Each Christmas and Easter season, History and other cablenets air a number of documentaries on various aspects of the Bible, usually featuring talking-head experts and iffy-looking dramatic re-creations.
Often these productions take a skeptical look at the historicity or accuracy or veracity of biblical accounts, as if the last thing in the world a documentary would want to be seen doing is taking anything in the Bible at face value.
But skepticism was the last thing on the minds of reality TV mogul Mark Burnett (“The Apprentice,” “Survivor”) and his wife, actress Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”), when they set out as executive producers of “The Bible,” airing Sundays from March 3 to March 31, which is Easter Sunday this year.
Joined by their faith and a love for the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity, they have spearheaded a 10-hour, five-part dramatic series that spans the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation, capturing the full sweep of the biblical narrative.
On a recent Sunday afternoon at their seaside home in Malibu, Calif. — between attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles — the spouses sat down over mugs of hot Irish tea to talk about the series, starting with an anecdote from Roman Catholic Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga — one of those eligible to vote on the replacement for outgoing Pope Benedict XVI.
Burnett recalls for Zap2it, “He said, ‘Thank you. It’s about this time that Discovery Channel, History channel will put things on that sow doubts in the minds of people who do believe in the Bible. I’m so grateful for History channel and to you and Roma for putting this on during Holy Week. It’s the opposite of what’s traditionally being done around this time.’
“So that was nice.”
Says Downey, “We started with the premise that the Bible is the truth. These are true stories, and it was our job to bring them to life on the screen. We’re not saying, ‘Maybe this happened,’ or ‘According to the Bible,’ we’re just telling the story as written.”
“So,” adds Burnett, “someone who believes will recognize it and love it for that. Someone who doesn’t, and isn’t going to, will still feel the emotional pull of the story and will be informed in a different way, without being talked at.”
Shot in Morocco — at the same location where Burnett once did an installment of his “Eco-Challenge” adventure race — the production features a large international cast, and a score by Hans Zimmer, who reunites with singer Lisa Gerrard for the first time since they collaborated on the theme to “Gladiator.”
Playing some of the more famous Bible figures are David Rintoul as Noah; Peter Guinness as Nebuchadnezzar; Jake Canuso as Daniel; Nonso Anozie as Samson; William Houston as Moses; Downey as Jesus’ mother, Mary; Daniel Percival as John the Baptist; Simon Kunz as Nicodemus; and Portuguese newcomer Diogo Morgado as Jesus. Keith David provides voice-over narration.
One might wonder why anyone would bother revisiting stories as familiar as those in the Bible, which have influenced not only religious thought but ultimately almost every aspect of Western culture.
But these days, assuming biblical literacy would be a mistake, as Downey found out when she forwarded production stills to an ad agency employing many young people.
She says, “The photographs that we thought, ‘Anybody could have glanced at these and said, “This was Abraham,” or “This was Moses” ‘ — nobody knew anybody.”
But, people who don’t know the stories don’t want to be bored hearing them for the first time, and people who do know the stories want them to be interpreted in a fresh way.
“I think the faithful will find this,” Downey says. “It speaks to the center of a belief system. It’s done beautifully. It delivers through the emotional climax, and you’re left with a feeling of upliftment and hope. You feel loved. It’s deeply satisfying on that level.
“From a point of view of people being able to learn from it, it’s exciting, it’s compelling, and it’s dynamic — because nobody wants to be taught.”
But even with a big budget, a huge crew, and dozens of theologians and advisers, sometimes the unexpected still happens.
Downey recalls filming a scene between Jesus and Jewish religious leader Nicodemus (Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Verses 1-21), in which Jesus speaks of being reborn in the spirit, saying, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. And so it is when the spirit enters you.”
Describes Downey, “Out of nowhere, on the stillest evening, a huge, sustained wind whistled through the village, took Jesus’ hair, Nicodemus’ robes … thankfully, the actors held in their roles. There was no wind machine.
“We’ve had a lot of Holy Spirit experiences.”