History Channel’s ‘the Bible’— Less Filling, Tastes Great

(picture courtesy of Joe Alblas, History Channel)

At this season of the year, with Easter approaching, we usually have some sensationalized documentaries, or docudramas, meant to suggest things like Jesus was a Gnostic, or Jesus’ family tomb has been found, or Jesus was actually a Marxist revolutionary in disguise, and the like. When an Easter time program comes along that avoids all of those
fallacies and instead simply tries to present the story of the Bible, Christians and Jews alike may be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief. While the new History Channel special ‘the Bible’ apparently avoids the label offensive, it has already failed to avoid the criticism of trivializing the rich complexity and diversity that we find in the Biblical stories, and for trying to do far too much in just ten hours.

Here is the NY Times review and preview by Neil Genzlinger of the show which debuts Sunday night March 3rd. http://tv.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/arts/television/the-bible-mini-series-on-history-channel.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130302

Here is a brief sample of his critique—
“Mr. Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, gave themselves a chance to tackle the ultimate make-me-believe-it challenge when they decided to produce “The Bible,” a 10-hour dramatization that begins on Sunday on History. Instead of embracing this challenge, they ducked it, serving up a rickety, often cheesy spectacle that is calculated to play well to a certain segment of the already enlisted choir but risks being ignored or scorned in other quarters.

“The mini-series certainly seems unlikely to be much of a recruitment tool for Christianity, putting the emphasis on moments of suffering rather than messages of joy, and not just when it comes time for the Crucifixion. In this heavy-handed treatment, having Jesus born in a manger is not enough; the arrival also has to occur during what looks like a typhoon. Because why have a moderate amount of hardship when you can have an excess of it?”

The producers are reality TV producers, and so some may just shake their heads and say— what did you expect?

Having provided all this advance warning that this will not measure up to productions like Zeferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth or even the ill-fated but well-filmed Gospel of John production, nevertheless here is where I urge Christians to watch these ten hours. I urge them to use the show as an opportunity to have more in depth discussions with a whole variety of non-church goers about the Bible.

We live in a Biblically illiterate culture which is nonetheless a Jesus haunted culture. Jesus is swear word in 50 states, but the Bible remains for many if not most Americans terra incognita. So perhaps in this Lenten and Easter season we may be thankful for any conversation starter, however cheesy, that may give us a chance to have a richer discussion about the Bible and it’s riches.

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  • R.U.Serious

    How cheesy is your review? You used the word cheesy at least three in your analysis of the yet released production. Maybe you will enjoy it tonight while you have some cheesy fries.

  • Frank Elfland

    Truth in advertising would have titled this program “The Bible as interpreted by a right wing christian evangelical. It trivilizes both Judaism and Islam by dismissing both as mere immaterialities. In which Biblical passage does Jesus say, “I an coming?” as is the constant bumper used during broadcast? Why do Downey and her husband not point out that in His 100 year relationship with Moses that God forgot to let him know that all those rules and guidelines were part of a con which would be made immaterial in about a thousand years? That is, afterall the premise upon which Christianity is founded. That God lied to “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but most of All Moses. Or perhaps it was just senility. After all, when you are as old as God you memory fails occassionally. The history channel should at least have stated that this was a 20 hour advertisement for Christianity. After all, the time span of the Bible is several thousand years of which the ministry of jesus covers only 3. God could have thought it was not important enough to mention to Moses.

  • Rhonda Stapleton

    Well stated, Ben. Since it was on History, I had hopes that the series would be umm historical. Once I settled in, I found myself wondering if the punishment for killing an Egyptian and dishonoring Pharaoh was being changed into an Anglo who had gone mad. Once I settled into that, I was deeply disappointed that Moses didn’t look like Charlton Heston when he came down from the mountain. But you’re right. It’s a conversation starter. God can and will use it.

  • MediaSkeptic

    Of course, this review follows that on many other liberal publications that care nothing
    about anything of “Faith” other than criticism. Series is good introduction to the non-believers that may have never had any introduction and refresher for those of faith.

  • Bruce Kokko

    Well said, Professor. Despite the efforts of the writers to the contrary, I must say I still find the 1959 Ben Hur the best depiction of The Christ because the power and truth of God’s mercy and grace and what constitutes faith are poignantly and meaningfully presented. The genuine human condition with all its complexities is clearly portrayed in Ben Hur. I rarely finish watching Ben Hur without tears streaming down my face, and a renewed sense of love and devotion to God.

  • http://www.mybookalmightygod.com/blog/ Enakeme

    I agree with your analysis and think that you are right in saying that this mini-series can be used as a tool to believers to get non-believers talking. Then the believers can expand on what was said in the mini-series and hopefully reach some of the lost! Great Idea!

  • http://highroadkokko.blogspot.com Bruce Kokko

    Dear Prof. Witherington, Please forgive me for my comment. It was not my intention to be adversarial, unpleasant, a troll, or irrelevant. These are the last things I would want to do to anybody. And I certainly don’t want to alienate myself from people, especially those I admire in Christ. Please keep up your good work. I’ll be reading, but much more silently.
    God bless you.