Pretty People, Shiny Clothes: Biblical Illiteracy in NBC’s Kings

Any time a new television show comes on with even a faint whiff of faith, the faithful go ga-ga. So it is with NBC’s new potboiler, Kings.

Why shouldn’t we rejoice that the contemporary secular media has taken note of biblical themes? Let’s count the ways, beginning with a plot synopsis.

Kings purports to be the story of King Silas and his family, the Benjamins, who have unified the country of Gilboa from, as his queen put in the latest episode, “a collection of Stone Age tribes.” Gilboa is constantly at war with its sworn enemy, Gath, whose military might is shown through its line of invincible tanks known as Goliaths.

Just as King Silas is dedicating the newly built capital of Shiloh, a fresh confrontation erupts with Gath in which a farm boy turned soldier, David Shepherd, saves the king’s son, Jack, after he’s kidnapped. Then David single-handedly blows up a Goliath while trying to escape. As the masses glorify their new war hero, King Silas has young David transferred to Shiloh. There Silas tries first to make political use of David’s new fame, and then begins to keep an anxious eye on him after Silas witnesses David being crowned by a flock of monarch butterflies—the same mystical anointing story that Silas has told of himself to his own adoring public.

Unbeknownst to Silas, David has already been anointed (with motor oil, no less) by the Reverend Samuels, a popular and prophetic preacher who originally marked Silas as God’s chosen king. And so it goes.

Anyone with a modicum of biblical knowledge doesn’t have to watch Kings for long before she or he realizes that the show is another overwrought television drama of pretty people in shiny clothes trying to preserve their wealth and power through deceit, manipulation, or plain old perversion. Its patina of biblical themes is so far removed from actual Old Testament stories as to be not merely silly, but a tool for fostering biblical illiteracy.

Why should it matter that a TV show so blatantly misappropriates Old Testament stories as popular entertainment? The answer lies in the reality that biblical illiteracy of this magnitude, amplified by broadcast media, has a way of burrowing into the public consciousness. Thus when believers call on the history of faith to support a rationale for contemporary action, the made-for-TV version is all that people know. This undermines religion’s moral authority, particularly in acute social dilemmas.

Furthermore, a significant element of current political turmoil—the battle between Palestinians and the Israelis for possession of the land they now both inhabit—is connected (by those who make the purely religious argument) to Old Testament tales from which Kings draws its motifs. The parallels in the TV conflict between Gilboa and Gath, standing in respectively for Israel and Palestine, are ham-handed and cartoonish, providing no light on the biblical themes and interpretations that fuel the religious dimension of this brutal conflict.

From this perspective Kings bears multiple deficiencies, starting with the fact that its initial episodes are based on stories found in 1 Samuel, not in first or second Kings. Consequently, unless one knew where to look, any impulse to trace these themes in an actual Bible would be misdirected from the first. Since there are now four generations of Americans with no formal religious affiliation, with an accompanying ignorance of Judeo-Christian scriptures, the supposed “biblical” seeds of “Kings” root easily in fertile fields of illiteracy.

Saul becomes Silas (possibly to assuage fears of anti-Semitism), his daughter Michal becomes Michelle, Jonathan becomes Jack Benjamin, David’s lyre becomes a priceless antique piano. When Silas’ Queen Rose (whose name is rarely if ever spoken) intones the famous acclamation of David, “Silas has his thousands and David his tens of thousands,” she refers not to conquering enemies, but to crazed fans, or perhaps money.

Perhaps the most grating thing about Kings thus far is the unrelenting naiveté of its hero. The TV namesake of Israel’s great king seems a ninny in the face of the glamour and glitz of Silas’ court and his capital, Shiloh (which far more resembles New York or San Francisco than Jerusalem). The biblical David was a shepherd, true, but he wasn’t anywhere nearly as clueless as Kings’ David Shepherd is. Even as a young man, the David depicted in 1 Samuel was a wily operator who knew how to play upon Saul’s pride and paranoia. Warts and all, David deserves better than to be portrayed on TV as such an earnest milquetoast.

In other words, Kings is not only poorly translated as an allegory from biblical Israel to a contemporary setting, it’s boring to boot!

Those who’ve read the biblical stories of Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Samuel and his sons, David’s wives Michal and Abigail, know that they offer a panoply of human achievement and human folly far deeper and more exciting than their TV counterparts. Sadly, few in the faith community or anywhere else are making an effort to bring these stories, with all their complexity and nuance, to television, films, or cyberspace. That’s where we tell our stories today, and stories matter.

It’s dangerous that so few in contemporary society appreciate the hold that the Bible’s stories (especially when told inaccurately) have upon people’s minds, beliefs and actions. These stories deserve to be presented today not with faulty imitation or as a Hollywood swords-and-sandals epic, but with all their heroism, villainy, intrigue, and significance intact.

Then we would not be merely entertained, we would stand more chance of being enlightened as well.