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Can the Bible make good TV? Putting the script into scripture

History’s The Bible: You can’t spell Scripture without a script

Joe Alblas

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.

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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.

Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna raises an interesting point: Is it helpful to watch History's version of the Bible? On the one hand, perhaps it will lead to greater engagement with the text itself. On the other hand, isn't it taking the Bible's brilliance and reducing it to digestible melodrama to sell soap? The Jewish community debated endlessly back in the late 1970s about whether TV's Holocaust was a good idea. Can you reduce the world's most significant moments to a mini-series?

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Lorna Dueck: How about this mini-series being a stepping stone to greater Bible literacy, rather than a stumbling block? Full disclosure here, I have met and interviewed its creators, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and I concluded there were things that happened behind the scenes in the making of this series that I can attribute only to God.

Guy Nicholson: As in, were you a real Eagles fan if all you owned was Their Greatest Hits? Maybe not, but that taste might have led to something more, like you say.

Lorna Dueck: Yes, let's not forget, it's just TV. But as oral tradition, then old leather scrolls were the first purveyors of this story, it shouldn't surprise us that we're now seeing it in the world's most powerful medium. My question would be why does this story still have a grip on our imagination? At least 13 million people tuned in – why?

Howard Voss-Altman: Hello, everyone. I would have to say, yes, improving one's biblical literacy is a worthwhile pursuit. Why? Because the biblical texts (Hebrew Bible and New Testament) have had such a profound philosophical, cultural, moral and literary impact on Western society. While studying Sanskrit or pop music might be wonderful diversions or hobbies, the Bible offers the opportunity to study texts that have shaped the thinking of humanity for millennia. The issue isn't whether one believes or not; the issue is whether these texts help make sense of the society we live in.

Peter Stockland: The great literary critic Harold Bloom says in The Shadow of a Great Rock: "The Bible matters most because the Yahwist imagined a totally uncanny god, human-all-too-human and exuberant beyond all bindings." Who would not want to find out more?

Raheel Raza: Thank you, Rabbi Howard. "Make sense of the society we live in" – that's the key for all the diverse faith communities living in Canada to understand the Bible. I have always thought that religious literacy should start at a young age and would have loved for my kids to have known more about mainstream Christianity when they first came here. Having said this, Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Assocation for Canadian Studies, has written about a study in which leaders of some faith communities appear concerned that increased knowledge at a young age about the diversity of cultural values and religious beliefs can introduce relativism between groups and potentially undercut time directed at learning one's own faith. I would like your thoughts on this.

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Guy Nicholson: What if wider religious knowledge leads that young person to another answer? Academically, one likes to think that's a positive outcome, but I don't know that everyone would agree.

Peter Stockland: Well, Jesus did. He invited people to follow him in friendship. Those who turned away were free to do so. But I challenge anyone to encounter, say, the narrative of the Samaritan woman at the well, in any medium, and not come away thinking: "I want to know more about this fellow. He is a live one."

Lorna Dueck: We have a example in the London, Ont., students whose wider religious knowledge seems to have turned them into terrorists. Miroslav Volf of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture recently told our TV program that when religious knowledge turns violent, it's a result of "thin, or sick faith." He challenged us we need to get more religious to cure it, not less. "Thick faith," as he described it. That comes from a developed literacy with the Bible; it's easier to read it wrongly, or not read it at all, than to read and interpret it for all it's worth.

Raheel Raza: If wider knowledge leads a young person to another path, that's what we call "freedom of religion," don't we?

Guy Nicholson: It's certainly what this well-read panel would call it.

Lorna Dueck: Yes. But this panel exists to explore what a well-informed religious community brings to culture, and to expose what distortions of religion bring.

Raheel Raza: Thank you, Lorna, for pointing out that many distortions of faith are also part of pop culture, Hollywood and documentaries. So the question still remains about the importance of reading the original scripture to weed out the fairy tales.

Howard Voss-Altman: I'd like to defend Guy's point here. Religion needs to be reinforced by family and community when children are young and still looking for truths to establish their identity. But it is also critical to recognize that religious ideas will be met with skepticism, and we must not be afraid to confront that skepticism and see where it goes. Judaism is in constant struggle with our people and with God, and the recognition of theological tension – both inside and outside of our tradition – is incredibly healthy.

