The Bible TV show

The Bible on the History Channel is a smash hit, even though most critics hate it.  The mini-series reportedly takes a reverent stance towards its source material.  I have not seen it.  Have you?  How is it?  (After the jump, a critic of the Hollywood scene discusses the show.)From Daniel Wattenberg:

Sure, it’s easy to criticize Hollywood, but try to remember that the entertainment industry today is an intellectually demanding environment, fraught with cognitively challenging, even intractable, questions, like, to take one recent example: How can the cable mini-series “The Bible” be such a ratings hit when there is no audience for overtly religious entertainment programming?

According to the latest Nielsens, released Tuesday, Sunday night’s telecast of “The Bible,” produced by husband-and-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey for basic cable’s History channel, managed to attract more viewers than anything on broadcast network NBC … during the entire week.

The second installment of this five-part mini-series airing at 8-10 p.m. Sundays through Easter — the first foray into scripted drama for “Survivor” creator Burnett — drew 10.8 million viewers, good for number one in its timeslot and number 11 overall for the week.

Even bigger was part one the week before, which amassed an audience of 13.1 million viewers, cable’s largest of the year. That series premiere topped the ratings for both of the week’s episodes of “American Idol.” (Not the first time the Almighty has bested idols in head-to-head competition in this ancient rivalry — but, still, an impressive feat, even if Fox’s longtime ratings juggernaut is showing signs of slippage.)

Blockbuster ratings for a compilation of bible stories from a reality TV producer taking his first crack at drama? Can’t be. If there was a market for biblical epics, then Hollywood wouldn’t have long ago abandoned the genre, a staple of the feature film industry back in the days of Cinerama. Or was it Cinemascope? Don’t ask me. I wasn’t even alive. Or if I was, I was only just beginning to grasp the essentials of widescreen projection techniques, which was offered as an elective at the nursery school where I was then enrolled.

Makes no sense. It’s not as if “The Bible” got any help from TV critics. Its Metacritic scores averaged just 44, the low end of the “mixed reviews” range as measured by the review aggregation site.

As a cable series, “The Bible” lacked the ready-made, large scale promotional platform and popular lead-in that can drive strong ratings for a new show on a major broadcast network, of the kind NBC was, for many years.

And we all know better than to credit the mini-series’ success to its unembarrassed reverence for its sacred source material. . . .

As for “The Bible’s” cast — aside from Miss Downey (Mother Mary), arguably still semi-famous from her long run on the CBS hit “Touched By an Angel,” it’s devoid of name actors. Unless you count series star Diogo Morcaldo (Jesus Christ). Mr. Morcaldo is indeed a household name, all up and down the western littoral of the Iberian Peninsula, in fact, in his native Portugal.

No critical love. No marketing oomph. No-name cast. Together equal — what else? — ratings smash!

via Sacred mystery: Blockbuster ratings for ‘The Bible’ confound Hollywood – Washington Times.

To be fair, that the series is faithful to the Bible is not why critics don’t like it.  They say it’s bad TV.   Good material can be presented badly.  Is it that people are so starved for positive television that they are watching this?  Or are the Bible stories so compelling that they work despite problems with the presentation?  Or is the production not so bad after all?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ theoldadam

    Good. That’s it’s a smash hit.

    Maybe some of those folks will pick one up (a Bible).

    Maybe some will even walk into a church building for the 1st time… or again.

    I haven’t watched, however. I pretty much know what the Bible has to say, and I don’t want to get angry watching something that gets the message wrong, or that it might have a different take on it.

  • Bob Smith

    By and large, I’d say it is not faithful to the Scriptures. It may open the discussion with unchurched and non-christians, but the message of the gospel is more or less missing. It means we have a lot of talking to do.

  • Abby

    I feel like, for people watching who may be completely unfamiliar with the Bible, that it is very confusing. If it sends them TO the Bible, well and good. But even then I would hope and pray they get into the Bible with a “good” teacher to help them.

    As for me, I do not like it at all. It is being very misleading. I’m waiting to see what they are going to do with Jesus and the rest of the NT — even Revelation. But, I’m not very hopeful.

