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TV Review: The Bible – “Beginnings”

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I turned to this History Channel production of The Bible with a cynical skepticism. My preconceptions weren’t aided by claims from some news media that the first installment of the series was TV’s most watched event. These claims were later brought into perspective. In fact the initial program was seen by 13 million viewers and outscored other shows that evening. It ranks as cable’s most-watched entertainment telecast this year. It did nearly as well for the History Channel as the record setting “Hatfields & McCoys” last year.

As I watched, my cynicism turned to admiration and I found myself on the edge of my seat, my attention never wavering, and I feel far more informed about the Bible and its characters than ever I thought I would be.

The opening of the superbly filmed and produced miniseries brings us to Noah’s Ark, looking as it should, and ravaged by terrible waters. We see many animals on board, as we thought we might, including zebras and ostriches; but our attention is grabbed by goats, and small cows, and two young and frightened deer, who like all the ark’s occupants are being saved from drowning by Noah and his family. Noah explains to his anxious children that God is saving them from a terrible flood. The tempestuous sea fills the screen, and Noah fights to save the storm-ravaged ark from being dashed into submission.

We move from this opening sequence to the story of the seven days of the creation of the world, told in a way even disbelievers won’t disdain, and to the Garden of Eden. This comes as Noah is speaking to his family about the history of the world. The special effects are a thrill to behold. Noah shows that God has already seen too much evil in the hearts of men, as Cain kills Abel. We have a brief glimpse of Adam and Eve, a striking couple. Noah tells us that on the seventh day, God rested. We are told, “There is one father in heaven and one teacher and he is Christ.”

The core of the miniseries begins with the story of Abraham. We respond emotionally to Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who is aging and cannot conceive. She tells Abraham to father a child by uniting with Hagar the servant girl, younger and attractive. Abraham and Hagar produce two children, and Abraham clings to Hagar, leaving Sarah to witness.

Three tall and strangely clad men, messengers of God, come to Abraham. They don’t have halos, but wear red hooded garments. One of the messengers is dark, African by his appearance. A second of the messengers looks Asian. The third, whose face we never see, wears a brown hooded cloak, and speaks the word of God. These visitors announce to Sarah that she will have a son named Isaac, meaning “to laugh.”

Isaac is born to Sarah, as prophesied, and we move ahead 13 years. Abraham and Sarah are at odds; Sarah, Abraham’s first wife, is jealous that her child, not being Abraham’s firstborn son, will not succeed him to bring about the hoped-for new nation. Abraham bends to her will, and assured by God that they will survive, he sends his son, Ishmael, and daughter (whose name is
Mahalath) who were mothered by Hagar into the wilderness.

Time goes by, and Abraham discerns that God wants him to sacrifice Isaac, his son by Sarah. Pretending to be going into the rocky hills to sacrifice a sheep, Abraham secures his knife, and calls to his Isaac, young and innocent, to follow. Abraham is going to kill Isaac.

At the final moment, as the boy cries out “Father, you’re hurting me!” and Isaac’s death is near, in the far distance a red hooded figure cries out, “Abraham!” Abraham realizes God is sparing his son, and that he, Abraham, has passed God’s test. Sarah comes, fearful that Isaac is dead. Isaac is safe, and a lamb will be sacrificed instead.

Those scenes give watchers an indication of the direction of the miniseries. We go on to witness Lot and his wife going into Sodom to set up a home. But Sodom is inhabited by evil women in thin veils, who dance, and engage in debauchery with the men. Sodom is an evil city, and the hooded messengers know it will be destroyed. The men who habituate the town are thwarted by the prediction of destruction, and they join forces to murder Lot and his wife. The History Channel doesn’t fail to amaze, as the Asian messenger of God discards his red-hooded vestment, and turns ninja-like, fighting back with spins and leaps, to defeat the men of Sodom.

Lot’s wife is instructed not to look back at Sodom, as fire rains down from Heaven. Lot’s wife is unsure. She is drawn, we suspect, to the debauchery in Sodom. She looks back, and we gasp as she turns to salt.

The series is strongly emotional, holds our attention, and is made for the modern age, worthy of high regard. The city scenes and the areas of the Promised Land are staggering in their scope. The role of Jesus is in the hands of Diogo Morgado, an actor whose name is a household word in Portugal. We note that while some thought only the Old Testament should be included, it was finally determined that the New Testament must also be embraced, simply because the entire Old Testament builds to the life of Christ.

Christians, Jews, non-believers, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – all people – will be instructed by this History Channel production. What I have seen of it is inspirational, and maybe inspired.

The series is produced by the husband-and-wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. They saw it, in their first conception, as a love story, “The grand sweeping embrace, the love story that is the Bible.”

