So the History Channel is going to air a new ‘The Bible’ series. What does this mean? What is it exactly? What are the implications?
As you all know, I’m not a fan of the History Channel. It often airs an overabundance of crap (Swamp People? Really? That is what you’re going with?), conspiracy theory nonsense (UFO Hunters, Ancient Aliens, shows about secret government takeovers etc…); I mean I remember a time when the history channel aired programs about Nazi’s and WWII all the time. It was crap back then too, but at least it was about history. Now what is their excuse? (Ratings, I know…it was a rhetorical question) Over the years I’ve learned to live and let live; I don’t bother the History Channel (most of the time) and the History Channel stays off my ‘suitable network television’ list (except American Pickers and Pawnstars…. I admit, they’re guilty pleasures). Yet when the History Channel sets out to make anything related to the Bible and history, it seems like the producers get together and conspire on ways just completely screw it up. I mean statistics dictate that they could not possibly produce so many terrible ‘history and the bible’ programs that just suck so bad; at this point, they just have to be doing it on purpose. There is no other logical scenario (but then, look at their target audience, so I guess that explains some things).
But on occasion, sometimes, the History Channel produces some real gems. Their miniseries on the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s for example, just outstanding. Also their miniseries on the Civil War, also very well done. So what am I expecting–and what should you expect–from this new Bible miniseries? Let’s get into some specifics.
First and foremost, (and please repeat this to as many of your friends) this miniseries is not an attempt to be historically accurate. That is to say, the History Channel is not presenting this new series as historical fact. It is a dramatization. Essentially, they are taking some of the really entertaining and interesting parts of the Biblical narratives and turning them into live-action mini-movies. Remember the movie ‘Jason and the Argonauts?’ It is essentially the same thing, but instead of basing their series on Greek mythology or an ancient Greek epic like Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautika, they’re using the Bible. I hope that was clear enough. In short ‘The Bible’ miniseries :: the movie ‘Troy’.
‘Why is this so important?’, you may ask. Why make such a distinction? This may sound crazy to all you sane and rational readers of my blog, but there are people out there who cannot really understand the distinction between myth and fact. Mel Gibson made a movie called the Passion of the Christ which based on a narrative that is both contradictory and highly mythologized–and Mel Gibson made it even more disgusting, more dramatic, and added all sorts of fictional elements (like Jesus making a modern day table in a carpentry workshop–because Mel Gibson doesn’t know Greek and thinks that τέκτων has only one meaning). And people believe it represents a historical event. People left the theater in tears, so emotionally distraught that some could not bear it. Why? Because they could not separate reality from the fiction they were seeing. And this is the trouble with dramatizations.
Even as an academic, a student of history, I get annoyed with dramatizations. I can’t help it, factual inaccuracies drive me
completely bonkers (as do ‘certainty statements’ in portrayals of events). It will be a real challenge watching the exodus occur on television without thinking “Oh, now come on! There is absolutely no way this happened.” Though I will say, I’m looking forward to this. Mark Goodacre had a hand behind the scenes as an adviser and I can’t help but appreciate that fact. If a scholar as stable as Mark can deal with helping to produce this dramatization, then I suppose I can deal with it too. But I won’t let the chance to express my fears over the possible backlash that this program may produce.
After all, Mel Gibson’s Passion movie will influence more Americans than the Gospels; most laypeople will see the Passion before ever going to a bookstore to read what actual scholars have to say about it. I have a sneaking suspicion that the same problems scholars faced during the showing of Gibson’s movie will follow this dramatization. Undoubtedly, certain religious groups will not understand that what they’re seeing is not ‘history’. Some who actually believe the History Channel produces history might not know that this is not history. So the implications here are quite clear: people will undoubtedly believe what they’re seeing because it reenforces certain preconceived ideas about the past.
And don’t tell me it won’t happen. I have people searching out ‘Discovery Channel Mermaids’ every day…hundreds of people every day keep falling for a fictional documentary…ON MERMAIDS. And some even accuse me in comments of being on the government payroll to coverup the facts (i.e., that I’m writing to cover up the fact that mermaids actually do exist). I wish I was making this up. So if a show on mermaids, which was clearly fiction (and they even stated it on their website and during the airing of the program), can be taken at face value as fact, the Bible is not a stretch considering most Americans believe it to be historical anyway.