"The object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles." ~ P.G. Wodehouse

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Bible Miniseries 3: Weakest Moments and the Most Powerful One

Previously, I have commented on the  "10 hour" miniseries on "The Bible" with regard to its portrayal of angels and its portrayal of certain characters such as John the Baptist. I would like to conclude my three part series by addressing what to me were two of the weakest moments of "The Bible" from a biblical and theological perspective. To be fair I will finish with a few comments on what I think is the most powerful scene of the 10 hours. (Comments on this scene have already been made by Rachel McMillan.)

The first of the two weak moments I want to mention is the calling of Peter. This scene has problems for me because there is a cheesiness to it, while it is also a bit off both biblically and theologically. This account of the calling of Peter comes from Luke 5 and not from Matthew or Mark or John. In Luke's account, Peter, James, and John become disciples after Jesus gets into Simon Peter's boat and asks Peter to take him out into the lake so that he can teach the people from the water as they stand on the shore (Luke 5:1-11). At the conclusion of his teaching, Jesus tells Simon and the others with him to put down their nets. Peter objects because they fished all night and hadn't caught anything. Miraculously the nets are full and Peter and his associates need help bringing all the fish into the boat. So many fish are caught that their nets almost break and two boats are full of fish. Peter's response is to fall at Jesus' feet and say, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (5:8, ESV). Jesus responds, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (5:10, ESV).

In the adaptation of this event for "The Bible," as happens throughout, certain characters disappear, most likely to increase dramatic effect. Here, James and John, the other boat, the crowds, and Jesus' teaching are all absent. It is just Jesus and Peter. There is the nice touch of Jesus holding a rock in his hand as he stands on the shore considering Peter, as Peter brings in his boat. The symbolism of the rock is a nod to Jesus giving Peter the nickname "rock" which is Peter in Greek and Cephas in Aramaic. Yet, the one miraculous catch
becomes multiple catches as Peter throws the net into the water over and over again bringing it in full every time. Obviously, some money was saved and difficulty avoided by having Peter haul in load after load of fish that are suspiciously not wriggling with life, but that is another story. After this miraculous catch(es) of fish, "The Bible" adds some dialogue. Peter looks up at Jesus and says not "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man" but "How did this happen? What did you do?" Jesus responds, "I'm giving you the chance to change your life. [Pause] Peter, come with me. Give up catching fish, and I will make you a fisher of men." I am generally okay with this sequence, apart from "change your life" which feels much too modern. Peter's disbelief does make sense, and Jesus' post-pause statement is similar to the biblical account. But then the dialogue continues. Peter then says, "What are we going to do?" The emphasis in the miniseries seems to shift strongly to deeds and doing and from the biblical emphasis on the identity of Jesus and Peter, (cf. Luke 5:8). In the biblical account, Luke describes Peter's response as one of confession, of the recognition of sin, as Peter realizing that he is in the presence not just of a miracle worker but of the Son of God (1:32, 35; 3:22, 38; 4:41; 8:28; etc.), the Messiah (1:32, 69; 2:11,  26-32; etc.), the righteous one. Peter's questions "How did this happen? What did you do?" and "What are we going to do now?" are a far cry from the focus on identity, especially his own as a sinner. Even further from the biblical account, however, is Jesus' final reply to Peter in "The Bible." Answering the question, "What are we going to do now?" the Jesus of "The Bible" says, "Change the world." Hopefully, it is obvious that this statement is not necessarily rooted in the Galilee of the first century. Among other things, it is missing the "kingdom of God" language of Jesus' teaching (Luke 4:43), which has a specific connection to Israel and expectations for God's visitation (Luke 1:68; 2:38). The language sounds weak and cheesy, and it loses Luke's theological focus on the identity of Jesus, his mission, and the significance of sin. The building music and camera shots panning the boat with Jesus and Peter dramatically scanning the horizon seems powerful, but the biblical account and its theology have been weakened.