Nancy Dubuc, head of entertainment and media at A&E Networks, said “We take very seriously when a producer or a storyteller of his [Burnett’s] magnitude is incredibly passionate about something, They tend to give it their all.” Dubuc insists, “I don’t see this as a Christian production. We are a global brand, and we appeal to all walks of life and beliefs… this is not a piece of conversion.”

The series will air Sundays in March on The History Channel.

photo: focusOnTheFamily

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About John Lake

John Lake had a long and successful career in legitimate and musical theater. He moved up into work behind the camera at top motion pictures. He has done a smattering of radio, and television John joined the Blogcritics field of writers owing to a passion for the liberal press, himself speaking out about the political front, and liberal issues. Now the retired Mr. Lake has entered the field of motion picture, television, and video game (now a daily gamer!) critique. His writing is always innovative and immensely readable!
  • Joe C

    Well I guess nobody is reading the blog?

  • John Lake

    If you mean this blog here at BC, readership is sluggish; only about 600 the last day and a-half. People are slow to comment.

  • I’ll comment:
    Not sure what mini-series you were watching or where you got the idea that Hagar had two children by Abraham. There is no mention of a daughter in either the Bible or this HORENDOUSLY MISGUIDED TV version.
    Here’s how I feel about the rest of it.

  • John Lake

    I took another look at some reference materials, and they indicate that in fact Mahalath was not Ishmael’s sister, but rather his daughter. I’m not sure if she (assuming the materials are correct) was born before Hagar and her offspring were sent into the wilderness.

  • John Lake

    I read through the material that Katie in #3 mentions. While I certainly don’t have the capacity to defend the History Channel version, I note that it relates to the Bible seen as literature, rather that absolute history. This is an alternative view, not necessarily a conflicting one.

  • Joe: There’s some as reads which leaves no comments. There’s some as comments who does not read.

    Thanks for the review, John. I’d been curious about this show, and I don’t have cable. Roma Downey…that name sounds familiar…

  • Katie, isn’t it frustrating when atheists insist there is ZERO evidence that God exists? How can they possibly know everyone’s experience? Maybe they know they can’t possibly know, and the defensiveness is part of a gradual slide toward agnosticism.

    But Roma Downey. Yes. She was the star of “Touched by an Angel”…shows like that, and this Bible show John is reviewing, and “Joan of Arcadia” can be uncomfortable for us Christians, because they are the stories of people who don’t understand the Bible the same way we do, and yet they claim to be hearing his call to love through it. Does this mean that everything we are hearing from God is wrong? Do we have any evidence that they are really hearing God?

    Please don’t insist, the way atheists do, that they are not.

  • When someone asserts that there is zero evidence of God’s existence, they are talking about scientific standards of evidence: that is to say, to be valid it must be observable, measurable, testable, falsifiable and repeatable.

    Is somebody’s testimony that they have experienced God evidence for his existence? Yes, of course. Is it sound evidence? Not by scientific standards.

  • Dr. Dreadful, are you sure you speak for all atheists when you say they are talking about scientific standards of evidence when they say there is no evidence for God? I appreciate that this is the way you mean it, but you may be an atheist who is dancing dangerously close to the fringes of agnostic apostasy.

    You get old Christomper over here to tell me:

    …Is somebody’s testimony that they have experienced God evidence for his existence? Yes, of course…

    …and I shall consume my Easter bonnet.

  • Irene, I claim neither to be an atheist nor that I speak for all atheists. There are certainly atheists who will claim in a dogmatic sense that there is no evidence for God, but the ones I’m talking about – and I will stick my neck out a bit here and say that Chris is one of these – are the ones who sincerely require empirical evidence, the same way a thoughtful person would require such evidence that a particular medicine worked, or that a particular subatomic particle had been detected.

  • …still waiting…But Easter’s still a few weeks away. I’ll try to remember to come back after that to check.

  • Well, it’s six in the morning over in England, Irene, so I don’t imagine Chris is in a position to be serving up unconventional Easter breakfasts right now…

  • I suppose testimony can be considered as evidence, in the broadest sense of the term. Testimony is allowed in legal trials for example, even though we know that people can and do lie under oath.

    However, in the case of the discussion of the existence of a deity, it can never be taken seriously as there is no way to test it, so one is left in the situation of either accepting a story that defies logic and, yes, belief, or simply ignoring it. The wise choice is to ignore it.

    For the record, I’ve no objection to the existence of gods, indeed, in many ways life would be both simpler and more, er, interesting if there was.

    The god depicted in the creation myths and stories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is too implausible to be taken seriously and the sooner otherwise good people start to free themselves from some pretty offensive and damaging dogma, the better place the world will become.

  • Ah, Chris. When I noticed William Lambers’ article on the Yemen food crisis, I was hesitant to distract with arguments more than I have already.

    So I’ll agree where I can agree: …the sooner otherwise good people start to free themselves from some pretty offensive and damaging dogma, the better place the world will become.

    Some highly offensive truths will still make the cut. You and I would agree it’s best not to ignore them.