Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

2 Apr 2013

A Critical Review of the Bible (the miniseries, that is)

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I wasn’t one of the privileged few who got to pre-screen the History Channel’s miniseries, The Bible, but I thought a retrospective word about the series might be useful for those who didn’t get a chance to watch. Here are a few of my observations, first positive, then negative, in no particular order:

Positively,

  • I appreciated that the producers depicted the biblical events as true historie, and not as geschichte: there was no fawning nod to evolutionary process and we began with an unequivocally historical Adam, a universal flood, and a believable ark. This was refreshing.
  • I appreciated that the miracles of the Bible were depicted as, well, miracles. Seeing the waters “standing up like a wall” in the crossing of the Red Sea was not only stunning in its graphic effect, but faith-strengthening for the contemporary viewer. Likewise, the special effects connected with the healing of the leper set it apart from the chicanery of modern-day faith-healing charlatans.
  • Despite the necessary conflation of events to squeeze everything into ten hours, I was also pleasantly surprised by the attention to dialogue and detail in many of the stories (but see below).
  • This one might be more controversial, but I actually appreciated that the producers went with the ipsissima vox (the message of Scripture) rather than the ipsissima verba (the exact words of Scripture). I know this sometimes resulted in interpretive obfuscation of textual details, but by eliminating the “Bible-ese,” the figures came across as more historical and their dialogue as more natural.
  • I appreciated that the producers realized that literary descriptions of sexual content do not have to be graphically dramatized to have their intended effect: some things that are represented legitimately in books should not appear on the screen (contra, e.g., the recent cinematic release of Les Miserables).
  • I appreciated the inclusion of most of the nodal points of the story line, including a clear emphasis on the origin and results of sin in the human race (but see below).
  • I especially appreciated that The Bible didn’t stop with the Resurrection. It included a sturdy overview of Acts (but, unfortunately, nothing from Revelation except the last couple of verses).

Negatively,

  • I wish that the producers had given more attention to narrative order. I know that narrative conflation and condensation was a necessary problem in this production, and I am prepared to allow for some license here. The rearranging of historical events, though, could have been avoided. For example, Isaiah’s presence in Babylon was not only wrong, it also stripped his Cyrus prophecy of all of its force. And the three-year ministry of Christ was hopelessly jumbled up, as though there was no sequence at all—just three years of random teaching and miracles.
  • I didn’t always understand the narrative selection. For instance, Samson was a huge star, but virtually no time was given to Solomon, the divided monarchy with all of its kings and prophets, or the return from exile—parts of the Bible that are (1) much longer and (2) more critical to the biblical story line (not to mention really, really interesting—Elijah on Mt. Carmel could have been a stunning addition).
  • I missed the Bible’s prophetic emphasis on kingdom, judgement, and the new creation. I know that abstract threads are not easy to include, but the producers had no trouble including a thick redemptive thread (sheep are sacrificed all over the place). I longed for specifics about eschatological recapitulation.
  • I wished also for more references to personal and individual sin and to the substitutionary intent of Christ’s atonement. Again, I know this was a descriptive series, but it really would have been nice to have included something that makes unbelieving viewers uneasy about their culpability before God (but then again, with Joel Osteen as a consultant, maybe we should have foreseen this).
  • I didn’t like the celebrity feel of all the characters. It was refreshing to see that the most of the male characters (and even Jesus) were not prototypically effeminate, but was everyone in the Bible a showman?
  • I didn’t appreciate the repeated emphasis on the mission of Jesus and the Apostles as “changing the world.” I know, a charitable hearing could be invoked to justify this rendering, but the idea of “changing the world” is not the best way of describing the Christian mission, and is susceptible to serious misinterpretation.
  • I didn’t like the fact that on three occasions after the Resurrection the disciples said, “He didn’t die!” Again, a charitable interpretation might hear something like “He didn’t stay dead,” but the fact is, he did die, and precision on this point is really, really important.

I could say more about minor issues (both good and bad), but I thought that these might offer a good overview of the broad strengths and weaknesses of the miniseries. Because of the desire to appeal broadly to everyone who uses the Bible (as evidenced in the advertising), The Bible will need to be supplemented with historical and theological details before it can serve as a comprehensive teaching and evangelistic tool, but the story line is largely intact. I had a generally warm and happy feeling after watching it. Whatever you do, don’t just watch The Bible, read the Bible.

7 Responses

  1. David Smith

    Mark,
    I generally appreciated your observations, but was, sadly, not left with the same “warm and happy feeling” you felt after watching it. I tend to lean toward the opinion of the reviewer who said, “The Bible probably should not be taken too seriously or venerated. It often plays more like an action film than a serious interpretation of a holy book.”

  2. John T. Jeffery

    I have two major issues with this series. First, visual images of Christ powerfully implanted in minds by such media portrayals is ripe ground for idolatry. This always calls to my mind not only what John wrote in 1 Jn. 5:21, but also what C. S. Lewis wrote in the Screwtape Letters, Letter # 4, “Discerning the Enemy’s Schemes Against our Prayer Life”. Second, folks willing to spend 10 hours in front of their TV sets getting a modern media version would be far, far better served spending ten hours in the Word itself. I would be greatly surprised if the vast majority of professing Christians who invested ten hours in this series had invested anywhere near that much time in the Scriptures in the last six months. Far to many are submitting themselves to the media in one form or another to do their thinking for them on a variety of issues, although most of them have much less eternal significance than what is under discussion here. They need strong counsel to “turn it off”, and to “take and read”!

