“The Bible” and Jesus(es)


DISCLAIMER: Normally, you read “what’s out there” before posting an opinion, in the interest of being more informed (or appearing so). This is an entirely personal reflection with only the sparsest research. Image

Watching The Bible, Episode 4: Mission last night with my sons engendered discussion much as the other three episodes have: “Dad, did Jesus pass out in the desert?. . .Was Pilate really mean?. . .Do you think Jesus was that calm when he cleansed the temple?” Of course, I don’t have informed answers to all their reading-between-the-lines questions. Nobody does. As with previous episodes, I found Mission delightfully insightful, provocative and, at points, pretty loose on the Bible’s particular narrative details.

One scene I really didn’t like was Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against resurrection. It was a powerful scene, and it worked dramatically. But omitting the details of Jesus deliberately stalling after he found out Lazarus was sick (John 11:6), telling Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” before he reached the tomb, then calling the dead man to rise publicly, for the sake of the crowd, changed the theological significance of the raising of Lazarus. I’m confident that tampering with theology was not the intent, but it was the consequence nonetheless

That brings me to the question of the portrayal of Jesus, a formidable challenge for any actor, I’d think.  Hollywood Jesuses come off as either spacey and aloof (he is divine, after all) or down-home comfy in their everybody-rides humanity. Diogo Morgado does an admirable job as Jesus in this miniseries, though he tends towards the latter extreme. I guess every actor has to answer the question for himself that Morgado’s Jesus asked his disciples, echoing Matthew 16: “Who do you say that I am?” (In the biblical account there were a few guesses before Peter “surprised” Jesus with the right answer.) Getting the answer right is the key not only to the persona of Jesus, but to the character of the most important person in the history of the world.

The Jesus of Scripture barely fit the values and status of his own culture, much less ours. He healed the sick with genuine compassion, yet his rebukes of the Pharisees were as comfortless as Old Testament prophets’ devastating judgements. He was clearly the friend of sinners, but he cleansed sin out of the temple more than once, as if he owned the place. The biblical Jesus is full of such paradox.

And rightly so. Because the Jesus of Scripture is both human and divine, fully so, simultaneously. Two natures; one person. No confusing the two. He who wept over his friend Lazarus (another omission in Mission) took absolute authority over death and brought a stinking-dead human being back, to live out the rest of his natural life. Death didn’t even have a chance, because the Author of life, the human-making, soul-breather-into-dust God of eternity was standing outside the tomb, effortlessly flicking death away like a pesky gnat. Who-the-freak is this guy?

The Jesus of Scripture is God the Son, pre-existing in eternal community with the Father and the Spirit, one God in three persons. Before the world was, He is. When he uttered those words to the officials who came to arrest him, John 18 says, “they drew back and fell to the ground.” Were he not fully God and fully man, Jesus could not have taken the penalty for the debt we owed and paid for it eternally by laying down his human life. His role as our substitute, the lamb of God sacrificed for you and me for all-time, motivated God himself to provide by taking on human flesh and suffer so we could be saved by his one act of righteousness, undoing the one act that plunged the whole race into guilt and sin.

How do you portray that multi-dimensionality in a two-dimensional world of movies or television? You try to come close, and you leave it to aware or curious viewers to make up for deficiencies. That is exactly what Mission’s Jesus did, with admirable results. Some (I’ve heard) have worried about the implicit Christology of The Bible miniseries. I can understand why. The question, “Who do you say that I am” is the most important of all. But I don’t fault the imperfect portrayal of the perfect God-man for our failing to get the right answer. The purpose of The Bible, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey told us, is to raise questions that will drive viewers to the real Bible.

So, who do you say he is? To benefit from the sacrifice he made objectively, historically, one must invest a personal, subjective faith. I do think the miniseries does a good job of emphasizing trust in God as a major theme (though at times it appears nationalism or religious lawkeeping substituted for faith, which neither ever did.) Eternal salvation is offered as a free gift to whoever will believe, trust, subjectively receive the objective Jesus as the way, truth, life and only way to restoring a favorable relationship with God, His father and ours. When he is Lord, not only objectively (which he is) but of your life, you become connected with the eternal, triune God, eternally.

That change in eternal life is the consequence of getting the “Who am I” question right. Granting a charitable verdict to The Bible’s Jesus, we will all be judged by what we do with the Scriptural, historical Jesus. Martha’s confession outside the tomb of Lazarus gives us the only correct answer: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” It was enough to superintend the miracle of resurrection that day. And it is still the efficient cause of resurrection for everyone who utters it in genuine faith today.

The Bible (Almost), Series Premiere


If you know someone over forty, ask them if they remember books like The Illustrated Bible  sitting on end tables in the dentist’s waiting room. Everyone used to display these, and I remember looking through their colorful renderings of

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important Bible persons and events. By the way, does the picture of two elderly pale European men in a tiny boat with (obviously) cropbearded Jesus strike you as an accurate rendering of the episode in Luke 5:1-11? If you think the cover is a stretch, click the link and take a look at Leonardo’s Annunciation on page three of the preview! Is that your idea of the angel Gabriel? Was Mary really that “mature,” and where did she get the marble table? (Thank you, Verrocchio!)

