Debuting to an audience of 14 million, and maintaining an average of 10 million viewers in its remaining weeks, the History Channel's mini-series The Bible was an unequivocal ratings, if not critical, success. Megachurch leaders like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen lauded the message while some critics hammered the series for poor acting and storytelling. But no one should have been surprised that millions of people would watch. As Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ taught us, Christians will support any on-screen endeavor that remains mostly faithful to the biblical source material and doesn't intentionally insult its religious audience.
But the producers wanted to capture more than just the faithful among their viewers, so they ensured the production values exceeded the usual religious fare. This is certainly where The Bible shone. The visuals on display in just the first two hours included impressive recreations of Noah's flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the parting of the Red Sea. The special effects team managed solid renderings of all three—quite a feat for a single episode of television. Though not on par with spectacle-packed blockbusters like Transformers or The Avengers, the effects exceeded the typically low expectations that follow the description “TV movie about the Bible.”
Perhaps the most inspiring choice on the production side was commissioning Hans Zimmer to produce the music. Scoring animated classics like The Lion King, as well as mega franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean and The Dark Knight, Zimmer has defined movie music for this generation in the way that composer John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws) defined it for the previous generation. His music for The Bible followed familiar lines, adding cinematic quality that validated the series' self-description of “epic.”
Aside from the production values, though, the series faltered in important ways. The unavoidable problem of turning the entire Bible into a movie is that the narrative is far too long for even a 10-hour series. Naturally, the show's writers skipped over material. And they skipped a lot: Jacob, Joseph, all of the Judges except Samson, Solomon, and most of the Prophets, just to recount the Old Testament. Despite such gaps, the summarized version of the Old Testament helped to highlight the classic Christian emphasis on the history of redemption, where the law and prophets point to Christ.
Making the Bible 'Cool'
A more troubling problem than what was left out was 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 impatient teenagers who rarely read. This attitude was on full display in the miniseries, 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, the angels 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 once, officially bringing the “Ninja Angel” into the mainstream (a phrase that dominated social media after the first episode aired).
Surprisingly, the action sequences didn't end with the Old Testament, as episode four featured Pontius Pilate engaging in gladiator-style combat practice. As University of Colorado history professor says, “the filmmaking style of [History's other new drama] The Vikings so closely resembles The Bible that it is difficult to tell that we've moved from one series to another. Genre miniseries-making trumps historical context every time.”
Then there's Jesus. Some critics have called him “surfer Jesus” or “hipster Jesus.” This is a Jesus you might expect to find reading a book on postmodern theology in a trendy Portland coffee house. Every line, whether parable or sermon, is delivered with a whispery smolder by a very white-skinned Jesus.
The series received a Noaic flood of criticism for everything from simple historical inaccuracy to outright racism because of its largely white-washed cast. Again Paul Harvey makes an interesting observation that “an America founded in part by Puritan iconoclasts who distrusted and destroyed imagery has become now the greatest exporter of sacred imagery (particularly of Jesus) in the world.”
In a fascinating irony, our secular postmodern cultural milieu has created a new opportunity to revisit the traditional Reformed position on images of Christ. If films are moving icons (and they are), then the classic theological arguments against making an icon of God should apply. Many modern Christians previously found such arguments unpersuasive, though they may reconsider when confronted with an image of Christ that can contribute to racial animosity and impede cross-cultural missions. In a time when racial reconciliation is a priority for many young evangelicals, we cannot avoid these implications.
History's The Bible is pretty good entertainment. If it isn't worthy of high praise, it also isn't worthy of bitter lament, nor is it a portent of cultural decline. We've been at this cinematic spot many times before, and this series is simply a slightly updated version of already worn material. The Bible is not a revolutionary new teaching tool for home studies or churches, as some Christians had hoped. And I suspect it may not work as an effective way of introducing non-Christians to Scripture, since they aren't likely to enjoy the sharp transition from action-packed television to the much slower and longer book. Still, while The Bible might not excel as an education tool, at least it isn't brazenly heretical. For an American cable TV drama, that's probably the best we can expect.