Any television show that simultaneously confounds the pagans and the heretics can’t be all bad. But there’s a basic flaw in the History Channel’s The Bible that makes it hard for the cultural Christian or the spiritual seeker to absorb the message.
This is not to say the program isn’t popular. In fact, it’s wildly popular, but I fear we are preaching to the choir. The opening episode of The Bible attracted 13.1 million viewers, the largest cable audience of the year, and topped both editions of “American Idol” the same week.
Episode two had 10.8 million viewers, more than any other program in the same time period and it finished 11th overall for the week. The third episode gained viewers, inching up to 10.9 million, and was number nine for the week.
This is even more startling when you recall, as Daniel Wattenberg of the Washington Times pointed out, that The Bible “lacked the ready–made, large scale promotional platform and popular lead–in that can drive strong ratings for a new show on a major broadcast network…” It also lacked the nudity, bad language, obscene cartoon characters and titillation that excites the prurient interest of many cable TV viewers — although it does contain some off–screen fornication, adultery and murder.
On the other hand The Bible had thousands of mentions in church bulletins and word of mouth to help build the audience. (The program is proving to be a Godsend for youth ministries across America.)
So what’s not to like?
As the program is structured it appeals to Christians who know the Bible or think they know it, yet it answers no questions and puts nothing in perspective for the curious viewer who wants to learn more about the Good Book. In fact, the program runs a very real risk of alienating those viewers.
It is very easy for them to ask: Why does a supposedly loving God command King Saul to kill everyone? Why are the Israelites attacking Canaanites who have done them no wrong and were there first? Why did it take 40 years to get from Egypt to the Promised Land? Why didn’t Moses get to enter the Promised Land? What did the Sodomites do that was so bad? (No pun intended.) If David is such a sinner, why does God love him and not other sinners He had killed? What did a child like Ishmael do to deserve banishment? Why did God toy with Abraham and Isaac?
And those are just the questions from the first two episodes! After about the third killing spree Buddhism starts to look pretty good, to say nothing of Unitarianism.
The Bible is ten hours long but even that length means much is truncated and condensed. (Why couldn’t The Hobbit have dispensed with some of the padding and been only Hobbit I and Hobbit II, giving the excess to The Bible?) The series cries out for a narration to bridge the gap and provide continuity and explanation.
Even better, each episode should be followed by a 15–minute scholarly discussion among experts to put the events into an overall context. I don’t mean the secular culture’s favorite Bible experts: Bart Ehrman, the agnostic professor of religion, and Karen Armstrong, the failed nun who is liable to believe most anything. This duo would chuckle and explain how these blood–thirsty folk tales are a product of their time, with little relevance to today’s enlightened society. If God were commissioning a bible nowadays, the content and teaching would be much different.
No, the overview portion would feature solid, believing scholars who can explain and put the Bible into context. They could observe Genesis concerns the long fall of man and how God intervenes to save the righteous few. Once He sets the Israelites apart from the rest of man, God’s intent is for them to be a pure and holy race: literally the chosen people. He knows man is weak and He does not want the Israelites to be contaminated by the fallen tribes in Canaan, who are sinners that practice child sacrifice; fallen beyond the hope of redemption.
The Israelites spend 40 years in the wilderness because they did not believe God and rejected His command to take the Promised Land. God waited until that generation died out and only the two good spies — Joshua and Caleb — remained. Moses did not enter the Promised Land because he disobeyed God in front of the Israelites.
David was a sinner and a serial sinner at that, but he recognized his sins and begged God for forgiveness. Even at that he paid a price for his transgressions. Ishmael was banished because he was the product of a sin originating with Sarah and was not part of God’s plan for Abraham, but even at that God heard Abraham’s plea and Ishmael fathered a great nation. But it was a nation that contended with the Israelites.
And God tested Abraham’s trust to prove he was worthy to be the founder of the chosen people.
But none of this is evident from just watching The Bible.
The producers could even have had young people ask the questions of the experts in a roundtable setting. It would not be any more unrealistic than an Obama town meeting or episode of Real Housewives of DC and might bring some of the searching to Christ.
No doubt the DVD will have something like this in the ‘extras’ portion. Unfortunately, that will be too late. Only the sold buy the DVD, the browsers have already moved on.
Michael R. Shannon
MANDATE: Message, Media & Public Relations
Author of the forthcoming book: “Funny Conservative” Is Not an Oxymoron. (Or any other type of moron.)