When in Napa Valley, and wanting the best dining experience possible, you would likely ensure that you have reservations at the French Laundry to taste the exquisite cuisine of Chef Thomas Keller. Upon arriving at that fine dining restaurant, you are seated at your table and put in your appetizer order along with your first wine pairing. Perhaps you order the “Oysters and Pearls,” which is a Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. You eagerly await your order while sipping on the sommelier’s delicious recommendation. After five minutes or so, you see your waiter calmly walking up to your table with a white bag in hand. He plops the bag down in front of you and exclaims “Oysters and Pearls!” and gracefully walks away, disappearing into another room. Uneasy, and a bit dismayed, you open the bag and peek inside to find your face flush with hot steam and anger. Inside the bag is a container of Burger King French fries and a couple packets of Heinz Ketchup. You show the contents of the bag to your dining partners only to hear from one of them, “Isn’t that great! You got some hot American cuisine!” Your head swims as a vein in your forehead feels like it is extruding into the next century. You’re a consumer, and you have been let down by a Michelin starred chef, to say the very least.
The fictitious dining horror story I tell above illustrates my concern with the History Channel’s series “The Bible.” As I sat and watched Sunday’s episode “The Mission,” I became keenly aware that I was being served up a consumable “good” by executive producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett; both of whom are keenly aware that several bible-themed films are coming up in Hollywood and they seek to compete with them.
“The Mission” tantalizes viewers with its Moroccan scenery and a cast of actors who do a fairly good job at acting out their roles. I am a “B movie” fan, mostly of the sci-fi genera, and this series hasn’t let me down, as a consumer, with the solid “B movie” acting (yes, there is irony in there). I have found the series entertaining.
Portugese actor, Diogo Morgado, who plays the role of “Jesus,” gives us a character that is much more balanced than some other Jesus characters I have viewed in past programs. Unlike some of them, Morgado’s character is capable of something other than a syrupy, pasted on, smile and bubbliness permeating every scene. Morgado’s character actually shows some anger at times, and in particular in the scene where Jesus tosses over a couple of the money changer’s tables and scolds them for turning the temple into a “den of thieves.” This “Jesus” flexes a little muscle.
It was also refreshing to see the disciples of Jesus portraying their characters as real, living and breathing, persons and not a group of happy-clappy cultists dancing around and handing out loving glances at all the “sinners” as if they were followers of Hare Krishna distributing love and flowers at an airport.
I must report, though, that I am not terribly happy with this episode. The “Mission” starts off with a series of miracles performed by Jesus, but for no rhyme or reason. Here Jesus travels the vicinity of Jerusalem doing miraculous acts without any explanation from the characters, or narrator, as to their significance. As Lutherans we understand that Christ’s miracles are performed showing that the Kingdom of God has come and confirming the ministry of Christ (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20). The significance of these miracles is apprehended by faith alone (John 11:25–27, 38–40; 20:30–31). In other words, miracles are faith strengthening and are performed to coincide with important points in time (i.e. salvation history) as God speaks the Gospel to the human race. Miracles performed without the Word of God are insignificant magic acts. The Bible series does more to portray Christ as a magician, than they do to report that He is the Word incarnate sent to speak to the world in these last days (Hebrews 1:2). The question of “Why the miracles?” is not answered in this episode of the series and that is troubling.
I was also troubled with the scene where Nicodemus secretly meets with Jesus and the disciples. This scene would have been a wonderful opportunity to speak the truth of the Scriptures as to what it means to be born again. In many evangelical circles, being “born again” is marked by an emotion laden “spiritual experience” which is supposedly a direct experience with God. In such a view, God doesn’t deal with us, where our salvation is concerned, only through His Means of Grace. The Lutheran Confessions identify those holding this unscriptural view as “Schwärmerei,” or “enthusiasts.” The Enthusiasts reject God’s teaching on the means of grace and prefer to talk about experiences with “the spirit” apart from God’s Word. This scene certainly reinforces the false teachings of the Enthusiasts. Nicodemus asks what it means to be “born again” and Jesus responds, “To see the kingdom of God you must be born again, but not in the flesh but in the spirit…. The wind blows where it will… and so it is when the spirit enters you.” There is no mention at all of “water.” Indeed, the Holy Scriptures are clear that Christ tells us, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). There is no “born again experience” without “water and the Spirit.” The Jesus of this History Channel series gives only half the truth by leaving this clear reference to water baptism out and replacing it with the Enthusiast’s message, “spirit alone.” A half-truth is no truth at all.
As the show progresses, I find myself wincing more and more at the “half-truths” of this episode until the scene of the Last Supper of our Lord. I expect to find the words of institution butchered beyond recognition, but am somewhat pleasantly surprised when the actor portraying Jesus utters the words, “This is my body…. This is my blood.” There is nothing added to suggest that the bread and wine are mere symbols. No sooner was I feeling a little “happy-clappy” over the words of institution not being mangled, at least up to that point, when the actor stopped short. “Come on!” I said. “Where are the words, ‘…for the forgiveness of sins’” as found in Matthew 26:28? Years of catechesis had me shouting inside, “What does this mean?” as the “Mission” episode once again fell short on delivering the Gospel.
There are many, many, more problematic scenes in this episode (Such as the “other Mary” in Gethsemane with the Apostles while Jesus prays and basically tagging along as if one of the twelve in many scenes. Women’s ordination?) and for the sake of brevity I can’t report on them all, but will only touch upon two more. There is Jesus telling the viewers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” with no mention of “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The exclusivity of the truth claims of Christ are given no air time. Furthermore, there is nothing in this episode which clearly articulates the deity of Jesus. The closest we get to such an affirmation of Christ’s deity is in the scene where Caiaphas interrogates Jesus and asks him if he is the Messiah. Jesus is silent and Caiaphas prods him with a pointed “Are you the Son of God?” to which Jesus affirms, “I am and you will see me coming at the right hand of God.” Caiaphas tears his clothes and shouts, “blasphemy!” but there is nothing to indicate to the viewer why Caiaphas would label Christ’s claim blasphemy. We are just given a descent moment of theatrical tension and left with that.
As I sat on my sofa, snack foods in hand, and watched this drama, I had to confess that I was entertained. The producers of this program aimed their message at teenagers and because of that fact; we are given snazzy fight scenes and emotion laden drama rather than Scriptural truth and historical accuracy. The series is definitely consumer driven and as such I am not surprised by the fact that when I was looking for a gourmet meal of truth in this episode, I was only given a bag of fast food. I suppose some Lutherans reading this article are saying, “Isn’t this series great! At least we got some truth!” However, I prefer the real Michelin starred deal I get every Sunday morning, where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are rightly delivered. What I like most about this series on the History Channel is that it opens up more opportunities for me to tell others about the mercy Christ has shown to me.