'The Bible' Series History Channel: Little Scholarship Reflected in Show


I have not watched or planned to watch The History Channel's series The Bible. I feel I know all I want to about it from the promos and the promotion on the signs of churches, where I know I'm not comfortable. But when one of my social-justice heroes, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, featured it in his blog, I thought I might have been mistaken. 

Wallis was given the opportunity to view a number of clips from the series, so he could record video blurbs about them. He picked up on the same single line I noticed from the promos, but went an entirely different direction with it. In the promo, overlapping the image of Jesus being lifted from his baptism by John the Baptist, we hear (Peter, it turns out) asking, "What are we going to do?" and Jesus answer, "Change the world." 

In the blog, Wallis recounts how one of the filmmakers asked him if it might have been reaching too far to put that statement in Jesus' mouth, and Wallis shares with us how, even though it's not to be found in the canon, he finds it a fine summary of Jesus' ministry. I do not. I find it downright scary, especially in this Jesus' dreamy voice and posh-Brit accent. 

I'm all for Christianity as a world-changing prophetic, which is what Wallis finds appealing in the characterization. But think of the world Jesus could have meant if he had said it. He would not have meant any of the Americas (unless you throw in Mormon doctrine). He probably could not have had knowledge of much except the world that is now seen as mostly in competition with Christendom. And I happen to think, from studying writings of the early churches, within and without the canon, that Jesus would not much approve of the majority of Christendom in the 21st century. Yes, it's about material inequalities, but also so much more than can be addressed here and now. 

My biggest problem with the History Channel project is my biggest problem with most Christian churches, including my own Presbyterian Church, and the biggest factor on which I pin the "rise of the nones" and falling membership in those churches: The series, and the churches, go on reading the Bible as if its been through peer review for historical and scientific content, and they set dreary pre-Enlightenment interpretations in stone.

Wallis shares with us his children's delight in recognizing such stories as Noah's flood, and I shudder to think of new generations wanting to find artifacts on Mt. Ararat. I looked at one of Wallis's blurbs, on the Last Supper, and except for dirt around the actors' fingernails and sweat on their brows, the clip could have come from my 1950s Sunday School in Ohio. Among other things, there were still no women present, not even to serve the dinner. The only video that jumped out on the show's website was on Delilah. I heard the actor say the character was difficult to play because she was "seductive" and (I think) cunning, and the bit of imagery, of swarthy men offering the demure beauty a chest of gold coins, was too much for me. 

The Bible seems to be running in parallel with another costume miniseries I'm disinclined to watch, The Vikings. Sometimes when I turn on the TV, I have a hard time guessing which promo I'm seeing. I wonder how many viewers are following both. If I were anywhere near as interested in the reality of Viking society as I am in making the ancient witness of Hebrew and Christian Scripture accessible and comprehensible in the 21st century, I might look into the research that may lie behind that series. But since the two are running together, and knowing how little progress and scholarship is reflected in The Bible, I want to know only when to stay well away from that stop on my remote. We can do much better than this, and it's about time we put our 21st century resources to better use.