Thursday, March 07, 2013

Review of The Bible

Part 1 of a 10-hour miniseries on The History Channel

The Bible for Dummies came out in 2002. It will soon be eight years since the publication of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible. I suppose it was only a matter of time until somebody tried to do something similar on TV. But who would produce such a show? Which of the cable channels would be most likely to broadcast an over-simplified, dumbed down miniseries about the Bible? Perhaps Fox, with such hits like American Idol, The Simpsons, Family Guy and the like. Or maybe A&E which brought Dog the Bounty Hunter and Storage Wars into our homes. My first guess, whoever, would have been Bravo, which has produced all of those highly edifying Real Housewives of… reality shows. I have to admit I was a little surprised to learn that it was my beloved History Channel that ended up being the culprit. 

In 2002 MAD Magazine did one of their many spoofs—something they excel at doing. This time it was a spoof of one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. Only MADs version was Bored of the Rings. Watching Part One of The Bible I sometimes thought I was just witnessing dumbed down, over simplified story telling. But at other times I thought we had crossed over into parody, a Bored of the Rings approach to the Bible. The dumbed down aspect is forgivable if you accept the underlying premise of the project: an attempt at a sweeping overview of a book as massive and as complex as the Bible in only ten hours (minus time for commercials). With such time constraints you cannot begin to hit all the highlights, to say nothing of exploring the nuisance and complex theological concepts underlying these stories from Scripture. And this also means that you are prepared to accept a lot of what Hollywood calls “compression”. At best this gives you a Reader’s Digest version of the story. At worst you get the Classics Comic Book version of War and Peace. Too often the story compression in The Bible was of the Classics Comic Book variety, requiring numerous voice-overs by a narrator to keep someone unfamiliar with the biblical text from becoming hopelessly lost. We ended up with more a collection of story boards than a story; brief disconnected snap shots with little to connect them. 

But my biggest disappointment was when the creators of The Bible chose to use some of those precious minutes of airtime to indulge in what could only be called parody. Perhaps the most blatant example was the portrayal of the angels that came to Lot’s rescue in Sodom. In over half a century of bible reading it never once crossed my mind to conceive of angelic visitors as ninja warriors, yet that is exactly what we were given in this bizarre episode. Similar creative license run amok was exercised in the scenes showing a young Prince Moses engaged in knife fights with the crown prince of Egypt. I just stared at the TV screen in open-mouth incredulity. I suppose next we will be subjected to some creative cross marketing scheme in which Moses the Action Figure will be given out in MacDonald’s Kid’s Meals. 

Producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett consulted “a wide range of pastors and academics” in developing the script for The Bible, including their friend, Joel Osteen. Osteen’s involvement could explain a lot. But I am baffled that respected evangelical leaders such as Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Leith Anderson, a leading Minnesota pastor and the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, also lent their support to this miniseries. I can only assume that they view this disappointing effort with a sense of pragmatism. Just maybe someone unfamiliar with the Bible—the book—will watch The Bible—the miniseries—and be moved to dig deeper and actually go back to the source material. And once you get people reading the Bible then anything is possible. If God can work His will through the embarrassing efforts of preachers, then surely He can do something with a TV show.

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