Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Some Reflections on the History Channel's Recent Series "The Bible"

The following is from the April 2013 edition of my parish's magazine "The Centurion." Archived volumes of The Centurion may be downloaded from the St. Alban's Church website.

During Lent the television and media world was abuzz about the History Channel’s exciting series known as The Bible. The creators of the series, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, conceived the project in part because the Bible is the foundational text of western culture, and yet more and more people are unfamiliar with all of its content. In an fantastic op-ed piece from the Wall Street Journal the producers noted that for generations a person’s intelligence was determined by how well he or she knew the Bible! What does such a statement imply about our contemporary society where so few people know the Bible?

Overall the miniseries was very well done. It had something for everyone... probably because because the Bible has something for everyone. Those tempted to nitpick about how various stories and details were presented should remember that the Bible is a very big book that covers thousands of years of history. Artistically speaking, it is impossible to capture all of the details of the various stories in four or five two-hour episodes. The series certainly holds its own with other famous dramatizations of the Bible, such as The Ten Commandments, and The Passion of the Christ. In some cases it even outdoes those old classics.

Many people from St. Alban’s watched this series and commented on how interesting and exciting it was. The net result from watching it will hopefully be that people will get curious enough about the Bible to actually sit down and read parts of it. There is no substitute actually sitting down and reading and studying God’s word! No movie, or TV show can replace opening the pages of this book and studying the written words, if for no other reason than that there is plenty of non-historical material in the Bible, such as poetry, that simply cannot be dramatized, and yet is important to know.

One of the things that I appreciated most about the miniseries is that it got me thinking once again about how I read and understand it the Bible. This is called hermeneutics - the science of interpreting the Bible. Hermeneutics is a most critical aspect of reading and studying the Bible. While most of us are not experts in this area, it is good to know that it exists, and that the Bible is book that needs to be interpreted. Watching a series like “The Bible” can be especially helpful in this regard.

Because it is an ancient library of texts, written over many generations, by a great many people from all over the world, the Bible can be a difficult book to adapt for film and TV. So producers often have to make creative decisions as to how to develop the story in such a way as to make it appealing and understandable. And they often add extra-biblical elements to make the story flow better on screen. These additions are interpretations. Usually, in the better produced shows like “The Bible” they are perfectly harmless, and even helpful. But nonetheless, producers of programs like “The Bible”need to be very careful in how they choose to interpret biblical texts through these embellishments, because sometimes they might convey something that is their own idea rather than something that is found in the text of the Bible.

In the same way, we sometimes take a little bit of creative license when we read the Bible. We imagine how scenes must have played out, how people’s voices sounded when they said certain things, and so on. We also might be tempted to fill in perceived or real historical and doctrinal gaps. All of this is unavoidable. But like TV and movie producers, we too must be very cautious when we do this. We have to be extremely careful about reading our own assumptions into the text and its world because we may put something there that is not meant to be there! While it is impossible to have an “Olympian” (i.e. pure, unbiased) view of the Bible, or anything else for that matter, we should at least be conscious that we bring to the text our own assumptions, and that sometimes those assumptions for various reasons are not always valid or correct (historically, theologically, morally, etc.).

That is but one thing that I got from watching this series. What did you get out of it? In a few weeks or so the church will have this series available to those who wish to view it. We also hope to be screening a much more in-depth series on the Bible on DVD at another parihsioner's house in the not-too-distant future. Please keep your eyes peeled for times and dates. In the meantime, remember that the best way to learn the Bible is to read and study it daily. And more important, the better we know the Bible the better we will know not only God and Christ, but also ourselves.

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