And for that, I am thankful.
Have you been watching “The Bible”? What are your thoughts so far? Feel free to add to the discussion by commenting below!
*For a really engaging reconstruction of Jesus’ return to Galilee from the family’s time of refuge in Egypt, check out Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.