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:
- 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).
- 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.