Why History’s Bible series was worth it

Ron Vanderwell

We’ve now reached the conclusion of the landmark History series The Bible. A record 10 million viewers plus have tuned in each week to this sweeping portrayal of the narrative of Scripture. The Bible has even surpassedAmerican Idol - a Biblical irony, if you think about it.

It’s always a risky prospect to attempt to portray a familiar story. The portrayals never quite seem to come out right. I’ve always had trouble with movies of John Grisham novels, for instance. I’ve had some of the same reactions to The Bible series.

Some of this ambivalence is simply petty, of course. The minor factual changes made for dramatic purposes, say, or the controversy over whether Mehdi Ouzanni was cast as Satan because of his alleged resemblance to Barack Obama. And it always struck me as odd when I was reminded during commercial breaks that “The Bible is brought to you by Wal-Mart.” (Seems an awful lot of credit to give a chain of discount stores.) Personally, my biggest issue was the fact that Diogo Morgado as Jesus looked a little too much like Ashton Kutcher. 

At the same time, I was surprised by how helpful I found the series’ portrayal of some of the supporting characters. Peter’s pit-bull earnestness as he tried his best to follow his rabbi or Caiaphas’ steely gaze as he struggled to manage the growing tensions in Jerusalem. I appreciated all the dust and grime of all the ancient settings. The Israelites actually resembled Bedouins and the disciples really seemed like grimy first-century working men. These Bible characters seemed like real people.

More substantial questions, though, would focus on the spin that the series put on the Bible. Did the story that was portrayed in these 10 hours accurately portray the message of Scripture?

If it was easy to wrap our minds around the mystery of God-with-us, it would be easy to make a television series like this. But it isn’t, and I suspect it wasn’t.

After the first two episodes I was concerned. The first several hours seemed to portray a series of brave people trying to be good rather than a good God leading people who couldn’t help but disobey. However, that seemed to change as we moved into the New Testament. As Easter moved toward Pentecost and the church spread across the empire, it was refreshing to see how the early leaders were often swept along by the Spirit of Christ, and often seemed as bewildered by Christ’s leading as I often feel. 

I suspect that the greatest challenge faced by the creators of this series was the same challenge faced by any of us: coming to terms with the incarnation of Christ. How do we imagine a savior who was and is both fully God and fully man? How do you cast an actor who is supposed to portray God Himself - in a credible human form? How in the world do you direct him when he’s supposed to laugh with children or lose his temper at the religious leaders? If it was easy to wrap our minds around the mystery of God-with-us, it would be easy to make a television series like this. But it isn’t, and I suspect it wasn’t. I would have liked to have the series stretch my imagination when it came to the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, but the Jesus I saw often felt strangely similar to the one that I saw on those flannel-graph boards as a child.

But I’m glad they tried. The bottom line is that millions of people have interrupted their weekend plans to follow the story of Scripture. It’s hard to find a downside in that.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, The Bible