Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Bible, Week 5

One sentence summary: The series redeems itself with a watchable, thoughtful, final hour.

No commercial moment this week – just repeats of stuff airing over the previous four weeks.

Most memorable moment, the moment that redeemed the series for me: Paul describing his new perspective of God as seen through Jesus. Paul describes his encounter with Jesus where Jesus does not come to him in anger, wrath or judgment, but in love. In spite of his false beliefs and priorities, his errors about what he believed to be the only “right way” to think about God, in spite of his actions harming people, Jesus was not angry with him. Paul goes on to recite words from the Hymn of Love (1 Cor. 13) and ends with “faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.”

The remainder of my thoughts are…

This week picks up in the middle of Jesus’ trial. We see several more appearances of the “black Satan” roaming about the various crowd scenes throughout the trial, beatings, and crucifixion. We are shown the actual suicide of Judas (though we are not shown his face) and twitching of his legs and feet as he dies.

Pilate’s wife takes a rather prominent role, having a dream, warning Pilate multiple times, watching Jesus’ flogging, seeing Jesus’ mother in tears, and then accusing Pilate of making the wrong decision.

The writers continue to liberally alter and combine storylines and timelines, although unlike earlier weeks, the alterations did not seem to alter the primary themes nearly as much.

Peter’s denials do not happen during the night, but in the morning after Jesus is brought out of the temple trial. There is no fire where Peter tries to warm himself, and all denials happen right after another. Jesus is right there and speaks to Peter, reminding him of the previous night’s prediction.

The beatings, mockings, the march out of Jerusalem, the crucifixion – they remind of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Though The Bible does not spend quite as much time on these scenes, it still devotes considerable time. I can only assume it is because in certain branches of Christian theology, there is redemptive value in the act of suffering. If (and that is a big if) the case, why are the gospel accounts so terse in the details of torture and suffering? The gospels present them quite detachedly, careful to avoid any kind of emotional manipulation these scenes could evoke. Rather, the gospels describe the actions and reactions of the characters, the words that are spoken, and it seems that the reader is encouraged to come to intellectual understandings about the meaning of the cross of Jesus.

The entire crucifixion process could be mistaken to begin and end in a matter of minutes. Most of Jesus’ seven last words happen one right after another without break and without cuts in scene.

The resurrection is rather anticlimactic. I get the sense that the focus was on the crucifixion and the suffering. There is nothing about the soldiers guarding the tombs, or the deceit instigated by the Jewish leaders. “Doubting Thomas” scene is combined with the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples.

The writers omit the post-resurrection breakfast on the shore story with its reinstatement of Peter.

Forty days later Jesus meets with his disciples in the wilderness and he is taken up in to heaven. They meet in the Upper Room.

Pentecost arrives and Jews are entering Jerusalem. The disciples are waiting, apparently for Stephen. They return to the Upper Room. As they recite the Lord’s Prayer a strong wind kicks up and they begin speaking foreign languages. At this point the writers combine Peter and John healing a cripple near the temple and Stephen’s stoning. They omit the entire story in Acts that brings Stephen to the fore. There is no hearing before the Sanhedrin. Saul of Tarsus is the one who instigates the stoning.

Some examples of Saul’s brutality and hatred are shown. He pursues believers to Damascus, explaining that this is the right thing to do, to be faithful to God, to protect God, and to do the targets of his persecution a favor by saving them from their false beliefs. Paul has his Damascus Road experience and is changed.

James is executed and the remaining disciples, excepting Peter, flee Jerusalem, spreading the message about Jesus outside of Jewish lands.

Paul appears to a gathering of believers but they doubt his intentions. Paul tells his story (as I wrote at the top of this entry). At the end Paul picks up Luke as his traveling companion. The rest of Paul’s story is very much redacted.

Jesus appears to Peter. This is the Peter and Cornelius story, but again redacted down to almost nothing. There is no vision of a sheet and unclean animals. Jesus tells Peter that “the door is open to everyone” and that he must go with the Roman delegation. The whole of Cornelius’ household believes and is baptized.

Fast forward twenty years. Paul’s first and second imprisonments are combined. Narrator lists a few martyred apostles. John is poisoned. Paul is executed. John revives. John is sent to Patmos. Jesus appears to John, speaks words paraphrased from Revelation. John says, “Amen.”

