Documentary presents a mostly Biblical account of Jesus’ life—but with some liberal chaff offered as fact
by Megan Basham
March 22, 2019
In 2013, the History Channel scored cable’s most-watched entertainment show with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s miniseries The Bible. The series proved so popular the filmmakers were able to cobble together a successful 2014 film, Son of God, just from select scenes and unaired footage. So it’s no surprise, as Easter approaches, that the network is returning to the subject of Scripture.
History’s new eight-part documentary series, Jesus: His Life, premieres this Sunday. Through dramatic re-enactments and interviews with scholars, each episode examines Christ’s earthly ministry through the eyes of a Biblical figure who knew him: Joseph, John the Baptist, Mary, Caiaphas, Judas, Pilate, Mary Magdalene, and Peter.
While it’s certainly one of the more worthwhile, engaging new shows you could be watching, it does contain a few moments likely to make Christian brows wrinkle.
To start with the good, the unique approach of focusing on the perspective of one person from Jesus’ life at a time allows for intriguing historical context rarely covered for laypeople. For example, after a lifetime of church and Sunday school attendance, I was still surprised to learn about Herod the Great’s racial background and how his insecurity over it may have impacted his response to the Magi.
At other times, however, the show takes speculation too far, giving priority to Scripture-skeptics who present their views as fact with little counter-response from serious conservative scholars.
Robert Cargill, a self-described agnostic, progressive Bible scholar from the University of Iowa, features especially heavily. In both episodes screened for critics—“Joseph” and “John the Baptist”—he describes the Gospel writers making independent literary choices to lend credibility to their accounts, rather than acting as divinely inspired faithful reporters. For example, Cargill says, “Most scholars think that Luke used the census as a device to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem because the prophecies say the Messiah will be born in the City of David.”
Later, Cargill drops a fairly eyebrow-raising statement he never explains: that John the Baptist came preaching a message of social justice. Other experts, meanwhile, make claims like, “In the Gospel of Mark, when John the Baptist sees Jesus, he doesn’t recognize Him at all,” that a quick passage skim proves false. Not only does Mark’s account assert no such thing, but Matthew’s suggests the direct opposite.
Such unsubstantiated claims to facthood are most concerning, however, when they read into Jesus’ mind thoughts that aren’t consistent with a holistic understanding of the Bible. Without citing Scriptural support, a well-known liberal Catholic, Father James Martin, frames the Holy Spirit’s descent and God’s announcement, “This is my beloved son,” at Christ’s baptism as an eye-opening experience for Him, saying, “Jesus understands His identity which is revealed to Him very clearly for the first time.”
At the very least, this flies in the face of Luke’s account of 12-year-old Jesus being quite aware He was in His Father’s house.
While the series claims to offer views from across the ideological spectrum, with the exception of Ben Witherington, evangelicals who adhere to a literal reading of Scripture won’t find their views much represented. This doesn’t mean the show presents rampant heresy—the two episodes screened for critics featured mostly wheat with a bit of troubling chaff sprinkled in. And I doubt there was any malicious intent even in that, as least as far as the History Channel is concerned. Based on my experience with producers, they likely have no idea that some of the ideas presented in their series might pose a problem for Christians.
As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the shortcomings that crop up when secular studios take on the Bible have an easy solution: Consult teachers and theologians like Tim Keller, John MacArthur, John Piper, or countless others who fall on the conservative side of the ideological spectrum.
Downey and Burnett did just that with The Bible series, soliciting input from, among others, Luis Palau, Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly, and Young Life’s Denny Rydberg. So History Channel, if you’re listening, including diverse Biblical scholarship will make your Easter-season productions more accurate and more entertaining. It’ll probably also bring back those sweet, sweet ratings.
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Rachelle Lefevre Fox Broadcasting Co.
Attorney for the defense
Past trauma motivates a lawyer to challenge questionable convictions in Proven Innocent
by Victoria Johnson
Critics are panning Fox’s new drama Proven Innocent for its bland, one-dimensional characters and seeming identity crisis. Is it a courtroom drama? A detective show? A comedy?
The show centers on Madeline Scott (Rachelle Lefevre), an attorney at a firm dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. Madeline’s quest to prove her clients innocent is partly because of her own past—she and her brother spent 10 years in prison for the murder of their best friend—and partly because she’s on a mission to stop Chicago’s seemingly corrupt city prosecutor from becoming state attorney general.
Madeline’s law team is a posse of caricatures: Lawyer Easy Boudreau (Russell Hornsby) took Madeline’s case because he felt the “Lord’s guidance” calling him to it. Violet (Nikki M. James) is the woman wingman whose podcast frames the show and allows the scriptwriters to sermonize about hot-button issues. Investigator Bodie (Vincent Kartheiser) provides comic relief with his absurd undercover antics, such as joining the fire department to investigate an arson case. Each character seems to belong to a different show: It feels as if the writers couldn’t pick a genre.
Prosecutor Gore Bellows (Kelsey Grammer) is the most intriguing character so far. Every time Bellows goes head to head with Madeline, he defends himself: After all, he’s a prosecutor and it’s his job to take dangerous people off the streets. But while he says and does good things, his body language—smirking, standing too close to a female aid—provokes unease and suggests Bellows will come to a bad end.
Initial episodes of Proven Innocent (rated TV-14) included some mildly raw language and a disturbing image of suicide. The show promises to explore interesting questions: How will Madeline’s high-profile life affect her family, especially her brother, who got into drugs in prison? To what extent will her desire for revenge against Bellows overrule her desire to help innocent people? What good is it to be set free if people still think you’re guilty?
And of course, who did commit the original murder?
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Doctors with heart
NBC show New Amsterdam features a compassionate medical team and secular perspectives
by Sharon Dierberger
New Amsterdam, an NBC medical drama, stars Ryan Eggold (The Blacklist) as a status-quo-busting medical director, Dr. Max Goodwin. Now in the second half of its first season, the show grew out of Eric Manheimer’s 2012 memoir of his time as director at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
In the pilot, Goodwin gathers hospital staffers and announces, “I work for you so you can work for your patients.” That’s the show’s theme: radically changing hospital protocols to put patients first. Goodwin fires the cardiac surgical department, eliminates waiting rooms, agrees to make hospital food healthy, and refuses to place billing above patient care. By the pilot’s end, skeptical doctors are on board.
The first season portrays typical medical crises and character relationships. It emphasizes compassion, but sometimes unrealistically, as when Goodwin invites homeless people into the understaffed hospital. Ongoing subplots revolve around why the winsome and witty Goodwin is so driven, as well as how he will handle his own dire health diagnosis.
Despite engaging characters, the show has predictable (and secular) scenarios and views: The male head of psychiatry has a husband and two adopted children, and he supports surgical change for a transgender teen. Law enforcement and race issues seem one-sided. Characters rarely broach religious thoughts, but in one episode a doctor turns to another and says, “The Lord works in mysterious ways”—and the second replies, “Yes, she does.”
Positive elements include Goodwin’s overt love for his wife and unborn daughter, a hospital counselor’s desire to find a permanent home for an angry teen lost in the foster system, and staff kindness to a prisoner-patient about to give birth. Doctors routinely call unborn children babies. The script allows for development of deeper issues, so New Amsterdam could improve in its planned second season—or fall into a propagandizing pit.