Assessing “The Bible”

The History Channel’s 10-part series “The Bible” is now history – at least in terms of its Australian television airing. Of course it has already been shown in the US to mixed reviews. So it might be worth offering a few thoughts on the series.

A few general remarks if I may. First and most obviously, it is always a major risk to even attempt to do something like this. I mean, it is one thing to risk the ire of, say, The Lord of the Rings fans when their favourite three-part work of fiction is turned into a three-part film series.

The purists of course will always excoriate Peter Jackson for any heresy or deviation from the sacred text. Any addition, or omissions, or variant renderings of a favourite scene will always unleash the wrath of the legion of fans who love and have read so many times over the original book version.

But it is after all a work of fiction, and so a movie producer can live with the anger of some LOTR purists. But we are talking here about the living and authoritative Word of God. To take liberties with this book is another matter altogether.

Indeed, given that we are strongly admonished not to add to or take away from the Word (see Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18-19), this makes any film version a daunting undertaking. Of course any film adaption of a book must take certain liberties and make various edits and reformatting.

So it was a daring venture. Getting the whole Bible storyline down to 10 hours? Obviously large hunks of Scripture have to be omitted in such an endeavour, and editorial judgment must be made as to which portions to highlight and dwell upon.

One problem here is the opening chapters of the Bible are given very short shrift indeed. Of course it is a bit hard for even a professional filmmaker with all the latest computer-aided graphics and hi-tech wizardry to recreate the beginning of the universe.

But the entire story line of the Bible really does depend on a few of these crucial truths, namely our being made in the image of God, and our rebellion against him. The Fall is barely covered in the series, and so the entire reason for why Jesus came, and all that led up to it, is undermined by this omission.

That in turn therefore shows up when we come to the life of Christ. Why did Jesus come to planet earth? Of course the Bible is quite clear on this: he came to save sinners (see eg., 1 Timothy 1:15). But this never quite gets clearly presented in the series.

We end up with more of the usual spin on Jesus, a nice guy who made grandiose claims to be sure, but who basically came to set up a new system of ethics. We get that coming through for example when we see the scene of the calling of the fisherman Peter (Luke 5).

When Peter is called by Jesus, he replies, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” (v. 8). Jesus then tells him he will become a fisher of men. But in the film Peter asks Jesus what they are going to do. Jesus answers, “Change the world!” We get the same ‘mission statement’ in the last episode when Saul (Paul) is baptised.

Um, well not quite. Yes the world will be changed as a result of the work of Christ, but that is actually secondary. The first thing is to change men’s hearts by preaching the gospel. And that gospel message is this: we are sinners alienated from God; Christ came to overcome that by taking our just suffering upon himself on the cross, so that by faith and repentance we can have newness of life.

But because the sin message never really got through from the very beginning of the series, it may not be surprising that the salvation message never quite gets through either. So while we see a lot of re-enactments of Jesus’ mighty deeds, and get to hear some of his great teachings, the core biblical message tends to get a bit lost.

As to particulars, one of course can quibble about various things. Quite early on I was left disappointed by one bit of rewriting of history. Indeed, the way one deals with Sodom and Gomorrah is a good barometer as to how faithful one will be to the biblical text and how authoritative it will be seen.

Regrettably, yet perhaps typically, the series conveniently left out the very reason why Sodom and 4 other cities of the plain were destroyed by God: homosexual gang rape. One would not have known the sin had anything to do with homosexuality if you only went by the TV version of events.

And of course plenty of smaller things can also be commented on. They may be minor, but a number of such things really can take their toll. For example, getting back to the Sodom episode, no, the angels did not fight the men of Lot with swords ninja-style. That most certainly was Hollywood pure and simple.

One can also go on and complain about – or praise – the series for what was left in or what was omitted. Again, you certainly can’t do much in a mere 10 hours. But we can learn much about how and why the series was done if we look more closely at who was behind the series.

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey comprised the team who were responsible for the show. He is a British television producer and Protestant (I believe) and she is a Roman Catholic who starred in “Touched by an Angel.”. Of interest are those who served as consultants to the series. It was quite a mixed bag, including people like Rick Warren, Leith Anderson, Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, Joel Osteen and Erwin McManus.

The last two are of course quite questionable. I have written plenty about Osteen before and his selling out of the gospel, while McManus is an emergent church leader who also has a number of questionable leanings. But let me get back to the husband and wife team who made the series.

They of course have publicly told us about the series, and what they had to say gives us some clues as to where they are coming from. Said Downey, “We only had ten hours so clearly we, you know, we had to make choices. But one of the decisions that we made early on was that whatever stories we told, we wanted to tell them in way that will make emotional connections with the audience, and that sometimes requires a little bit deeper storytelling. It takes up more time to allow you the opportunity to start to care about the character, so that you can come into the story and walk in the footsteps of that character.”

Burnett said, “We’ve approached this as God’s love story, God’s love of all of us. There’s only one perfect character in the entire 66 books. That’s Jesus Christ. Everybody else, to lesser or greater degrees, are flawed, like all of us. And people have huge problems, I mean, in kings, but still God didn’t give up. And that’s the message. It’s like an unconditional love story.”

