Count me among the nonbelievers. Now an atheist, I was raised a kind of vaguely-observant Hindu in a place where Christianity was shoved down your throat nearly 24/7. Needless to say, my sympathy for Christian thought these days is anemic at best.
So I’ve paradoxically been watching the History Channel’s new docudrama, The Bible.
It’s not really good television, and I roll my eyes a lot, but I’ve watched all the episodes so far. Part of it is that it’s on every Sunday before Vikings, which is like The Tudors for metalheads, and I happened to click over at 8pm the night both shows premiered. Yesterday I put it on for background noise while I ate a pot pie and worked on my thesis. But I kept looking up. I have to hand it to The Bible‘s producers—it’s a slick, nice-looking fantasy piece with lotsa blood and burny things and a Satan who looks an awful lot like Barack Obama. Which makes the conflict between the message it claims to be delivering and the actual delivery all the more bewildering and off-putting.
It often confounds me how two people can look at the exact same work and come away with two diametrically opposing views. This odd disconnect between intent and result shines through with the full light of day in The Bible.
First, some background. The Bible is the brainchild of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who are… I don’t know, TV people. Really, I’ve never heard of them, I guess they’re actors or producers or something. Burnett was involved in Survivor, apparently. The point is that they’re very open about their agenda with this series. They want the Bible taught in public schools*, and according to an op-ed in the Huffington Post:
“Part of what we hoped to accomplish with the series was to show the Bible is not simply a collection of unconnected stories which are often discussed and analyzed in snippets with chapter and verse numbers. Instead, we wanted to show how the Old Testament connects seamlessly to the New Testament. How they are one sweeping story with one grand, overriding message: God loves each one of us as if we were the only person in all the world to love.”
Umm… wow, ’cause the Old Testament just finished last night, and what I’ve gotten out of that is the complete opposite. If I had $22 million to make a movie about the Old Testament for basic cable, the only significant changes I would make to this would be to lose the “documentary” narration and change the weirdly diverse Israelite cast to be more homogeneously Middle Eastern (Noah was clearly Scottish, and Samson was Xaro Xhoan Daxos from Game of Thrones).
So far, God’s love has included (but has not been limited to):
- Evicting his creations from their home because they broke his rule and accidentally learned stuff
- Drowning the entire world except for one guy and his inbred family
- Turning a woman into a pillar of salt because she turned around to look at her burning home
- Slaughtering the first-born in every house not smeared with lamb’s blood in an entire country
- Siccing the Babylonians on Jerusalem because Zedekiah allied with the wrong guy (Jeremiah attributed this to God, though simple politics explains it just as well)
- Allowing the slaughter of every newborn baby in a whole kingdom just as long as his son (who is also him in disguise) gets away
And that’s not even including the stuff they sanitized out of the actual Bible, like Lot showing his “righteousness” by offering his daughters to a rape-hungry crowd, King Solomon’s hundreds of concubines, Elijah and the slaughter of the priests of Baal, God sending two bears to eat children alive because they called Elisha “baldy,” etc.
Oh, and did I mention that all of this is played completely straight, with virtually no moral questioning or even equivocation?—which makes it all exceedingly horrifying from a modern viewpoint.
It turns out that if you make a faithful adaptation of a story in which God is a capricious jerk, God in your adaptation is going to be a capricious jerk.
Not to say that everyone God killed was totally innocent, but remember:
“God loves each one of us as if we were the only person in all the world to love.”
In retrospect, this quote seems like it’s about a completely different production. The statistics of the History Channel’s The Bible would show that the way God thinks the average person deserves to be loved is “I’ma kill all y’all.” Because love.
But, I have a feeling I’ll continue to watch even as it gets more Jesusy. It’ll be fun watching them contort the disparate narratives of the Gospels into one whole subject to storytelling convention. I imagine to me it’ll just come off as a character drama about mental illness in the 1st century. And because I’ve long since given up on the History Channel showing actual history. (I should propose here that the History Channel change its name to simply “H”. This will bring it in line with its daughter station, H2, and parallel the evolution of The Learning Channel to “TLC” and of Arts & Entertainment to “A&E”, as reducing to initials things that have been stripped of their original content.)
Downey and Burnett said their “greatest hope” in making the series was that it would “affect a new generation of viewers and draw them back to the Bible.”
Count me among the unconverted.
^For the record, I have no problem with the Bible being taught as part of a comparative religion course, where the only issue is maintaining a non-biased perspective. My preferred choice, though, if we had to teach the Bible, would be in a world literature course, where its shortcomings could be analyzed alongside other works, because it is, like most ancient epics, a structural mess.