Camera zooms into Jesus’ right eye, past it to a darkness, then the earth fills the screen, camera zooms out, end of series.

Some thoughts on the series…

The Old Testament segments were terrible. The New Testament segments were a noticeable improvement. The final hour was decent. I give it 6 or 7 out of 10. The first hour knocks it down a point.

I found Paul’s speech to the gathered believers rather telling. From what he said it could be inferred that the creators intend that the “God” that was depicted in the Old Testament portions is not really the true God. Just as Paul discovered the true God in Jesus, the audience is supposed to reject the Old Testament depictions and see the true nature of God in Jesus. I think God finally showed up.

There are only two significant women depicted in the series: Mary Magdalene (primary) and Mary the Mother (secondary). The positive for the series is that it shows Mary Magdalene as a full-fledged disciple of Jesus, following him from beginning to end. She participates with the male disciples, argues with them, and offers her advice. For this the creators are to be commended. Mary the Mother is much more a stock figure of a mother, even though she gets quite a bit of screen time. On the other hand the creators could have brought in any number of other women found in the Bible, some of them leaders of nations and leaders of churches. I believe the creators missed a significant opportunity here.

I think the suffering and crucifixion could have been shortened drastically and replaced with more stories from Acts.

It’s probably a very good thing they didn’t try to do more with Revelation.

No, I won’t purchase the DVD of the series or the series-inspired novel about the Bible.

(My running notes for this week here.)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday Homily: Jesus Creates the Church

As part of the annual Community Good Friday Service, I spoke on John 19:26-27, expanding the context to include the previous scene beginning John 19:23.

Jesus Creates the Church

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things.

In the next set of verses the reader is given a contrast.

But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:23-27, ESV)

What is John communicating to us through this deliberate contrast between the soldiers vs. the women and Jesus? I believe it is Jesus’ vision for his church.

Let’s begin with six contrasts and comparisons:

  1. The soldiers abuse and crucify Jesus / the women stand by the cross of Jesus
  2. The soldiers divide Jesus’ garment into four pieces / there are four named women
  3. The soldiers see that Jesus’ tunic is in one piece / Jesus sees his united church in his friends
  4. The soldiers speak among themselves / Jesus speaks to his mother and the disciple
  5. The soldiers want more for themselves / Jesus says each belongs to the other
  6. The soldiers kill and divide / The church of Jesus Christ unites women and men into life under one new family

The soldiers represent the methods and the power structures of the world. Its modus operandi is “How can I get more for me?” Wealth, certainly, but also position, power, influence, authority – and these by whatever means necessary.

Jesus shows a different power. It begins at the cross – Jesus’ friends standing by the crucified one. It is the power of loving devotion – weakness to the world, but the only power that will bring together women and men, poor and rich, the uneducated and the educated, the marginalized and the privileged. It is the church.

When we come together to remember the cross, Jesus speaks to us the same words he spoke to his mother and to the disciple, “Behold, your son, your mother, your father, your daughter, your sister, your brother.”

Caring for one another is devotion to Christ. I hear John saying, “Imitate the actions of these women.” In so doing, we imitate Christ.

This fulfills Jesus’ command, “That you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12 ESV)

High School Play 2013

Petersburg High School presented their annual play performance the previous two nights. Our daughter, Amy, performed as Sir Prize. The play was a comedic melodrama involving plenty of audience participation.

Product Information Page: The Clumsy Custard Horror Show and Ice Cream Clone Review


Performance slideshow (updated to not use Flash)
Click to view performance slideshow

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: “The Bible”, Week 4

One sentence impression: Still not great or even good, but improves over the first three weeks’ terrible.

This week’s ad moment: Promo for the new GI Joe movie – the movie depicting the kind of power and methods that Jesus condemns and by which he was killed.

I guess now that instead having to deal with hundreds and thousands of years at a time, the show can focus a little more on details. That does improve the continuity and storyline somewhat. It still isn’t particularly great or memorable, but it certainly improves from the disasters of the first three weeks.