Perhaps that explains some of my earlier misgivings. Is God a God of Love? Yes, but he of course is far more than that. He is also a just, holy, righteous and fearful God. To only emphasise one aspect of who God is, while downplaying his other attributes, is to offer a rather distorted picture of who he is.

So that in part may explain why the whole concept of sin, judgment and the just wrath of God get so little airtime here. They chose to highlight one aspect of God, as commendable as that may be, but they have not provided the full biblical picture of who he really is.

In sum, it is hoped that this series has been of help to many. But for Christians it should not be seen as a substitute for the real thing. Believers really should relish the living Word of God as expressed in writing. We should not need emotional dramatisations of the Bible to get and keep our interest.

The written Word read with the aid of the Holy Spirit should give us all we need to appreciate our God and to know him more and to know more about him. Sure, a film series like this can act as a supplement to our regular reading, but it should never take its place.

Perhaps the best thing we can say about the 10-part series is that if it gets non-Christians and nominal Christians to actually go and read the Bible, then it will be a good thing indeed. We can certainly pray to that end at least.

www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/?p=15126

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7 Replies to “Assessing “The Bible””

  1. Thanks Bill. I have not seen more than a few moments of the series. I did watch (and enjoy) “King of Kings” recently, on cable, which made for an interesting mix of (very plausible) screenplay creativity and scriptural literalness. On a purely dry and technical point, I believe where you had said “He is also a just, holy, righteous and fearful God” you had intended “…fearsome…” Not really nit-picking, just proofing in the age of necessarily rapid-response internet communications. As others have said: if it gets people (or one, single person) thinking about things they would otherwise have not, maybe a very good thing. Misrepresentation, on the other hand, I always have a (legitimate) problem with. As I read it, the Bible is clear enough in what it is saying, story-wise, not to need psychoanalysis…

    Stephen Phillips

  2. One bit I noted early on was that they skipped from the Red Sea to Jericho: no wandering in the wilderness, no sacred cow, etc. A lot of significant stuff happened then. As with your comment about Jesus’ coming, they seem to miss the why behind the what.
    Meanwhile, I certainly agree with your last paragraph Bill.

    John Bennett

  3. My major problem with this is as you have said Bill the series only focused on one part of God and if (and it is a big IF) it gets people to read the Bible and they see the different parts of God as you have described then they are likely to feel a bit of bait and switch going on. Not that I really think it will have made many people actually read a Bible.

    Oh and the part that really annoyed me was when Abraham was to sacrifice Issac and then you had Sarah run after them when she realised what was going. In the Bible it was a three day hike to the mountain, in the series they went up the first hill they could find and after it all you have Issac brushing off Abraham to run to Sarah who was running up the mountain after them.

    Why dis they feel the need to take so many liberties with what should have a been a straight forward retelling on the Bible stories.

    Paul Wakeford

  4. I noticed God’s wrath in Sodom and also the Exile but perhaps they could have done it better. There seemed to be a lot of extra violence, and the Bible has enough without adding any (e.g. Ninja angels). I did wonder if they skipped the homosexuality thing in Sodom because if they had that they would have also have had to have Lot offering his virgin daughters to the mob which is a little hard to explain in 30 seconds. And if you watch just the show it is the Bible in 7.5 hrs not 10. I noticed that they depicted God a creator, not just at creation but also in other parts and that trusting in God even when things seem to be crazy also seemed to be a recurring theme. Was it perfect? No. Could it have been worse? Definitely. I must admit there were times I needed to go to the Bible to check things out because I wasn’t sure if they were accurate or not. I liked the way they did the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. I was disappointed they skipped the whole Joseph narrative.

    Kylie Anderson

  5. In some places it was obviously there were modifications for TV as you must do with any written to AV presentation, at other times the changes seemed totally unnecessary and missed or even changed the point.

    Kylie Anderson

  6. One positive was the clear depiction of the motives behind why the Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus and especially the unlawfulness of Jesus’ trial.

    I also thought the underlining conflicting worldviews of Greek/Roman society & traditional Jewish society when compared to the radical nature of the gospel was given some good treatment.

    Lyle Hutchinson

  7. I know there were faults but I thought it was absolutely wonderful that this series was screened on free-to-air TV in the first place. I sat and watched with our Chinese non-Christian Home Stay student, providing me with a rich resource from which to draw in future conversations while he is living with us. We have started reading a Chinese English Bible together, and the series has given him a kind of overview, with me steadily plugging the many gaps. I also found it very easy to engage in “God conversations” while “The Bible” was on TV, asking various people during my every-day interactions what they thought of particular episodes or the depiction of certain characters etc. I could do this because the series was being screened on Channel 9 in prime time, immediately after a popular cooking show – not hidden away in the early hours of the morning. The timing of the David episode fitted in perfectly with my KYB (Know Your Bible) studies of 2 Samuel, and I found the depiction of the Jebusite Fortress and David’s surprise entry via the watershaft (2 Samuel 5: 6-9) to match what I had seen on a trip to Israel last year. Many people today are almost biblically illiterate. This series may have whet their appetite for more.

    Sandra Herrmann

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