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    John,

    First of all, thank you for your comments. I don’t normally reply to everything in the comments section of my posts, but since you brought up two arguments that pretty much classify all cinematic treatments of the life of Christ as sin and I gave a generally favorable review of the latest one, I thought it was worth a reply.

    (1) Relative to the idolatry concern, I recognize that a significant segment of Protestantism views depictions of Jesus (whether drawn, sculpted, or cinematic) as violations of the Second Commandment (Exod 20:4–6), and for that reason I want to be charitable. At the same time I’m not sure that this interpretation follows. In one sense this interpretation says too little. The Second Commandment forbids not only images of God, but also images of any created thing in heaven, earth, or sea. So if it is idolatrous to depict Jesus in a movie or other art form, then it is also idolatrous to depict any created thing as art. As such, this interpretation ironically says too much. The major concern of the Second Commandment is the use of images in the worship of alternate deities. And even if we expand the concern to include the use of images as defective aids to the worship of the true and invisible God, the images are not properly idols until they become objects of or aids to worship. I’ll grant that to the degree that an actor misrepresents Jesus he is guilty of distortion, perversion, or even blasphemy, but I don’t see any idolatry occurring here—at least in the ordinary definition of the term.

    (2) Your second concern, that the regular reading of the written Scriptures is immeasurably superior to any cinematic performance, is one that a happily concede. That’s why I ended the post the way that I did. I’m not sure it follows, though, that the reading of Scripture must take up more of our time than any other diversion or that we are forbidden to supplement the reading of the Scriptures with visual aids. But your reminder that television takes up too much of the time of many believers is a worthy one, and a good reminder.

  4. John T. Jeffery

    Thank you for your reply. Perhaps you misunderstood what I was trying to communicate, and it seems at least from my perspective that we are talking past each other. If your intent in replying was to piggyback on my remarks to speak to the agenda of others I can understand that. Therefore, I am

    1) You are correct about what a significant segment of Protestantism concludes from the 2nd Commandment. I did not mention this, and I did not refer to the media portrayal as idolatry. Rather, I spoke directly to the issue of the “…visual images of Christ powerfully implanted in minds by such media portrayals…” as “ripe ground for idolatry”. My focus was on the result, the impact on the receiver, rather than on the product itself. As such my concern lay more in creating difficulties in bringing every thought into obedience to Christ. I must ask, have you read the chapter I mentioned in Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and do you share my concerns in this area?

    2) On (2) I had no intention of making a case for “the reading of Scripture” taking “up more of our time than any other diversion”, or against the use of visual aids. My only point was that the 10 hours invested in this way would have been more profitable had it been spent studying the Scriptures themselves. I understand that the episodes spanned 10 weeks, and therefore only occupied an hour per week during that period. However, I am not confident that the average Christian these days spends even that much time, an hour a week, studying their Bibles.

    In a day when Paul’s prophetic word is being fulfilled and folks will not endure sound doctrine and heap to themselves teachers having itching ears such high powered media events may create more problems than any benefit they may provide. Pastors and teachers in local churches find themselves competing with such influences in their ministries as they strive to ground those they minister to in sound doctrine. You have done a tremendous job of laying out both the positive points and negative criticisms of this media event, and I appreciate your thoughtful and gracious review. As you may surmise I find myself very much on the negative side of this equation in my analysis, and have grave concerns about the lingering effects of some of the very points you elaborated following the heading “Negatively…”. At the end of the day I would humbly suggest that we need less influences like this rather than more. Perhaps we will disagree on that conclusion, and can agree to do so. Thank you again for taking the time to respond as you did.

  5. Sam Hendrickson

    Hi Mark,
    thanks for the critique–it helps since we do not have the means to see the series-wondering whether to watch it for the questions people may have about it.

    As to 2nd Commandment issues–was not the command by God for the Israelites to incorporate man-formed pomegranates, flowers, cherubim, etc in the Tabernacle/Temple furniture & appurtenances an indication as to the interpretation of #2? Luke records Stephen calling the Golden Calf an idol, even though Aaron’s stated purpose was for a festival to YHWH. His understanding of idolatry was the use of something to represent God or to use something created to one help worship God. Would not human depiction of Jesus fall under this understanding? Or…?

  6. John T. Jeffery

    I add my own “Amen” to what disposable elektronik sigaras commented above. However, on Dr. Snoeberger’s popularity there may be another side to it. He really is very popular if the truth be told. The students value him, those who use the library appreciate him, the subscribers to the DBTJ are in his debt, the folks in this church won’t let him go, and of course his wife and children love him. How much more popularity can one guy handle??? And, if a “March Madness” were to have been held with the contributors to this blog, well…let’s just say that the smart money would have been on Mark! :-)

  7. Mark Snoeberger

    Sam, I’d venture that a human depiction of Jesus becomes an idol (and thus a violation of the Second Commandment) when it functions as an object of worship or as an aid to worship.