Perhaps it's because I'm one of the few (if not the only) working television producer in Los Angeles with a Ph.D. in Theology, but I'm often the "go-to" guy when the media is bewildered by Christianity. As a result, I've spent the last two weeks talking to various reporters about why Mark Burnett's TV series about the bible has been so wildly popular. While some understood the initial interest, they're quite baffled that last week's audience actually climbed by 11 percent and continues growing.
"Since's it's just fables and myths, why does anyone care?" or "Just when I thought we'd eradicated the Bible from the culture, it seems more popular than ever." Those were just two of the responses I heard from shocked reporters. So I asked Jonathan Bock, a key member of the marketing team that promoted the series about its success, and he pointed out three important keys:
1) It's popular because it's agenda-free.
It's not a network's normal controversial approach of "Jesus: Did He Secretly Marry Mary Magdalene?" Or "Jesus: Was He Gay?" It's just the story of the Bible with no ideological slant and no agenda.
2) It's popular because it's unifying.
There were more than 40 scholars, theologians, and pastors from the entire spectrum of Christianity involved in advising the production. It was designed to appeal to the wide range of Christians, not divide the audience.
3) It's popular because not only does each episode have a compelling story arc, but the entire series tells the meta-narrative of God and how he deals with humanity.
But with few exceptions, I've dealt with reporters who are absolutely mystified at its success. But then again in a nation that has pretty much forgotten the Bible's impact on Western culture, this shouldn't be a surprise. I remember years ago after President Bush made a reference to the "Walls of Jericho," a network TV reporter responded that he had no idea what the Walls of Jericho were, but he'd check it out and get back to us.
Pew Research has identified more than 90 million evangelical Christians in the United States. Despite all the coverage reporters give to every other group imaginable, the truth is the Christian community is still the largest special interest group in the country. What we're seeing with The Bible and upcoming movies like Darren Aronofsky's (Black Swan, The Wrestler) epic story of Noah, is that Hollywood finally understands that it's simply good business to take that audience seriously.
Hopefully, media companies and the journalists that work for them are beginning to notice.
Follow Phil Cooke, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/philcooke