The show still continues to be disjointed, however. For people familiar with the gospels, the events are so reordered it only makes sense from a movie script perspective. The grossest example is the nighttime conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus occurring during Holy Week, rather than at the opening of Jesus’ ministry (as recorded in John’s gospel). In doing so I believe the show does severe injustice to the theological messages of each of the gospel writers. For people unfamiliar with the gospels, the problem is that scenes appear without much explanation. The most glaring example I noticed was the scene of Jesus coming to Bethany after Lazarus died. Jesus comes in and Martha exclaims Jesus is too late. Huh? It is explained as the dialogue continues, but it could have been better scripted. The ordering of scenes wouldn’t matter to someone unfamiliar with the stories, but the scenes expect some knowledge about the gospel accounts for them to really make sense – a kind of Catch-22.

The violence level is down from previous weeks, but it still adds scenes of violence that are not directly found in the Bible. Some of it adds some background information to the place of Zealots, the Roman garrison, Pilate, and the ruling priests in the social order of the times, but I don’t think all of it was necessary.

My largest disappointment with this depiction of the life of Jesus is that I didn’t really see or hear the mind-blowing radical nature of his teachings and way of life. In the show, Jesus is depicted as someone who disregards traditions and customs, who has little regard for formal authorities, who works a few miracles here and there, who travels with a ragged band of followers (including a single female – Mary Magdalene), and who offers some wisdom sayings. His main crime was causing large crowds to follow him and that would raise suspicion among the Romans, possibly bringing a crackdown on the Jews.

Why did Jesus attract crowds? Why did he incite such hatred? Much of the background is assumed. Based strictly from what I saw on the show, Jesus may have offended and embarrassed some leaders, he may have said some things that were against accepted religious doctrines, he claimed power to forgive, and he raised Lazarus from the dead, but unless one already knows how to fill in the gaps, the show itself provides little reason why Jesus was so opposed.

The Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the rest of his teachings and parables that were so radical are mentioned in passing, if at all, or applied to a context that was not intended. I refer to the Feeding of the Five-Thousand depiction where teachings such as “Don’t be anxious,” “Ask and it will be given,” “Give us this day our daily bread” are given as directly applying to miraculous provisions that God will provide, if you just ask.

There is little to no demonstration of what made Jesus so attractive so some, and so repulsive to others. The Jesus of this show comes across mainly as a quirky, itinerant teacher. In the scene where Jesus asks who the disciples think he is, Peter responds that Jesus is “the Son of God.” But again, words have to be congruent with actual actions and I feel the show falls desperately short in this regard. If all I knew about Jesus was what I saw tonight, there would be little inclination or desire to follow him.

There is no doubt the format and length of the miniseries contributes to the overall shallowness. But I think if the creator and writers came from the perspective of “What one aspect of Jesus do I want to show?” I think a better portrait of Jesus could have been shown. Rather what I see is an answer to the question, “How best can we show the conflict developing between Jesus and the leaders that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion?” And for that, I’m sorry and disappointed.

(My notes from tonight’s show.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reblog: The Consequences Of Spiritual Abuse

I came across the following post today: The Consequences Of Spiritual Abuse

“It was like having the door slammed shut in my face. They wouldn’t listen to me. They wouldn’t try to understand or see things any other way. There was no reasoning with them. There was no compromise possible. They were right, the arbiters and gate-keepers of Truth,and I was wrong.”

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end, even if the details differ, I’m sure you will identify.

For the rest of you, particularly if you are in any kind of position where you have some kind of authority or control over another church member, please read and make sure you don’t fall into abusing someone.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: The Bible, Week 3

One sentence summary: It’s so bad it’s entertaining trying to see how many problems can be spotted in a span of each minute.

Notable theme of this week: Giving up any remaining pretense of following the actual biblical text in putting together the scenes and events.

Most memorable commercial moment once again goes to for… Altering one word of a popular praise and worship song to turn it into a romance song.

Granted everyone knows many P&W songs can easily be turned into a generic romance pop song by changing a few words, but I was taken aback that someone would actually do this in an ostensibly “Christian” ad.

There’s really no point in detailing all the problems and issues. The series continues to focus on action, conflict, and violence without actually telling any stories. God continues to be what appears to be an inconvenient sideshow for the most part. It continues to be a historical, cultural, anthropological, literary, and theological farce. And why do the Babylonians and Persians have so much mascara around their eyes that they look like raccoons?

(Notes I took while I watched can be found here. This gives a brief rundown of all the problems and “what the…?!” reactions I had.)