The second weak scene is probably the most climactic episode of the Gospel of John. In the biblical account, the disciple Thomas, who is only mentioned in John's Gospel (or at least by that name), is not with the rest of the disciples when Jesus first comes to them in the upper room. He does not believe that Jesus is alive, and goes so far as to say that he won't believe that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead unless he sees the nail marks in Jesus' hands and the spear wound in Jesus' side. So the following week "Doubting Thomas" is with the other disciples when Jesus appears. Jesus tells Thomas to feel the places of his wounds and says, "Do not disbelieve, but believe" (John 20:27, ESV). Thomas responds with what was most likely an exclamation, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28, ESV). Then Jesus continues to accuse or question Thomas about his need for sight to believe and to bless those who believe without seeing.

In "The Bible," the scene takes place immediately after Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene return from the tomb where they have seen the empty tomb together (note that the biblical account of John is reversed with Mary seeing Jesus on her first visit to the tomb before Peter and John go to the tomb). Peter joyfully makes an intriguing connection to the Lord's Supper in the death of Jesus. This is probably a conflation of the road to Emmaus story in Luke 24 with the upper room accounts and specifically John 20 here. Jesus then appears through the lighted doorway (set to dramatic music again) and makes his way around the table of disciples. He begins speaking to Thomas, "Thomas, stop doubting..." Jesus then sits in front of Thomas, shows him his hand with a hole, touches Thomas' face and continues speaking, "...and believe." Yet, rather than Thomas essentially concluding the theological argument of the Gospel of John that Jesus is God and Lord, Thomas in "The Bible" says, "It is you." What?! "It is you"? Are you kidding? The biblical statement "My Lord and my God!" that basically equates Jesus with God when one traces the argument through John beginning in 1:1-2 (although some scholars disagree) is replaced with "It is you"? Could we have come up with an even weaker line? The Jesus of "The Bible" then continues almost verbatim with the biblical statement in John 20:29. So much theology is lost in the rewording of Thomas' response. Little if anything is gained, even with the addition of dramatic music and lighting, and the juxtaposition of the ritual of the Lord's Supper.

To end on an more positive note, one scene that stands out to me in "The Bible" miniseries as being particularly powerful is the calling of Matthew. The richness of this scene is actually created by the conflation of two biblical passages -- the calling of Matthew (Matt 9:9-17; Mark 2:13-22; Luke 5:27-32) and Jesus' "parable" of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). The scene opens with money changing hands in a marketplace. An unseen voice yells, "All taxes must be paid in full." Jesus and the disciples wander into the square, and Peter and Thomas both make comments against the tax collectors. Thomas says, "Our own people working for Rome. Makes me sick." Peter then calls the tax collectors "collaborators." Pharisees hover on the periphery looking concerned, and one says to Jesus, "They are stinking vermin. You should keep your distance." Matthew, who is sitting at his table collecting taxes, looks up at that moment and hears the comment. Jesus immediately begins to tell the parable from Luke 18:9-14, which is nowhere biblically near Luke's account of the calling of Matthew (the parable is only in Luke). As the parable progresses, Jesus speaks of a self-righteous Pharisee (the good Scripture believing and following guy) and his prayer and a tax collector and his prayer. "The Bible" personalizes the unnamed figures of the parable with this Pharisee at Jesus' side and Matthew sitting at his table. When Jesus speaks of the tax collector in "The Bible," Jesus walks over in front of Matthew and speaks directly to him with the marketplace crowd all around him. Tears begin to fall from Matthew's eyes as Jesus speaks of the tax collector who cannot lift his eyes to heaven as he prays in the temple. And as Jesus, still speaking to Matthew, recites the prayer of the tax collector, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13), the camera focuses on Matthew as Matthew mouths the words of the prayer that Jesus states. In "The Bible," the prayer of the unnamed tax collector in the parable becomes the prayer of Matthew, the soon-to-be disciple of Jesus. Matthew is portrayed as a man who longs to be accepted by God yet is ashamed of what he does (something not found in the biblical accounts of the calling of Matthew). In "The Bible," the use of the parable in the calling of Matthew highlights Jesus acceptance of sinners, of his reaching out to those in need of a savior and a healer, which is a key component of the end of the calling accounts (Matt 9:12-13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32). "The Bible's" conflation of the two stories ends with Jesus telling Matthew to come, and the acceptance of Matthew as one of the disciples (note the warm welcome by John!). While the biblical narratives do not tell either story in this way, I think it powerfully and respectfully presents Jesus as the friend of sinners and of his ministry to sinners and tax collectors. The kingdom of God is for all of Israel.

