Friendly Spirituality

On Easter Sunday I watched the last episode of the History Channel’s The Bible, which over its five weeks had an estimated 68 million viewers—an impressive feat by any measure! In my first review I asked how the film stacked up to the Bible itself and how it might be received by viewers. In this second installment, I’ll reflect on feedback from my students and will raise a few other questions regarding what worked with the film and what didn’t.

 So, how might the miniseries on the Bible have been experienced by young adults?

Reflecting on Dave Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me (Baker 2011), which analyzes why 18-29 year olds in America have become largely disaffected with the church, I wondered how young adults might have responded to a media-enhanced presentation of the Bible. So, I invited my college students at George Fox University to weigh in on the…

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The Bible Reviewed (Part II)—“A Gripping Film, but I Still Like the Book…”


On Easter Sunday I watched the last episode of the History Channel’s The Bible, which over its five weeks had an estimated 68 million viewers—an impressive feat by any measure! In my first review I asked how the film stacked up to the Bible itself and how it might be received by viewers. In this second installment, I’ll reflect on feedback from my students and will raise a few other questions regarding what worked with the film and what didn’t.

 So, how might the miniseries on the Bible have been experienced by young adults?

Reflecting on Dave Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me (Baker 2011), which analyzes why 18-29 year olds in America have become largely disaffected with the church, I wondered how young adults might have responded to a media-enhanced presentation of the Bible. So, I invited my college students at George Fox University to weigh in on the series, inviting their reflections. I received over a dozen reviews, and student responses were quite positive overall. While most of them still “prefer the book” over the movie, it was intriguing to get their impressions.

Things students liked included:

  • The humanizing of narratives, including the showing of emotion behind various actions (the feelings of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham; of Mary and Joseph; of Daniel; of disciples—although John is presented as crying too much)
  • The realism of the presentations, including grit and dirt and rough terrain
  • The ways the oppression of Israel by other groups and dominating forces showed the difficulty of their plight—and also the significance of God’s deliverance
  • The miracle-friendly approach to the wonders of God.

Things students questioned included:

  • The large gaps in time left by the selection of some scenarios in Hebrew Scripture to the exclusion of others
  • The violence involved in many of the presentations—including presenting angels at times resembling ninja warriors or armed soldiers
  • The ordering of the events and teachings in Jesus’ ministry seemed confusing to some
  • Some presentations of the wondrous seemed at odds with realism.

Overall, my 18-22 year old students liked the episodes they watched, and most of them feel good about recommending it to others. The graphic and compelling presentations make biblical narratives come alive, and most of them found new insights regarding even stories with which they were familiar. Still, most of them still prefer the book over the film, but they felt the two media—text and film—reinforce each other in powerful ways.

Are there other issues or reflections to be considered, including strengths and weaknesses?

Among other issues raised by the series, several positive impressions are followed by several questions. First, I was impressed by the interracial presentation of characters within the narrative. Indeed, many of the main characters were British actors, largely because they were recruited among London’s theater district, and were thus Caucasian; yet other races were also represented. The two angels that visited Abraham and Lot are presented as Asia and African; Samson is presented as an African, as is Balthazar—one of the wise men; Joseph of Arimathea is black; at Pentecost people came from many different countries and spoke in diverse languages. The speaking in other tongues with words dubbed in English may have worked multiculturally, although the gift of tongues-discernment seems the main point of the text.

Second, women were presented sympathetically. Rahab is presented not simply as a harlot who gave shelter to the Israelite spies in Jericho, but she is a member of a family—with children and parents—embraced by the Israelites (cf. Joshua 6:25). The mother of Samson is featured at the beginning of his story, although Samson’s wife is later killed (as in the text). A female follower of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, accompanies him and his disciples in the boat across the sea and on other ventures. She and the mother of Jesus are featured centrally in the trial and crucifixion scenes (as portrayed in John). The wife of Pilate (as portrayed in Matthew) is credited with turning his thinking regarding his sentencing of Jesus, although finally to no avail. So, women play important roles in the narrative, and appropriately so, despite the patriarchal character of the eras represented.

