History Channel Brings The Bible To Life. Well, Sort Of.

Recently I wrote about Hollywood’s revived infatuation with the Bible.  Last Sunday evening, The History Channel joined the trend with the first installment of its 10-hour series, simply titled The Bible.

From a ratings standpoint, the show was a huge success.  Approximately 13 million people tuned in (14 million if you count the replay), making it the highest rated cable program so far this year.  Most network shows (CBS, ABC, etc) don’t boast anything close to that.

It’s easy to explain the popularity.  As The Passion taught everyone, Christians will support, in big numbers, any on-screen endeavor that remains faithful to its biblical source material and doesn’t attempt to insult or critique its inevitably religious audience (as opposed to the alternative).  Almost as important, in our special effects saturated era, are the production values.  And this is certainly an area where The Bible shines.  The visuals on display in the first two hours included Noah’s flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the parting of the Red Sea.  Each of these could stand alone in films of their own, and yet the team behind The Bible managed pretty solid renderings of all three, for one television episode.  That’s quite a feat.  It was certainly nothing to compare to spectacle-ridden blockbusters like Transformers or The Avengers, but considering the expectations that follow the description “A TV movie about the Bible”, it’s safe to say that those expectations were exceeded.

Beyond the production values, the series falters in some important ways.  The obvious and unavoidable problem of turning the entire Bible into a movie is that the Bible is far too long.  Naturally, the show’s writers had to skip.  A lot.  This first episode actually begins with the flood, where Noah briefly retells the stories of creation and Adam and Eve.  From Noah the story jumps to Abraham and remains there for the remainder of the first hour.  The next jump is straight to Moses, skipping completely over Jacob and Joseph.

Of course the gaps can be forgiven.  We all understand the constraints of time.  A bigger problem, to my mind, is the addition of extra-biblical and wholly unnecessary material.  Actress Roma Downey, one of the show’s producers, said in an interview on The O’Reilly Factor that they wanted to make the Bible “cool” and interesting, especially for teenagers with short attention spans who rarely read.  This attitude is on full display, the most egregious example being the two angels who go to Sodom to rescue Lot’s family.  After emerging from Lot’s house in full armor and blinding the crowd, they whip out swords and proceed to slaughter half of Sodom on their path to escape.  One of the angels happens to be of Asian decent and wields two swords at the same time, officially bringing the “Ninja Angel” into the mainstream.

It also seems that the temptation to depict Moses as thoroughly Egyptian, only discovering his true heritage by accident (which then leads to an existential crisis) is too strong for screenwriters to resist.  And apparently the bitter personal rivalry between Moses and Pharaoh needed some extra intensity.  When we first meet Moses he is engaged in a kind of fencing duel with his “brother” wherein he leaves a large gash on the soon-to-be Pharaoh’s face.  When the two meet again years later, the cut has become a scar.  Admittedly it’s not a bad image, though entirely overdone.

In the end, then, History’s The Bible is pretty good entertainment.  I have my doubts about the pretty white boy playing Jesus (who looks like he just stepped off the set of One Tree Hill and put on a wig), but so far my reaction is generally positive.  I would not, however, use this series as any kind of serious teaching tool, either at home or in churches.  In my opinion, it doesn’t even work as a way of introducing non-Christians to the Bible, since they aren’t likely to enjoy the transition from action-packed television to the much slower and longer book.  Still, while it is sub-par as education, it at least has the distinct virtue of not being heretical.  For an American Cable TV drama, that’s something.

Part two of The Bible airs this Sunday, March 10, at 8:00pm.

Published by

David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1496815765 Kathy Weddle

    The purpose of the movie was not point for point accuracy. It uses artistic license in a reasonable way to round out characters in order to present continuity in the span of time it must cover before the “main event’, that being the Gospel. As for the color of Jesus, Portugese, not white. Who cares? There has NEVER been a Jewish actor to play Jesus, including The Passion. I’m always amazed that instead of presenting the world a unified Body of Christ, standing together and praying for a maximum harvest of souls, we just have to be experts and critics to show our superiority. Well done!

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Now, I’m confused: When David (the author) is being critical, in a fair and reasoned manner, it’s a sign of arrogance and division-mongering, worthy of scorn and sarcasm. But when YOU yourself are being critical, and are actually demonstrating scorn and sarcasm, it’s NOT arrogant or division-mongering, and is being done for some good purpose?

    Is the manner in which the Bible is presented here likely to result in a bountiful harvest of souls? And if it were more accurate to the Bible itself, would that harvest be higher? Given that the Jewishness of Christ is extremely important, both in terms of theology and in terms of the traditional antisemitism of the Christian Church, should we care what race Jesus is portrayed as? Those are the questions you should be answering, if you want to meaningfully interact with the post.

    Or, you know, you can just be sarcastic and mock the author, without explaining why. Well done!

  • Lindsay Stallones

    We should seriously ask, however, if the inaccuracies in the miniseries are likely to harm people. It’s not enough to sit back and say “See? Someone tried, like, really hard, so we should be nice and present a united front so the atheists don’t convince people not to watch it.”

    As a screenwriter, I think this miniseries is at best a brainless, confused, overly dramatic mess.

    As a Christian, however, especially a teacher in a Christian school, I think this miniseries might be one of the most damaging pieces of entertainment out there. The omissions it makes and the ways in which it changes the story (Moses doesn’t, for example, argue with God over whether he should be sent to pharaoh, but takes on the job with frat boy, televangelist gusto that makes me think it might be the actors’ subtle commentary on the way the story was written)… if I were transcribing what my cynical, agnostic students who are hostile to the Gospel think the Bible says, it would look a lot like this miniseries.

    Therefore, to present it as a Christian’s version of the Bible that Christians all support simply validates the false impression most agnostics and atheists have about our faith. That’s inexcusable.

    God will use this miniseries to draw people to Himself, I’m sure. He uses all things to draw others to Himself. But that alone doesn’t mean we should support it, or ignore its serious flaws. God uses people’s sin to draw them to Himself – do we therefore promote and encourage egregious sin because it makes people reach God? Clearly not. Paul even addresses that!

    So I’m really not sure your criticism of the miniseries’ critics makes much logical sense here. We can be charitable in our criticism and should be. But we are also called to preach the Gospel at all times. Sometimes preaching the Gospel is explaining what the Gospel is not – and this is an excellent opportunity to do so.

  • http://twitter.com/UsAndRufus Edward B.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say Moses *argues* with God, but he isn’t exactly pleased about the whole endeavour. He replies to God with “Who am I to do this?”, “What shall I say to them?”, “But what if they don’t believe me?”, “I can’t speak well”, and finally “Send someone else” (paraphrasing of course). Then God gets angry.

    I haven’t seen the series so I can’t comment on their interpretation, but Moses could definitely be interpreted as arguing with God, and is whining at the least!

    But I agree with your point in general ;)