‘Biblical’ Challenges…


But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17, NRSV)

Unless you have been under a rock for the last month or so, you have missed one of the most controversial and yet ‘trendiest’ topics in pop culture……The Bible. This 13-part miniseries seeks to cover some of the pivotal and definitive stories of the Biblical text. Unlike most History channel programming about the Bible, this series contains little to no scholarship or commentary (in fact very little narration). Instead this series seeks to ‘tell the story’ with, according to the series, a fervor and vibrancy that “bring the Bible to life.”

With a multi-racial cast and a eye toward an interpretative acting, the series offers insight into an angle on the scriptures that a segment of our Christian family affirms. Retelling the stories of pivotal stores of Creation in Genesis, Samson in Judges, Moses in Exodus and David in the history texts among others, the series hopes to bring the Bible and its narratives into the mainstream of the public consciousness and conversation. To that end, the series has been widely successful. It has trended on Twitter, been followed closely by TV personalities like TJ Holmes and Roland Martin and has been featured on several news networks. The series has also been deeply criticized by biblical scholars, feminists, and Christians from all over the world. I too, add my voice to that criticism of the series…

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I have watched the series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, (both avowed evangelical Christians), each week with excitement and bitter resentment. Excitement to see the stories of my Christian heritage brought to life and resentment as to how they would be butchered and skewered in the grinder of cultural, social and contextual blindness. They have selected the stories, chosen what was relevant and used their multi racial cast in such a narrowed view that Egyptians are white and Jews are British. Their choices have left no doubt about their intentions, directions and purposes in telling their narratives about the bible.

In watching last night, I found myself repulsed by the brunette Brit that was supposed to represent my Jesus. Weirdly, I previously tolerated a British Moses and Pharaoh, a peculiarly black Samson (with a thing for white women), the gross mischaracterization of David’s ‘rape’ of Bathsheba and the casting of President Obama’s twin as the devil in the earlier installments of the series. Yet, I found this week that this interpretation of Jesus was a bridge too far….

The truth of the matter is that the casting of colonial Jesus essentially completes a ‘whitewashing’ of the continual portrayal of the Biblical narrative. For centuries, the truths of the African and ‘colored’ heritage of the text has been undermined by colonial powers and forces that sought to rewrite and patronize the what the ancient writers sought to convey. Many folks have said that the color of Jesus shouldn’t matter as long as we appreciate and believe what he did for us. If Jesus’ color doesn’t matter, then why are nearly all of the depictions of Jesus in western culture of a white man? The ‘color’ of our stories matters because they help us to inculcate and in grain the narratives in our lives. Culture, context, gender roles and power all matter in the telling of sacred narratives because they help to expose the continual truth of God’s engagement in the culture, context and power of our present lives.

One colleague commented on reviewing one of the episodes that I, “should not be surprised or astonished, because Burnett and Downey could not be expected to do multicultural telling of the Bible.” My reply was that “my expectations were not unrealistic and in fact were even more normative given that this is the 21st century and we have a broader view of the text and the messages of the text.” Expecting Abraham to be middle eastern and speak something other than English (with a British accent) is not an unreasonable expectation in the 21st century. Expecting a culturally and textually appropriate portrayal of any Biblical character is not an unreasonable expectation of white producers or of the History Channel. Expecting that critical elements of the narratives of Christian heritage not be redacting or edited is also a reasonable expectation.

Unknown-1The text for this week is a passage that I often struggle with. In and of itself, this passage (which has been used by many preachers to support the efficacy of the Bible), on its surface validates the use of scripture because ‘scripture says so’! However, the more nuanced understanding of the text offers a view that the Bible is relevant for teaching because of the inherent truth of the witness of God throughout all generations in the totality of scripture. I believe the writers of the biblical text told the truth of the stories with an awareness of God’s action in and through and by and with the messiness of our human existence. That truth of the text is what makes  the text “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

In my vocation as a pastor and religious educator, I plan to use the series and all of its flaws. I plan to use it to teach the power of hermeneutics and enculturation in reading the bible. The History Channel series is no different than many of the other portrayals of the Bible (see ‘Ten Commandments’, ‘One Night with the King’, ‘Prince of Egypt’, etc.). All of these movies and shows tell the stories of the Bible in ways that are intentional in leading us to believe what they want us to. In many ways, these tellings reinforce cultural mores and norms that continually oppress and undermine the real meaning of the text. In teaching about this form of redaction, I hope to empower many in our faith to counteract these tendencies when we see it so that we may be empowered in our views of pop cultural representations of our faith.

I take REAL issue with redaction (even in the ancient traditions in the Old Testament). Redaction is a power grab and a selective revisionist view toward telling the truth. Its misleading with intent and purpose. If we are ever going to get a free and fair glimpse of the vision of truth, we are going to need to tell the story of our faith free from redaction, revision and with a healthy wrestling with God in the text.

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