Ultimate reality

Television Survivor producer tackles a miniseries covering Genesis to Revelation | Emily Belz

Ultimate reality

AMBITIOUS: Burnett and Downey
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The five-part, 10-hour miniseries The Bible debuts on the History Channel on March 3, covering Genesis to Revelation, the garden of Eden to the island of Patmos. Mark Burnett, who produced wildly successful reality shows like Survivor and The Voice, helmed the series, which he and his actress wife Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), a co-producer and actress in the series, worked on for three years.

Burnett calls this “the most important project I have ever undertaken.” He is targeting an audience beyond church groups—he believes more people will see this in the long run than all his other shows combined. “Biblical literacy is down,” said Burnett at a screening with Downey and a few reporters in New York. “The book is the foundation of all our society and laws, so not knowing it—it makes you lacking.” Both Downey and Burnett have told media that they aren’t trying to evangelize people or stir controversy with the series. “We’ve tried to not make this talk at you and lecture you,” said Burnett. “The story is just the story.” 

But the film is clear in its Christian message, a message both Burnett and Downey believe. “In creation, we fell away from God’s grace,” said Downey. “The arching journey had to be how we got back to God, ultimately through Jesus.” Though much of the dialogue is contrived, the writers wove in direct quotes from the Bible—for example, Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah plays over the scene of Jesus’ birth. Burnett thought the series’ writers understood the message even though he didn’t think many of them believed it. “They analyzed [the Bible] cover to cover,” he said. “They said, ‘Here’s the through-line.’ And it’s exactly the right through-line.” 

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Burnett takes some minor artistic liberties, but overall he gets the story right and brings a professional edge to the storytelling. This production has more professional chops than other “Christian”-made films, like, say, Fireproof, directed by a Baptist pastor. Hans Zimmer, an Oscar-winner who composed the score for Gladiator, composed The Bible’s score. Burnett also got a hand from the special effects company that won an Oscar for its work on Gladiator. The series has some of the big cinematic feel of the award-winning 1956 film The Ten Commandments.

“I think God calls people with the right skill sets at the right time,” said Burnett. “We’re commercial filmmakers. We know what we’re doing.” But even for the most accomplished filmmaker, a series on the entire Bible is ambitious and hard to manage. In this production a distracting narrator pulls the viewer out of immersion in the story, though Burnett argued a narrator was necessary because the series zooms across thousands of years.

What Burnett and Downey showed us were excerpts fresh from the editing floor, so I can’t vouch for the entire series, but everything I saw was theologically orthodox. They consulted with academics and theologians and pastors across the spectrum for the series. The series is also entertaining, but despite the high-grade special effects, there are moments that have a community-theater feel. Characters appear with too much hairspray or too pronounced a perm that poor Jews in the Roman Empire couldn’t have.

Burnett shot the series in Morocco (which is ironic because the country has cracked down on missionary activity in recent years, kicking out many Christians). The cast is mostly British and Australian, but relatively racially diverse. The actor who plays Jesus, Diogo Morgado, is Portuguese. You hear traces of his accent throughout, which is a nice change from the usual silver screen Jesus who seems so familiar to Americans. Still, Morgado fits a popular image of Jesus—he has nice hair and he’s handsome, while the “Man of Sorrows” probably wasn’t. The series gives John the Baptist dreadlocks, and you imagine that Jesus might have had at least a few himself from sleeping on boats. 

Likely there will be disputes on finer theological points in the series, but Burnett said to such critics, “Get out of the granular weeds and just enjoy the grand old story.”

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