Guy Nicholson: How easy is it to separate a holy book's universally desirable historical value from its narrower religious message? For instance, I don't feel like the people who've urged me to read the Bible itself over the years have done a great job of selling it on the merits of its historical value.

Peter Stockland: That may be because those people did not approach the encouragement from the perspective of sacramental imagination. They either "sell" it as pure history, which it self-evidently is not and was never intended to be, or they "sell" it as a form of Buckley's Cough Medicine: so bad it must be good for you. But as Mark Burnett has demonstrated, much of the Scriptures constitutes great storytelling and jaw-dropping characterization. That's why it must be read.

Lorna Dueck: Guy, you can't separate these two ideas that reading the Bible draws you into both historical and spiritual truth. I think God's intentions in letting the words be recorded as instruction to all time was to show our great connectivity of the human race with God. Our belief in God is rooted in historical facts, experience of people, practice of spiritual disciplines – we are a continuation of a long story of humanity and God.

Raheel Raza: The reality is that we live in a world of technology, where the appeal of books is not the same as it was for our ancestors. I find it easier to invite younger generations to "watch" a program than to read a religious text.

Howard Voss-Altman: If people have been urging you to read the Bible for its historical value, they've been poor advocates. I believe the Bible should be read and/or studied in a communal setting – with the assistance of clergy, professors or historians. It's a text for debating and discussing. It's a text for stimulating life's big questions: What are we doing here? Why do I exist? Why is there so much injustice in the world? When one reads the Bible alone, it's just words on a page. But when you read it with a group of people – academic or religious – in an environment of respectful debate, it becomes a journey.

Guy Nicholson: Would it be useful to prioritize wider knowledge of the Koran, the Torah or the Buddhist Sutras in the same way? Would a TV mini-series as well conceived and produced as The Bible – we're not talking Innocence of Muslims here – be helpful in that pursuit?

Lorna Dueck: Yes! We're becoming such poor readers of religious texts, I think TV is a good introductory place to faith. (Obviously, I am a biased participant on this point.)

Peter Stockland: It would be useful, but first start with a knowledge of Tanakh and the New Testament, because they underwrite millennia of our culture. Yes, that culture is shifting, but foundations remain important.

Raheel Raza: I believe it's extremely important to have a wider knowledge of the Koran, Torah and Sutras. But one of the major issues we deal with in the wider Muslim world is lack of religious literacy by Muslims themselves, which leads to misinterpretation of the faith.

Howard Voss-Altman: For Jews, we have The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt as cultural touchstones, and most of us take great pride in the complex and delightful world evoked in Fiddler on the Roof. But do any of these works of art offer a window into the tenets of our faith? Not really. Religious study is often difficult and requires thoughtful analysis. Films and television series offer – for the most part – spectacle and drama. My kids enjoyed The Prince of Egypt immensely when they were little, but there's no doubt that it's nothing more than "Judaism Lite."

Guy Nicholson: Speaking of The Ten Commandments: On Easter Sunday, I walked past a Toronto bar named after a prominent atheist and that film was playing on a big screen – talk about universal appeal. What television or film offerings about your faith would all of you recommend for a general audience?

Raheel Raza: I would recommend The Message – interestingly, a Hollywood film with Anthony Quinn at his best, but I recently reviewed it again at Emmanuel College and it's quite encompassing – without, of course, touching on what's happening in the Muslim world today. A particularly poignant moment is when the beseiged Muslims go to a Christian king for refuge.

Lorna Dueck: In TV offerings, there are implicit and explicit faith explorations, like we do on Context TV each Sunday. Then there are biblical themes in many different film offerings that require interpretation. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is a deeply Christian movie series, but it could be seen as just a fascinating fable until you sit together with other Christians and explore J.R.R. Tolkien's life journey that led him to writing the Hobbit series. Then you realize the layers of Christian truth woven all over it.

