Jesus may have been a carpenter but, like Harrison Ford, he wasn’t destined for set design. History’s blockbuster mini-series The Bible cast the son of God in a leading role for its dramatic portrayal of biblical tales from Genesis to Revelation, and was rewarded with top cable viewership last month in both the United States and Canada.
Produced by reality television prophet Mark Burnett and actress Roma Downey, the series was seen by many as evidence of a pent-up market for biblical or religious literacy, facilitated by contemporary, accessible storytelling. The Globe and Mail’s monthly Faith Exchange panel has met to discuss this notion, which Hollywood itself is only beginning to understand.
- Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of Context with Lorna Dueck, seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.
- Peter Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and director of media services for Cardus, a think tank that draws on 2,000 years of Christian social thought.
- Raheel Raza is a Muslim-Canadian consultant, writer, interfaith advocate and filmmaker who advocates for gender equality and women’s rights. She is president of Muslims Facing Tomorrow.
- Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past 10 years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
- Moderator Guy Nicholson is an editor in The Globe’s Comment section. He professes no religious beliefs.
Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us today, panelists, particularly Raheel Raza, who is with us for the first time.
I was captivated by a column I read recently in a Toronto weekly. The author, a committed atheist, wrote about his later-life interest in the scholarship around the life of Jesus. Although his own beliefs never changed – he still isn’t completely convinced that Jesus ever existed! – he started devouring blogs, texts and the Bible itself in a kind of fascination he likened to “knowing which Beatles songs Paul plays drums on.”
Notwithstanding any admiration we might have for such academic curiosity, is this a particularly useful obsession? Is it more important than, say, learning Sanskrit or studying the history of pop music? Why should someone like me turn on the History channel and focus on improving my biblical literacy?
Raheel Raza: When you speak of atheists, it reminds me of a column Doug Todd wrote in the Vancouver Sun, where he said that “a disturbing poll by the respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that U.S. atheists and agnostics, as well as Jews and Mormons, know more about religion than do most of the strong majority of Americans who are Protestants and Catholics.” From my recent contact with formerly Muslim atheists, I can say that their knowledge of the faith is far more than that of the common person.
I believe a series like The Bible is extremely important for all of us, especially non-Christians, as a step toward religious literacy. The fact that this series has been done for North America is heartening. “Obsessiveness” I would avoid for understanding any faith.
Peter Stockland: I’m not sure obsessiveness is ever useful, Guy, since it implies the loss of discernment, but the pursuit of biblical information and knowledge is of critical importance. It is – still – so foundational to everything we are: our law, our understanding of love, our moral sense, our conception of what it means to be human and, not least, our literature. Whether you accept the texts of Tanakh and the New Testament as God’s revelation to man or not, it is the best source available for understanding story, poetry, the relationship between imagination and the “real” world.
Lorna Dueck: I’ll refer first to an atheist author for this one. Richard Dawkins has asked how anyone who cares about language could fail to appreciate the King James Bible. That’s the Bible translation to which Victor Hugo was referring when he said that “England has two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare, but the Bible made England.” The Bible has gone far beyond England, becoming the source book for Western culture and laws. It informs our current beliefs about justice, equality, life, death, the meaning of the human being and ethical reasoning. It’s a handy shortcut to watch The Bible in 10 hours – a good start.