    As I’ve watched reruns of “Touched by an Angel,” I’ve seen parallels of philosophy drawn in this Bible series. And one seems to me to be “universalism.” I’m wondering if they are going to present hell at all. Roma is Catholic and I know they believe in hell. So, we’ll see. Actually, Jesus and Revelation are what I’m most interested in right now.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    From what I understand, it’s bout on the same level as the Apocrypha or Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments: decent at introducing the viewer to the skeletal outline of events, but should not be used for a source of doctrine.

    Incidentally, I guess Satan looks like President Obama.

  • http://christian.dwaynephillips.net Dwayne Phillips

    The series hits some of the high points in the biblical story. It skips over a lot of things. I guess that’s called “artistic license.” It is pretty boring and most of it looks pretty cheap. They probably had a small production budget. For example, the 600,000 men who left Egypt was reduced to about a hundred.

    But then again, maybe some viewers will look at a Bible for the first time in years or the first time in their lives. The challenge for Christians, those who actually read the Bible, is NOT to come across as “Oh, yeah, that show. Well, YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND that it was really made for children. LET ME TELL YOU what is really in the Bible.”

  • fjsteve

    J. Dean:

    Incidentally, I guess Satan looks like President Obama.

    Yeah, I noticed that too! Oh wait, you’re talking about the miniseries. Never mind.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel

    It’s mainly a hit because evangelicals watch it out of a sense of tribal pride and a sense of duty to promote things that labeled “Christian” or “Bible”. This is, of course, a pretty bad heuristic for determining what is actually artistic and meaningful.

  • fjsteve

    I have yet to see a History Channel production that is faithful to scripture. Of course, I haven’t seen any miniseries on the History Channel but, as far as documentary productions on Christianity, their standard m.o. is 55 minutes of hype and pretense of serious inquiry followed by 5 minutes of flippant debunking of the entire previous 55 minutes.

  • Patrick Kyle

    Watched a couple episodes. They don’t even get the basic dialogue right (eg. John the Baptists preaching, Jesus calling the disciples etc) which is something they could easily do given budget constraints. Some scenes are loosely based on the Bible, (the death of John the Baptist, killed without the help of Herod’s wife) I suppose it is what should be expected.

  • Robin

    I have a question for anyone out there. I watched last Sunday and I noticed the character playing Samson was black. Was that artistic liscense or could he have been African? Just curious.

  • Steve Bauer

    I’m not a real Bible reader but I did watch it once on TV…

  • Jon

    We’ve been watching the series with our kids. We correct things on the spot when the show veers off course, which is often.
    Like others have said, it may be great for seekers, people with absolutely no idea about the book’s content.
    What’s missing is the “why” of the story–what central theme is drawing it all together. So I guess it’s the Gospel that’s missing.
    Last Sunday, we arrived at the birth of Jesus, and the sheppards were there at the stable, and then the wise men burst into the scene, and everybody fell down and worshipped the baby. Mary and Jospeh looked completely gobsmacked at the sight of it, as if they hadn’t any clue why that activity should be occurring. A little different than Mary treasuring all these things in her heart as Luke tells it.

    The elements of the story are there, and yes they present it all as historical rather than as “allegory”, or to be taken with a grain of salt, which is good.
    So I guess it is up to us to explain the why, to draw out the central theme, when we are conversing about it around the water cooler at work or over the fence with our neighbor.

  • Steve Bauer

    Samson was of the tribe of Dan (kind of interesting considering the reputation of Danites later on in the OT). Thus he was a descendant of Jacob…Isaac…Abraham, from Haran (in Aram) and further from Ur of the Chaldeans. Then again, the Israelites had spent four hundred years in Egypt. If you are from Egypt, are you an African? Are you Black? It seems to me “African” is a geo-political term. “Black” is a racial (sic) term. Most scholars would say that Samson was not Black.

    Then again, having served in a Black Lutheran church and having attended the Black Ministry Convocations of the LCMS, I do know that there is a revisionist interpretation of history in the Black church that insists that the Israelites were Black…that Adam and Eve were Black. To me it makes no nevermind…the OT never much bothers to describe the color of people’s skin, although it stretches my credulity to square an Israelite linage from Black skinned poeples in continental Africa with the clear connection they have with the Semitic peoples.

