Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

April 8, 2013

'The Bible': Hollywood's come to Jesus moment?

By Marta Mossburg
CNHI

— Imagine the pitch to a History Channel executive for the smash hit "The Bible."

Here's one scenario:

Producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett: "Hi, we want to produce a story that appeals to all age groups. It has everything: love, lust, greed, war, self-sacrifice, and redemption. It's called 'The Bible.'"

Executive: "Could you repeat that? You said 'The Bible?'"

RD and MB: "Yes - we want to retell the Bible for this generation. And we think we can make money doing it. We've done a lot of market research - there is no competition out there."

Executive: "Have you ever thought that the lack of competition could speak to the fact that there is no market for what you describe? Look at the numbers. Twenty percent of Americans have no religion, up from 15 percent just five years ago. I am one of them. Besides, the Bible? No one associates healing and miracles with the History Channel. Our bread and butter is destruction. We like family feuds, alien invasions, and apocalyptic stories."

MB: "I get that - I produce 'Survivor' and 'The Voice,' remember? Maybe you didn't know, but many parts of the book are violent. It is also filled with incest, adultery, and murder. Let's recap just the story of David in the Old Testament. As a boy he kills a giant and helps to save his nation from enemy capture. The king at the time, Saul, praises the boy only to try to murder him later in a power struggle for the throne of Israel. Saul dies in battle. David becomes king, sends friend off to the front of the battle to die so that the friend will never find out that David slept with his wife, who is pregnant. Should I go on?"

Executive: "I'm listening ..."

I don't know how History chose "The Bible" or how financing was secured for it. But the success of the miniseries - it drew over 11.7 million viewers the final episode and made the History Channel the top cable station in March - speaks to the fact that many Americans are still captivated by stories that have had such a profound impact on world history, the origin of the United States, the English language, and millions of lives, despite entertainment that regularly depicts people who practice the Christian faith as maladjusted Bible thumpers or casts Christ as gay or the father of an illegitimate child.

It's hard to understand what took so long, purely from a profit perspective. After Mel Gibson's 2004 "The Passion of the Christ," filmed in Aramaic and other languages, made over $600 million, Hollywood should have realized there was an untapped market for Biblical stories - told in English.

Maybe they did, but didn't want to give credence to a worldview few in that industry understand or respect.

Regardless, "The Bible" is so in your face that it would be hard to claim a softer approach is needed to introduce American audiences to its stories.

Bishop Walter Thomas, pastor of the 7,000-member New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, said Hollywood "presumed it knew faith" in a similar way to how it thought it understood black audiences - until Tyler Perry and others reinvented the genre to their great financial benefit.

He said he sees the "The Bible" as a tipping point for entertainment featuring Christian themes because the media will realize it can make money on the products.

He may be right. A spinoff of "The Bible" is in the works. However, what's covered is what matters and it may be that the profit motive is less important than ridding the world of a worldview seen by many powerful media and entertainment executives as backward and intolerant.

The fact that the show was produced at a time of cultural upheaval and in an era where The New York Times doesn't get the basics of Easter - it had to run a correction on a Sunday story that mischaracterized the events and meaning of the celebration - speaks to a large chasm between perception of American culture by those in the media and entertainment industry and actual American culture.

May "The Bible" encourage the powers that be in those professions to start depicting America as it is, rather than what they would like it to be. They might find themselves, and Americans of all faiths, are enriched in more ways than one.

- Marta H. Mossburg is an independent columnist. Contact her at marta@martamossburg.com.