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

Aside

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

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On Following Jesus

Aside

On Following Jesus

Some Christian groups ask, “How can we be certain of our salvation?” Others wonder, “How can we be sure we are right?” Still others inquire, “How can we do good in the world?” The Quaker question, however, has been, “How can we be—most radically and effectively—true followers of Jesus?” When this question is lived faithfully, the others tend to take care of themselves.

Fortunately, Friends are not the only ones to ask what it means to follow Jesus centrally. Other than the Bible, the most popular book of the Middle Ages was Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and to this day it remains a devotional classic. Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, became one of the most widely read Christian books of the twentieth century, asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” Not a bad question; a recent fad involved young people wearing wristbands with WWJD printed on them as a reminder of this life-shaping query. And, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline has already been recognized as a best-selling classic within a decade or two of its writing. Even current interests in Christian discipleship and spirituality center on the question: “How can people today follow Jesus effectively?” Thankfully, Quakers are not alone in asking that question; we have a lot to learn from others who also share this common quest.

The truth is, though, we also have a lot to share, and the Body of Christ (and the world beyond) will be worse off if Friends neglect proper stewardship of the truth with which we have been entrusted. On this matter, church-growth “experts” have played us false. Churches that grow are not necessarily those that de-emphasize a particular heritage. If this were true, cults would be extinct instead of on the rise. Churches that grow are those that are clear about their priorities, can articulate them well, and embody them meaningfully. May I add one more? Churches that grow healthily are also those where the Spirit of the risen Lord reigns powerfully and transformingly—where people follow Jesus enthusiastically and support one another in that common venture. There’s no substitute for authentic and contagious spirituality!

At times I hear a comment suggesting that evangelical Friends should emphasize more pointedly the following of Jesus Christ instead of Quaker “distinctives.” If one means by this is that the external trappings of a movement (quaint expressions, symbolic dress, external trademarks, etc.) should never be mistaken for the center, I agree wholeheartedly. But if one considers Christian Testimonies on peace, simplicity, spiritual worship and sacraments, inclusive and empowered ministry, integrity, and evangelism by convincement rather than coercion, that person has understood neither the heart of Quakerism nor what it means to follow Jesus. Distinctives are incidental—time-bound expressions of spiritual concerns; Testimonies, however, are central—timeless truths of the gospel needing to be expressed anew in every generation. Spiritual revival and social reform go hand-in-hand; they involve Christian Testimonies as to the central convictions of faith and practice.

When you set out to follow Jesus completely, wholly, unreservedly, you will be confronted, in time, with every one of the issues Quakers have been addressing over the last three and a half centuries. And, these were issues faced squarely by early Christians too. Apostolic Christianity has less to do with calendars or institutions, and more to do with encountering Jesus Christ personally and being sent by him as a partner in his saving, healing, and redeeming work. This makes one a “friend” of Jesus (John 15:14-17). Friends of Jesus have some knowledge of what he is about and seek to obey what he commands.

May an authentic follower of Jesus ever lie, cheat, or kill for an earthly or a heavenly cause? Jesus says “No.” In fact, such departures from the way of Christ actually set back the active Reign of God. Does pleasing God and developing a meaningful relationship with God ever hinge upon performing an external act or saying the right words, separate from an inward response of genuine faith to the divine initiative? To say so makes a mockery of the Cross. Jesus came to show us the way to God, and he died to unite humanity with God. In doing so, he revealed with finality the bankruptcy of all human approaches to God; not a new set of Christian forms to replace Jewish ones. If Christ is enough, nothing else is needed. Forms may assist, but they never determine God’s saving, healing, empowering action toward us. Forms can also get in the way, eclipsing the directly mediated work of the Lord. Add anything to Christ, and the all-sufficiency of his work is thereby diminished.

Is Christ’s present will for his disciples ever locked into a set of regulations or system of beliefs? We need to understand what we believe, which works its way into belief systems, but doctrine does not save us. The Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, will be present to guide his followers into all truth, convicting them of sin and of righteousness (John 14-16). Belief in the resurrection is one thing; living in the Power and Presence of the Resurrected Lord is another. Such is central to the good news of the Gospel.

But how do we do it? Ironically, Friends have traditionally held that the risen Lord must ever be attended and heeded above and beyond human traditions. So, an appeal to “traditional Quakerism” is a contradiction of terms. On the other hand, when we set out to follow Jesus we are not the first, nor are we alone. Others have found his teachings convincing and his leadings true. To discard the benefit of those learnings is foolishness, although to become smug in them is to deny their central genius. Following Jesus is a dynamic reality, going to the very heart of all aspects of faith and practice. It is an endeavor that forms our convictions and transforms our actions, and it continues to call out to us as a life-long venture.

