The New Burnett-Downey Bible Mini Series

On Sunday, March 3, the latest Hollywood production of the Bible debuted on American TV as a 10-part mini-series.

Bringing the Scriptures to the screen has always been a perilous undertaking for myriads of reasons not the least of which is the danger of taking license with the sacred texts and distorting both God’s character and His sweeping acts of creation, sacrifice and redemption. Peculiar casting choices also can’t help but mess with our personal images of how certain Biblical characters looked and sounded.  Then, there’s always the risk of the stilted dialogue, the uneven performances, and inferior production values that remind us we’re looking at a production set populated with actors dressed in predictable dessert garb, faces and hair streaked with just the right amount of dirt and sweat, but with dazzling bleached teeth ready for that close up. The inconsistencies are so jarring, one can’t help but remain emotionally guarded and rarely get swept up in the greater story.

The Burnett-Downey team have gone through great pains to bring excellence to this latest adaptation. Judging by the first episode, they’ve achieved some successes. My personal favorites were the parting of the Red Sea that was executed with great sensory vividness, and I found the telling of the creation story from aboard Noah’s Ark an interesting and efficient script choice. Despite my personal disappointment that the main characters were, once again, not Middle Eastern, I liked the gravitas of performances by the actors playing Noah, Abraham and Moses, even though they often worked with bare snippets instead of meatier scenes with a full arc.  I realize this was a choice driven by time and budget constraints, but the abbreviation was emotionally unsatisfying.

Despite her nuanced performance, I struggled with the believability of such an Anglo-looking Sarah, but much more disturbing was the inferior acting among the supporting cast.  With such an over abundance of skilled, talented actors everywhere– yes, even in Morocco!– bad acting has no place in any serious production today, especially not one helmed by a veteran team like Burnett and Downey.

But, perhaps the biggest problem of all is the choppiness of the overall narrative.  Even if you are familiar with the Bible, the huge leaps of time, character and locations of Noah’s Ark, Genesis and Exodus were confusing at best.  Some kind of contextual links between these segments would have helped a great deal.  Without them, it took several minutes simply adjusting to the transitions between heroes and stories, greatly impeding being able to be swept up in the grander picture.

Despite it all, one cannot watch a production of the Bible and not have some spiritual take aways. For me, one of the most striking was the issue of faith and leadership. Noah, Abraham and Moses were men hand picked by God to carry out His redemptive purposes.  These often reluctant heroes did not ask to be chosen and had their lives turned upside down by the missions they were called to accomplish.  Enduring loss, scorn, fear, danger, and uncertainty, these men did the unthinkable:  they obeyed, and risking all, their trust in God allowed them to persevere decade after decade, remaining true to His vision and relying on Him to equip, provide and make a way under mostly impossible circumstances.  The sheer magnitude of their godly character, faith, grit, and accomplishments is transcendent, powerful and sobering.

I’m grateful to Burnett and Downey for not modernizing the patriarchs and depicting them as morally ambiguous men vacillating in a sea of political correctness.  God doesn’t make– and certainly doesn’t call– wimps to transform the world.

I’m not alone in my reservations, but despite mixed reviews, last night’s first episode attracted 13.1 million viewers, the highest rated cable telecast this year.  Burnett and Downey said they hoped the 10-part series would help combat what they perceive as widespread Biblical illiteracy among today’s youth.

“It’s like saying you’ve never heard of Macbeth or King Lear,” said Burnett.  “In school, you have to know a certain amount of Shakespeare, but no Bible.  So, there’s got to be a way to look at it from a pure literature point of view.  If it wasn’t for the Bible, arguably Shakespeare wouldn’t have written those stories.”

Whether critics approve or audiences stay loyal for the remaining nine episodes, the series will also air on Lifetime as well as globally, include a DVD and book package, theatrical releases, and have portions of the material available as part of religious education in churches.

Downey said the project was “maddeningly complicated, but we approached it humbly and were exhilarated by it.”

We pray, with all its hits and misses, the series ultimately honors God and moves audiences everywhere to a deeper understanding, a greater faith and a closer walk with Him.

Did you watch the episode?  What did you think about it?

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed the show and some things we wont know. Like the sadness Abraham felt when his nephew parted or the influence Lot’s wife had on his decisions. Lot was portrayed as a weak character.

    Like you, I also enjoyed the parting of the Red Sea. Some major events, like the life of Joseph, were completely skipped. And, I agree, the transitions could have been smoother.

    • Thanks for your comments, Jean. Also problematic were the liberties they took with key scriptural sections, such as Sarah chasing after Abraham and Abraham’s knife actually coming down on the firewood, as well as the lamb in the thicket rather than a goat. Had trouble with the sanitized version of the angels visiting Lot in Sodom and what critics are calling their “Ninja” fighting techniques. But, Burnett and Downey will say that their script was “based on” the Bible rather than a faithful version. We can only hope they are helping and not hindering the cause of the Gospel.

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