Howard is correct that "religion lite" is the standard fare from Hollywood, but that can force us to ask ourselves why we have a palate just for the "lite" stuff. Understanding the original source material is a learned literacy that comes through teaching. I lead a weekly group reading the Book of Esther right now, and digging deep into weekly Bible study like this is proving to be life-changing stuff for a handful of us women working in downtown Toronto.

Peter Stockland: We have a great piece in the upcoming Convivium called Batmessiah and Spider-Mensch, in which political theorist Travis Smith traces the roots of the two masked comic-book heroes to Jerusalem. I think the key is having the biblical literacy to see the echoes – or distortions – in virtually all forms of popular entertainment.

Guy Nicholson: I'd like to read that one. Give the headline writer a raise.

Raheel Raza: Sounds fascinating, Peter. I'm worried about our youth – that younger generations don't read as much as we used to. They would rather watch or download something, so I guess it doesn't hurt to have mini-series on faith as long as they're historical and accurate.

Peter Stockland: The argument, past the headline, is that the universal God-to-man truths and the stunning originality of the narrative, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, resonate through time and culture. Frank Ocean has that ironic line in Bad Religion where the Muslim taxi driver says, "Bo Bo, you need prayer," and the singer says, "If it brings me to my knees, it's a bad religion." And, in a way, if that's all a religion does, it is a bad religion. But if it brings us to our knees and then up off them, if it elevates us, makes us want to see with sacramental imagination beyond the mere horizon of our humanness, then God is working in it. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Howard Voss-Altman: Just for the record, the subtext of popular comic books is Jewish anxiety. Superman, Batman and most of the Marvel comics were created by Jews, and reflected a Jewish sensibility for justice, physical power (when we had little) and anxiety about acceptance and assimilation. There are many wonderful books today that review the history of comic books and Jewish cultural acceptance.

As for movies that really capture a Jewish essence, I would recommend Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes and Robert Redford's Quiz Show. Both directed by non-Jews with a great appreciation for Jewish themes and uniqueness.

Guy Nicholson: To use it as an example one last time, The Ten Commandments was released in 1956, when North America was a more Christian (and presumably more biblically literate) place than it is now. Is it realistic to expect wide-ranging religious literacy in a society that is now both much more secular and much more religiously diverse?

Howard Voss-Altman: It's not realistic to expect greater literacy of any kind, given the wide variety of media distractions available. But I continue to believe that religion is a distinctly countercultural experience and that, as we become ever more isolated in our smartphone world, there will always be a need (and a desire) for sacred communities of meaning. Let's remember, though: Religious communities offer something different. When we try to be like every other cultural or market offering, we lose the very quality that people actually want from religious life: the serious study of life's most important questions.

Lorna Dueck: Yes, it is realistic, because the stakes are so high. Following the Iraq war, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrote her book, The Mighty and the Almighty, arguing that, in today's world, it is equivalent to malpractice for foreign-policy experts not to understand how religious tradition affects politics and foreign policy. Medical training at Harvard includes religion courses; I'm not sure whether we've got this in Canada yet. As we become so diverse, we need to understand how religion can motivate our neighbours or our families.

Religious literacy rocks family dynamics big time. Permit me a reach into history here, for an example from this very newspaper. Former Globe owner Robert Jaffray Sr. intended for his fortune and newspaper to be run by his son, Robert Jr. Against his father's wishes, Robert Jr. chose, instead, to study the Bible at the New York Missionary Training Institute to prepare to evangelize China. In 1897, he ignored the threat of a lost inheritance and pioneered for biblical literacy in China and beyond; he was out to save souls. He never returned to business in Canada, dying in 1945 of illness and malnutrition in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Dutch East Indies. I've not been able to discover whether the family ever reconciled, but a huge spiritual family grew from his vision for understanding the Bible. Today, the Jaffray Centre for Global Initiatives is at Calgary's Ambrose University, a seminary in Hong Kong still trains students in the Bible, and hundreds of Asian churches exist because his entrepreneurial instincts were affected by biblical literacy. Not an easy road but, as we learn from the Bible, suffering is a cornerstone of the Christian story.

Guy Nicholson: Our time is up. Thank you, everyone, for your time and insights.

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