I've been a vocal critic of "The Bible" miniseries on the History Channel since it began. Part of my critique has been due to the many historical, cultural, and biblical inaccuracies. But my primary criticism has been the complete mishandling of ethnicity, racial stereotyping, and glorification of violence. That's why it may come as a surprise that I actually liked this week's episode: Mission.
Yes, Jesus was still a white guy with dirty blonde hair—which is mind-numbingly ridiculous! But, several of the scenes in this week's episode were actually pretty well done. It was definitely hit and miss, like the scenes were voted on by the writing team the way the Jesus Seminar votes on his sayings. But overall, I was impressed.
So, in this post, I'd just like to highlight several brilliant aspects of the episode and several missed opportunities.
I. Brilliant Aspects:
1) The Character Arcs of Barabbas and Nicodemus
Two characters the producers have decided to highlight have been fascinating to watch. First, Barabbas the violent insurrectionist is featured prominently, as he wrestles with Jesus's messianic campaign. It's clear that for Barabbas Jesus is not nearly a good enough Messiah because he's not willing to go to war against the Romans. But it is also clear that Barabbas's character is attempting to hear Jesus out, and recognizes something great about him.
[Sidenote: I have no idea what the point was of Jesus's Jedi peace trick he pulled on Barabbas when their characters first encounter one another. Someone will have to explain that one to me.]
Second, the producers key in on Nicademus, which is a lot more predictable. (Evangelicals like Nicademus because of the "born again" passage). But I have really enjoyed seeing Nicademus's character wrestle with Jesus's character—especially in the scene about paying taxes to Caesar.
In this scene, Nicademus is sent to challenge Jesus and embarrass him by the Chief Priest Caiaphas. When Nicademus chooses the subject of Roman taxes as the trick question for Jesus, both Barabbas and Roman soldiers are present. On either side, Jesus will condemn himself if he chooses sides. But (spoiler!) Jesus outwits him.
Nicademus's character is impressed by Jesus. Something about him is different. I think the actor and the producers have done well to depict him as a man torn by the question of allegiance.
2) Matthew's Calling Scene
One of the best scenes in this week's episode was the calling of Matthew, who was a tax collector. The producers chose to use Jesus's parable from Luke 18.9-14 as the part of the dialog between Jesus and an actual Pharisee in Matthew's presence. And as Jesus is recounting the words of the tax collector in the parable, Matthew mouths the words. Jesus then calls Matthew to follow him. I thought this was brilliantly done.
3) Feeding of the 5,000 Scene
A lot of the miracles Jesus performed in this week's episode were on the hokey side. In particular, I thought the healing of the leper was way too "hollywood magic." The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was far more tolerable because the loaves and fishes do not magically multiply before your eyes.
But the best part of this scene to me was the clear message Jesus sends against nationalism and violence. The producers used this opportunity to depict Jesus's movement as gaining momentum, and people are beginning to see the potential this has for political liberation. In a brilliant move, the producers have the crowds begin chanting "Israel! Israel! Israel!" And Jesus's disciples quickly see their chance to be on the side of a warrior king. But Jesus rebukes them and clearly states that salvation will not come by "force" because it is not "his way."
Now, critics will likely pick up on the obvious difference between "force" and "violence." I want to register that I don't think all force is violence, but I do think that in this scene Jesus is clearly denouncing a violent revolt against the Romans—the likes of which had be attempted many times before and were squelched.
Again, if you were to tell me the same producers who gleefully depicted gratuitous violence in the Old Testament portion of this miniseries, would then go on to depict Jesus denouncing violent revolt in the New Testament portion, I would Not have believed you.
4) Jesus's Arrest Scene
This scene was a toss up. On one hand, Jesus's agonizing prayer …wasn't. And when he told the disciples to wake up, they were already awake. And the whole scene in the garden looked to have been no more than a few minutes, rather than hours and hours. So, that much was disappointing. Jesus, didn't, sweat, one, drop, of, blood!
But, the way they handled Jesus's eventual arrest almost all but made up for it. I loved how they portrayed Peter's protective fury, and how they depicted Jesus healing the Temple guard. And I love that they did not cut out Jesus's warning about living by the sword. This was a good scene!
5) Mary Magdelene
Finally, the best part about this week's episode was Mary Magdelene.
