Inside the History Channel’s epic TV miniseries ‘The Bible’

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This is one of those GetReligion follow-up posts where we basically say, “See, was that so hard?”

Back in December, I raised a few questions about media coverage of “The Bible,” the epic miniseries that debuted Sunday night on the History Channel.

In reading an in-depth feature by CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi over the weekend, I was pleased to see my questions answered. Obviously, Marripodi pays close attention to the excellent insight at GetReligion. Or maybe he’s just good at his job …

Kidding aside, let’s start at the top of the CNN piece:

(CNN) - Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. His shows and spinoffs command hours of prime-time television real estate. The seal of his production company One Three Media appears at the end of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Job” and “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

He will tell you each show was No. 1 in the time slot. He will tell you he will take on all comers in his bare-knuckle, ratings-driven world and beat them. He will tell you on any given day he has 150 video-editing systems churning through edits on his dossier, which spans the three major broadcast networks.

But if you suggest he may not have the chops to take on a massive scripted dramatic presentation of the Bible as a 10-hour miniseries, his eyes will tell you he wants to throttle you.

My bad.

Burnett and wife, Roma Downey, have been barnstorming the country like roving preachers on horseback trying to evangelize the West. Their gospel is spreading the news of “The Bible” - their ambitious project that aims to tell the story of the Bible in 10 installments. It begins its weeklong premiere on the History Channel Sunday night.

My previous post complained about the lack of specific details concerning Burnett’s faith background and the motivation for the project.

Enter Marrapodi:

Both Downey and Burnett were raised Catholic, Burnett in England and Downey in Ireland. They still regularly attend Mass in Los Angeles. Growing up, both watched the classic Biblical films that the Hollywood of yesteryear churned out, like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Wait, there’s more:

The project is personal for Burnett and Downey, coming from a deep spiritual desire for more people to see and experience the stories of their faith. As Europeans, now naturalized U.S. citizens, they are stunned the Bible is not taught in public schools.

“It was time for an updating. Adding fresh visual life to a sacred text,” Burnett said.

“People have great hearts and great knowledge but no experience of filmmaking and no budgets,” Burnett said of past telling of the stories on film and television.

“Or the resources,” Downey chimed in. “We wanted to create something that was gritty and authentic. We certainly didn’t want everyone to look like they stepped out of the dry cleaners.”

See, was that so hard?

In that earlier post, I also suggested:

As this television event draws closer, I’d love to see more reporting — by Godbeat pros or otherwise — on the specific stories chosen, the facts portrayed and the biblical and historical accuracy (or not).

Enter Marrapodi again:

The series encompasses five hours of the Old Testament and five hours of the New Testament.

They took many artistic liberties to compress the story lines while hoping to remain true to the story.

A public relations manager for the project described the liberties to me as “extra-biblical but not contra-biblical.”

For instance, in the series opener, the Book of Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and Noah unfold together. Noah and his family are already on the ark while the flood waters batter their boat. To calm his family, Noah tells them the story of creation: “In the beginning! … ” Noah bellows as he runs around plugging leaks and comforting his family and the animals.

Similarly, in the story of David and Goliath, when David heads out to face the giant Philistine foe, he clutches his sling and quietly begins to recite the 23rd Psalm, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” David is considered the author of the psalm, but nowhere in the text of the David and Goliath story does it address what he said as he walked out to battle and slay Goliath.

See, was that so hard? Actually, yes, it is that hard. Much harder, in fact, than a Godbeat pro the caliber of Marrapodi makes it appear.

Kudos to him and CNN.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • sari

    Good article., though I would have liked more personal background on both Downey and Burnett’s religious beliefs. Saying they’re Catholic and go to Mass regularly is too nonspecific. Did one or both stray and then return to the faith? This is her third marriage and his second; are they in good standing with the Church?

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Good questions, sari.

  • sari

    Glad you like the questions, Bobby, though they seem to have been deleted from the thread :>)

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Strange. But I think they’re back now.

  • CarlH

    Very good article. But the headline seems a little more flippant than the article deserved. Since it’s a Belief Blog posting, I assume most readers who go their regularly would probably “get” the headline, but I do wonder what percentage of CNN viewer/readers would.

  • CarlH

    Very good article. But the headline seems a little more flippant than the article deserved. Since it’s a Belief Blog posting, I assume most readers who go there regularly would probably “get” the headline, but I do wonder what percentage of CNN viewer/readers would.

  • bob

    It’s gotta be real Bible. All the accents sound English. I haven’t seen one media presentation of Biblical material that isn’t unintentionally funny. From the History Channel I expect nothing more.

  • SouthCoast

    Watched the first one. Not bad, but not really good. (The young Moses was a Ramseid metrosexual, and the older Moses sometimes looked like Glenn Beck on a rant!). If you don’t know the actual narratives, you may like it better, but the compressions, alterations, whatever, that are apparent to someone who does know the original can be rather jarring. (Also, even in the Bronze Age, I believe that most people washed and combed at least once in their lives!) OTOH, I am recording the next one!

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Watched the whole two hours Sunday. On the plus side, I’ve seen worse acting, and there was a sense of trying to be true to the spirit of Scripture even while being skimpy (or even campy) on the details.
    1. Under skimpy, how hard would it have been in transitioning between Abraham and Moses to throw in a paragraph of narration about Isaac siring Jacob and Jacob’s 12 sons being the partriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel, and then segue to Joseph and the famine in Egypt and Joseph’s part in it and how he saved his family only to have the entire nation enslaved when pharoahs came along who “knew not Joseph”? Instead we got one sentence about the Hebrews moving to Egypt due to a famine. Uh, that left out some really important context, didn’t it?
    2. Under campy, the Teenage Mutant Avenging Angels of Sodom just about did me in.
    Still, I will watch next Sunday. If we don’t have hope, we have nothing.

  • SouthCoast

    “Under campy, the Teenage Mutant Avenging Angels of Sodom just about did me in.” Agreed!! Although, on an Inner Adolescent, visceral level, it gave me a rather shocking revelation about what sort of power I am addressing when making my prayers to St. Michael!

    • SouthCoast

      Sorry for a second post, here, but one thing I found a bit unsettling about the Avenging Angels of Sodom was that they appeared to be the 2 whose faces were shown during the depiction of Abraham’s 3 visitors. Inasmuch as I have been always of the understanding that not only was one of the 3 God, the Father, Himself, but also, that the other 2 visitors were the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having them show up in the destruction of Sodom was, as I said, a bit unsettling. Don’t know the producers’ intention on this, however.

  • http://featuring.com/ Dan

    I haven’t watched it yet, but I can honestly say that it can be quite a challenge to produce the Bible in a show like this. It may not be fully accurate. This is from my experience, watching movies that were inspired by books eg The Chronicles of Narnia, Marvel comics, etc.


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