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Topping Television Ratings With The Bible: The Bible is a 10-part miniseries retelling stories from the Scriptures, with dazzling visual effects. It adapts the dramatic tales of faith and courage from Genesis through Revelation for a new generation of viewers.

In a day when it has become fashionable to subject Christianity and those who embrace its message to public scorn--in the media, in the halls of government, and in institutions of learning at every level--cultural

expressions of genuine faith for a mass audience are exceptional indeed. With violence and depravity becoming the norm even in formerly family-friendly prime-time TV, we might be forgiven the belief that uplifting material is no longer marketable to a wide American viewership.

Yet with The Bible, their smash success of a miniseries, producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (of Touched by an Angel fame) have proven otherwise. The I 0-hour series, aired on the History Channel in March and now available as a four-DVD set, became a cultural sensation overnight, with its first episode attracting more than 13 million viewers and the series as a whole more than 95 million--blockbuster territory by any measure, and more especially for a venue like the History Channel. Encouraged by the series' success, Burnett and Downey are now working on a three-hour theatrical film version.

The miniseries gives equal time to the Old and New Testaments, although the focus is on the life and mission of Jesus Christ: the voice of Jehovah is that of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, who plays a convincing if slightly bemused-looking Jesus of Nazareth in the second half of the series.

Attempting to capture the essence of the Bible and "stay true to the spirit of the book" (as the show itself announces in an opening banner) is a daunting thing for a 10-hour format. In such a brief span, only a few highlights could be portrayed in any depth, and for the most part, Burnett and Downey chose their material well. The Creation, Fall, and Flood are dispensed with rather quickly in the opening episode, constrained perhaps by limited special effects budgets. And the complete omission of the Tower of Babel from the series' opening montage of "obvious" stories was disappointing. But overall, the series manages to convey the grandeur of the Old Testament better than anything to come out of Hollywood since Heston's The Ten. Commandments (the film which inspired Burnett and Downey to launch The Bible in the first place).

The first fleshed-out story is the life of Abraham, highlighting the abortive sacrifice of his son Isaac. Here, as in a few other spots. Abraham and his wife Sarah seem a little too conflicted than the spirit of the original account might suggest. But nowhere does the show deface the narrative with political correctness: there is, for example, no hint of racism or domineering patriarchy in Abraham's dismissal of his servant-concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael. Since the show makes no hectoring moral judgments, one feels sympathy for all the parties to this awkward and painful parting of ways.

There follows an account of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, one of the few subpar sequences in the series. While the transformation of Lot's shrewish wife into a pillar of salt will be cathartic for many viewers, the "Ninja angels" who hack their way out of Sodom, Jackie Chan style, with Lot's family in tow, will not. And while the inhabitants of Sodom are fond of street performers and prostitution, no reference is made to the baser practices that have made Sodom infamous. Such an omission could be in the interest of keeping the show family-friendly--or it could be a sop to Hollywood's suffocating pro-homosexual agenda-setters, for whom not even biblical proscriptions are evidence of sinful conduct.

Moses and the Exodus are portrayed with soaring attention to detail, although time constraints prohibit a detailed depiction of every plague. The crossing of the Red Sea differs significantly from the biblical account (the sea is parted by a strong wind blowing overnight, not by an instantaneous flick of Moses' staff), but is satisfying all the same.

The Bible then takes us on a whirlwind tour of the rise and fall of the ancient state of Israel, featuring the life and times of Saul and David (including a seven-foot Australian actor playing a fearsome Goliath); Samson and Delilah; the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar's army; Daniel and the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, and their eventual restoration to their homeland by the Persian emperor Cyrus. We make the acquaintance of several Old Testament prophets, including Samuel. Nathan, and Jeremiah (Isaiah and Elijah, alas, didn't make the cut), and are properly repulsed by villainous, scheming Philistines and effete, idolatrous Babylonians. For the most part, the Tunisian wastes where the series was filmed make an appropriate backdrop, although the landscape seems too desolate for Palestine in spots.

