Does History Channel’s The Bible Live up to Its Promise?

Does History Channel’s The Bible Live up to Its Promise? March 14, 2013

Two competing emotions welled up inside me when I first learned that the History Channel would be making a ten-hour miniseries that followed the storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Jesus: hope and fear.  The Bible, as it is straightforwardly called, is the brainchild of Touched by an Angel alum Roma Downey and her husband, producer Mark Burnett.  Each episode follows several events from the biblical narrative in basically sequential order, culminating in the life of Jesus Christ and the formation of the first-century church.  It is among the most ambitious cable television projects attempted to date, and its first episode last Sunday drew an estimated 13.1 million viewers, making it cable TV’s most popular fare for 2013 thus far.

My hope upon reading the first reports about The Bible was that an established television producer creating what was billed as a faithful adaptation of Scripture for a channel with no religious predisposition could lead to a show that was a cut above the generic evangelical attempts at media proselytizing.  My fear was that it would fail both in theology and spectacle: after all, Downey’s Touched by an Angel was a gentle but often saccharine series of dubious orthodoxy, and most of Burnett’s credits are in the realm of reality TV.  The fact that Joel Osteen was among those consulted on the project certainly didn’t reassure me.

Thus far, I find The Bible neither the cinematic triumph of my wildest hopes nor the preachy video sermon of my darkest fears.  I appreciate the task Burnett and Downey are attempting: to demonstrate that Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection were the climax of a great narrative, the telos of generations who trusted God’s promise and looked forward to Messiah’s coming.  To its credit, The Bible never loses this thread—it is consistent in its thematic attention to an approach to the Old Testament that is both literal and typological in nature, assuming the events really happened as the Bible depicts them but seeing them as foreshadowing the fulfillment that Christ represents.  Though there are certainly several glaring absurdities present (my own exegesis of Genesis 19 somehow missed the Asian ninja angel at Sodom), The Bible overall really seems to be making a good faith effort to depict its subject accurately and symbolically.  In the process, however, the show often glides over or elides entirely the complexities of its key characters.  Abraham is permitted some legitimate wrestling with his faith, as he concedes to Sarah in taking Hagar to produce an heir or agonizes about sacrificing Isaac.  But his deception in Egypt is never mentioned, and the extent of Sarah’s ill treatment of Hagar is only alluded to.  Moses is glossed even more; Zipporah is never mentioned, while Aaron acts primarily as a passive sidekick, not as a God-appointed spokesman who initiates rebellions against both Moses and God himself.

In trying to present the biblical narrative in its fullness, then, The Bible (at least in its early stages) threatens to collapse from the weight of its own ambitions.  Indeed, it is really not ambitious enough, for a miniseries just doesn’t seem enough time to give the stories the gravity they deserve.  Of course, the biblical texts themselves move quickly and episodically, but as Robert Alter and many other biblical scholars have observed, there is a precision in the compactness of these narratives, words weighted with nuance, suggestion, multiple meanings, giving the Hebrew stories depths that are incommunicable in other media.  Moreover, television narrative is very different from biblical narrative—if the goal is to create a televised story that will dramatize, bring to life, the Bible to a new audience, more time must be spent with individual characters to ensure that their lives onscreen exemplify the messy, human, inspiring, compelling lives that the historical figures obviously lived.

The end result, then, is a drama that plays more like a reenactment-heavy documentary.  The fact that gaps of time are narrated by Keith David, the actor who narrated Ken Burns’s The War, doesn’t help that perception, nor does the clipped length of scenes, racing from event to event, starring largely obscure actors who must make up in overt expressiveness what they lack in screen time.  Though such speculations may be idle, I am genuinely curious as to whether or not The Bible could have worked as a multi-season television series, giving several episodes to dwell on the stories presented.  It should be noted, however, that almost half of the show’s ten hours is devoted to the life of Jesus.  If this is disproportionate relative to the actual page-space allotted the New Testament in Scripture, it gives hope that future episodes could develop a sustained story and characterization with more texture than the early parts.  There are certainly many lines and visual cues in the parts I watched that suggested some Christological payoff down the road.

I can honestly say that I appreciate what Burnett and Downey’s production is attempting, and the result is better than it would have been if made in the standard generic evangelical format.  Hopefully, some viewers will be able to experience a greater appreciation for the rich, sweeping scope of biblical narrative while watching.  Naturally, though, I can’t help wishing it was better and think of ways it could be.  The old maxim is as true with The Bible as with most other films: the book is better than the movie.

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  • Ruth Haydon

    I missed the first episode, and the second did seem rushed. It seemed odd to see Samuel pick David as the next king of Israel, by watching him as a shepherd. It doesn’t seem like God picked David. I don’t think it would have added that much time to the section to meet Jesse and all of his sons, and have Samuel pick David only after realizing each of his elder brothers was not God’s chosen king. I am hoping the New Testament will be better.

  • Levi

    Very well-written article. Although I enjoy the show, you’re not wrong.