Week 2 had pretty much lowered my expectations to nothing, but I was sadly surprised that week 3 showed things could get worse. I’m not sure what tale it’s trying to tell. On one hand it seems the show is trying to bring in extrabiblical elements that are based on verifiable history. On the other hand it seems that the show is trying to keep an appearance of sticking to the Bible – at least superficially. The result is worse than if the show stuck strictly to secular biblical scholarship, or stuck to the conservative, traditional reading of the Bible. It is a mishmash of haphazard, individual activity that makes no sense from one scene to the next, from one hour to the next, and from one week to the next.

With this week being the halfway point and the transition from the Old Testament to the New, I thought maybe the second hour might start looking up. Alas, it just kept its steady beat of mediocrity and bad storytelling. Oh sure, Jesus is now present, but God still seems to be missing.

Nietzche’s famously oft-misused “God is dead” observation is true, for this show, anyway.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reblog: Another review of “The Bible”, week 2

Lest you think my two reviews of “The Bible” miniseries have been unnecessarily critical and harsh, I invite you to read the following review posted at Patheos:

Dear Lord, Please Make the Commercials Stop (or, my thoughts on week 2 of “The Bible” on The History Channel)

On IMDb I gave week 2 a rating of 2 out of 10. The above reviewer does the same. In my review I asked what kind of picture of God the series is painting to the viewer. The above reviewer asks a similar question. I’m not alone in finding the series off the mark and tedious.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: “The Bible” miniseries, week 2

If you want a decent theological portrayal of the Bible, stick to VeggieTales.

If you want a hyperglorification of a violent deity, maybe “The Bible” is for you. Watch it with plenty of wine and booze in hand to overlook all the “creative alterations” that were made.

Most memorable commercial break event: ad followed immediately by a Captain Morgan Rum ad. (Comment on Facebook: “Isn't that supposed to be the other way round? Get loaded on Capt and then cruise”)

Seriously, this week didn’t improve from the first.

I won’t dwell much on the deviations of the show from the text.[1] It’s just embarrassing to see all the inaccuracies. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for it. Deviating doesn’t improve the drama or the narrative. It doesn’t even improve the action. I really can’t figure out why the writers chose to deviate so much from the text, which renders some episodes incomprehensible to me.

The sort of “creative time-compression” I described last week continues and it continues to be disturbing and distracting. I watched partly with the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the bible narrative and from that viewpoint, the story being told by this miniseries is even worse. It is disjointed, scattered, and scenes are introduced that make no sense. Someone who knows these stories can, obviously, fill in the details, but for everyone else it’s a WTH? and then onto the next action scene.

Words are placed into the characters’ mouths that give a perspective of God that is most certainly an interpretation. The Bible leaves many things ambiguous and up to the reader. This show doesn’t like ambiguity. It wants to provide a definite answer. So when Samson asks God to restore his strength so that he can avenge his enemies, in this show he says, “He [God] wants me to destroy you all,” an interpretation and quote that is not in the Bible. When David returns successfully from Saul’s bride-purchase mission by slaughtering two-hundred Philistines, David says (in the show) to Saul, “Two-hundred men. God was with me,” again an interpretation and not in the biblical text.

This points toward the main theological issue I have with this series: God is absent, except when convenient.

For the Hebrews the most important thing about their scripture was the Covenant between God and them. That idea is completely, totally, absolutely missing from the four hours I’ve watched. All of the stories of the Old Testament find their foundation, their center, their basis in the Covenant. Without it the stories have no meaning and are just tales, explaining why (in my opinion) this miniseries feels so scattered, disjointed, and has to rely on creative alterations, action, and violence to hold it together.

The central Hebrew proclamation about God’s character is found in Exodus, where Moses asked to see God:

    The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

When I think about the four hours I’ve seen so far (and probably the only four hours) I see only the last part and little to nothing about the mercy, the grace, the patience, the steadfast love that is of higher priority and more significance.

If I were to give a description of God based only upon what I’ve seen in the series so far, I would say that God is violent, vindictive, partisan, and quid pro quo – I’ll bless you if you obey, and destroy you if you don’t. God seems to communicate with humans only when God has something he needs done.

This second week – the second two-hours – confirmed much of the misgivings I had with the first two-hours.