Much has been made of the fact that Satan--played by veteran Tunisian actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni--bears more than a passing resemblance to a superannuated Barack Obama in a burnoose. But the film's producers insist this was not intentional, and Satan--who appears periodically as a silvery, mirage-like malevolence--is one of The Bible's most convincing touches.

There are, however, a few points where purists might decry poetic license. Does Samson (played by hulking African-British actor Nonso Anozie) really need to look like a dreadlocked Jamaican? Must we resort to that most tired of cliched Hollywood zoological inaccuracies, the scream of a red-tailed hawk, every time a circling vulture appears onscreen? Do prophets never wash their faces? And why, oh why, is Daniel thrown to the lions by the otherwise (comparatively) benevolent Persian king Cyrus, instead of the Medo-Persian king Darius? This last was the only departure from the biblical narrative that truly set this writer's teeth on edge.

If the Old Testament portion of the series, owing to the complexity of the subject matter, is sometimes hit-or-miss, the same cannot be said of the New Testament, which is tautly and convincingly told from start to finish. Much of the success of the latter five hours is owing to the charisma of Morgado's Jesus, who moves seamlessly from the light-hearted, compassionate miracle-worker, preacher, and foil of the Jewish religious establishment to magisterial suffering Son of God to resurrected divinity. The series prior to Jesus' arrest and crucifixion portrays the lighter episodes of Christ's life--no Gadarene swine or demoniacs here--focusing on the personality of the man more than his teachings (the Sermon on the Mount is confined to a couple of phrases, and the parables make no appearance whatsoever). A number of his disciples--Peter, Thomas, Judas, and Mary Magdalene--are well-drawn, and plausible motivation is offered not only for Judas' betrayal, but also for the machinations of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Shakespearean veteran Greg Hicks' Pontius Pilate fairly simmers with implacable Roman malevolence, while the soldiers who arrest, flog, and crucify Jesus are fittingly loutish..

The Bible is at its best from Jesus' entry into Jerusalem onward, perhaps because it is here that the series accords most fully with the biblical record. There is neither angel nor sanguinary sweat in Gethsemane, but the betrayal and arrest of Jesus is riveting stuff. The torments endured by Christ prior to his death are occasionally graphic but never lurid. It is impossible not to empathize, however incompletely, with the agonies of the scourge, the crown of thorns, and the crucifixion itself, nor to rejoice, however imperfectly, when the pain of the atonement is complete, and Jesus willingly commends his spirit to God. And when Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, only a hardened cynic could fail to be moved by Christ's ultimate victory.

If there is any failing in the remainder of the series, it is that it glozes over too quickly Christ's post-mortal ministry. It would have been nice to see, for example, the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus, or his ministering to Peter and his associates when they try to resume their old livelihood as fishermen.

But instead, doubtless in the interest of time, the series moves on through the rest of the New Testament, including the Day of the Pentecost, the conversion of Paul, the martyrdom of the disciples, and the eventual exile of John to the island of Patmos, where he has a final vision of the resurrected Christ before the credits role.

Interestingly, the series tries to bridge sectarian differences, such that, for example, baptism is portrayed at times by immersion and at times by sprinkling. Burnett and Downey consulted a wide array of experts, both Christian and Jewish, in the planning of the miniseries, and the story manages to exude cultural verisimilitude while avoiding sectarian bias.

The making of the movie touched many involved in the project, who came to believe that they were participating in something special. Morgado was especially surprised when, during the filming of a scene where his Jesus tells Nicodemus the Spirit is like the wind, a powerful wind sprang up suddenly. Making The Bible was "really a personal journey and a spiritual journey," Morgado recalled. "And it touched me, in a way that I'm still digesting. It didn't end with the shooting. It's still alive."
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Author:Scaliger, Charles
Publication:The New American
Date:May 20, 2013
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