    Casting a Black actor to play Samson is on the level of casting an Oriental man to play MacBeth.

  • Joe

    The perfectly created, pre-fall man would have had the ability to have children of any pigment. Over time as humans became tribal and separated certain pigments (the specific amount and type of melanin) would have become dominate among the group to the point that it might even appear as those the ability to produce certain pigments was lost to certain groups. But it is really not lost, occasionally, you will see a story of a white couple having a black baby (or the other way around). So, could Sampson have been black? Sure, but its not likely.

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3060907/Black-parents-give-birth-to-white-baby.html

  • Bob Smith

    More than likely, he would have looked like a Palestinian Jew, Arab or an Iraqi. So, no, he was not likely Black, or White. None of the Biblical characters either.

    ;-)

    Bob Smith
    Electronic Resources Librarian
    Concordia Theological Seminary

  • DonS

    I would say that the show is a lot more edifying than what is usually presented on The History Channel.

    I’ve seen parts of the first and third episodes. It’s top level, Bible survey type stuff. A lot is left out and context is largely missing, but it does introduce the basic stories of the Bible to a population, most of which have never seen or heard them, unfortunately. And it does so respectfully. So, that’s something. Obviously, the Gospel is not going to be permitted to be presented in its wondrous detail on a pagan channel like the History Channel, so I think this is probably as good as it gets. Since the series has just gotten to the beginning of Christ’s ministry, none of us know exactly how it is going to treat His ministry, death, and resurrection, so I will reserve judgment on that, as well as how it might tie all of the pieces together at the end.

    I applaud what the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, are trying to do. They explicitly state that they are Christians and they want to share the Bible with others through this effort. That takes courage in our current media environment.

  • Steve Bauer

    The perfectly created, pre-fall man would have had the ability to have children of any pigment.

    That’s a nice conjecture.

  • JH

    Well Chris Rosebrough clearly doesn’t like the series…

  • Becky F.

    We’ve watched all of them so far, because with my husband being a pastor we need to know what people may be talking about on Sunday morning. We’ve been watching them with Bible in lap and criticizing right and left, haha. As I see it, they’ve taken Jesus out of the Old Testament, which is ridiculous. They don’t give Adam and Eve the promise of a savior, they don’t really use direct biblical quotes which ALL have much more powerful language than the fluff mantras (“trust god!” or “god is with us!”) that they are using, etc. There’s no circumcision, they completely changed David’s response to Nathan when his sin with Bathsheba was addressed, they messed up the history around Daniel by switching which kings were during his story, and they didn’t split open the heavens when Jesus was baptized. It’s entertaining for the most part, but if biblical literacy is their goal (which according to the WORLD magazine review, it kind of is) then they are majorly failing by not sticking with what the Bible actually says. I would say it really isn’t worth watching, at this point, but we’re going to stick with it for the long haul so that we can inform our congregation.

  • helen

    I’ll let you all inform me.
    [Nothing I've read so far in any list/blog has convinced me that it's time well spent.
    Even if I had cable.] ;)

  • Someone

    This show has changed me alittle… I am only 15 and wow i know the economy and everything seems to be getting bad…but we always have god. GOD CAN SOLVE ANYTHING! At the worst of times he will be with you.

  • Brian in BC

    I am enjoying watching the series on the whole. I have found that I’m driven back to the Bible itself to read some of the stories and passages with a refreshed desire for understanding. I had not spent much time in the past looking at the fall of Israel and the Babylonia captivity, but with the story of Daniel as it is portrayed in the TV series, I wanted to read and understand. I then found myself looking up the history of different figures and kingdoms and once again diving back into the Bible for further knowledge.

    This is what I hope for the series. Not that people take it “as Gospel” but that instead it ignites a desire to open the Bible for reading and study and conversation.

    I had a great conversation with a coworker (who is not a Christian) using this series as a conversation starter. This is my hope, that we’d take this as an opportunity for discussion and study.

  • DonS

    Well said, Brian @ 22.

    This is a secular, mainstream TV show. You know, the kind where the usual topic is either sex or murder. Just to be discussing the things of Scripture on TV, opening doors for potential conversations with co-workers, neighbors, friends, is refreshing.

