Thursday, March 7, 2013

E-nklings Cloud of Witnesses: “The Bible” is not The Bible: Thoughts on The History Channel’s “The Bible” Miniseries

NOTE: From time to time I like to feature other blog posts here in this forum that I have enjoyed reading. Recently, someone returned the favor and published - with some rather helpful edits - a post that I had included both here and on Brothers of John the Steadfast.  Thanks to Paul McCain for his thoughtful introduction, edits and additions to what I had written on THE BIBLE mini-series; here's a bit of what he wrote along with his take on my original post. You can find the whole thing on his blog, Cyber-brethren.

The following in italics are McCain's own words:

"I watched, very carefully, the first episode of “The Bible.” I have been intrigued since the series was first drawn to my attention, and read all I could about it, and watched all the materials available on “The Bible” web site. Now, before anyone says, “Oh, boy, here we go again, another conservative grumpy Lutheran who can’t find anything good, ever, to say about anything a non-Lutheran does” I simply want to say, “Yes, I am a conservative Lutheran, and yes, I can be grumpy.” In this case, I was quite ready and willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, in spite of the “theological advisors” the series gathered, from non-Trinitarians like T.D. Jakes, to Mr. Smiley/No Gospel man, Joel Osteen, to Mr. Purpose-Driven Rick Warren. I recognize that to make a project like this successful you have to try to appeal to the largest possible audience and the way to do that is by getting the input from a wide range of well recognized “celebrity pastors.” OK, fine, I get that; however….here are concerns I had. I invite you to offer your observations. If you disagree with this critique, please provide detailed responses to the concerns and tell me why you don’t agree.

The first episode covered everything from the Creation up to the fall of Jericho, in two hours. Well, actually, more like what seemed like only an hour. Because I had DVRed it, I was able to breeze through the commercials. Wow, there are a lot of commercials, from Christian dating, to the Catholic Church. So, let’s say they had 90 minutes to cover that much Biblical history. I sympathize with anyone attempting to do that! Wow, ambitious. They chose to focus on key events, Abraham and Moses and the Exodus. I thought they handled the Creation account creatively, by having Noah recounting Genesis 1 to his family on the ark, as they were riding out the flood. The special effects portraying the Creation were beautiful! Very well done. I am also intrigued by how they are handling the appearance of the “Angel of the Lord” … clearly they are giving the viewer broad hints that this figure is none other than the pre-incarnate Son of God. If I’m not mistaken, the actor who portrays Christ is the one playing the Angel of the Lord, from the sound of the voice and the back of the head. He is addressed as “Lord” by both Abraham and Moses. The angels clearly are angels. Oddly, the angels are potrayed somewhat as Ninja warriors, which frankly, is closer to their true character than the wimpy winged effiminate figures we usually get, with whispy golden hair and white clothes. But, still…ninja angels?

But then as they got into the accounts I became increasingly distressed with what they were leaving out; namely, the Gospel. Where was the “first Gospel” of Genesis 3:15? Nowhere to be found. No mention of the promise to Eve that from her would come one who would crush the head of the serpent. Other accounts were also shaped more to heighten drama and action, than, in my opinion, to convey the actual Biblical account. And this, precisely, is the problem with “The Bible.” It is not the Bible. It states, very openly, that their intention is to capture “the spirit” of the Bible accounts they show, not the Bible itself. And what is that “spirit” – so far the focus is on man’s response and man’s faith in God, more than God’s saving actions and loving promises to man. You may say, “Oh, you are nitpicking.” Well, ok, I’m nitpicking. Aren’t we to be like those faithful Bereans who, when they heard the Apostle Paul preached, were diligent to go to their Scriptures to see if what Paul said was actually faithful to the Biblical account? Yes, they did. See Acts 17:11 where the Bereans are commended for their “noble character.”

I’ve already heard from people who say, “Oh, but if only one person is led to open the actual Bible and read it, it is all worth it.” I can fully understand that sentiment, in fact, in a way, I do share it. I can see how “The Bible” series can, and no doubt will be, a great discussion starter, and I’ve already experienced this. I’m not precisely sure for whom “The Bible” is intended. Would a person who is wholly Biblically illiterate really be able to track and follow “The Bible”? I’m not so sure. Believers are of course very interested in it. Will I continue to watch it? Of course! I’m looking forward to see what they do with various other episodes and particularly the life of Christ. I’m hopeful that they may do a better job once they get into the New Testament. I will say that the value in watching “The Bible” may come chiefly in comparing/constrasting it to what the Bible actually says and, most importantly, what the Bible actually means! It is disappointing however that this may be the only good thing about “The Bible.”