At different stages of our lives, following Jesus addresses different challenges. As a child it might mean seeking to be kind and patient—living in more generous and less self-centered ways. As an adolescent it might mean living by a Christian ethic instead of giving in to the pressures of the world. These challenges are always with us, of course, but as an adult, we might face not only questions about personal lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors, but also questions about what kind of world this should be and how Christians ought to make a difference in it for Christ. While the early Christian and the early Quaker movements were essentially energized by the young, the potency of believers in every generation involves being drawn into partnership with Christ, following his lead in redeeming and healing a world beloved of God

As the Lord speaks to me about following him today, I find my Quaker heritage of more significance, not less. I suppose that not only are we a people who ask what it means to follow Jesus; in a real sense, we are that question. But beware! The true answer might not come in the form of fine-sounding propositions or beliefs. As important as these things are, the truest answers will ever be expressed in the changed and changing lives of those who encounter Jesus personally and who are sent by him as his apostolic partners in the world. These people, regardless of the movement they ascribe to, Jesus calls his “friends.”

Part I: Following Jesus

Aside

Part I
Following Jesus

“Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people…. As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

George Fox, 1647

“As I had a time to preach the Truth amongst you, to the convincement of many, so also now I have a time to seal the same with patient suffering in the bonds of the gospel, that you may see that it is no other but what we are made able and willing to seal with patient suffering, yea, with our blood, if we be called to it…. Be willing that self shall suffer for the Truth, and not the Truth for self.”

James Parnell, 1655

“Christ our leader is worthy of being followed in his leadings at all times.”

John Woolman, 1772

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you ‘slaves’ because a slave does not know what the Master is doing; but I have called you ‘friends’ because I have made known to you all things which I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I have chosen you, and appointed you, that you should go forth and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain in order that whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he might give unto you. These things I command you that you love one another!”

Jesus (Jn. 15:14-17)

Prologue: The Dedicated Life

Aside

“Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘There are plenty to follow our Lord half-way, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.’ It is just this astonishing life which is willing to follow Him the other half, sincerely to disown itself, this life which intends complete obedience, without any reservations, that I would propose to you in all humility, in all boldness, in all seriousness. I mean this literally, utterly, completely, and I mean it for you and for me—commit your lives in unreserved obedience to Him.”

Thomas Kelly
A Testament of Devotion

Prologue:

The Dedicated Life

Is your life given totally, unreservedly, to God? It can be. Further, it deserves to be, as God is the Source and Ground of our Being: the Origin and Destiny of life itself. Indeed, there can be no authentic religion, no effective spirituality, without a pervasive and ongoing stance of openness and receptivity to the Divine Presence and Will. We were created for this human-divine relationship, and until we open ourselves to this life-changing reality we fail to experience the full power and meaning of life itself.

But the way is fraught with obstacles. We may fear what we do not know, or disdain what we misunderstand. And yet, the loving God revealed in Jesus dissuades our fears, evoking a fitting sense of awe over such a possibility. Or, we may misconstrue or misname this Life—regarding it as a recipe of things that “worked”—or a map to be followed instead of the Master. And yet, the living Christ works within us and among us in ways undeniable if we will but attend his gentle promptings.

The dedicated life is no mere religious platform or cluster of doctrinal loyalties. It is fundamentally a living relationship; each day the manna from heaven must be freshly gathered up and taken in anew lest it spoil and cease to nourish. Living in believing responsiveness to the Lord is the singular priority of true followers of Jesus, and now is the time for a renewed or initial commitment to Holy Attentiveness and Holy Obedience. As Thomas Kelly invites, may we commit our lives in unreserved obedience to him.

Nor is the dedicated life to be regarded as a special calling for some: not the sort of thing common persons should attempt. Quite the opposite! The dedicated life is not just for special temperaments or religious elites. Rather, the life of givenness to God is meant to be the normal, the basic, Christian life. If all would live it, how different our world would be! In fact, one reason many fail to be impressed by religion today is that so few of its members have lived into the heart of the calling to be given children, men, and women. It is the source of all true happiness, but happiness cannot be its goal. Rather, true fulfillment comes only in being poured out as a living offering to God—spilled out in love as a healing salve for the world. It is the life that you and I are truly meant to live, and it only begins as our clinging to anything else comes to an end.

The goal of this book is not to comment on the lowest common denominator among Christians; it is to explore our highest common purpose, and to do so with the benefit of the wisdom of a particular tradition that has sought to do so for three and a half centuries. In that sense, I write on radical Christian discipleship proper, but I do so from an evangelical Quaker’s perspective. As pilgrims toward the heavenly city help one another along the way, so we learn from others. We illumine the path for one another and encourage each other in the venture. After all, it is a great journey we are on; and yet, we do not travel alone.

Thomas Kelly goes on to say, “In some, says William James, religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever. Religion as a dull habit is not that for which Christ lived and died.” While the Quaker movement has been a living testimonial to this conviction, God has no grandchildren. Every generation must drink anew from the Springs of Living Water and set its sails to the Winds of the Spirit. Despite our endeavors, though, encountering the Divine is never a given; it is always a matter of contingency and faith. This is the foundation upon which the dedicated life is grounded. As we explore the adventure together, I thank you for joining me across constraints of time and space. Following the Lord the other half of the way is where all things indeed become new!