The Bible On TV


John the Baptist preaches that Christ is the life and light of men.

John preaches that Christ is the life and light of men.

Being as I am still living in the dark ages (I may have been the last person on the planet to get a cell phone), I don’t have cable TV and therefore don’t get the History Channel. As a result, I can’t see for myself what I think of The Bible, the five-part, ten-hour series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

However, I am finding talk about the series quite interesting. The ratings dipped some in week two but still outstripped the competition. Apparently some 30 million viewers have tuned in over the three-week period.

Never mind that the reviews have been tepid (see for example the one in the LA Times). One accusation is that the shows are quite violent, another that they are sensationalized.

Since I haven’t seen the TV production, I can’t offer an opinion. I can say that the stories in the Bible are quite violent. That’s a reflection of Man’s nature and God’s judgment. We don’t often think about all the people who died in the flood, for example, since the Biblical story focuses on the eight people who were saved. But to render the story accurately, the film version would have to show the loss of life along with the saving of life.

David faced Goliath in the middle of a war, so it would be logical to expect that segment to be fairly bloody. In fact Biblical times were quite violent. Even New Testament times.

The Roman rule was oppressive and insurrections were put down mercilessly–I was reminded of this when I read Tosca Lee’s Iscariot. I don’t know how peaceful the Burnett-Downey production will make it appear, but we know the Pharisees tried to stone Jesus once, that they did stone Stephen, that an adulteress would have been stoned had not Jesus answered her accusers as He did, and that He wasn’t the only person crucified. No, the Pax Romana was earned by the blood of the oppressed.

As far as the criticism that the shows are overdone and sensationalized, I suppose I’d have to see them to decide for myself if I agree or disagree. The irritating thing is that all the talk today is about the actor playing Satan looking like President Obama. I much prefer conversation about substantive issues, not some “Jesus in the smudge on the window” type imagination.

Some people, interestingly, criticize the TV series because they actually are criticizing God. Here’s a sample:

I won’t go into detail except to point out that I’ve never understood why God found it necessary to kill children and livestock. I almost understand the notion that adults were all sinners deserving of death (presuming the validity behind all that), but even the Catholics have the concept of the Age of Reason, before which children aren’t held responsible for sin because they’re innocent of responsibility for poor decision-making.

But what about the poor livestock?! With this story, as with God’s later plagues on Egypt, I’ve never understood why an infinitely wise God would punish soulless, conscious-less animals for their masters’ wrongdoings. Cattle are just wandering around . . . waiting to be slaughtered. Is their very existence a crime against God? If not, then why drown them all?

In reality, I prefer that to the jabs at the particular races of the actors or at the quality of the script. At least then the people are actually interacting with the text. The biggest problem I see with dramatizations of the Bible, and, in fact, with Biblical fiction, is that people will believe the modern interpretation over the Biblical record. That’s how we “know” there were three wisemen or that the shepherds say a really bright star.

Daniel019It appears that all this talk about casting President Obama in the role of Satan has detracted from some of the best of the series–the refusal of Daniel’s friends to worship a false God and being rescued from the fiery furnace meant to destroy them, John the Baptist, and the first appearance of Jesus. My guess is that “Satan” made his appearance in the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. How sad that the focus became so skewered.

So what do you all think? Are you watching The Bible? Why or why not? What do you think about it? What are they doing right? What could be better?

The Bible, Reality, And Theology


Abraham_with_IsaacAs many of you know, Roma Downey (star of the TV show Touched by an Angel) and Mark Burnett (successful producer of a number of TV game shows including Survivor, Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? The Voice, and Shark Tank), spearheaded the production of the TV mini-series The Bible which began airing on the History Channel last Sunday. Apparently it’s a ratings success and most likely a financial one too, but how does it stack up in the areas that really matter?

What, in fact, would be the areas that really matter? For viewers, undoubtedly the important elements would be the quality of storytelling, acting, and cinematography. In other words, is it good on an entertainment level? But for those of us who believe the Bible to be true, not a collection of myths, there’s another level that matters–the truthfulness of the production, the adherence to Scriptural intent, if you will.

But should that matter?

My friend and writing colleague Mike Duran recently took to task a reviewer for slipping into the role of “Theology Police.” I don’t know if it’s possible to agree with someone in the midst of disagreeing with them, but that’s kind of where I find myself. Toward the end of his post on the subject, Mike said

In their attempt to be “discerning,” many Christian fiction reviewers are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. (emphasis in the original)

Understand, I haven’t read the book in question or the review. But in principle, I agree with what Mike is saying there. No one should be so consumed with minutia that they miss the big picture. What I find myself disagreeing with, however, is what appears to be Mike’s guiding principle in looking at reviews:

Being “discerning” about theology is different than being “discerning” about art. (emphasis in the original)

Really?

Is bad theology ever OK, even for a fiction writer, even for a speculative fiction writer?

I don’t understand that–not that Mike is advocating such. Rather, it seems he’s expressing his belief that theology shouldn’t be held up as a guide by which someone judges fiction. Back in November in a guest post at Spec Faith discussing this very issue, Mike said

So am I suggesting NO theology in our novels? I’m not sure it’s possible for an author’s worldview or theology to not seep into a story. But “seeping” into a story and showcasing it therein are huge differences. Am I winking at BAD theology? Absolutely not. My question is: Is fiction the right vehicle for reinforcing and/or expounding good theology in the first place? (emphasis in the original)

So MY question is this: is it ever right for a Christian to knowingly portray bad theology? Hence, since I know God to be loving, should I write a speculative story showing the One True God as less than loving? Or Satan as less than rebellious? Or man as less than sinful by nature?

Those particular issues might seem to be a little easier to answer than some of the “minor issues” that crop up. Can a Christian work portray “magic” as good? Or can The Bible skip Abraham’s name change from Abram or God making a covenant with him?

One reviewer of the first episode of The Bible had this to say:

I know there’s such a thing as creative and artistic license, that’s fine. But the entire reason a theological advisory board was brought on was to ensure that Biblical details were accurate. And they’re not. I’m not saying I’m surprised. I’m saying this reveals that the theologians involved either knew the details and did not tell them (or production changed them, in which case why bother with advisors) or they didn’t think them important enough to include in the stories.

So how important is accurate theology? Or should artistic license overrule adherence to theological particulars?

I feel very strongly about Truth, which is why I bristle when people seem so willing to throw it aside, even when they clamor for “realism” in fiction. We need to accurately portray people in our fiction, the argument goes, and those people cuss and swear. So our fiction out to be allowed to reflect these people accurately.

But what about God? Apparently it’s not such a big deal if we get things about Him right.

But what does “right” mean?

Are the makers of The Bible mini-series trying to transcribe the actual Bible onto screen? Absolutely not. When interviewed on Focus on the Family shortly before the first episode of their project aired, Mark Burnett said he considered the TV series to be a ten hour commercial for the real thing.

So my thinking is this: a work of fiction needs to be judged by what it’s attempting to do. If it’s a commercial, then it shouldn’t be judged as a documentary.

C. S. Lewis was not attempting to portray Christ in allegory. Consequently his first Narnia tale shouldn’t be criticized because Aslan died on a stone table and not a cross or because he came to life the next day and never spent an hour in a tomb.

The theology issue, then, should be judged according to intent. No work of fiction will ever portray all the truths of the Bible, even The Bible–that much should be clear from the start. But this fictionalized story does carry a burden, as should all fiction Christians write, to tell the Truth about God as it works to fulfill its intent.

Agree or disagree?

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