Sunday, June 23, 2013

[book review] A Story of God and All of Us: A Novel Based on the Epic TV Miniseries "The Bible"

I didn't have any interest in watching this miniseries, but when I learned there was a NOVELIZATION of it, I was morbidly curious and ILLed it.

Contrary to my ~expectation, it's not actually ridiculous over-the-top bad. There's not a lot that I'm really adamantly opposed to, though there are various things that make me uncomfortable, as well as various narrative changes that make me go, "But that's not how the story goes!"

There's a lot of telling rather than showing -- which given that this is a novelization of film is kind of ironic ... were there a lot of explainy voiceovers?

-- and then I learned that GoodReads has a character limit for reviews. Hence, blogpost.

Long writeup: [I quote/cite/link a LOT.]

The introductory "Authors' Note" talks about their choice to "choose fewer characters and stories but make a much deeper emotional commitment" (rather than trying to tell many many brief stories -- it doesn't explain whey they chose a ten-hour mini-series format to begin with). They say, "we began the TV scripts, written by a team of writers under the guidance of many theologians, advisors, and Biblical experts. Their combined expertise brought forth vivid spiritual and historical images. To our great joy, when we showed the scripts to others for technical and creative feedback, the resounding messages we heard over and over were 'I've never been able to imagine these Bible stories so clearly in my mind,' 'I'm going to reread the Bible,' and 'You really should publish these scripts.' [...] We feel very inadequate to teach the Bible, and we are certainly not theologians. We are television storytellers. It will be easy for people to focus on how we have 'compressed stories' or find 'theological inaccuracies.' But on this point, we must be clear: we are not retelling the story of the Bible; it has already been told in the richest, fullest possible way, from the mouth of God and through His chosen prophets, students, and apostles. Instead, we are dramatizing some of these beautiful stories from our scripts."

1) Do we have stats on how much people's response to adaptations is to go read the original? Even when people know it's an adaptation and that there's so much ~more~ in the original, I feel like it's a minority of viewers who actually follow through on reading the original.
*I* wanted to go back and re/read the Bible thanks to various parts of this, but that was mostly born out of a desire to fact-check them/to see how the "real" story went.
2) I understand, theologically, why people think the Bible is God's best attempt at telling the Story, but seriously, I must be reading a different Bible than those people who say just open the Bible and read it and you'll get converted. It's not all narrative, and some of what is narrative is confusing, repetitive, contradictory, etc.

The opening chapter harmonizes the Creation stories and then spends most of its time on the Noah/Flood story, closing with:

      But God will act once again to save the world. For all time. But next time He will not need a Noah.
      Next time He will send His only son.
      This is a story of God and all of us.
I don't love the "everything is leading up to/foreshadowing Christ," but it is understandable. It actually wasn't as bad as I was expecting.

God literally "destroying mankind in order to save it" (p. 2, literal quote) is kinda creepy, though it's not necessarily in violation of a "plain reading" of the text.

There's a nod to realism in the description of the experience of living on the ark, though the reminder that many of the animals onboard are not equipped for seafaring was I think unintentionally uncomfortable.

Noah telling the Creation story to keep people's minds off their distress is perhaps a heavy-handed "The Bible is the Greatest Story Ever Told," but I did actually appreciate the nod to the fact that the story/s we Christians see as old old stories (and thus, a bit far-away and musty) are the stories that are the lifeblood of the Jewish people -- the power of story, it is one of my themes.

Noah's wife and his son's wives don't get names, which I initially thought was one of the ways in which the authors were choosing to not embellish the Biblical story ("asks the wife of Noah's son Shem" -- from the Prologue -- is not a non-awkward phrase, so it had to be on purpose, right?), as females not named in the Biblical canon (e.g., Lot's wife) continued to remain unnamed. but then Pharoah's daughter who adopts Moses is named Batya -- but Wikipedia suggests that this name does stem from an extra-canonical tradition [note: Moses' birth mother does NOT get a name]. Given some of the other ~significant changes they make (see below), I'm not sure why giving names to the nameless is so verboten. (Later, in the Samson story, Samson's first, Philistine, wife gets named Habor [p. 101]. Maybe there's a minimum of screentime that gets a woman a name? I don't know how the on-screen mini-series dealt with identifying the people in Noah's ark... In one of the bonus additional fight scenes, we get one of Lot's shepherds named Lemuel and one of Abram's named Amasa -- both of which are Biblical names but of decidedly different people. We also get Ira, a spokesman for the Israelites who oppose Moses -- another Biblical character who doesn't exist in the canonical text.)

I disliked how so much negativity gets attributed to the women -- misogyny, much?

Given the canonical story of Lot's wife being punished for looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, it's hard for me to quibble with her characterization as consistently suspicious of Abram's One God, but "seeds of dissension are sown by Lot's wife, a jealous and small-hearted woman who chafes at Abram's authority for forcing her to relocate" (p. 12) seems excessive.

