The headline for this post is the same as the title of a March 1 article in the the Wall Street Journal, by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, producers of the new History Channel miniseries “The Bible“. Roma (who starred in the reverential “Touched By an Angel” series some years back) and her husband Burnett (successful producer of reality shows like “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”) have definitely got a mission, feeling America’s children are getting a raw deal by our present educational establishment: “It’s time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.”
And conveniently enough, they have their offering at hand, complete with study guides and testimonials from consultants like pastor Rick Warren. The media is bubbling with interviews with ebullient pastors seeing the good ratings the series has drawn (some 13 million for the initial episode) as a golden evangelical opportunity to inspire people to open their Bibles and read.
Ah — be careful what you ask for. Generations of atheists embarked on their journey to unbelief by doing exactly that, including Spokane native Julia Sweeney (evocatively expressed in her show “Letting Go of God”).
Now as a secularist infidel I happen to heartily agree with Roma and Burnett that the Bible has played a significant role in Western civilization, and no well-educated person should bob through public school without some familiarity with that tradition. The question is, though, would students be well or ill served by “The Bible” as product?
Viewed just as drama, there’s no obstacle to presenting any religious or mythological subject as a ripping good yard, from biblical epics like Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur to other traditions: Islam respectfully reflected in the 1940 Thief of Baghdad, the Olympian gods treated as real in Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, and the Hindu pantheon on full parade in the striking British Mahabharata miniseries.
In this department, as Eric Blauer has already noted in his March 12 blog here, “The Bible” hasn’t exactly set the drama world on fire. It’s stolid in the way of old Sunday school films, reverential but seldom inspiring. Sixty years from now, will anyone be remembering anything from “The Bible” anywhere near as riveting as the ferocity of Victor Mature’s Christian slave Demetrius in The Robe, justifiably accusing the smug world-ruling Romans of being nothing more than “jungle animals” for having just crucified Jesus? I have my skeptical doubts there too.
If “The Bible” fails to land on target dramatically, its only fallback is to its educational utility, which means assessing how true it is to the spirit as well as the technical details of the text. I was assuming the story would be presented as essentially true (the producers aren’t atheists after all) but knowing how such topics have been handled before I couldn’t help wondering before the show aired just what would make it into the final cut and what juicy bits of testaments old and new would conveniently get overlooked.
The obvious items to include are the big spectacle moments in Genesis (the Creation, Noah’s Flood, the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), but examples primed to overlook would be the many morally creepy episodes of genocide, or demeaning treatment of wives and daughters as so much property to be shuffled about, that litter the Old Testament. The New Testament has a different set of stumbling blocks: the dicey chronology and prophetic angles as to what exactly the Messiah “coming in his kingdom” was supposed to mean regarding overturning Roman rule (and since half of its running time would be devoted to the Gospels, they’d have plenty of room to be thorough).
What I was expecting then was not seeing certain touchy episodes in “The Bible”, and in this respect the show was “successful” beyond even my expectations.
The show began with Noah reciting the Genesis creation story “In the beginning God created…” while aboard the wave tossed ark, as contemporarily familiar animals like elephants, parrots and goats stood docilely in the background. Altogether a very traditional image, which the narrator reinforced by reminding us that the floodwaters “covered all the Earth.” Ah, but did all (or any) of this actually happen, and when?
Approaching the subject from a secular historical forensics direction, like many mythological tales, Noah’s Flood reflects quite a few grains of buried truth, the earliest of which appears to be a genuinely catastrophic flood as the last ice age waned and the rising Mediterranean spilled over into the Black Sea basin around 7600 years ago. Not a “cover the world” splash, but locally wrenching nonetheless.
Displaced refugees carried the tradition south into Mesopotamia, where the Tigris-Euphrates was prone to city-swamping flooding of its own, which is how local king and city names got into the tales. The Jews likely got wind of all this much later during the Babylonian captivity, along with the Mesopotamian creation myths also incorporated into Genesis (such as that cosmological howler of the sun, moon, and stars being created on day four, after the earth and plant life).