"The Bible" presents some events in an extremely theologically weak way. Other events and characters are given new life in the conflation of stories or the dramatic presentation of them (John the Baptist, angels, Matthew). "The Bible" is biblical interpretation, and as such, it provides new ways of thinking about the biblical text and challenges some of our preconceived notions of what is in the Bible. There is value in seeing a good presentation like this because it can enrich our understanding of the biblical story as long as we recognize what is "The Bible" and what is the Bible.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Bible Miniseries 2: Interpretation through Characters and Juxtapositions

Continuing with some thoughts and reflections on the "10 hour" miniseries on The Bible, I want to follow up my comments on the portrayal of angels with some comments on certain characters and the depictions of them.

The first I would like to mention is that of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is an extremely important figure in the Gospels. All four Gospels present John as the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. He is the one who prepares the way, fulfilling prophecies from Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40. Although Luke says that John and Jesus are related, none of the other three Gospels indicate any special relationship between John and Jesus apart from John's baptism of Jesus.

"The Bible" portrays John as the sort of eccentric holy man or prophet that he most likely was. John the Baptist led a renewal movement for the forgiveness of sins out in the wilderness in the provocative location of Israel's entry into the promised land (Joshua 3). What I found compelling about "The Bible's" John the Baptist was that his proclaiming took place as he baptized. The portrayed his hair as unkempt and reciting almost verbatim the prophecies attributed to him in the Gospels as he dunked people under water. There was something about the depiction that made John more authentic, more passionate and concerned about his role as forerunner than the casual reader of the Gospels might sense. It's as if John knew he only had a small window to complete his mission. "The Bible's" portrayal of John includes his imprisonment including Herod Antipas entering into the dungeon and seeming curious about John. John is more forthright about Jesus being the Messiah in this interaction with Herod Antipas than the biblical text states, but John is depicted as proclaiming more of his message in prison, even as he is beheaded. The shocking martyr-like portrayal of John's death and his witness to the person of Jesus captures something of John that can be lost in the pages of the New Testament.

Another intriguing aspect of "The Bible" is the way that certain characters are woven into the narrative in a manner that foreshadows their later importance. This is often done by placing characters in the story where the biblical text does not mention them. For instance, as Moses returns to Egypt to confront Pharoah, he wanders through the brick making/slave labor camp full of Israelites, well, slaving away. Moses is struck by an Egyptian slave driver, and low and behold, Joshua, son of Nun, comes to Moses' aid and lifts him up. Joshua is then portrayed and an early leader helping Moses even in Egypt and at Mt. Sinai. This portrayal makes his command of the people as they defeat Jericho and enter the promised land less jarring and more of a smooth narrative.

A second instance of the raising of a character to prominence is the early appearance of Nicodemus, who actually only appears in the biblical text of the Gospel of John. Yet in "The Bible" he makes his appearance often as one of Jesus' main Pharisee interlocutors. Nicodemus is depicted as being in close relationship with the High Priest, even if he and the high priest do not always see eye to eye. This early antagonistic relationship between Jesus and Nicodemus makes his well-known visit to Jesus at night (John 3) all the more of a contrast, especially with the addition of Jesus' disciples' shock and clear disapproval of Nicodemus' arrival in their midst.

Other aspects of character portrayals in "The Bible" actually raise certain characters to prominence at the expense of other more biblically significant characters. Two instances of this character displacement include Uriah the Hittite and Luke the physician and evangelist. Uriah is portrayed as David's right hand man at the expense of Joab, David's actual right hand man. The reason for this exchange in the miniseries is obvious because of the way David's sin with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah is emotionally greater since he is stabbing a close associate and friend in the back. In the NT, Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy are left out of the Paul/Acts narratives of "The Bible," and Luke the physician and evangelist is presented as Paul's companion and amanuensis. Luke clearly is a write, but those who in the biblical text have a closer working relationship with Paul are missing. Fewer characters make it "easier" for the TV viewer to keep track of everyone, and these changes to the biblical texts can heighten tensions and conflicts. Some of this is beneficial for drama of it all, but the actual contents of the text of the Bible are, in certain instances, unfortunately bypassed.

Part three on the weakest moments of "The Bible" here.