The Bible, Brought To You By Wal-Mart

The Bible miniseries concluded Easter Sunday on The History Channel, with a fairly conventional playing out of the Passion story. From Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1927) to Jesus (a Campus Crusade for Christ production from 1979) to Mel Gibson’s 2004 gorefest The Passion, generations of Americans have seen this in film form before. And, while the twitter-storm that grew up (and quickly passed over) about how Satan looked like Obama was a tempest in a teapot, it is entirely true to the genre that Satan must appear as darker-skinned, as Scott Poole (a scholar of how Satan appears in American history) explains here. (To me, he most resembled Emperor Palpatine from The Empire Strikes Back; either that, or the Grim Reaper from The Seventh Seal).

Following the stories from the Gospels, in a brief coda for the rest of the New Testament, the final hour races through the Pentecost traced in the Book of Acts, Paul getting struck down on the road to Damascus, and John making it to the Isle of Patmos, ready to receive Revelation. Alas, that weirdest and most apocalyptically dramatic of books is passed over entirely, despite the vaunted CGI budget the producers insisted on from THC. Doubtless that was a smart move on the part of the producers, since not even a basically literalist reading of the Bible (but one full of inaccuracies of the sort that have driven commentators and Bible scholars nuts) can be sustained through its most psychedelically trippy book.

With all the attention the series has gotten and silly brouhahas it has generated, ultimately the show’s concluding hours and the spinoffs planned by the producers have settled into a formula that fits the genre of films and television shows from the Bible. I’ll just enumerate briefly here three of those.

1. The providentialist interpretations these filmmakers brought to the project (essentially, how God led them to the project in the first place, and how they felt sure He would oversee its success) are akin to like movie productions in the past. In filming King of Kings, for example (as Edward J. Blum explains in The Color of Christ), Cecil B. DeMille had Protestant and Catholic advisors; days opened with interreligious prayer services that featured Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Actors’ contracts for the film contained clauses that demanded “exemplary conduct” on and off the set. Finally, the actor who portrayed Jesus was treated as more than a man. Only DeMille was allowed to speak to him when in costume, and he was “veiled” or driven in a closed car from his dressing room to the set. The reverence on the set and in the film paid spiritual dividends. Years later, according to DeMille, a minister told the English actor who portrayed Jesus: “I saw you in The King of Kings when I was a child, and now, every time I speak of Jesus, it is your face I see.”

2. These films quickly become part of particular evangelical subcultures, giving them a long life long after the initial publicity of the premiere showing has faded away. DeMille boasted that King of Kings was playing in a movie theater somewhere from the time it was made for the rest of his directing career, and Jesus, although a box office bust, was translated into 1,000 languages and, through the auspices of Christian missionaries worldwide, has been shown to an estimated six billion people.

The Bible miniseries is taking this one step further: through a tie-in novel “based on” the miniseries, entitled A Story of God and All of Us: A Novel Based on the Epic TV Miniseries “The Bible.” The promotional material for the book includes the following: “A novel for adults based on the miniseries, A STORY OF GOD AND ALL OF US brings the Bible’s greatest stories and most compelling characters to life. Readers will revel in this epic saga of warriors, rebels, poets and kings, all called upon by God to reveal his enduring love for mankind. The novel is also available in Spanish, eBook and audio editions.”

Of course, The Bible itself is “based on” on a book (also called The Bible) and aims to “remain true” to its spirit even while making necessary storyline adjustments for dramatic effect; and so A Story of God and All of Us is therefore an adaptation of an adaptation, as if someone had done a novel based on DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. And again, these sort of spinoff products have a long history, from nineteenth-century Sunday school cards, to Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ painting being reproduced to allow post-World War II Americans to be “card-carrying Christians,” to countless evangelical products that pervade the world of popular culture.

3. Aside from the inevitable projections for success and commercial tie-ins designed to spin off attention to and profits for the series, the series producers share one other characteristic very common to the genre of producing films of biblical stories: a cultural point. These films don’t appear by accident, and while intended to reach a mass audience, they are not merely educational or neutral in intent, or effect. Producer Mark Burnett made this clear in speaking of the origins and motivations for the film:

“The Bible is the foundation of this nation, of our laws, of our society,” Burnett said. “There wouldn’t have been the Declaration of Independence. President Obama swore his allegiance to all of us not on one Bible, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s bible last month. It’s on our money: ‘In God We Trust.’”

This suggests something, too, of the composition of the lineup of advisers and consultants for the show, including Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Samuel Rodriguez, and Jim Daly (and others) from Focus on the Family. Not a big surprise, either, that as several of the commercial breaks explained, “The Bible is brought to you by Walmart.” The filmed history of the Bible is one of seamlessly intertwined religious, commercial, and cultural motivations, The Bible no less so than many others.

pharvey@uccs.edu'

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.