The story of Abra[ha]m opens with telling us that Abram "is a direct descendant of Noah, eight generations on, through the lineage of Shem" (p.9) but it doesn't say anything about where all this paganism (which Abram is immersed in) comes from. God's call to Abram is unmistakable, and there's a nod to the fact that we're inventing monotheism ("Sarai, we are blessed. Today, God has spoken to me." / "Which God?" / "The God." / Sarai pulls back, confused. Theirs is a world of many different gods and idols, each designed to fulfill a specific need. Placing faith in just one god is a tremendously risky act. -p.11), but 8 generations seems a short time to have lost all memory of the God of Noah's ark, even with the Prologue's statement that, "mankind is fickle, and destined to make the same mistakes once again, turning their backs on God and His all-encompassing love." Though, I've been reminded recently about how recently slavery was legal in the USA, so maybe a few generations isn't all that long to forget things after all.

The Christianity Today article I read a few weeks prior noted that the mini-series adds in violence (as if the Bible is lacking), and I was reminded of this when reading the Abram/Lot story.

I don't oppose fleshing out a potential ideological (and, ultimately, theological -- when there isn't enough grassland for your herd, do you trust that God will provide because God has told you to stay there, or do you head for somewhere you know has more grassland?) disagreement that leads to Abram and Lot parting ways, but do we really need Lot and his followers to get attacked by bandits (off-screen) and then rescued by Abram (on-screen) on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah? [edit: This seems to be riffing off an actual incident in the Bible.] Does Lot's insistence on continuing on even after the attack really add anything to the story? Why couldn't they have just parted ways and the next scene be Lot in Sodom?

I had skimmed a devotional companion [via online preview, which I can no longer find, hence no direct quotations] before reading the book, and I was really pleased by the way it dealt with Sodom and Gomorrah -- Abram bargains with God, and the devotional explicitly supports that and even suggests that maybe Abram should have kept bargaining. It doesn't say anything about "the sin of Sodom," which I was braced for.

The novelization is less explicit in its endorsement of Abram's bargaining, and I am (mostly for other reasons) less of a fan.

      On it goes, Abraham bargaining for the people of Sodom while the Lord gently concedes, until Abraham reduces the number of ten righteous people. The Lord leaves. Abraham stands alone on the road, despairing for Sodom and his nephew. Because he knows, just as God knows, that his bold haggling with God is for naught. For there are not ten righteous people in all of Sodom.
      In fact, there is just one.
      Of course, God knows that. He has only bargained with Abraham as a testimony to their covenant. Abraham's fears about seeing Sodom destroyed showed the depth of his compassion, and God is honoring that. Now it is up to that one righteous man to save himself and his family.
The text uses sexual sin as the primary symptom of Sodom's turned-away-from-God-ness, but that focus doesn't bother me a huge amount -- I think because the way the description arcs, I feel like the theme is that everyone in the city is using everyone else, including at very base physical levels.
The city is infamous for its vice and depravity, a place of idolatry that has not only turned its back on God but celebrates that fact. [...] Lot fears for his daughters, terrified that they will grow up to become as lascivious and faithless as the women of Sodom. It breaks his heart to imagine his gorgeous young girls living a life defined by lust instead of love, of fear instead of faith. [....] He can hear the moans of men and women having sex in the dark, dingy alleys. Were he to turn around right now, he would be able to see a barely dressed young couple groping one another, nearly nude prostitutes pushing their wares, a band of drummers entertaining a group of drunks, and a feral dog tied to a post--snarling loudly at all who walk past, and more than eager to bite into human flesh. (28)
I like that Lot is sitting by the city gates, gazing out into the desert -- liminal space, ftw!

We remove the "Lot offering his virgin daughters to the Sodomites" plotline, which I can't really fault them for, except that it seems so disingenuous to remove such a HUGE stumbling block of a story.

The pillar of salt that Lot's wife turns into gets blown to dust as Lot watches (I guess she was ahead of him? or looking back at your wife is okay so long as you don't look back at the city?), which irritated me because although non-canonical, there is a tradition that that pillar of salt still stands.

Hagar is with Abram and Sarai from their initial departure, conveniently eliding not just Abram's "she's not my wife, she's my sister" trick(s) but also eliding the fact that she's given to them along with so much other property (though she is explicitly identified as Egyptian).

