Everyone is talking about The History Channel’s new miniseries, The Bible. I missed the first couple of episodes, because I really wasn’t interested. Like most movies or miniseries that are adapted from books, I assumed that the book would be better, especially since I’ve read at least 70% of the Bible.
I decided to give the show a try last week and this week. It certainly was intriguing. I read some of the commentary about the series so far. This week I decided to chronicle my thoughts.
But before I do that, let me say this:
- The Bible is a complex, nuanced, and multi-layered work. It would be extremely difficult for ANYONE to make a concise series that satisfied everyone. There would be no way to cover everything that everybody would like to see.
- Whoever made this miniseries was going to get criticized. If Black Panthers made it, someone would be upset. If seminarians made it, someone would have complained. The Bible is a sacred piece of Americana, one that a lot of people believe they have a rightful claim to. The Bible is a personal story for millions of people, and they treat it as such.
- With all of that being said, it does not exclude the creators of the Bible from critique, no matter how well meaning they were. This is especially true when said work involves people, events, and places that countless hours of research have been devoted to. As someone once said, “You are welcomed to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”
With that said, let’s get into it.
Women: I don’t remember another biblically themed miniseries where it was blatantly shown that Jesus had female disciples. Usually you only see Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and then Mary, Lazarus’s sister. Women were showed talked to the other more famous disciples and even influencing some decisions. That was a big step, and one that I appreciated.
Dramatization: This is a catch 22. The positive side is that the actors, particularly in this last episode, demonstrated the intensity that was taking place in Jesus’ time. Quite frankly, if someone where to try to stick strictly to the story pacing that the Gospels have laid out, the story would seem very helter-skelter and not make much sense. We’re so used to reading it that it doesn’t bother us, but viewing it on a screen would be very jarring. Some of these scenes require insertions or the story wouldn’t make sense. Just like those italicized words in your Bible, these additions or expansions of the scenes help the audience.
The dramatization also gives a chance to demonstrate personality. The way Jesus calmly tells the little girl about the future state of Jerusalem was a nice touch. Too often we forget that these biblical stories are talking about real people with real emotion. I was happy to see that.
Accurate Depiction of the Times: This is probably the result of the dramatization, but I think it deserves separate mention. The time that Jesus lived in was one filled with political unrest and public anxiety. The show demonstrated that well, especially with the revolts. Also, the rather scandalous aspects of Jesus’ ministry were shown with particular clarity. Because Jesus is the hero of the Christian, the commotion that his actions caused is usually glossed over. We agree with Jesus, so we bypass the upheaval that ministry created. His actions caused whole towns to ask him to leave (Luke 8:37). He was a very polarizing figure.
The Story: Jesus’ life is a powerful story. You could probably have a Lego version of the life of Jesus Christ and it still would sell very well. It’s something about the story that pulls on people’s heartstrings. When you have capable actors, the power of the story comes through.
Race: I know that people have already worn this subject into the ground, but some things need to be repeated over and over until something changes. In the two episodes that I watched, I only counted two people of color. One of the wise men was black, and the actor that played Satan was Moroccan. I understand that Samson was depicted as a black man, but I’m not too moved by that. Samson wasn’t a hero in my book and depicting yet another hypersexed, hypermasculine black man into the public consciousness is not what is needed.
Yes, the creators of the series said that there was no racial bias in the casting. And I will give the benefit of the doubt to the creators of the miniseries that being racially insensitive was not the intent of their heart. However, as a scholar, theologian, and a person of color I’m disappointed and appalled. Yet again, Jesus is shown as someone of strong Western European decent and not a product of the Middle East.
See, racism doesn’t really need a conscious, malicious decision from anyone to work. Racism is perpetuated by cultural structures that are grafted into how we think and perceive. It’s all very automatic. Once these structures are created, it takes critical thought and intention to dismantle them.
So yes, you can be very nice…and mean well…and be very racist in the actions that you undertake.
Casting is always a choice. With all of the resources and understanding that we have about Palestine then and now, popular culture still thinks it’s okay to demonstrate the majority of the people in the show as white with British accents. It’s not accurate, it’s a slap in the face to all of the black, brown, and yellow faces that also love Jesus, and it’s further proof that we still have a ways to go when it comes to race and religion.
Some might say, “The skin color doesn’t matter.” I say it does. It sends the message that if you have power, you can tell the story however you’d like to, that one can change the elements and soften the edges to make a story into a more palatable telling. Again, some might say, “It doesn’t matter what color Jesus’ skin is?” My response is, “If it doesn’t matter what color Jesus’ skin is, why is Jesus always white?” Dr. Wil Gafney does a great job breaking down the issues with this here.
Dramatization: This is the negative side of the coin. There were times when the miniseries took big liberties with the biblical accounts. For example, if you read the account of the adulterer that Jesus pardoned in John 8, Jesus never pick up a rock. Jesus was writing in the sand. Also, with Lazarus, Jesus never went inside the tomb. Read the account in John 11: 38-43 and see how different the story plays out.
Why is that a problem? Because in America, we already have an issue when it comes to bible literacy. We operate on what we were told the Bible says, or what we assume it means, and never interact with the text on its own terms. This may not be a big deal with the scenes addressed in the miniseries, but it’s a huge deal when you approach the Bible for insight on issues such as politics, gender, sexuality, and a number of front burner issues today. I hope that pastors will use the opportunity to guide people in a closer reading of the text if they are inspired and intrigued by The Bible Miniseries.
Those are my thoughts. Next week, Jesus will be going to the cross. I’ll be watching to see how the series wraps up. Will you?