The Bible / What works and what doesn’t in the ambitious mini-series

It’s common these days for each new episode of a TV series to begin with a montage that sums up all the relevant plot points from previous episodes. So it was only natural that, when the History Channel aired its five-part mini-series The Bible over the month of March, all but one of the episodes began with narrator Keith David intoning, in his deep baritone voice, “Previously, on The Bible…”

All of the show’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in that one phrase. Produced by Mark Burnett (a TV mogul best known for unscripted “reality” shows like Survivor and The Apprentice) and his wife Roma Downey (who once starred in Touched by an Angel), the mini-series rushes through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in ten hours — though it’s more like seven, once you bracket off the commercial breaks — and it zips through the stories so quickly that you barely notice when they are compressed even further in those opening sequences. But the mini-series also makes a point of emphasizing the continuity between Bible stories in a way that is quite rare among Bible films, and in a way that sometimes allows individual stories to shed light profitably on others.

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Indiana Jones and the Deadly Blather / Notes on the devolution of a franchise.

“Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?” So said Indiana Jones to a couple of bemused military intelligence agents in Raiders of the Lost Ark, easily the top-grossing film of 1981 and one of the greatest action movies ever made. And thus producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg seemed to make explicit what had only been implicit in the handful of films that they had made over the previous few years — films that had captured an entire generation’s spiritual imagination.

Lucas, of course, had helped to revive interest in the power of myth with his space-opera throwback, Star Wars (1977), and its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back (1980); the latter was particularly heavy on the spiritual development of its hero, Luke Skywalker. Some Christians, keen to capitalize on the franchise’s popularity, even went so far as to draw extensive analogies between the first movie and the biblical narrative; the fact that Obi-Wan Kenobi was betrayed by his disciple, and died, and continued beyond death as a counsellor to Luke was, of course, key to their interpretations.1 Spielberg, for his part, had directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, re-edited and re-released in 1980), a film about aliens that spoke very strongly to the longing for enlightenment from above; in both images and dialogue, the film even made indirect references to the story of Moses and his encounter with God on Mount Sinai.2

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Forget Me Not / Movies and memory.

Few themes in the Bible are as persistent as the call to remember: whether it is God commanding the Israelites never to forget how he brought them out of Egypt, or Jesus telling his followers to eat his body and drink his blood in remembrance of him, or the thief on the cross asking Christ to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, the role that memory plays in shaping our identities and in binding us to each other and to God is integral to the faith.

Memory has also become an increasingly prominent theme at the movies, going back a few years to Memento, an ingenious film noir about a man who has been unable to create new memories ever since he was knocked head-first into a mirror while trying to protect his now-dead wife from a rapist who broke into their house. Despite his condition, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is determined to hunt the murderer down and kill him, so he surrounds himself with notes and Polaroid photos, and he tattoos the most important clues to his very skin. These notes, he says, are more objective, more true, than mere recollection, which can be unreliable.

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Your Chip Is Showing / Four recent films show a battle for control among men, women, and machines.

Film is perhaps the most technological of artforms, and it relies increasingly on computers for its simulations of the real world. Not surprisingly, films have also expressed concern over the directions in which our technology is taking us, and these days, as spyware snoops around our hard drives and governments assume more powers unto themselves, the issue that crops up repeatedly in films is that of control. Who has it? Who uses it? And to what degree have the devices we created to serve us become our masters?

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The Revenger’s Tragedy / Vengeance is ours, saith Hollywood.

Vengeance is ours, saith Hollywood. This message came through particularly loud and clear during a single week in April, in which the studios released three films about grim, determined vigilantes who seek brutal revenge against their enemies. While those who take the law into their own hands are usually anything but heroic in real life, the protagonists in Kill Bill, The Punisher, and Man on Fire are all presented in more or less sympathetic terms. All of their violent vendettas are portrayed as at least somewhat justified, and there even seems to be a hint of divine sanction hanging over their efforts. All three of them have lost a child, and sometimes other friends and family too, and all three of them have been shot and left for dead by the villains who deprived them of their loved ones. Thus, when all three of them recuperate and set out on their quests for vengeance, it is as though they have risen from the dead to set wrongs right.

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The What-If Game

frequency2Most people play the what-if game at some point or other. Many of us look back on a specific moment when we made a decision that had ramifications far beyond our own lives, and we wonder if we did the right thing. For example, what if I had not skipped grades when I was 12 years old? I came to regret that decision frequently during my high school years, and if I could revisit any moment in my past, that would probably be it.

But I was not the only person affected by my choice. Had I not skipped grades, I would probably not have gone to Bible school, and I would not have become friends with a couple of fellows who ended up moving to Vancouver and becoming my first roommates. Two of my roommates went on to marry women who lived in the suite below our own, and one of these couples already has children. There are times when I wonder if those kids will ever know that they owe their existence, in part, to the fact that I said “yes” and not “no” when I was offered a chance to accelerate my education.

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