Let me here, at this point, share what I thought was an excellent review written by Pastor Sam Schuldheisz, offered with some editing by yours truly. I would encourage you to read his remarks carefully. I think he really captures the problems with “The Bible.” Pastor S. has gladly given me his blessing on my use of his excellent blog post. Check our Pastor Schuldheisz’ blog site “e-nklings”"

“Call me a skeptic, but when The History Channel started it’s advertising campaign weeks ago for their latest mini-series THE BIBLE , I knew right away what was going to happen. Either they would hire some two-bit historians, the usual parade of higher-critical, liberal scholar hall-of-famers, or they would fill their theological glass full of the best and brightest in American pop-Christianity. In the end the result is really the same however. The former destroys any objective claim Christians can (and should) make for the historicity of the events in the Bible by writing them off as myths, fairy tales or legends. The latter destroys any hope for an objective preaching of the Gospel by gutting the very essence of the Biblical salvation story (a true one we must add) from every key person event in the Old and New Testament. Now of course, many who support this mini-series project will say, “How could you be such a nay-sayer? It gets the Bible out in the public eye. Isn’t it good that people hear the story of the Bible, even if it is on TV?” That would all be well and good if in fact the Biblical teachings were the primary focus of the mini-series and if the central message of the Bible actually was the central message of THE BIBLE, namely repentance and forgiveness of sins in the Name of Jesus. So far, I’ve heard nothing of sin or forgiveness in any of the pre-broadcast media. The same is true for the actual debut itself.

“To be fair, I’ll hold out judgment for the New Testament segments of THE BIBLE until they are released. But for now, there is plenty to discuss even in the mini-series premier this last Sunday evening, including the previews of the New Testament episodes, which hold little hope. As one of my good friends observed yesterday, it would be easier (and shorter by far) to list the things THE BIBLE got right. The question is, how much will survive Mark Burnett’s History Channel island? In any regard, after watching Sunday’s episode I’ve come up with ten major concerns I have with it:

“10. Follow the Source: If you haven’t seen THE BIBLE TV show yet, you don’t even need to in order to discern what theological direction it will be headed in. A brief glance at the board of advisors and theologians reveals where the prevailing theological winds will take this ship. Of note are three names in particular, Joel Osteen (the smooth talking voice of Christless Christianity), T.D. Jakes (the well-known anti-trinitarian), and Rick Warren (whose theological views tend more toward Law than Gospel). As Chris Rosebrough said on Pirate Christian Radio yesterday, “It’s all about the theology.” And the theology of this thing suffers from the start. A bad tree produces bad apples. If the water you’re drinking is poisoned, all you have to do is look up stream to find out who or what plopped into the water.

“9. The “Spirit” of the Book: In the opening credits, the producers acknowledge the fact that they will take creative license with this series followed by a not-so-reassuring statement that says “We’ve attempted to stay true to the spirit of the book.” What exactly is the “spirit” of this book? For that we have clear words, Jesus’ words: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24). The “everything” that Jesus refers to there is his life, death and resurrection in order to save the world from sin, death and the devil. Test the spirit of this show to see if it’s declaring the same message and the same Jesus.

“8. The Devil is in the Details: As I watched the program Sunday night, and again last night on DVR, I was struck by the sheer quantity of missing historical and narrative details in the story telling (from the seemingly small and unimportant to the rather large and glaring ones). We’re first introduced to Abraham not as Abram. We’re never told about his name change or why YHWH made such a big deal about that. His call and the first promise are smashed into an answer blowing in the wind making Abraham look more like a troubled homeless person than than a trustworthy prophet. No mention was made of the covenant YHWH made with Abraham, which by the way, happened when he was sleeping and was entirely the Lord’s work. Pharaoh didn’t die in the Red Sea as Exodus records and Moses must have been a better character single and lonely. Where was YHWH’s pillar of cloud and fire at the Red Sea? Not to mention YHWH’s presence with in the Tabernacle. One simply doesn’t walk into the Holy of holies – such as Joshua was depicted doing – without some heads rolling. And what’s with those ninja-Jason-Bourne-like angels in Sodom?

“I know there’s such a thing as creative and artistic license, that’s fine. But the entire reason a theological advisory board was brought on was to ensure that Biblical details were accurate. And they’re not. I’m not saying I’m surprised. I’m saying this reveals that the theologians involved either knew the details and did not tell them (or production changed them, in which case why bother with advisors) or they didn’t think them important enough to include in the stories. Either way – ignorance or seclusion – reflects poorly on the Christian faith. Historic Christianity is founded on these kinds of seemingly small details. They matter, each and every one of them. We expect Hollywood to get it wrong. We should demand that Christians working in Hollywood get it right. It makes Christians look historically foolish.

“7. Theism: I heard lots of “God-talk” in the opening segment but nothing whatsoever of Christ. Nothing was even so much as hinted at about a Messiah or a Savior or a future hope such as YHWH delivered to his people starting already with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15). Theism is popular these days. But it’s not Christianity. There will be plenty of good theists in hell. Thankfully the only way we know God is because of Jesus: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” It is Christ who makes the Father known to us in his death and resurrection.

’6. Passing over the Passover: Given the amount of time and detail they devote to the Exodus (not to mention the attention the Psalms and prophets give to it), you would expect the Passover sacrifice to be well-narrated and given a bit of exposure. This, however, was not the case. They showed the lamb, the blood and the doorposts. But there was no meal. No explanation why Israel had to eat the bitter herbs and the lamb and the unleavened bread. No atonement mentioned. No forgiveness of sins even hinted at. “The blood of on the doorposts marked them as God’s people,” the narrator said. Yes, but what does this mean?

“5. Promises, Promises: As I mentioned already, THE BIBLE severely botched the Abraham covenant account. In fact it skipped over it all together. Kind of shocking, really, considering how important this covenant was for YHWH’s people. Again, it was a unilateral, one-sided covenant between YHWH and Abraham and his descendants. Instead it was described as God’s covenant that Abraham and his descendants had to keep, as if it were entirely up to them to do the 40 years of purpose-driven, every-day-a-Friday kind of living in the wilderness before they could get to their best promised land ever and be the better “yous” God had planned for them to be. There’s just one problem, “purpose driven” anything isn’t a promise; it’s simply more commands and duties disguised as promises; it’s simply the Law presented as Gospel. No wonder Moses says to Aaron, “Now we get to fulfill Abraham’s covenant with God.” Wow.

And then there was that little statement at the end of the flood chapter where the narrator calmly and quickly said, “Noah and his family could now begin restoring the relationship between God and man.” Noah’s name may have meant rest, but neither he nor his children were capable of restoring the broken relationship of the Fall. That only comes in the New Testament with the true Man of Sabbath Rest, Jesus. And that rest is won by his death and rest in the tomb and his resurrection from the dead to give us an eternal Sabbath.

“4. The Long Arm of the Law Cut Short: Mark Burnett was successful in one thing: he made me appreciate Cecil B. DeMille’s version of the 10 Commandments. I had heretofore not enjoyed that movie. But that movie at least listed the 10 commandments and why they were given. The Law was dulled and its teeth yanked out in THE BIBLE. And if the long arm of the law is cut short, we’re reduced to people having made “bad choices and bad decisions” and behavioral problems instead of an outright rebellion against YHWH almighty that leads to death at every turn.

“3. A Famine of the Gospel: When the Law is dulled, so is the Gospel. When a “sin free” Bible is presented, it’s no wonder that it is also a Christ-free story in the end. If sin is merely a behavioral problem, a bad habit in need of improvement, then there’s really no need for a Savior from sin, death and hell. The Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions repeatedly remind us that it is only the sick who need a physician and that we cannot come to know the cross without knowing how great an evil sin truly is. THE BIBLE mini-series has presented little to no Gospel so far. And what is there has been lost in a computer graphic theology of glory.

“2. Computer Graphics are Cool, but They’re Not the Gospel: If the producers and advisors would have put as much into the presentation of the substance of this movie as they did the style (cinematography, etc.) this would have been a far more accurate presentation of the real Bible they are trying so hard to portray. The Church – as the Scriptures – stands or falls on the article of justification, that God was reconciling the world unto himself in Christ, not counting their sins against them. So far this central message has been noticeably absent. Perhaps it is assumed, but the Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied. Pretty pictures don’t get us one step closer to Jesus, and in this case, they appear to be leading us in the opposite direction.

“1. THE BIBLE is not The Bible: Let the reader understand. Of course THE BIBLE is claiming to tell the Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation. Christians who know and read their Bible and who attend Bible study and Divine Service regularly will see the movie for what it is: another attempt by Christians (even if well motivated, although motives are hard to guess) to present the Bible in a way that is friendly to the outsider and popular to the insider that falls far short of the mark of Biblical accuracy and fidelity. I worry far more about the people who will take their theology and Biblical knowledge from this movie. That would be entirely dangerous. So far, the theology in this mini-series is anything but faithful to the historic Christian faith. And, so far, the Bible presented by THE BIBLE is anything but a good story, even if it’s visually stimulating. In this case, the book – as is always the case – is better than the movie. One good thing that could come of this whole event is that people might actually ask their pastors about the bible and its teaching, or, Lord willing, pick it up and read it themselves from the source instead of relying on a movie. Let’s resolve to understand “The Bible” in light of The Bible and build our understanding on the bedrock of the actual Holy Scriptures, so we will have the gift of Christ’s sure and certain Word in all of it’s life-giving, effective, faith-producing, sin-forgiving, faithful-confession-working power. This is the sure foundation for Lutheran Christians and for all who are called by Christ.”

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