Now the flood story bears a special place in my heart because (like the fictional Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s “Contact”) as a child I was kicked out of Sunday school for asking too many questions about it. And as a diligent follower of the creation/evolution controversy as a science geek adult, I am also aware that about 45 percent of the American population are Young Earth Creationists, folks of the Answers in Genesis stripe who believe the Flood took place exactly as stated in Genesis, a global event only some 4600 years ago (1400 years after Creation) and involving an Ark preserving for posterity all relevant “kinds” of animals.
As creationist doctrines have mutated over the years, the current picture at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky avers that landmasses careened in super frisky continental drift during the flood, with mountain ranges thrust up lickety-split as virtually all the fossil record was smushed into shape. Regular geologists (including devout Christian ones) roll their eyes in despair at this point.
So where are all the dinosaurs in “The Bible” (let alone the far larger bestiary of likewise extinct critters creationists pay way less attention to: dimetrodons, cynodonts, lagosuchids, mastodons, and on and on)? A contentious pseudoscientific controversy is being sidestepped here (the chairman in the recent Texas school textbook hearings, Don McLeroy, is a Young Earth Creationist) and one may fairly ask why. By depicting the flood story (and creation itself) in such shorthand form, they may be accused of being pathologically coy: doing nothing to explicitly conflict with the sensibilities of the millions of American Christians who take their answers in Genesis very seriously.
As for the Tower of Babel (a quaint attempt to explain where different languages came from, and ludicrously inconsistent with all present understanding of the origin and evolution of human languages) it never even made “The Bible” cut. It may have been because the story involves God’s actions and motivations directly, no intermediate prophets or angels, and it is no easy trick to make dramatic sense of why an omnipotent galaxy-creating deity was so alarmed to learn that people had figured out how to build mud brick pyramids, or that the confusion of tongues intended as a remedy obviously didn’t slow us down much (moving on eventually to rockets, hydrogen bombs, and chemical warfare) and so was plainly ineffective.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah though was clearly too deeply ingrained in the mythos to overlook, though again we got a pretty sanitized version. Like some nervous Kirk Cameron wandering past red light district strip joints, Lot and company glide by vaguely loitering Sodomites hinting that something sleazy might be going on somewhere off camera, but nothing too explicit to threaten any of the show’s targeted sponsors (like the Christian Mingle dating service).
The infamous episode where a male mob demand Lot turn over his angelic house guests so that they may “know” them (Bible-ease for sex), and to throw them off daddy offers his virginal daughters instead, did not make it into the History Channel presentation. Instead our angels show off their ninja swordplay skills (in cliché slow motion) slaying not a few truculent locals—a fascinating illustration of angelic combat expertise that the original Bible text had somehow neglected to mention.
“The Bible” did include the peculiar incident of Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt as they fled the city, after the angel warned her not to look back — though wouldn’t there have been other bystanders, viewing the spectacle from their own vantages, so what about them? Of course, if Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt is only a folk tale embellishment to explain the local salt pillars it would be a more understandable inclusion, except that now its only geological myth making and not miracle.
The tale parallels Orpheus losing Eurydice when he glanced back at her whilst trying to rescue her from the clutches of Hades. One might argue there that the god of the underworld was being rather a stinker for setting Orpheus up for failure that way, so what are we to make of the Lord’s desiccating the poor woman not for doing anything seriously bad but solely on account of her disobedience. That issue will be cropping up again in a darker context when we get to the prophet Samuel’s interactions with King Saul in another post.
And while we’re on the topic of angel messengers, all those dramatized in The Bible display a curiously minimalist mode of identification: some hooded fellow (and yes, it’s always a man) approaches, and then as reverential chords ensue he gently pulls back the hood to bare his head —aha, it must be an angel! No wings or glowing back lighting, though, all very low key. Well, at least now I’ll know what to expect should I encounter some hoodie chap who turns out to be an angel. Though you will excuse me if I say I am not holding my breath here in anticipation.
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