This Saturday night Channel 5 aired the first episode of American TV mini series ‘The Bible‘ to much fanfare and excitement from the Christian world in the UK. Watching the programme at the same time as the twitter conversation on the #thebibleuk hashtag was an interesting experience with a mixture of people saying how much they were enjoying it to people switching it off for being ‘too cringy’ to people telling others not to be so negative. Nearly all Christians commenting with every possible viewpoint being aired. Not, perhaps, UK Christians’ finest hour on twitter but as with the Bible itself, it got lots of conversation going!
Here are some thoughts I had on reflection on the programme and the online conversations that took place on Saturday night:
1. The Bible is an unfilmable book
Most books suffer some kind of loss when translated to the silver screen. With the Bible the case is even more complicated because the bible is not a book – it is 66 books written across a number of centuries in different contexts and cultures and languages. There is no single author of the bible but Christians do believe that the Bible is inspired by God – God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). So to try and condense the Bible into a TV mini series is an impossible task. Our expectations, therefore, of the series need to be sensible: it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it because a TV programme isn’t ‘living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword’ (Heb 4:12) like the Bible is.
2. How the Bible has been portrayed on screen before has influenced this series
I have just read two fascinating books on the history of biblical interpretation: Reading the Bible with the Dead and Reading the Bible with Giants. These books highlight that our interpretation of the bible is influenced by how it has been interpreted in the past – and we miss something if we ignore what previous Christians have understood passages to mean. This can be, I think, directly applied to this Bible mini series. The only previous depictions of biblical stories on screen are from the 1960s swords and sandals epics of Cecil B Demille and others. These have obviously influenced the production values of this new Bible series – the scenes with Moses in particular seemed to show the actor channelling Charlton Heston. So film history has something to say to us about why this Bible series looks the way it does.
3. My reactions to the tv series are not very different from my reactions to the real text
Parts of the dramatisation made me laugh. Parts made me cringe. Parts made me think and helped me to see links between the old and new testaments (I particularly liked that Moses shouted ‘follow me’ as he began walking through the parted water). The Bible is an uncomfortable text. I think the writer to the Hebrews knew this when he/she called it a sharp sword – it can cut, and it can hurt. We have to remember that the Bible isn’t there to entertain us, it is God’s story and our story. Parts of the bible are entertaining but it is not its raison d’etre – and this is what is uncomfortable about a tv series made for commercial television whose primary purpose is to entertain (and make money).
4. Having something high profile on television does not get you off the hook for evangelism – it makes your job as an evangelist harder!
Sometimes Christians get over excited when something like the hashtag #thebibleuk trends on twitter or gets in a newspaper headline. We mustn’t be naive. It is great that this series has got people talking about the Bible and I really hope that it will encourage people to read the Bible but this in itself is not going to make people become Christian. We can’t sit back and hope that a tv series will do the hard work of bringing people to Christ. Indeed, it is more likely to cause people to challenge your beliefs. So brace yourself to: ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Pet 3:15).
5. What was edited out of God’s story?
It is interesting to reflect on what was not included in this précis of the Bible. One of the questions often asked by Godly Play practitioners after telling a Bible story is ‘which bit would you leave out if you could?’ – this usually gets to the nub of the issue with a Biblical text – it is good to ask this of oneself when reading the Bible. Why was Sodom and Gomorrah included in this episode but not Joseph? Something to think on.
So, you might have loved it, you might have hated it but let this be an opportunity to re-engage with scripture, to go ‘back to the original’ and see what God might have to say to you, and perhaps to your friends.
Resources for download provided by Damaris Trust – including photos and clips
Scripture Union have produced some great resources including a free app to help people to engage with the Bible after watching the series.