History Channel’s "The Bible" as Public History

My family and I raced home from a volleyball tournament in Philadelphia last night in order to catch the latest episode of The Bible on the History Channel.  (Unfortunately we did not make it in time and decided, cheeseheads that we are, to wait until it is replayed so we can catch the entire episode in one sitting). 

I have been bouncing around the web this morning looking for some commentary and I found some good stuff.

Religion Dispatches, a left-leaning religion webzine, has been hammering The Bible pretty hard.  In this piece, Sarah Posner quotes biblical scholar Wil Gafney who attacks the mini-series for not showing the slaughtering of babies, the ethnic cleansing, and the sexual violence that is part of the Old Testament.  Fair enough.  The Bible is very violent and Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have chosen to focus on the less-violent, more redemptive moments of the text.

Again, I am fine with this kind of critique, but I will continue to think that the benefits of the mini-series far outweigh the problems. This entire debate is not unlike those happening between academic historians and popular historians. Academic historians pan popular histories (think David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc…) because they do not offer the kind of interpretive depth common in academic writing. Yet these popular histories sell tens of thousands of copies and introduce their subjects to a lot more people than the run-of- the-mill academic monograph.

I think I am safe in saying that more Americans will learn something about the Bible from this mini-series than they will from the books in the upcoming Fall catalogs of Oxford, Brill, T&T Clark, Peter Lang, The Society of Biblical Literature, or Wipf and Stock.  Don’t get me wrong, bad history–whether it is related to the Bible, Christian America, or something else–needs to be countered, especially when it is being used to promote public policy–but I don’t think The Bible crosses the line in this regard.

Rather than sitting in their ivory towers and panning the film (I am not saying Gafney is doing this, her bloggingheads interview with Posner offers a more nuanced position than the quote Posner chose to include in her post), Biblical scholars should be rejoicing. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to engage the public in meaningful and intellectually fruitful ways about the importance of the Bible.  To be fair, I think this is what Gafney really wants to do.  I can’t imagine that she wants all of those stories of ethnic cleansing and rape to be included in the mini-series.  Instead, she wants a conversation.

And now on to Paul Harvey, who also weighed-in on last night’s episode at Religious Dispatches.  He compares the series to The Lord of the Rings and decries the violence and racial stereotypes.  I offered a slightly dissenting view to a previous Harvey post on The Bible, but it is hard to argue with what he has to say in this latest piece.

On our ride back from Philadelphia last night, my family and I had another great talk about the violence portrayed in The Bible.  My daughters are old enough to deal with all the blood and gore, but I am not sure I would have let them watch this when they were younger. 

Harvey’s critique of the “whitening” of the Biblical world and the “racially-stereotyped” Samson character is another strong point, although, with the exception of Jesus (and it is a big exception), I saw many people of color in the film.  It was clear to me that a deliberate effort was made, although perhaps not to Harvey’s satisfaction (and I defer to him on this), to have a multicultural cast.

I am glad to see that Harvey is using the occasion of the mini-series to speak to a larger audience through the medium of Religious Dispatches, but I also fear that he, Gafney, Posner, and others are merely preaching to the choir.  How many of the evangelical Christians who really need to hear what they are saying are reading Religious Dispatches?  Perhaps they are finding it through Google searches.

This mini-series certainly has some problems, and it is the job of academics to point them out, but from where I sit, the good still far outweighs the bad.