As I see it “The Bible” miniseries is a fictional adaptation loosely (and I use the term generously) based on the Bible.[2]

[1] If you’re one of my friends on Facebook, you can find the post on March 10, 2013 that goes into my live-update details of my observations.

[2] Yes, I realize some of you will say that the Bible itself is fiction. If you happen to be one, imagine that the Bible is depicting something that is true, if not completely accurate or precise in its telling.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Review: “The Bible” miniseries, week 1

I sat (cringed) through the first of five episodes of the overhyped “The Bible” miniseries airing (anachronism, since I don’t have an aerial antenna with which to receive the signal, but rather a cable, but I digress) on the History Channel.

The first hour covered 1) Noah briefly narrating Creation week while being tossed about during the Flood; 2) the story of Abraham. Skipping the very important stories of Jacob and Joseph altogether, the second hour was primarily about Moses and the Exodus.

The best line (in my opinion) of the entire two hours came at the start of the first commercial break, “The Bible is brought to you in part by Wal-Mart.”

Throughout the two hours it seems like the creators try their best to avoid portrayals of the supernatural, including God speaking. Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt was the first instance where the supernatural simply could not be avoided. The burning bush is the first instance that I noticed where they simply could not avoid God actually speaking. The next obvious instance was the first plague where the water of the Nile is shown turning to blood. The fourth instance is the tenth plague where the Angel of Death is shown as an enshrouding mist that works its way through Egypt, being repelled by the bloody door frames of the Israelites but passing through the cracks and windows of the Egyptians. The final depiction of a major supernatural event is the parting of the Red Sea. (Pharaoh survives in this show, btw., unlike in the biblical text.)

This seeming reluctance to show the supernatural and God speaking leads to somewhat comical and confusing moments. For instance Abraham always seems to be talking into thin air, a confused old man who could be interpreted as hearing voices. Where Abraham is about to kill Isaac, it isn’t a voice from heaven, but a voice from a being on top of the next hill – could be a divine being, but it could just as well be a man. When fire comes down on Sodom it looks like lightning comes down and starts a fire among some trash and debris, and as a natural result of fire spreading, the city is destroyed. Because so many of the events that the bible text depicts as supernatural is made to be natural, those things that actually end up as supernatural on the show seem staged and fake.

Another weakness I felt was that the creators invented and injected their own scenes of violence while omitting so much actual violence that is found within the biblical text. At least one of these instances is probably related to the avoidance of the depiction of supernatural events: the angels who go to Sodom pull out swords to fight and kill the residents of Sodom who are blocking the escape route of Lot, et. al.

In order to supposedly increase drama and make for a better story, chronology is altered, sometimes compressed, and sometimes expanded. Aaron, for example, dose not meet Moses in the wilderness but just happens to show up after Moses reaches Egypt and is trying to get an audience with his people, the Israelites. Eight of the plagues are compressed into essentially a rapid slideshow of about a minute real-time. Instead of the Exodus commencing in the middle of the night, the Israelites have an entire day after the tenth plague to gather their belongings and prepare for their journey. (And where were their flocks and herds…?) The entire giving of the Law and the Covenant, the greatest moment of the founding of the Israelite nation at Sinai, is narrated in under a minute. For some odd reason Mt. Sinai and Mt. Nebo are conflated so that the giving of the Law and the passing of leadership to Joshua occur in the same scene resulting in viewer confusion. (There was a commercial break immediately following and when the show returned my first question was, “Where’s Moses?” I went back on the DVR to figure out what actually happened.) The 40 years in the wilderness is just a caption on the screen.

The way the show treats the story, the events, and the dialogue during these first two hours, by skipping so much, unless a person if familiar with the surrounding bible stories, I suspect there will be a degree of confusion.

In some of the preview articles and interviews regarding this miniseries, I read that many biblical scholars had been consulted and approved of how the show was put together. Maybe this is a case of “too many cooks” because the result, at least these first two hours, is a mass of confusion and unnecessary deviations from the text.

As far as production quality it didn’t seem any better than other recent films and TV shows dealing with the Bible. The previews touted the great CGI work. Well, the scenes of clouds moving, or the mist meandering through Egypt might be good, but overall I saw nothing terribly impressive. The musical score seemed forced and overly emotional. The dialogue patterns seems to be too 21st century American.

I think the preview piece in TV Guide summarizes this series best, “The final word on The Bible, more than with most such projects: The Book is better.”