Telling the Story

May 13th, 2013

Does the Good Book make for good television? Millions of Americans seemed to think so (as many as 4 in 10, in fact) when History Channel aired its five-week miniseries, The Bible, in March. The first episode drew 13.1 million viewers, more than watched American Idol that week. More than 10 million watched each subsequent episode, beating AMC’s popular The Walking Dead. Viewers for the Easter night finale rose to 11.7 million.

In ten hours The Bible presents many of Scripture’s most dramatic narratives. Several—such as Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, and David and Goliath—are Sunday school standards. Others—the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, or John’s visions in the Book of Revelation—may be less familiar, even to long-time churchgoers. The series’ final four hours depict Jesus’ life, culminating in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and the early years of the church.

Why Did People Watch?

Few media observers expected The Bible to be a ratings hit. What accounts for its success? High production values helped. The Bible’s husband-and-wife executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey knew that today’s audiences expect visual excellence. One of Downey’s teenaged children told her, “Whatever you do, don’t make the special effects lame.” The Bible also brings modern script sensibilities to bear on its characters. Downey says, “We tell these stories from a human point of view, showing people from the past who were struggling with some of the same things that we struggle through.”

An onscreen disclaimer at each episode’s outset acknowledges that The Bible takes creative license with its source material while seeking “to stay true to the spirit of the book.” Some critics question whether the series achieves that goal; British newspaper The Guardian reports some Bible scholars have criticized the miniseries’ “‘whitewashed’ [that is, primarily Caucasian] cast . . . marginalized role of women, and . . . aversion to unpleasant details.” But not all unpleasant details are avoided; the series vividly depicts several biblical stories of violence and warfare. But the producers argue their main focus is presenting, in Downey’s words, “the story of love and the redemptive power of God.” In addition they want the miniseries to motivate people to revisit the Bible or read it for the first time. “We know that our Bible is a book that changes lives,” says Downey.

Do You Love to Tell the Story?

Whatever one thinks of The Bible, Burnett and Downey’s passion for the project and the exceptional attention it has drawn offers all Christians an opportunity to reflect on how we go about telling Scripture’s story of God’s love and power. We believe that it is, as an old movie title has it, “the greatest story ever told,” and yet we do not always go to great lengths to tell it, or to tell it as well as we can.

The youth with whom you minister may have watched The Bible, or know people who did. They may or may not spot how it differs from Scripture, or appreciate whether such differences matter; but, depending upon their experience, they may wonder, “Why can’t the Bible be this interesting at church?”

The church should remember, as ancient Israel and the early Christians knew, that telling God’s story, with all its drama and real, human characters, can be a compelling way to spark and sustain faith. It must also affirm that the Bible is much more than an entertaining story: It is a story through which God changes lives. The living Christ meets us in and through its God-inspired words, equipping us “to do everything that is good” (2 Timothy 3:17), not only as individuals but as a community of faith. God calls us to know the story so that we can tell it in ways the Spirit can use to show others where they belong in the story, too.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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