ABC’s New Show Is Evidence Hollywood Still Can’t Get the Bible Right

I’m surprised it took this long.

In the Game of Thrones era of sword-and-sandal sex and violence, it was only a matter of time until the Old Testament got the small-screen treatment. After all, you only have to read a few pages of Israel’s history before you’re confronted with scandal, brutality, and sex. To those who only care about selling sensuality and are willing to ignore the redemptive historical purposes of these histories (namely television executives), the Bible is ripe for the picking!

And so, last night, ABC premiered their new period-piece Of Kings and Prophets which reimagines the intrigue surrounding the reign of Israel’s first King, Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. This isn’t Hollywood’s first attempt at introducing this story to TV. NBC’s ill-fated Kings tried to bring the story into the 21st century with characters named “David Shepherd” and “Rev. Samuels”. It lasted 13 episodes.

To be honest, I’m not sure this new attempt will make it that far. The acting is serviceable and led by experienced character-actor Ray Winstone as Saul. He growls, breathes, and shouts his dialogue like a mad pirate captain but I can’t really blame him for it. The director obviously wanted to higlight Saul’s volatile nature and wasn’t sure how to do it with such a hit-and-miss script. The rest of the actors are fine, but if you’re looking for a standout performance, you’re better off watching something on HBO or Showtime.

At least the show looks the part. The South African backdrop that stands in for Palestine is gorgeous and the director has a skill for squeezing every bit of beauty out of the frame. Alas, he couldn’t squeeze more pacing out of the overstuffed story.

That’s probably because the first episode has so much going on. At one point, I checked the time thinking we were coming to the close of the episode only to realize there was still a half hour left! The writers were so intent on building the world of Saul and David that they crammed as much biblical story and artistic fantasy into one hour as they possibly could. The result is a somewhat confusing story that would leave the biblically illiterate scratching their heads.

An example: Elohim demands, through Samuel, that Saul wipe out the Amalekites – man, woman, and child. We get a throw-away line about the Amalekites being cruel to Israel in the distant past, but other than that forgettable piece of dialogue, we’re not sure why God would demand such a brutal punishment. The idea of sinfulness is completely absent and the role of Israel as divine punisher for sin is totally untouched. This leads to a difficult scene in which men, women, and children are slaughtered at the hands of Saul who was commanded by God…just because? Without an understanding of the Old Testament’s redemptive historical arc, this scene is unsettling at best and horrifying at worst.

Add to this a depiction of Samuel as a crazed prophet with a political axe to grind, Saul’s wife in the cast of Lady Macbeth (unrealistic for biblical times but expected for a wannabe Game of Thrones), and a rule-breaking daughter who’s secretly sleeping with her betrothed (again, the writers can’t let a little history get in the way of a good sex scene), and Of Kings and Prophets becomes a violent, sensual yet surprisingly boring paint-by-numbers also-ran (some reviewers are already expecting the show to get cancelled in the near future).

It’s a shame that the story of Saul and David doesn’t get a better look. It may take a cable network to add the grit and reality needed to develop the truth of the story. A tighter script and willingness to explore the pathos of characters may improve the inevitable next stab at telling this story.

The next attempt is almost certainly on its way. With the surprising success of the History Channel’s The Bible a couple years ago, Hollywood’s television and movie producers are looking for ways to capitalize on the appetite for biblial drama. NBC tried with A.D. last year, but the story meandered and lost the interest of Christians and unbelievers alike. The show won’t return for a second season. But with this foray into biblical epic, ABC has shown that studios are willing to continue adapting these stories for the small screen.

Movie studios are doing the same thing. While I was watching Of Kings and Prophets, two “Christian” movies were advertised, one about a miracle healing of a little girl and another about the childhood of Jesus. Both of these movies are being marketed to Church-goers, of course. The movie trailers ended with information for buying group tickets, highlighting the expectation that Christians will flock to the movies to see their faith on the silver screen.

It’s craven exploitation, but we seem to keep eating it up. How else would you explain the production of God’s Not Dead 2? Until we demand higher quality products, studios will continue exploiting the Christian experience for profit and churning out biblical adaptations with the hopes of milking a built-in audience.

But there’s a deeper problem with any Hollywood adaptation which will always leave Christians wanting more: the Old Testament narratives don’t stand by themselves, they point to Christ. Jesus is the Final and Better David, the True King who rules in power and love. Whenever we read these stories as Christians, we don’t read them as bare histories or in a literary vacuum; they are part of a redemptive-historical story that culminates in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s probably impossible for a television series to tell the story with the end result in mind (although there is some very compelling storytelling on television these days). But until someone in Hollywood comes to the biblical text with reverence, telling the story not for blood-lust and titillation but with a transcendent and even redemptive goal in mind, these stories will always end up falling flat.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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