If Twitter is any indication, like many of the faithful I stayed up late and watched the first installment of The Bible Ministeries produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett which began airing last night on the History Channel. In case you missed it, part one began with Noah and the flood and ended with Joshua preparing to take Jericho. I was aware that the series was coming out, but having not seen any of it I have been apprehensive about recommending it. On the whole I thought it was very well done. I'm hooked enough to be committed for the entire 66 book - or 10 hour - ride.
This is obviously not the first visual take on this material. The stories in the Scripture have been inspiring artists of all varieties for two-thousand years. But it is always interesting to observe the artist's interpretation on the Word.
One problem of course is that there is no way to tell all of the biblical stories in 10 hours (probably 7 if you take the commercials out). Because the video version of the Bible can't help but becomin a "Canon within the Canon," I'm always interested then in what gets left in and what gets taken out. Those who know of my fascination with tohu bohu (chaos) and water in the creation story will understand how cool I thought it was that they started with Noah battling the chaos of the waters while retelling his children the creation story and the story of Cain's violence against Abel.
The story of Abraham was clearly the centerpiece. I thought it was an astute decision to not add God's voice into the production. I thought it helped those watching have to wrestle with the reality that Abraham was making life and death decisions based upon a voice that only he heard.
My sons were watching it with me and they latched on to the three visitors who came to tell Abraham and Sarah that they would have Isaac. They caught immediately the intended connections to the Trinity.
It is unfortunate that the narrative skipped from Genesis 22 to the opening of Exodus. There is obviously much that Jacob and Joseph add to the trajectory of the narrative of promise, but if you only have ten hours... somebody gets left on the cutting room floor.
I would really have liked the burning bush to have included God giving to Moses his sacred name YHWH. It seems theologically critical to me that God names himself as the one who hears the cries of his people. But overall, for a story that has been produced in big budget live action and animated movies, I thought the Exodus was well imagined.
There are a lot of things to nitpick. Why do all biblical movies have stars with British accents? How in the world did those ancient people find such good dentists? Did one of the messengers - especially since they seemed to infer that he was one of the Trinity - have to be such a ninja? (Especially given that he was the one who looked to be of asian descent). Don't some of those weapons not come in until the iron age? I know the Bible is violent, but with only 10 hours of film do we have to have every battle scene?
My favorite part was that I was able to watch it with my sons and that it forced us to talk about the Bible, how we see and interpret it, and what we think is most important.
My main critique, however, is one that I picked up from reading Jacques Ellul - in particular his great work The Humiliation of the Word. Ellul probably overdoes it, but he argues that the reason God gave us his revelation primarily in words and not images is because literacy forces us to make abstractions. In other words, when we hear the stories of the Scripture, we have to imagine them. We have to work at interpreting them. We have to make them our own.
Once the story is formed in images it is more fixed in our imaginations that it was before. It's no longer the story as I see it or imagine it. It is the story as the film has formed me to see it. For example, how many of us as we read the Gospels see in our mind Robert Powell's mystic, blue-eyed Jesus from 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Or more recent generations can't help but see Jim Caviezel's bloody and beaten Jesus from The Passion of the Christ. Now that I've seen this mini-series when I read Genesis 22 I will see that Abraham on that mountain sacrificing that Isaac (with that Sarah running to try and stop them).
For Ellul this is the catch-22 of images. The "word" invites us to have to abstract the setting, to make it our own, and to continually wrestle with the "word" in sermons, conversations, and lessons. But once the word becomes image it loses some of that abstraction.
Nevertheless, it was fun to watch. As long as we keep remembering that even The Bible in images has an interpreter behind it.