We taught our kids from the classic Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, because we heard of its legendary accuracy from the (very serious!) homeschool crowd. Published in the 1920s, it has survived the test of time and proven itself a classic. Yet it has been criticized on grounds of inaccuracy. One reviewer wrote “there are facts presented that are flat-out false,” while another notes that it, “softens or skips the less age-appropriate elements like incest and promiscuity” (see Amazon reviews). Our kids, and thousands of others, have quite profitably been taught Bible stories from this factually deficient book!

The point is that we can, and we do look past a lot of factual errors and “reading between the lines” in art and stories based on the Bible, appreciating their value and utility despite their fallibility and inevitably-culture-bound aesthetic. Viewers of The Bible miniseries on History will have to grant the same latitude if they want to enjoy its unique paraphrasing of the Biblical story.

I watched the series premier as something of a skeptic, expecting revisionist history, political correctness and more stale Jesus Seminar rhetoric about how we really can’t take the biblical canon as a historically reliable sacred text. To my delight, I noticed in the opening scene where Noah rehearses the prologue of (what would later be) Genesis to his family, there was no attempt to qualify, distance, or deconstruct. The Noah character took the creation story as authoritative revelation, passed on orally from generation to generation. As the docudrama unfolded, it stayed true to the aim of rendering a familiar body of stories and themes to an audience for whom they might be unfamiliar.

That last assertion is my reason for giving the series premier a tentative three stars out of five. Let me enumerate some the star-earning points:

  1. It didn’t assume revisionist history, but took the stories as they are given in the Bible and tried to render them for a contemporary audience.
  2. Like Walter Wangerin’s widely-read The Book of God, this dramatization of the biblical story invites us into the Scriptures themselves, bringing narratives to life and whetting our appetite to go deeper and learn more.
  3. The screenplay made mostly intelligent, limited choices of episodes and characters in an attempt to get the flow of biblical history and important themes, including covenant and faith. For me, these themes are clear, if deficient. I’ll explain why below.
  4. Like Medieval morality plays, The Bible miniseries can and will increase awareness of biblical content to the biblical-illiterate! This one is huge, because:
  5. Established Christians must accept the fact that bible illiteracy is the norm for American popular culture today.

For these reasons, and probably a few more, I feel fairly positive about watching the rest of the series as it unfolds over the next several weeks. However, I have to acknowledge some limitations and concerns:

  1. Some of your and my favorite stuff is going to be missing. Just like the books I mentioned above, screenwriters have to select from a mountain of material and put together a coherent story for a target audience. I was most disappointed that Joseph (a key figure in Genesis and a type of Christ) was entirely omitted.
  2. Theological presuppositions are going to color the story; for example, the themes of covenant and faith were presented in a very man-centered way. As a Facebook friend pointed out (Thanks, Al!), the Moses character talked about the Abrahamic covenant in a way that distorted its conditions, as if it were entirely conditional! (It isn’t. Here’s a concise discussion of that.)
  3. There is some buzz that the Christology is going to be messed up. If it is, my stars will drop off and my skepticism will have been confirmed. Let’s wait and see, please?

I do think we need to be discerning and informed whenever we teach, tell, act, sing, or allude to the inspired, infallible, inerrant text of Scripture. Especially those who teach. The Bible is not designed as a teaching series–though there are lots of revenue-generating support materials for teachers on the website–but, like Wangerin’s The Book of God, it admits (in the prologue) it is not a substitute for the Bible itself.

As for how adequate this docudrama proves to be at entertaining and informing audiences to help them become more interested in the greatest story ever written, that story remains to be told.

The Christ of Christmas


Like Ricky Bobby, many people prefer the Jesus of Christmas to other, more mature versions of the incarnate Son of God revealed in the Scriptures. But the “8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus” of Christmas grew up. So, when we think of Christmas, we should remember the Jesus who:

  • LIVED a sinless life, a life that was free of not only impurity, but also false piety and Phariseeism;
  • DIED at the hands of a corrupt government and religious institution, willingly, for us, as our substitute;
  • ROSE from death on the third day, reversing the fall and its curse, granting us eternal life with him;
  • REIGNS over heaven and earth, establishing his kingdom both now and in the consummate future.

This Jesus, now resurrected, reigning and returning to finally redeem and judge the world, is the Christ of Christmas. Please don’t separate the person of Christ from the work of Christ, either in your thinking or your worship. The point of the incarnation is death and resurrection, and the point of resurrection is redemption for a lost and sinful world, for all who follow him as Lord by faith.

Hebrews 7:26 – He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin.
 Matthew 16:6 – “Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
John 10:18 – No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily.
Romans 5:6 – When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.
2 Corinthians 5:21 – For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
Romans 8:11 – Just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies
1 Corinthians 15:45 – The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit.
Colossians 1:13 – For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son
2 Timothy 4:1 – Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom