For the past three weeks I’ve turned on the History Channel with over 68 million viewers to watch The Bible. The mini-series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey has taken Hollywood by storm; it has surprised millions with its popularity; and it has caused the religious to stand up and cheer that the sacred is getting a in positive portrayal. As one review put it, “This time, Hollywood got it right.” Yet in the midst of all the positive hype there are some who have held back their praise, frustrated or downright upset with how it is interpreting the biblical narrative.
This has left me with the following question: did Hollywood get it right, or is this min-series an interpretive failure? Whether you are a Christian who is familiar with the narrative of the Bible or someone newly exposed to its stories, this is an important question. The Bible makes extraordinary claims about its authority and the priority it should have in our lives. For example, 2 Timothy 3:16 states:
All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, and for training in righteousness.
And 2 Peter 1:20-21 claims:
Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, it seems only right that we move from passive TV watchers to evaluating if The Bible series is worthy of our praise. Rather than go into all of my reasons for or against the series, I’d like to suggest three discretionary tips for your consideration as you continue to watch this series unfold.
Discretionary Tip #1: Know what the series claims about itself
The most important thing you can do when watching and interpreting The Bible is to pay attention to the announcement that appears before the beginning of each episode. It states:
“This program is an adaption of the Bible stories. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.” (emphasis mine)
If you pay attention to nothing else throughout the series you need to pay attention to this. Why, you may ask? This sets the tone for all that will follow. Any adaption of a book that attempts to stay true to its spirit means the door has been left wide open for adding to, subtracting from, and changing the book’s story. It means poetic license will abound and subjective interpretations are more than likely to occur.
In other words, right from the beginning this series is not claiming 100% accuracy. This means that we, as the audience, need to show discretion in how we approach and process each episode.
Discretionary Tip #2: Accept tentatively and ask questions
The next important tip has two parts that interconnect and flow out of recognizing that The Bible is an adaption of stories. Because there will be poetic license and subjective interpretations we need to accept its accuracy tentatively and ask questions while we watch. There are two key questions to ask.
- Is this how the Bible records this story happening?
For example, in episode one Sarah tries to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. In episode two we see the murder of Sampson’s wife in a fire by the Philistines. In episode three Daniel tries to protect Azariah by insinuating he should bow down to the king’s statue. And also in episode three Jesus tells Peter “We’re going to change the world.”
Did these things really happen? Are they recorded in the Bible? Each example above is a key turning point in the main plot and each sub-plot. So it would be wise for us to ask ourselves if these instances are in the Biblical record itself.
This leads to the second question to ask.
- Does this series stay true to the spirit of the Bible when it changes its message?
As you are watching and asking if elements of the series really happened in the Bible, you need to ask yourself if the moments of “poetic license” stay true to, or alter, the Bible’s message. For example, when Daniel tries to protect Azariah from King Nebuchadnezzar’s anger, is that depiction staying true to the spirit of the character of Daniel portrayed in the Bible?
Another example is Jesus’s temptation by Satan in episode three. Jesus looks at Satan and says,
“I shall worship the Lord my God and him only shall I serve.”
However, Jesus’ response as recorded in Matthew and Luke is both subtly and dramatically different. He says,
“It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Matt. 3:10; Luke 4:8)
Considering Satan was tempting Jesus as “the Son of God,” this rewording of Jesus’ response has major interpretive implications for who Jesus was and who he claimed he was. So in this instance, did the series stay true to the spirit of the Bible?
We also need to ask if the series stays true to the spirit of the Bible from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. The central theme of the Bible is God’s plan to rescue sinful humanity by taking on humanity in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament anticipates him; the Gospels and Acts announce him; and the Epistles through Revelation instruct Christ-followers how to live with the anticipation of his return. Does the series stay true to this spirit, or does the poetic license get in the way?
Discretionary Tip #3: Read the Bible
Finally, as you watch The Bible, keeping its goal in mind and tentatively asking questions, make sure to actually read the Bible! Let the series fill you with questions about what the Bible actually says and what really happened. Then go find out. Move from a passive watcher to an active participant. Rather than relying on a Hollywood movie to interpret for you how the story progresses, find out for yourself. Open its pages and let the story unfold through the words that have been preserved and cherished for centuries. Discover for yourself what the Bible says, the stories it records, and God it claims to make known to us.
In summary, as millions watch The Bible series we need to move from the role of passive audience to actively evaluating if it stays true to the Bible itself. Know the series’ goal, accept its interpretation with caution and questions, and read the Bible for yourself. I can guarantee you that doing so will open up the Bible to you like no TV series can.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is The Bible series an example of Hollywood getting it right, or is it an interpretive failure?