Arts and Culture

'The Bible'

Watching History Channel's miraculous hit created by 'Survivor' producer Mark Burnett.

By Steve Burgess 15 Mar 2013 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture and reviews the screen, large and small, for The Tyee every second week.

I guess Survivor producer Mark Burnett tipped his hand when he made that Sarah Palin reality show, not to mention his continuing association with ass clown Donald Trump. Surely he's a maverick, a Tea Partier, a birther, a red state kind of guy. And as the Palin show also suggests, his politics seem to inform his artistic choices. So perhaps we should not be surprised at his latest project: The Bible, a five-part miniseries that attempts to condense the Good Book into 10 hours of Good TV. It's already a smash hit for the History Channel -- the most-watched cable TV show in the U.S. this year. Burnett told The Daily Mail: "The hand of God was on this."

Far be it from me to suggest that the hand of God could use some time in film school. But as dramatic misfires go The Bible could rank with the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Cramming the Bible into 10 hours requires more trimming than a yak on prom night. Nonetheless there's a lot of dross to be eliminated. No one wants to see the detailed genealogies of Moses, or the laws concerning mildew. And the filmmakers wisely omit tales like the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Moses' brother Aaron. The two lads present an offering to the Lord but do it wrong, and like a displeased and omnipotent five-year-old at a birthday party, the Lord incinerates them. Savvy filmmakers know that sort of psychopathic behaviour alienates your audience. Even Tony Soprano didn't do that shit. But keeping the audience onside is a challenge with this material, and Burnett and company don't always play it straight. This is not exactly your patriarch's Bible.


The Bible opens on the storm-tossed Ark as an apparently Scottish Noah editorializes about what brought the Flood ("Wrong choices! Wrong decisions!") and tells his lucky passengers the tale of Creation and the Garden of Eden, all while being knocked around by the waves and trying to avoid bumping into a couple of giraffes in a surprisingly empty ship. (No dinosaurs, which explains a lot.) Adam and Eve are white supermodels, but other races will be dutifully trotted out thanks to arbitrary casting decisions, a practice which extends to the dramatizations of familiar Biblical tales. For example, the angels of the Lord who visit Sodom turn out to be martial arts sword masters, dispatching the unholy with wicked ninja moves. Thus continues a long, proud tradition of Biblical interpretation.

Think of a typical TV episode recap ("Previously on Downton Abbey...") and you'll understand the sort of depth and complexity offered by The Bible's pell-mell rush through the Book of Genesis. Abraham the patriarch exhorts his people to do all sorts of things because, well, God spoke to him. Particularly curt is the horrifying tale of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. "What's the matter?" asks Abraham's wife, Sarah. "God wants a sacrifice," Abraham answers blandly. "My boy, come with me."

Since these filmmakers, like many before them, have decided that a visual portrayal of God is a step too far, we simply see Abraham squinting at the sky and talking to himself. This makes Abraham look very much how a man who claims to hear messages from God would look today if encountered at Main and Broadway. Probably not what was intended. At least Moses gets a burning bush to chat with.


It's not so much the supernatural aspects of the tale that make it tough to dramatize -- modern audiences are accustomed to that via The Avengers, Harry Potter, et al. It's more the point of view. Abraham and other warriors shout "Trust in God!" and then proceed to slaughter their enemies without mercy. Cinematically this works when the enemy are Imperial stormtroopers, and for believers the scenes might work the same way. But when Joshua shouts "Israel!" before massacring the terrified inhabitants of Jericho, it takes a very partisan observer not to wish he could be hauled before the Ancient International Court in The Hague. Later, after Samson brings down the temple on the Philistines, the narrator notes approvingly: "Samson's sacrifice killed thousands." The ancestor of the modern suicide bomber?

The tale of Samson also shows how The Bible's creators occasionally fudge the Biblical viewpoint to gain sympathy. "Our people should never mix," an onscreen Philistine grandee snarls when the Israelite Samson marries into their tribe. Yet in the Old Testament it is not so much the Philistines as Samson's people who object to the marriage -- and we are told that Samson's intermarriage is simply the Lord's way of bringing destruction upon those people whose name entered our language as a synonym for the uncultured (a historical injustice reinforced by years of Biblical education. Archaeology has uncovered evidence of connections between Philistine and Greek culture and suggests that in some ways ancient Philistinian civilization may have been more advanced than the Hebrew).

In fact one selling point of this series is the opportunity to grab a Bible and follow along (preferably with a modern translation) to see where Burnett and co. are playing fast and loose with the source material. Hopefully it's an approach that will be pursued by at least some of the Sunday school teachers who are sure to use this series as a teaching tool.

Stay tuned

And yet even with the reverent and thoroughly uncritical approach taken by the makers of the History Channel Bible, they can't drain all the fascination, horror, and humanity out of the King James Bible. There's just so much to work with. And things finally get interesting when Saul and David appear on screen. The storytelling is still crude and rushed but here at least are tales in which God is far less important than politics, paranoia, power, sex and treachery. (Vancouver viewers will also note that God cuts David more slack than Alex Edler gets from Alain Vigneault.)

Watching this long narrative of triumphalism and divine destiny, I was often reminded of the Israeli backpacker I recently met in India. He cut short an incipient discussion of Mid-East politics by proclaiming, "God gave our land to Abraham. That is all I need to know."

He'll love this series -- at least the first half. But The Bible's point of view is going to turn on him pretty soon. History Channel keeps reminding impatient Christian viewers of this with promos featuring Jesus (Diego Morgado) reaching toward the camera and saying, "I am coming soon!"

After all, History Channel didn't pull in over 13 million American viewers by pandering to minority groups.  [Tyee]

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