Third, perhaps the greatest strength of the series is the way it displays the realism of political pressures, combined with personal engagements of such. Pharaoh’s court, exilic life in Babylon, Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate—political issues are portrayed graphically so as to contextualize hardships faced by the Jewish people. Especially lucid was the religious conviction of Caiaphas regarding his consternation over the Jesus movement, embellished by the crafting of imagined roles for such otherwise obscure figures in the text as Nicodemus (a Jewish leader ambivalent about but impressed with Jesus) and Malchus (the chief temple guard in service to the high priest). Pilate’s resolute commitment to putting down insurrection also came through; yet, he also is presented as seeking (realistically) to preserve his own skin in deference to Caesar. While sometimes rooted neither in biblical reference or known historical fact, these political-religious presentations added realism to the film.

Nonetheless, a variety of problems also surfaced. First, considerable problems with time and space issues surfaced as a factor of exercising dramatic license in consolidating scenes and moving things around for narrative effect. The woman caught in adultery scene in John 8 is set in Jerusalem, not in Galilee as portrayed in the film; the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) should not be confused with the feeding(s) of the multitude(s) (Matthew 14 and 16); the “not one stone will be left standing” saying is presented in the film not as part of the apocalyptic discourse by Jesus to his disciples (as in Mark 13) but is spoken to a child in the film; the eye of the needle parable in the text is uttered before the entry to Jerusalem in Mark, but not in the film; Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus by night is presented early in John’s text, not at the end of Jesus’ ministry as it is in the film; the apostles (i.e., John’s going to Ephesus, according to Eusebius) did not leave Jerusalem and go to other parts of the world before Paul began his mission to the Gentiles.

A second problem relates to the lack of historical-critical input for presenting the issues. While it is commendable to have had leading religious figures and preachers involved in the crafting of the narrative, a robust scholarly presence within the editorial process would have made the series more compelling historically. The seventh day of creation could have featured Sabbath worship as the culminative thrust, for instance, connecting the first creation account with the interests of the Priestly tradition; Psalm 51 (“Create in me a clean heart, oh, God…”) could have been connected meaningfully with David (in addition to Daniel), expressing remorse over his moral failures; the Daniel narrative could have been connected powerfully with later scenes of Antiochus Epiphanes, who sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Jerusalem temple, burned Jewish scriptures and forbade Jewish customs a full century before the Roman conquest—likely the targeted thrust of the finalized book of Daniel.

In the New Testament, the citing of Isaiah 61 by Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4) is yoked by Jesus to his sense of mission, but that particular text in Isaiah should not be referred to as a messianic prophecy–as such; a single stone seals the tomb of Lazarus in John 11 rather than a pile of stones as in the film; the initial absence among the disciples of unbelieving Thomas (John 20) is missing in the film, diminishing the tension in the text’s narration; the breaking of bread and drinking of wine together among Jesus’ followers, as portrayed in the Gospels and Acts, should have been presented as a full meal emphasizing the sacramental character of table fellowship rather than a formalized symbolic meal (emerging over two decades after Jesus’ ministry as suggested by the transition from 1 Corinthians 10 to 11); most problematic, reports of John the apostle having drunk poison in Rome (non-lethally) reflects a second-century legend (the Apocrypal Acts of John) rather than history, and his exile to Patmos in Greece deserves a bit of clarification that the island is actually off the coast of today’s Turkey.

A third problem involves the somewhat gratuitous embellishment of violence. Then again, the Bible narrates a great amount of violence created against God’s chosen people, and, unfortunately, by God’s chosen people, so presenting these harsh realities has integrity. Indeed, the maltreatment of God’s people by the inhabitants of Sodom, Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Babylonians, and finally the Romans heightens the poignancy of Israel’s history. Likewise, given Samson’s and David’s victories over the Philistines, one can appreciate their adversarial stance against the Hebrews. One also can appreciate the appeal of Barabbas’ approach to liberation—following a violent liberation model as emblazoned in Jewish memory.

And yet, the showing of slitting of children’s throats and the gouging out of parents’ eyes makes the presentation of biblical history problematic for viewers. Favorably, Jesus rebukes Peter’s striking out against Malchus, whereby he drops his sword. What could have been done more effectively is to show Jesus (and also the Hebrew prophets) challenging the spiral of violence—seeking to overturn the myth of redemptive violence with the domination-free order (“Kingdom”) of God. Without a clearer emphasis upon the Third Way of Jesus (with God there is always an alternative to the violence-or-submission forced dichotomy), which is central to living in biblical faithfulness in later situations as well, an important part of the radicality of his teaching and ministry is missed. The radical message and example of Jesus, especially along the lines of loving enemies in addition to God and neighbor, continues to offend and bewilder.

