Ever since medieval mystery plays, the Bible has offered a lucrative playground for show business. The Good Book’s engrossing stories and a guaranteed audience provide the ingredients of success for a profession wedded to ratings. Believers rightly approach these attempts with trepidation. After all, not a little Christian blood has been spilled over the correctness of artistic forays into the spiritual. Jews and Muslims, Abraham’s other children, even ban such projects altogether.
It is sensitivity to these issues that makes the brazen approach of the History Channel’s mini-series The Bible so lamentable. Rarely does a program manage to cheapen its subject matter so effectively without being intentionally satirical. Replete with summer blockbuster narrator and scenes, a strung-out one-dimensional narrative, and a promiscuous use of artistic license, the creators of The Bible have a lot for which they can be held accountable.
For starters, religious profiteering is crassly on display. Besides making possible the memorable phrase “The Bible, brought to you by Walmart,” the show is accompanied by multiple advertisements with a religious angle: from ChristianMingle.com (find God’s match for you) and the smartphone Bible App, to Joel Osteen’s latest book and even a plea spot from CatholicsComeHome.org. This combines with a pitch for local churches to purchase The Bible’s accompanying study kits and books, of course written and produced by the series’ creators.
One could just about ignore the marketing if it weren’t for a disturbing factor that renders the creation positively dangerous: a complete disregard for what is actually in the Bible.
This is a consequence of the show’s scope. Being in an almighty rush to get through its material, the first episode speeds past the Pentateuch in a breathless two hours. To accomplish this on budget, the producers obviously had to be selective regarding the text. To fit the disparate stories into some kind of narrative, they obtusely invented scenes and dialogue. Lot’s wife becomes a contrary nag who doesn’t like Abraham and wants to live in a city (Sodom will do), so she convinces Lot to leave against Abraham’s wishes. Later, when the Israelites are slaves, Pharaoh’s son has an inferiority complex and gets a scar from a tussle with the adolescent Moses, who didn’t know he was a Hebrew until the peevish youth blurts it out in anger.
These narrative sandwiches combine with an annoyingly needless alteration of details. Abraham, who should be Abram to begin with, actually encourages Lot to go his own way (c.f. Gen. 13:8); Abraham is the one told to name their child Isaac, not Sarah; the lamb eventually sacrificed in Isaac’s stead should be a ram caught by its horns (production couldn’t find one for the right price?); Moses should have a speech impediment and a wife from the Sinai, to name a few obvious changes. The result amounts to a streamlined mix of fact and fiction that manages to make the Bible seem like bad reality television, its characters worthy candidates for Big Brother or Survivor (all with British accents, to add the needed exoticism).
This precedent of telling half-truths and stringing along fairy-tale narrative chains is precisely what makes the television series so toxic: post-literate society can now glibly say of the Bible as it has increasingly of literature in general: “I didn’t read it, but I did watch it on TV.”
Sadly that seems to suit the purposes of producers Mark Burnett and actor Roma Downey of Touched by An Angel fame. In an interview on Context with Lorna Dueck, the couple gave their tell-all concerning this latest project.
Burnett sets the bar: “Many people hear different kinds of calls. If you’re a believer, it’s a call from God. If you’re a non-believer, it’s an instinctual call, you know, the question is who answers that and is willing to go forward and who’s willing to take the risks. Nobody likes to fail, but I’ve got news for you—if you’re not willing to fail, you won’t do anything. And that’s all I’ve done.”
Whether this radical sort of relativism stands up to reason, Burnett finishes the interview revealing why he felt free to liberally work over the Bible: “There’s a little difference there sometimes when there’s different ways to explain the Bible: one’s kind of like telling you—don’t do this, don’t do that and it’s kind of threatening. I don’t think it’s the most helpful way. The other is the more loving way of—here’s why it’s the most important story.…They’re realizing—we’ve humanized our story. It’s not told from a distancing, lecturing point of view with one-dimensional characters. These are real people who really lived this.”
Wife and co-executive producer Roma Downey backs Burnett up: “We’ve tried to make it gritty and real and authentic and all of our casting too, and the way that we’ve told the story so that you can find the place where you can relate to the character, which is very important that (as Mark says) we weren’t preaching, that it didn’t come across as something holy and distant, that you could appreciate the lives. This was a tough place that these people were living in.”
It’s not surprising that vacuous statements like this make for a vacuous production. As someone once put it, you can judge the tree by its fruit. The true misfortune will come when people mistake this production for the real thing, but that will suit the devil’s purposes well enough. Why go to the trouble of telling lies when half-truths work so much better? It breathes new meaning into the Greek word for actor: hypocrite.
Image courtesy Trounce.