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A scene from History’s “The Bible.” (Joe Alblas — A+E Networks)
The Bible, at least on national television, comes in parts. No, I am not referring to the common distinction between the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament. I am referring to the just announced NBC mini-series, “A.D.: Beyond The Bible,” which will take up where this year’s record-setting History Channel series, “The Bible,” left off.
The new series will be created by Mark Burnett, who created “The Bible” with his wife, Roma Downey. More significantly, is that in light of the project’s leader, we should expect as “faithy” a work as it’s predecessor. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a significant statement about religion in contemporary culture.
“The Bible” was no historical or scientific analysis of Scripture, nor did it ever pretend to be. It was a quick trip through some of Scripture’s most compelling narrative moments, told in ways meant to inspire religious faith and spirituality, more than examine the sources of those inspiring stories, or even the many different possible ways that they are understood. That NBC seems ready to back that same approach in it’s new series, tells us, at the very least, that those who consistently argue that “Hollywood” is hostile to religion, may want to re-think that premise.
I am not naive about the preponderance of more secular, atheist and agnostic types working in mainstream media. But that is what makes the decision to make “A.D.” all the more powerful. It suggests that Hollywood is not so much hostile to religion as it is interested in products that are not entirely self-referential and largely inaccessible to those who don’t share the producers’ perspective, as so much religiously themed and oriented programming often is.
The making of “A.D.” reminds us that the issue is often not the supposed media war against religion and people of faith, as is so often charged especially in more conservative camps — both political and religious. The real issue is how anybody can produce compelling, exciting and even inspiring products which are likely to be appreciated by both those who share the views of the makers and those who do not.
One did not need to be Christian to appreciate “The Bible” though it was certainly told from a classically Christian perspective. One simply needed to have a basic interest in gaining access to millennia-old stories which continue to shape both American and global culture and politics.
The same is likely to be true for “A.D.,” only now it will be about understanding how the centuries following the life and death of Jesus, and the religion or religions that were born in that time, changed the world and continue to influence it to this very day. Given that the series is called “A.D.” which is short for the Latin, anno domini, year of our Lord, the series clearly tips in the direction of those for who Jesus is Lord. And yet, one cannot imagine that either Mr. Burnett or NBC will be satisfied if all they accomplish is producing a series that speaks to the Christian faithful.
In fact, the making of “A.D.” may set an important standard for the making of so-called religious programming. It may prove that in making such products, nobody needs to check their most deeply held beliefs at the door to the set, but neither can they imagine that primary task is to get others to share any particular set of beliefs.
Imagine thinking of any religious tradition or set of writings as public resources — designed to serve all those who interacted with them, whether they shared the faith or theology of those who created them. Imagine a world of religious leaders and devout followers who thought of their respective texts and traditions that way. It’s a world in which we would all wake up safer, happier and more secure — regardless of what any of us believes or didn’t believe.