The Bible on TV you seen The Bible? It’s lead-up time to Easter and Passover, and, true to form, TV broadcasters are turning to Bible movies. New in the genre this year is a series on The History Channel, a 10 part miniseries produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. Burnett suggested that one motivation for creating the series was to counter a growing Bible illiteracy among young people. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor Burnett said, “In school, you have to know a certain amount of Shakespeare, but no Bible. So there’s got to be a way to look at it from a pure literature point of view. If it wasn’t for the Bible, arguably Shakespeare wouldn’t have written those stories.”

Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches isn’t convinced that this series will do the trick. In fact, she points out that Burnett and Downey have issued a novelization of the TV series, A Story of God and All of Us, so in effect “instead of reading the actual Bible, you can just read a novelization of a miniseries.”

Posner cites a blog post by Bible scholar Wil Gafney:

The bible is a wonderfully rich, complicated, challenging, illuminating, revelatory text. It is also horrifically violent and does not say what we want the way we want it to. We must take it in its entirety seriously as a cultural and historical artifact and as scripture – if that is our confession. But this series erases the texts in which Joshua and the Israelites slaughter babies, kill their mothers, fathers and brothers and take their sisters as war-brides … They ignore the texts in which God calls for the enslavement of non-Israelites and their children in perpetuity – the scriptural and theological basis for the Atlantic slave-trade and American slavocracy.

You can hear Posner and Gafney continue this conversation at Religion Dispatches.

Also at RD, Paul Harvey, author of The Color of Christ (UNC Press, 2012), suggests that “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.

Others, like Jim Wallis, are more enthusiastic, though he notes that a key message of the series is not specifically in the scripture text: “What are we going to do,” Peter asks Jesus, which is a wonderful question. And I love the answer Jesus gives, which is in all the promotions of “The Bible” series, “Change the world.” He goes on, “Mark asked me if they were right to have Jesus say that he wanted to change the world. Those words are not literally in the Scriptures, but it seemed to him and Roma that’s exactly what Jesus was talking about. Absolutely correct, I told them both.”

What do you think? Is there a value in translating Bible stories into video? What is gained by doing so? What is lost? Is it sufficient to communicate a general message, even if that message uses words not found in the original? Is it important to include the darker side of the biblical stories?



2 responses to “The Bible on TV

  1. If it’s well done. The odds that the History Channel will do this with anything resembling professional competence or integrity are not high.

  2. I was involved in a project developing a DVD Bible game that used images from the History Channel. Sadly, they were not much more than elaborate versions of the “bathrobe dramas” the youth did in church. This series says more about how 21st century people idealize the Bible than it does about the Bible itself.

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