One is best known for playing a kind-hearted angel on a hit television drama. The other is the man behind more than a dozen record-breaking reality shows. But husband and wife Roma Downey ("Touched by an Angel") and Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "The Voice") say their biggest achievement is yet to come -- and it offers a stark contrast to the primetime roles that have made them sought-after Hollywood stars.
Called "The Bible" and set to premiere Sunday on the History Channel, their new production is a 10-hour scripted miniseries that aims to take viewers on a dramatic, special effects-filled journey through the world's most popular book, from the story of Noah's Ark to the Exodus and the life of Jesus.
"We're trying to tell the story of God's love for his people," said Downey, who plays the role of Mary in the five-episode series.
She and Burnett were inspired after watching "The Ten Commandments," the famed -- but dated -- 1956 film by Cecil B. DeMille that makes its rounds in television reruns during major holidays. "We saw this as an opportunity engage people in new and exciting ways to consider these stories and re-experience them," said Downey, who conceived the project with Burnett nearly four years ago.
Filmed in Morocco and airing over five Sundays through March 31, "The Bible" spans hundreds of years of biblical history, beginning with the sacrifice of Isaac and ending with the meeting between Pontius Pilate and Jesus and Ananias's baptism of St. Paul. In between, viewers will see Samson destroy the pagan Philistine temple, David fight Goliath, the Baptism of Jesus and Christ walking on water, among other scenes.
Part entertainment, part evangelism, "The Bible" is accompanied by a tremendous commercial push, with trailers in movie theaters and ads across A+E Networks channels, including Lifetime. There are also three books based on the series and a DVD study kit.
As Christians who say they believe the Bible is the “living word of God,” Downey and Burnett have partnered with many of the country's biggest churches to promote the production, among them Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House in Dallas and prominent evangelicals, including Jim Daly of Focus on the Family and Sam Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. The series' website includes lesson plans for pastors who want to incorporate the show into Sunday sermons and study groups.
Megachurch pastor Rick Warren, the founder of Southern California's Saddleback Church and an adviser to the film, said he will host a webcast on the series on Saturday and plans to use it in the church's weekly study groups. "I have seen probably every film made on the Bible in the last 50 years. This is by far the best one,” Warren said.
Joel Osteen, pastor of Houston's Lakewood church, the country's largest house of worship, screened the series for his 40,000-member congregation in January and is in the midst of a seven-week promotional effort. Saying it showcases the Bible in a “compelling and powerful way,” Osteen told The Huffington Post he believed the show would reach “believers and nonbelievers alike.”
According to Burnett, such a broad impact is part of the series' goal. “The faithful will see the stories of their faith. People who are not faithful will totally enjoy it because it is the greatest story ever told,” he said.
But while the Bible has wide appeal, its depictions can also be controversial. One of the last major Bible film productions, Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" (2004), was heavily criticized for its depiction of Jews and charged with lacking historical accuracy.
Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke University who was one of several academics who consulted on Downey and Burnett's script, said there are bound to be questions of interpretation, accuracy and “what's included and not included” in any Bible adaptation.
“We tried to make sure things held together historically, but in any adaptation that's a compelling drama you have to draw lines and make connections through dialogue, scenes and narrative,” said Goodacre, who noted the series relies on a mix of Biblical translations with dialogue that appeals to modern viewers.
“You don't want people talking King James English, but there are recognizable lines and, of course, iconic places," he said. "But [Downey and Burnett] are also not afraid to provide some linking pieces and do things that are not direct. It's very naturally done.”
Luke 6:20-21 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 'Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 'Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Luke 4:16-19 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'
Matthew 25:34-36 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
Mark 10:21-22 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Mark 12:41-44 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Luke 16:19-25 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
Luke 11:39-42 Then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God
Luke 12:16-21 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."