There is also a striking moment when Jesus calls on Matthew, the tax collector, to join him and his followers. When the scene begins, Jesus is surrounded by disciples and critics who agree on little except that tax collectors are “vermin”—so Jesus tells the parable of the publican and the Pharisee, and as he reaches the words that the publican spoke in humble prayer, Matthew recites them in sync with Jesus and starts to cry. The parable, it seems, is more than just a story; it is evidence of Jesus’ prophetic or divine knowledge, and it gives Matthew, who now knows that his prayers have been heard, an emotionally compelling reason to drop his work and join the Jesus movement right then and there.
There are several other moments like these scattered throughout the mini-series, and they are sometimes quite brilliant, even if the filmmakers never quite know how to follow through on them. (Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is accompanied by flash-forwards to the Passion—but he seems to be caught off-guard when he has yet another set of premonitions during the Last Supper.) Bible adaptations like this are at their best when they hit on an aspect of the story that the viewer might never have considered before, or when they juxtapose texts in a way that prompts the viewer to think about the story from a fresh angle. In a nutshell, they work best when they open the story up for the viewer. (One excellent recent example is the Oscar-nominated animated short film Adam and Dog, which re-imagines the story of Creation and the Fall from the point of view of man’s first best friend.)
But the rush-rush-rush of this particular mini-series, which relies heavily on the narration to smoothe over narrative gaps and explain the meaning of individual scenes, runs the risk of closing the stories and their meaning to the average viewer. Instead of coming away changed, the viewer comes away feeling good about a story of “change.” And that is not quite the same thing.