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Ultimate reality

AMBITIOUS: Burnett and Downey (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Television

Ultimate reality

<em>Survivor</em> producer tackles a miniseries covering Genesis to Revelation

The five-part, 10-hour miniseries The Bible debuts on the History Channel on March 3, covering Genesis to Revelation, the garden of Eden to the island of Patmos. Mark Burnett, who produced wildly successful reality shows like Survivor and The Voice, helmed the series, which he and his actress wife Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), a co-producer and actress in the series, worked on for three years.

Burnett calls this “the most important project I have ever undertaken.” He is targeting an audience beyond church groups—he believes more people will see this in the long run than all his other shows combined. “Biblical literacy is down,” said Burnett at a screening with Downey and a few reporters in New York. “The book is the foundation of all our society and laws, so not knowing it—it makes you lacking.” Both Downey and Burnett have told media that they aren’t trying to evangelize people or stir controversy with the series. “We’ve tried to not make this talk at you and lecture you,” said Burnett. “The story is just the story.” 

But the film is clear in its Christian message, a message both Burnett and Downey believe. “In creation, we fell away from God’s grace,” said Downey. “The arching journey had to be how we got back to God, ultimately through Jesus.” Though much of the dialogue is contrived, the writers wove in direct quotes from the Bible—for example, Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah plays over the scene of Jesus’ birth. Burnett thought the series’ writers understood the message even though he didn’t think many of them believed it. “They analyzed [the Bible] cover to cover,” he said. “They said, ‘Here’s the through-line.’ And it’s exactly the right through-line.” 

Burnett takes some minor artistic liberties, but overall he gets the story right and brings a professional edge to the storytelling. This production has more professional chops than other “Christian”-made films, like, say, Fireproof, directed by a Baptist pastor. Hans Zimmer, an Oscar-winner who composed the score for Gladiator, composed The Bible’s score. Burnett also got a hand from the special effects company that won an Oscar for its work on Gladiator. The series has some of the big cinematic feel of the award-winning 1956 film The Ten Commandments.

“I think God calls people with the right skill sets at the right time,” said Burnett. “We’re commercial filmmakers. We know what we’re doing.” But even for the most accomplished filmmaker, a series on the entire Bible is ambitious and hard to manage. In this production a distracting narrator pulls the viewer out of immersion in the story, though Burnett argued a narrator was necessary because the series zooms across thousands of years.

What Burnett and Downey showed us were excerpts fresh from the editing floor, so I can’t vouch for the entire series, but everything I saw was theologically orthodox. They consulted with academics and theologians and pastors across the spectrum for the series. The series is also entertaining, but despite the high-grade special effects, there are moments that have a community-theater feel. Characters appear with too much hairspray or too pronounced a perm that poor Jews in the Roman Empire couldn’t have.

Burnett shot the series in Morocco (which is ironic because the country has cracked down on missionary activity in recent years, kicking out many Christians). The cast is mostly British and Australian, but relatively racially diverse. The actor who plays Jesus, Diogo Morgado, is Portuguese. You hear traces of his accent throughout, which is a nice change from the usual silver screen Jesus who seems so familiar to Americans. Still, Morgado fits a popular image of Jesus—he has nice hair and he’s handsome, while the “Man of Sorrows” probably wasn’t. The series gives John the Baptist dreadlocks, and you imagine that Jesus might have had at least a few himself from sleeping on boats. 

Likely there will be disputes on finer theological points in the series, but Burnett said to such critics, “Get out of the granular weeds and just enjoy the grand old story.”

Comments

  • ADave
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:59 pm

    I realize with any video presentation of the Bible, there aways those artistic literary licenses (especially in the dialog), and yet I cannot affirm articles affirmation that this was "theogically orthodox.'   I am assuming that "thoeoligcal orthodox" also means Biblically orthodox.When the article states that "They" consulted with acedemics and theologians and pastor across the spectrum I am not sure who the Emily Belz is referring to.  The names mentioned in a lot of the news coverage are Joel Osteen, Rick Warren and TD Jakes.   I do not view them as representative of orthodox Christian authorities.

  •  jrmbasso's picture
    jrmbasso
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:59 pm

    I liked having Noah retelling the creation story in the ark. Outside the ark God was in the process of uncreation to the beginning where the earth was created formless and void. The process of transmitting and preserving The Bible was also illustrated at the same time. I was puzzled at adding the sword work of the angels to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible certainly records that they blinded the men outside Lot's home and led Lot and his family to safety but the purpose of adding to that remains unclear to me. (Just what specifically was God punishing Sodom for was a little unclear also. The Bible certainly explains it rather graphically.) I did get a glimpse of the significance of Abraham the wandering shepherd searching for a city whose architect and builder is God in the contrast between Abraham and Lot. The separation of the Ishmaelites and the people of Abraham was well done. Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac was moving. The burning bush was spectacular and the allusions to Yahweh's name were good.  The depiction of the Israelites being spared by the blood of the lamb was terrific. Both the Egyptians and the Israelites were sinners but God allowed the blood of the lambs to redeem the Israelites.  Where were the pillars of cloud and fire which Moses and Israel followed? 

  • waitmans9's picture
    waitmans9
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:59 pm

    Our family watched the show's debut on the History channel last night. We were, to say the least, disappointed with the overall portrayal of the story. I understand that making a film on the whole bible is a daunting task in and of itself, but rather than making the biblical history "come alive" through modern technology and cinematography, the first edition of the series made the biblical accounts of Noah, Abraham, Lot, and Moses seem like nothing more than an overly dramatic fairy tale. There were many instances where they strayed far away from the biblical account in order to insert drama and action into the film. The accounts of Lot's interactions with Abraham, the angels visiting Lot in Sodom, and the sacrifice of Isaac are only a few of these. Considering the general shift of our culture to view the Bible as mere stories they learned growing up, I am afraid that this film will cause more doubts in the hearts of the church than it will draw others to Christ.

  • RT Procee
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:59 pm

    Another review can be found at http://creation.com/bible-on-history. These writers were one of the very few who got to see the entire production. Apparently, overall, it is (as Emily said) historically orthodox. However, there is one moment where "at the Last Supper, 'Jesus' seems to have a sudden revelation about His death". This is inconsistent with the Biblical record. Other than that, the authors were pleasantly surprised.