Last week, the History Channel aired the first segment of a new miniseries, “The Bible”. After an extensive promotional campaign aimed primarily at Christian audiences over the last number of months, the premiere earned the network it’s largest audience of the year. The brainchild of producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, both committed evangelical Christians, this ten-part miniseries will air on Sunday evenings through the month of March, two episodes combined each evening, with the final episode being broadcast on Easter Sunday.
Burnett is perhaps best known as producer of the reality-television show Survivor, which raises interesting questions about the connection between a reality show that pits contestants in exotic locales against one another in physical and psychological competition in a bid to a win a one million dollar payoff, and the sacred text of the Bible. But perhaps that is best left to another column. For this one, I want to offer my own response and review of the concept of “The Bible” as presented in its first two episodes, airing together last Sunday.
Burnett and Downey have pitched this to a Christian audience, but in hopes that it would reach others and open the mysteries of the Bible to those beyond the church, perhaps bringing them in to its fold. In a YouTube video, as part of the promotional strategy, Burnett stated that “We believe our Bible series has the potential to reach not only those who already go to church but could reach a whole new generation of people who have never been to church.” Downey further commented, “We’ve told the stories of the Bible in a way to grab viewers’ attention and draw them in to want to know more. The footage is exciting, it’s compelling, poignant and powerful. Our hope is this series will reach millions of people around the world.”
I would respond that I found the opening segments neither powerful nor compelling. It certainly cannot be classified as an epic, despite its length and twenty-two million dollar budget; an epic might be presumed to hold a narrative structure, some character or plot development, perhaps conflict or struggle and resolution. Instead, we are simply presented with a series of vignettes lifted from the pages of the Bible, but which do not do the Bible justice. One expects a certain simplifying of the stories in order to fit such a vast array of material into ten episodes – half from the Old Testament and half from the New Testament – with time for commercials, but this telling was not just a simplifying; the telling of the stories was simplistic at best, and one comes away with the impression that the text that informed the series was not the Bible itself, but a children’s storybook version in which only the key elements of narrative are transferred into action.
The call of Abraham, as an example, is reduced to a whispering voice of God, followed by Abraham’s blind obedience to this whispered voice with the non-biblical mantra echoed by Abraham over and over, “Trust in the Lord!” The jarring biblical story of Abraham taking his son Isaac, to offer as a sacrifice, is not rooted in the challenge of a migrant living in a foreign land, competing for grazing land and living among a people of different languages and with different gods, and a religion that demands the sacrifice of the first-born as an act of worship and expiation; it simply emerges as an act of blind obedience, with a mother’s fears thrown in for good measure; in an imposition on the Biblical narrative, Sarah seems to grasp what is happening, and goes chasing after Abraham – not the three days of the journey as recounted in Genesis, but what looks instead like about three hundred metres.
The Bible is not really a book, it should be noted, but a collection of books written by different hands over a period of centuries. It is shaped by different cultural, historical, social, and religious influences and contexts, but the miniseries seems to want to reduce the Bible to a simplistic plea to “trust in the Lord” (as Moses is also heard to repeat in the story of the Exodus). The Bible, as a collection of writings, is the story of a people’s relationship with God, and attempts to give an understanding to Creation and the God who stands behind it. It struggles to come to terms with the nature and meaning of human existence, and its purpose, especially in relation to Creation and to God, especially by people who are living in a more complex world than we imagine, a world inhabited by various people with very different ideas about themselves and their world. Any telling of the Bible aimed at faith audiences should portray some of the issues of real faith, rather than simply giving a live-action version of a Sunday school tableau, complete with sandals, swords and false beards, that reduces not only God but the people of God to poor players who strut and fret their hour on the stage, and then are heard no more.
If you want more than colour action, but real drama, conflict, struggle, and a deep theology that does not provide simplistic answers, but rather raises complex questions, skip the miniseries and head for the book. Always available at a church near you.