So, are you watching the new mini-series about the Bible on the History Channel?
Lots of people are – apparently many more than are watching this season’s edition of American Idol. Until last weekend, I hadn’t seen any of it. The Bible, that is.
But I often feel pressured by these things, as though I should pay attention, as though my job really requires it.
First, there was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, an entertaining novel with a far-fetched premise. And then there was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with its gruesome depiction of Jesus’ last hours. I ended up leading discussions in my church’s adult education about both of them, mostly because both of them led to troubling questions about theological issues. Knowing that people were bothered by both of them was reassuring.
After seeing a little of The Bible and hearing no questions from anyone, I’m a little worried. I may need to raise a couple of my own.
First, with five two-hour episodes, taking viewers from Genesis to Revelation, there’s bound to be quite a lot of the story that gets left out. And that was my impression after watching the mini-series’ take on the life of Moses. I’ll say this much: the story keeps moving. And with its generous use of computer-generated special effects, it has the look and feel at times of an action movie.
But what about the parts of the Bible that aren’t narrative? What about the Psalms, for example, or the prophets (major and minor)? Don’t we miss something important when those parts are left out?
Here’s another question that deserves some exploration. For centuries the church has been word-centered. We have relied on the biblical text to tell us everything we need to know about God and God’s actions in the world. We train our clergy to interpret this text and proclaim it. We encourage believers to read it and meditate on it.
What happens when the word becomes image? Let’s say that the creators Roma Downey and Mark Burnett get it mostly right. Let’s say that their casting choices convey the right messages (let’s leave aside for a moment that Satan bears an uncanny resemblance to President Obama and that it’s a little creepy for Burnett to cast his wife as the blessed Virgin Mary). Let’s even say that they understand very well the moods and complexities conveyed in scripture.
Still. Isn’t this mini-series only one way of imagining the events described in the Bible? Aren’t there other ways of imagining those same events? Does Leonard da Vinci, for example, tell us in his painting everything there is to know about the last supper – or are there other paintings that offer equally important insights to that event?
One last thought. If this mini-series is helpful for some in making scripture come alive, then I’m happy for them. If this mini-series draws new attention to the Bible, then that’s good too.
It’s always good to be thoughtful about what we read and watch.
(And by the way, that photo above is from the mini-series: Abraham is about ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, which is even more troubling on screen than in the text.)