Tomorrow, Mark Burnett and his wife, the star of Touched by an Angel, Roma Downey, will debut their much talked about TV series, The Bible, and Hollywood will closely watch the numbers to see how the series will perform for its home, The History Channel.
Several months ago I got a sneak peek at an hour and a half or so of the series and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of catered food at the couple's beautiful home. As I did, several thoughts came to mind: First, I admire their fervent desire to retell the Bible stories that have influenced the civilized world, and use the positions they've both attained in Hollywood to attempt to do good things. For this they are to be commended and it will be a good thing for American popular culture if the ratings go through the roof and TV executives, obsessed with numbers, can see just how starved average Americans are for meaningful TV, giving the couple opportunities to do more projects like this one. And when and if that happens, it's my hope that this wonderful and well-intentioned couple will go back and carefully study The Passion of the Christ.
Mel Gibson's epic film has been accused by its critics of many things, but boring was never one of them. Since they are often approved by various ecclesiastical committees before going into production, Bible films tend to be dry, boring and wooden with characters with bad hair who speak in stilted English and often with British accents. But The Passion changed all of that and because it was made with such a strong commitment to artistry, it held the attention of viewers in a way that could never be said about Jesus of Nazareth, The Jesus Film or even Ben Hur. Gibson never forgot that Bible characters were human, and made a movie that never let us forget that.
For me the most memorable example of this was when Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, was asked by his mother to set the table. Of course, I thought to myself when I first watched that scene, it was a perfectly natural thing for a mother to do-to ask her son to set the table for dinner. Then, when Jesus splashed a bit of water on her, I was once again reminded that he wasn't just the Savior of the world, but somebody's son. But that was a scene that happened only because the film's director refused to separate his own humanity from the work, something that I was powerfully reminded of when I asked Gibson about the water splashing scene. One day, during the film's editing (I produced the inspired by rock soundtrack) I asked him: "That's you isn't it?" "Who do you think wrote it?" he retorted, as though I was the dumbest rock on the planet.
Another time, after a screening, a pastor wanted to know why Satan had a baby on his shoulder. At first, Gibson responded that he created the character because Satan often liked to copy God and since God had a son, he decided to give Satan one. What verse in what chapter of what book of the Bible did it say that Satan had such a child, the pastor demanded. Exasperated, Gibson responded: "I just pulled it out of my a--!"
There is a possibility that The Bible will be met by a collective national yawn. That would be a shame. There is also the possibility that it will do solid numbers that are not so much a verdict on the quality of the work, but rather an affirmation of the producers' intentions with the hope that they'll make more such dramas and make them better. For the most important lesson of The Passion, was not that people are clamoring to watch faithfully pedantic retellings of Bible stories, but that some of the greatest stories ever told deserve to be told with an artistic flair that while staying faithful to those stories, never forget to put their creators' own humanity into the work, remembering the admonition: entertain first, send a message second.