Overall, the History Channel’s series on The Bible will have made an important contribution to modern and postmodern culture—informing the biblically illiterate and challenging Bible readers to greater text-based faithfulness. It does not claim to be “history-as-such,” as each episode begins with the disclaimer that it is an “an adaptation of bible stories.” And yet, trusting viewers may fail to distinguish dramatic narration from the fact of literary presentations in the biblical text—displacing the former uncritically with the latter. Then again, such is the challenge of all historical narrative—biblical and otherwise—as later editors and writers seek to preserve reports of what had happened in the past, through the filter of their own understandings and interests, as means of addressing the needs of later audiences. In that sense, the tension between the text and the film might also help us appreciate more fully what the biblical writers themselves were also seeking to do, perhaps helping us appreciate more authentically the grand story of God’s redemptive work in human history as preserved and rendered so powerfully in the Bible.

Indeed, one of the most incisive lines of The Bible miniseries is the ironic (though fictive) declaration of Pilate: “He’s not the first Jew I’ve killed; he’ll be forgotten in a week!” The popularity of this series (and any film that engages meaningfully biblical texts and narratives—despite its overdone violence and gore, c.f., for instance, The Passion of the Christ) shows how wrong Pilate was. With my students, I still think I prefer the book over the movie, but I hope the miniseries will point people back to the Bible in ways that might speak to the present generation both now and in the future. If that happens, it will indeed have been a worthy venture; only time will tell.

Paul N. Anderson

The Bible Reviewed (Part I)—Not Infallible, but Somewhat Inspired

IMG_0016The Bible Reviewed (Part I)—Not Infallible, but Somewhat Inspired

Anyone who has watched an episode or more of the made-for-TV History-Channel series will have to admit that the series packs a powerful punch for growingly post-Christian America. On Sunday I watched four episodes back to back—eight hours’ worth of high definition biblical drama—played out on the LED screen. As a Bible teacher and scholar who is also a committed Christian, I found myself asking several questions.

First, how does this series stack up to the biblical text, itself?

Most obvious to those know the Bible will be the selectivity of the series—but rightly so. It would be impossible to narrate four millennia of history all within a brief ten hours, especially when nearly half of it is devoted to Jesus of Nazareth and his relatively short ministry. Painful for the Bible historian is the skipping of centuries between narrated events—400 years between the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the plight of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt; 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, as leadership passes from Moses to Joshua; 100 years between the conquest of Jericho and the ordeals of Samson; 400 years between the monarchy of David and the Exile to Babylon; 500 years between the restoration of Jerusalem under Cyrus and Palestine’s occupation by the Romans; twenty or more years between the childhood of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. One might prefer the book over the film on this score.

Lots of good stories are stepped over in such an approach (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, the conquest narratives, Gideon and Deborah, the ministries of most of the prophets, Naboth and his vineyard, the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom and Israel’s Diaspora, the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the Second-Temple period), but the stories that were chosen are certainly well done!

That being the case, none of the scenarios chosen, in my view, were superfluous. Each of them had its memorable points to make, and I doubt I would have deselected any of the chosen scenes in the editing process. And, the series wastes no time with transitions, which works well to move the story along. It wisely opts for fuller, sympathetic presentations of fewer scenes over and against superficial attempts to “get it all in,” so the editors are to be commended for their work along those lines.

From the Hebrew Scripture selections, the sense of realism with the Abraham, Moses, Samson, Saul/David, and Daniel stories certainly capture some of the highlights of key biblical narratives, themselves. From the Christian Scripture side, the harmonized birth of Jesus and loathsome presentation of Herod the Great, the calling of Peter and the disciples, the ministry and teachings of Jesus, and especially the religious and political tensions are very well done. Space is taken to develop characters compellingly—both protagonists and antagonists—leading to sense of empathy for heroes and adversaries alike. This is one of the key distinctions of this presentation of the biblical story.