    Of course, if we don’t watch because it’s not doctrinally perfect, then we miss those opportunities.

  • tODD

    DonS (@23), would you say the same thing about “The Last Temptation of Christ”?

  • DonS

    tODD @ 24: Is “The Last Temptation of Christ” on the same doctrinal footing as “The Bible”?

  • tODD

    DonS (@25), neither is doctrinally perfect. But the opportunities!

  • DonS

    OK, tODD, then by all means you should watch both.

  • tODD

    My point being that I don’t really buy your statement that we shouldn’t ignore it “because it’s not doctrinally perfect”. Seems clear to me that you’re perfectly willing to ignore something that you consider doctrinally flawed, opportunities notwithstanding.

  • DonS

    I get your point, tODD @ 28. But I believe we should be able to discern the difference between doctrinally imperfect (i.e. they left stuff out) and blasphemous.

  • fjsteve

    Admittedly, I have not watched it but I would ask, is it doctrinally imperfect or is it simply, or mostly, devoid of doctrine? I was under the assumption it was more of a narrative rather than an exegetical work.

  • DonS

    fjsteve @ 30: We haven’t seen all of it, but I think it is largely intended to be a historical account, and editing is related to the goal of telling an interesting story, rather than necessarily preaching the Gospel. So I think you are right.

  • Brian in BC

    Another aspect of the show that I am finding personally enlightening is the way they have set-up the relationship between the Pharisees, the people and the Romans. We are all familiar with the Bible story and most of us understand the historical setting, but let’s be honest, we often have a hard time wrapping our head around the radical change in the people’s attitudes towards Jesus between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. I think we also put the Religious leaders into a “how could they not get it?” box too quickly.

    This series does a fantastic job of setting-up and illuminating the relationships and you can see how terrified the Religious leaders would have been at the thought of the people rebelling against Rome.

    We haven’t hit Easter and Paul yet so as to the explicit explanation of the Gospel, we’ll have to wait. So far, I would put the series up as doing a decent job at getting the sense of the setting and time right. Painting an effective background as it were with a very, very basic overlay of the story almost devoid of actual doctrine, just a few sayings here and there.

  • Bob Smith

    Except that… the way they set up the relationship between Caiaphas (not a Pharisee — the High Priest and a Sadducee) is fiction. In Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, 146-161, Dr. Maier points out that it was Pilate that had good reason to be afraid of the leaders of Judea, not the other way around. They had a good friend in the Emperor’s court. Because of that, four previous confrontations with these leaders led to Pilate being warned not to antagonize them. The program really misleads its viewers here and at countless points in the story. This doesn’t even get to leaving the words: “for the forgiveness of sins” out of the words of institution, “of water” in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus and much else. “The Bible” really is not the Bible, but just a tale of how God appointed human heroes to save the world.

  • Jody T

    As Becky F. (the pastor’s wife) points out in her comment, this series is entertainment (at best). The author on this site says it is “faithful to” scripture. Really? not from what I’ve read in the Bible over the past 30+ years. The Ten Commandments with Charleston Heston many years ago was far more accurate than this series which is so disjointed it’s hard to follow even knowing the truth. I knew we were in for another Hollywood sell-out on day one when it began with Noah on the ark telling what appeared to be a child (prepubescent) the account of creation. The ark according to Scripture was occupied by Noah, his wife, their sons and their son’s wives. There were no children on board and they were not there long enough to have any to grow to such an age. As far as I can tell it’s only gone downhill from there. What an EPIC disappointment! I fear this series only serves to lead people away from the truth of the Gospel. Sad, I expected better, but then Touched by and Angel wasn’t any better. It’s about ratings, and hey, whatever sells, right?

  • NCgrl

    I watched the very beginning of it until it got to the part of Sodam and Gamorah .

    They portray the locals as just wanting to “beat up” the angels. And they way they portrayed them was ridiculous. I’m definitely not a church going Christian , but I do read the Bible. After I saw that one part I knew how they were going to spin it, and I refused to watch it any more.. Like some others on here have said , if someone watches this without reading the actual Bible first…Thier going to be horribly mislead…


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