History Channel’s The Bible Keeps Conservatives (Mostly) Happy and Jesus White

Where have I seen this before? Moses realizing his calling, leading his people, parting the Red Sea (only this time with CGI assistance); Samson, falling for Delilah; King David, marching as to war; Jesus (yet another fine-looking white guy), breathless, sexy, mouthing his beatitudes before suffering on the cross; and much, much more. Admittedly, I had not seen Noah (portrayed here by an actor with a fine Scottish brogue) deliver some of the key Creation verses from Genesis on film before, but that prologue was a nice touch for what was, and is, to come. 

Yes, it’s time for another generation to take its stab at filming the biblical epics. This time it comes in full ten-hour miniseries form and with rather apocalyptic hopes placed on its success. 

The Bible debuted on The History Channel last night (right before The Vikings, another full-blown historical epic miniseries—the little bit I happened to see of it featured some torrid sex scenes). Reality TV producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) credits his wife Roma Downey (formerly of Touched by an Angel, here playing Mary, mother of Jesus, in the film) with inspiring the idea for the film:

“Momentarily, I think he thought I’d lost my mind,” Downey recalled. “He went out on his bicycle and he prayed on it and he came back and said, ‘You know what, I think it’s a good idea. I think we should do it together.’ We shook hands and haven’t looked back.” 

“It really is family programming,” Burnett said. “It’s for young. It’s for old. And equally importantly it’s for teenagers.”

This miniseries comes with a bevy of scholarly and popular cultural authorities attesting to its authenticity. In particular, the miniseries seeks to avoid the debacle of the medieval anti-Semitism rife throughout The Passion by treading carefully through the Old Testament material. Rick Warren and Joel Osteen provide testimonials and urge viewers to organize all-church viewings and discuss the film using the ready-made study guides and other supplemental material.

Glenn Beck pushed the film as well with a segment featuring one of the series’ consultants, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who said that “this series has the potential of emerging as the most-watched series in cable history… we’re living in a time full of moral relativism, decadence, and spiritual apathy.”

He thinks the film could lead to a “spiritual awakening.” 

Tom Mullins of the Christian Fellowship adds, “We’ve had our very core of our identity robbed from us in our secular, humanistic society.” Because God has been “taken out of the picture,” people had lost hope, but this film, he believes, “will help people get back to their source of hope.” The Dove Foundation also raves about the film, though it also provided the following warnings for parents of children who might watch: 

Drugs: Drinking of wine.
Nudity: Shirtless men and some seen in loincloths.

With a lineup like that, and with Christianmingle.com (a Christian dating site in the wake of some bad press), being a primary sponsor of the show, the audience seems clear, and the first night’s ratings were pretty good, if not off the charts. But so far the effect is far murkier than the intent, as I will detail in future posts. 

Thus far, the show appears to take too many liberties with the text to satisfy the most biblically-minded of viewers; to be too dark and violent for ordinary evangelicals drawn by Downey’s Touched by an Angel pedigree; to be too lacking in coherent narrative and stilted in script to appeal to those who just want good entertainment; and to be too sketchy in history and profundity to match the hopes of church leaders who want the miniseries to become the next cultural sensation. 

But I do think the series certainly will appeal to the TV cheeseheads out there, those who soak up entertainingly unsuccessful filmed epics. And so, the epic of the Bible remains the greatest story never sold, at least on film, but watching the repeated attempts is both historically edifying and emotionally irresistible. 

Next Sunday’s show carries us from the latter days of Moses through Samuel, Samson and Delilah, and David. Two Sundays hence, we make it to Jesus, here portrayed by the stunningly handsome Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. As Edward J. Blum and I have discussed in great detail in our book The Color of Christ, the white Jesus figure has a long history in America, dating from about the 1830s and exploding into international consciousness in the 20th century. As before, an America founded in part by Puritan iconoclasts who distrusted and destroyed imagery has become now the greatest exporter of sacred imagery (particularly of Jesus) in the world.

The Bible carries on full force in that tradition. Samson, as a physically strong man, may be a black man, but the history of Jesus in American culture and film is too well-developed to allow such unconventional casting. 

So, hope to see some of you TV cheeseheads back here in two weeks, to see how our favorite biblical characters survive this well-intentioned but off-target 10-hour saga.