Monday, March 04, 2013

The Problem With The Bible

Well, not the bible exactly, but "The Bible," the History Channel miniseries seeking to bring an exciting and epic view of the holy scriptures before television audiences.

I will admit that previous attempts to make biblical movies has always left me somewhat disappointed. Sometimes the treatment of whatever biblical story being shown is just bad. But more often than not, what is problematic is the interpretation of the story being shown. After all in trying to create a movie from a biblical story, there have to be choices. What to cut, what to leave, what gaps in the story can be filled, and what is the best way to do so.

In trying to create a miniseries of the bible, the challenge I see would be how to best cut scenes while remaining faithful to the text. "The Bible" doesn't seem to worry about that. They do make cuts, but then some things they make up to fill in gaps. I know some of this is an attempt to create a dramatic vision that people would be entertained by, Matrix-esque ninja angel warriors anyone? Death Eater-like Angel of Death in Egypt? Is the purpose of this miniseries simply to wow people with the special effects? Perhaps the producers might have wanted to pick effects that aren't a decade old.

But other additions have me perplexed from a theological standpoint. Over and over again, Moses repeats the phrase "God is with us." And yes, I will agree that God was with the Israelites in their exodus. That is part of the point ultimately; that God is more powerful than Pharaoh. But the phrase "God is with us" is foreign to Moses. Of course the phrase shows up later in Isaiah, which makes me nervous regarding the operating interpretation happening here.

While various texts of scripture are claimed by the three monotheistic faiths, with various levels of subscription, and more or fewer books, the primary lens through which this miniseries is being made is the American Evangelical lens. I know some might wonder what difference this makes. The bible is the bible after all, no? Well, maybe. It all depends on how things are interpreted. We all make interpretive choices on what some things mean. Absent from this miniseries is any sense of Jewish understanding. Take for instance the Passover itself. In the book of Exodus, the passover meal is crucial. After all, the blood that marked the doorposts of the Israelites came from lambs that were then to be eaten. The people were to eat the meal, wearing their sandals and coats so that they might not be hindered to leave when God acted. Blood on the doorposts, had it. Meal? Not even a tip of the hat to it. One of the longest running religiously related meals in the history of the world, and not a single piece of unleavened bread or lamb chop.

Now, "God is with us" and blood on the doorposts will come back later when Jesus hits the scene. And it will seem incredibly important then. So important that could lead people to believe that it is impossible for the Jewish people to have missed those signs about Jesus. Toss in Moses' line as he comes down off the mountain with the Ten Commandments, "If we remain true to God, he will keep his promises to us." If it is impossible to miss a connection to Jesus even from the beginning, then the stage is set for supercessionism. Supercessionism is the belief that Christians replace Jews as the people of God, and that therefore the Jews are out. If God's promises are built on such a shaky ground as our ability to keep up God's commands, then we are all in trouble.

Additionally, the lack of a passover meal will ultimately cut out Christians who see the passover meal as an important meal that leads to a new meal in Christ. The passover meal is the original manifestation of anamnesis, or remembrance. Jews are called to remember annually the past event of the Passover, not just as something way back there, but as something that has an enduring reality even to today. In the midst of a passover celebration, Jesus institutes a meal which Christians have celebrated for two millennium now. Varying beliefs surround this meal, but for many, myself included, this meal, Holy Communion or the Eucharist, celebrated frequently has us return to the saving mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, with the reality that the past event has meaning for us even today, as Christ continues his self-giving love in being present to us in the bread and wine in such a way that we might call those element his body and blood.

In just one episode it is clear that "The Bible" is not trying to let the biblical stories speak for themselves, but they are trying to make a case for one narrow vision of Christianity. A narrow vision of scripture is likely to end up cheapening the good news of what God has been up to in reconciling this broken world, giving us less than the fullest picture, and possibly making scripture a burden for us by ignoring God's faithfulness and lovingkindness for us all.

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