Empathy for multiple sides of issues is one of the most distinctive features of this series, and that fact should appeal to critics and traditionalists alike. For instance, the tension between Abraham’s divine promise to be the father of innumerable descendants and multiple frustrations with its actualization is poignant. The while the conundrum of barren Sarah is at first alleviated by her suggestion that Abraham have a child with the maidservant Hagar, Sarah’s own hard feelings and concern over which son would be the rightful heir make the painful complexity of their situation palpable—let alone the testing of Abraham over his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, thwarted just in time by God’s provision of a lamb.

Likewise, empathy for Hagar, Rahab, and even Delilah is cultivated by showing psycho-social sensitivity to people’s likely plights within such settings. Even the political threat felt by Pilate regarding Jewish insurrections, as well as the religious convictions of Caiaphas and the temple guards, are presented in understandable perspective—as well as the plight of the Galileans under yet another hostile occupation. These features make for compelling narration, and they even add value to thoughtful readings of the biblical text. Historians will take issue with many a presentation, but as the piece does not claim to be history-as-such (rather a narrative amalgam), artistic license is permissible.

Second, how will this film be received by both Christians and non-Christians?

Perhaps the most important function of The Bible series is that it informs an increasing biblically illiterate society of some of the key stories narrated in the biblical corpus. This includes Christians and non-Christians alike. A puzzling feature of western modernism is that while religious sensitivity has increased overall, knowledge of the Judeo-Christian heritage has diminished. Therefore, for Christians and non-Christians alike, this series and others like it help to inform western society as to its own literary and historical heritage. Indeed, many a classic literary theme has its root in biblical narrative (ten plagues, written in stone, feet of clay, betrayed with a kiss, etc.), and this series helps alleviate the cultural illiteracy of various audiences accordingly.

The series also does a fair job of straddling the concerns of critical scholars and traditional scholars in several ways. The narration of the days of creation by Noah, for instance, works very well on both accounts. For the critical scholar seeing the first creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:4a as focusing on observing the Sabbath (if God got all his work done in six days and rested on the Sabbath, so can we) works well. Noah’s narrating the days of creation as a primordial tale of how the world came into being suits an understanding of how that material might have been transmitted. For the traditional scholar, it makes sense for accounts of earlier events to have been transmitted by Noah and his heirs.

While the story of Daniel in the lions’ den will please the traditionalist, the critical scholar will appreciate a mention of the long-term value of the Babylonian Exile—the preserving in written form the historical books of the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings at least. Traditional viewers will appreciate the compelling presentation of Jesus and his ministry—including his teachings and miracles; critical viewers will appreciate the political and religious realism of Galilee and Judea under Roman occupation.

I also found myself wondering how the series might be experienced in interfaith and intrafaith ways. For Jewish and Christian viewers, the repeated admonition to trust in God comes through in multiple ways and contexts. In that sense, the series will likely be experienced as “inspiring” by Judeo-Christian viewers. Among viewers of other faiths, I imagine Muslims will be disturbed by the presentation of Abraham’s favoring of Isaac over Ishmael (whom the Koran presents as the true heir of Abraham’s promise), but this is not the fault of the series; it is a fact of the biblical text. Therefore, Muslims who view the series may appreciate the Judeo-Christian perspective on the Abrahamic promise, as portrayed in Genesis, which could lead to a more informed dialogue between the religious families of Abraham.

I also was impressed by the presentation of authentic worship at the end of the fourth episode, as Jesus and his disciples, Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders, and even the wife of Pilate all lifted up their own types of prayers and blessings. This realistic presentation makes it less likely for one faith to come across as supersessionist over others, even though the Jesus movement and the growth of the church have the last word within the Christian canon.

Of course, no film is infallible—a standard many might uphold for the Holy Writ—but the series certainly shows its own marks of inspiration. The acting is strong, and the special effects are indeed compelling. How it speaks to young adults and a few other observations will follow next week in Part II of the review, after I hear from my college students and watch the final episode. In more cases than one, of course, the true measure of inspiration is the degree to which a piece inspires its audiences…time indeed will tell.

Paul Anderson                                                                                                            Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies                                                                        George Fox University                                                                                                     Newberg, OR 97132                                                                                                     503-554-2651