If you had told me the same producers of "The Bible," who have been perpetuating racial stereotypes and casting people of color in only the roles of villains and other-worldly persons, would feature the character of Mary Magdalene prominently along-side the other disciples during Jesus's journeys, I would Not have believed you. It defies logic! The producers cannot see how racially/ethnically biased they are, but yet they have taken a radical step of making Mary Magdalene's role among the disciples explicit.
This is one of the most amazingly accurate aspects of the series so far. It flies in the fact of conventional depictions, adding significant value to this series. Not only was Mary Magdalene featured among the disciples, she is depicted as being treated as an equal and speaking up in several scenes. I thought this was fantastic!
II. Missed Opportunities:
Of course, all of this week's episode wasn't praiseworthy. Several times, I asked myself "How did they… ?! Why did they… ?! Who Chose That?!"
Of course, the biggest FAIL of this entire series has been ethnicity choices. So, casting a white Jesus is an automatic FAIL! But in this episode in particular, I thought there were some significant missed opportunities.
1) The Return of the Presidential Satan Character
This has already drawn a lot of attention, so I won't rehearse it all here. But the resemblance of the Satan character in "The Bible" happens to be way too similar to the current President of the U.S. A lot of people, including myself, think this is no accident. But even if we put aside the physical resemblance, the broken English he spoke in last week's episode and the hood ("Hoodie") he's wearing are enough to make this character straight up racist! Yes, you read that right, RACIST!
2) Hollywood Magic Miracles
The second way this episode failed was by making some of Jesus's miracles look like Hollywood magic. The worst offender by far was the healing of the leper, in which the man's face morphs right in front of onlooker's eyes. This is just degrading to Evangelicals like me who actually believe Jesus performed miracles. Jesus Wasn't a magician. Jesus Did heal people. Hollywood depictions of miracles just oversimplify what Scripture says, reducing them to hocus pocus.
Another example of this might have been the healing of the paralytic man. I'm not entirely sure, but I think beams of light began to reflect onto Jesus's face as he touched the man's legs. If I'm not wrong about that… then that's a FAIL!
Then, the biggest miracle FAIL of all was the walking on water scene. This scene actually confused me quite a bit. Up to this point in the episode, the producers have depicted Jesus as very down-to-earth, conversational, accessible. But all the sudden, in this scene, Jesus turns into an overdramatic ghost-like person. Then, once the scene concludes, he goes right back to being down-to-earth, conversational, and accessible again. It was like another producer subbed in for just that scene, or another movie was spliced in. It was bizarre.
3) Judas Deceived into Betrayal
Judas is often depicted as a villainous traitor who was shifty from the start. I don't think that's a fair characterization. But neither is what the producers do with Judas in this episode a better alternative. In this depiction, it is almost as if Judas was deceived into betraying Jesus by the high priest and the Temple guard. And it is almost as if he never really wanted to betray Jesus. Where is the motive? Where is the complex disappointment that Jesus is not the warrior Messiah people wanted him to be? Nowhere.
4) Over-the-top Pilate
I guess this episode did not have enough violence, so the producers decided to give Pilate a make-over. Instead of being the crafty politician who only wants to maintain order in Judea to preserve his standing in the Roman government, this episode depicts Pilate as violent, power-hungry, and blood-thirsty. He loves to kill, squash rebellions, and practically goads the Jews into rebellion. This was an interesting choice by the producers.
5) The Last Supper Scene
Finally, the biggest let down in this episode for me was the Last Supper. Arguably the most important scene in the episode, the producers completely cut two of the most significant aspects.
First, in this depiction, Jesus does not warn his disciples not to rule as the kings of the Gentiles do, but to serve others in love. This is a foundational teaching of Jesus from Luke's account of the Gospel. Second, Jesus does not wash the disciples' feet, which is also foundational as an example of his teaching of servanthood.
I was disappointed that this scene was not given more importance in the episode and did not include these two elements which are foundational to the Gospel.
Theological Graffiti is a blog written by T. C. Moore @tc_moore ...a Jesus-disciple, husband, father, Associate Pastor @NewCityChurch of Los Angeles, sometimes web designer, writer, and theology geek. For more about me, visit my Personal Website or my Online Profile. Otherwise, enjoy the graffiti.