Last night was the first opportunity I have had to watch the History Channel’s miniseries The Bible. I have seen criticism after criticism appear on Facebook and Twitter, yet the ratings seem to be doing quite well. I decided to watch last night’s episode and a little bit of the rerun from the previous week. Honestly, I enjoyed it.
Maybe the expectations were ridiculously high for some people. Maybe (more likely) people enjoy being critical. I entered with medium-to-low expectations because the History Channel has been somewhat frustrating in recent years. Also, while a ten hour miniseries is lengthy it seems a topic like “the Bible” may be a wee bit too large to cover adequately.
I came to the series with the understanding that the producers were Christians. Similarly, I know their aim is to highlight the parts of the Bible that they appreciate the most. So when I hear people complain that the dark side of the Bible is being ignored I am a little surprised. Did you expect an hour to be dedicated to the sacrifice of Jepthah’s daughter? Were you anticipating a half-hour of someone reading Levitical legislation from Torah?
I know there have been more serious criticisms, like the stereotypical white Jesus and the unfortunate casting of a Satan character that bears resemblance to our President. Also, I haven’t seen any of the episodes on the Old Testament, so I may be missing a lot. That said, last night there were several things that grabbed my attention. Caiaphas was a character with which I could sympathize (see Mark Goodacre’s comments in “Understanding Caiaphas–The Bible Series” for some helpful insights). Judas was the same. These men were not demonized, completely, but humanized. Do Christians believe these men did a terrible thing in assisting in Jesus’ death? Paradoxically, yes, though Christians believe that Jesus’ death was an event that altered the cosmos for our good as well. (We are an interesting, complex religious group, eh?) Even the character playing Jesus does a good job at it. Jesus appears somewhat surprised by the crowds announcing him as Messiah and he comes to believe it. In other words, Jesus is a very human figure who must learn of his vocation. Even in the scene where he tells Peter he will betray him Jesus seems to be hearing the voice of God as he embraces Peter, and then he tells Peter what will happen like a prophet. Jesus is learning. Jesus is informed by the divine. Jesus is not presented as an ethereal, divine-but-barely human figure. I thought this was well done.
One of the most important aspects of this miniseries is that it has people talking about the Bible again. I am quite surprised to see scholars slicing and dicing this series to bits. Sure, we should be critical to some extent. Sure, we should evaluate the poetic license taken by the producers (though, as Tom Verenna notes in “History’s ‘The Bible’ in Broader Contexts”, it is a bit odd how literalistic people want this series to be, something Peter Enns observed as well in “Q:What Do Roma Downey and the Writers of the Bible Have in Commong? A: Neither Sticks to the Script”). But some people are full of venom and many of them need not be. Listen, we who appreciate the liberal arts whine about how our religion and philosophy departments are being closed or defunded all over the place. Our area of study doesn’t make money like the science or business departments. In fact, liberal arts doesn’t make anywhere near the money of the basketball and football teams on campus. Similarly, we live in a culture that is becoming more and more biblically illiterate. Whether you are a Christian or not this should be concerning since it is impossibly difficult to understand much of western civilization if one doesn’t know a little bit about the Bible.
Those who teach topics related to the Bible should be pleased with this one thing: people care about the topic you teach. You are not completely irrelevant right now. Maybe, if you use this series rather than hacking it to pieces you can find a way to increase enrollment in your Introduction to the Hebrew Bible class next semester and we know administrators are paying attention to how many students take a given class. So go ahead and note where you find this series is lacking, but don’t miss the opportunity it is presenting to get people interested in the Bible again. The same may be true of local churches as well.
The Bible series was bound to be imperfect. No one will be pleased, completely, but then again we aren’t the people who spent the time and money to produce the series. If you want a perfect series, go produce it (I guarantee others won’t think it is perfect). But the epidemic of negativity among those of us who have been lamenting biblical illiteracy seems hypocritical to me. Sure, address your concerns, but realize The Bible is giving you a platform for discussing everything from Jesus’ skin tone to Judas’ role in Jesus death. It has people listening again. Don’t miss the opportunity to engage in dialogue. It isn’t every Spring that people care about the Bible as much as March Madness.