God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. The inheritance will go to Isaac. That is God's decision. It means that there is no more place for Hagar and Ishmael in his camp, but God reassures Abraham that they will be taken care of, and that the children of Ishmael will also become a great nation. (35)
I don't love God endorsing Sarah here.
This is being done at her insistence, and she knows full well that her demands might lead to the deaths of Hagar and Ishmael. She knows she created this problem in the first place by insisting that Abraham sleep with Hagar. So this is her solution. She is surprised to find that she does not take delight in forcing Hagar and Ishmael out. Sarah knows it needs to be done. This may be a cruel act, but she is not a cruel woman. For if this is not done, grave trouble could arise when Abraham's two boys grow to be men. (35-36)
Don't hate the player, hate the game?
The two of them will wander out into the desert alone, yet she [Hagar] trusts God to protect them. Hagar prays to God for help, and God provides it. Less than a week into their journey, they will run out water, and Hagar will fear for their lives. An angel of the Lord will appear to them at that time, promising that Ishmael will one day become the leader of a great nation. When the angel departs, a well filled with water will suddenly appear to Hagar and Ishmael, saving their lives. (36)
In writing this up, I realized that we got pages and pages of description of a MADE-UP story involving Lot and Abram, whereas this true story (a story shared by all three Abrahamic faiths) is all tell, no show. Also, didn't Hagar leave once before? (Hi, my research for preaching on the story of Hagar and Ishmael is showing...) Yes, I know we cut/condense lots of stories for time here.

We include the aqedah. I was actually a little bummed by Sarah running up the mountaintop to save her son, because I love the midrash from the lacuna that we never again see or hear from her -- the possibility that her pre-emptive grief kills her, the possibility that she stops speaking to Abraham (though this text doesn't preclude that latter possibility).

I'm irritated that the blame is placed on Jacob for favoring Joseph -- though, okay, at 17 years old, we can cut Joseph some slack for being a bit of a snot -- but we don't actually get any of him lording over his siblings; it's not a story of being humbled and then redeemed but rather a story of a good person to whom bad stuff happens, who ultimately prospers (because of God's favor) and gives back the same grace ("He shows his brothers the same love and mercy God has always shown him, particularly when times were so hard that hope barely flickered in his soul" [45] -- do we get to see those hard times in the film? because we don't get much in the novelization beyond the line "he becomes gaunt and filthy from months in the squalid and barbaric conditions" [42] re: his life in prison -- which line is immediately followed by, "Yet Joseph is an optimistic and a warmhearted man, even in the toughest of times").

More interesting, arguably, is that we skip the entire Jacob+Esau story -- INCLUDING Jacob wrestling with the "angel" :/ (I have gotten kind of attached to the idea of this story since my mom saying to me back in February of 2009: "I love that you struggle with Christianity fiercely and faithfully and I trust the Angel will not let you go without a blessing.")

I was bummed to lose out on "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). Instead we get:

For while they now live in luxury, this is not the land that God promised Abraham.
      Even worse, over the generations that follow, the drought that Joseph predicted means that thousands upon thousands are forced to leave. The people of Israel willfully travel to Egypt in source [sic] of food, then adopt this terrible new lifestyle just to stay alive. They build the great palaces and monuments of Egypt, working all day under the blazing desert sun, They are slaves of a great Pharaoh.
I think "a man who will have the most extraordinary relationship of all with God" (47) is overstating it a bit, but I can let it go (since Moses is such a huge major figure).

The idea that Rameses and Moses had been rivals growing up in the palace is a neat addition. We get NOTHING about Moses' speech impediment/general feeling of unworthiness; Aaron is just kind of a sidekick (yes, it's explicit that Aaron and Miriam are his blood siblings, so we're not surprised that Aaron goes with Moses, but we lose a lot of depth).

I do kind of love that Moses gets "black kohl eyeliner" (53) -- to protect his eyes, obvi.

We blow through the plagues quickly -- which I don't actually have a problem with. Pharaoh says No after each plague (except, of course, the last) instead of canonically agreeing to let the people go and then retracting.

I appreciate that we do get an acknowledgement of the tragedy of the drowning of all the Egyptians, though it could have been better -- "A moment of sad realization passes, as the Hebrews realize that so many men are now dying. But this is followed immediately by the natural joyfulness of freedom, and the end of slavery for the Hebrews" (82).

We get a brief account of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai, and a note that Moses doesn't get to enter the Promised Land, but not only do we get no explanation for why Moses doesn't get to enter the Promised Land, we totally ignore the fact that no one else from Egypt gets to enter the Promised Land, either -- no whiny wanderers, no golden calf.

I actually balked at the statement that Joshua leads the Hebrews into the Promised Land, so much have I internalized the idea that no one born in Egypt gets to enter the Promised Land (and Joshua got a lot of screentime as an adult in Egypt), but I Googled and apparently Joshua+Caleb got to enter the Promised Land.

I don't have particular thoughts on the Jericho/Rahab story. Yay for a story involving a woman positively. I'm not clear what the big deal is about Rahab, as the winning blow is the walls falling down, but that's a fault of the original story...

While I think it's an accurate precis of the original text, I still don't love the "God punishes the Israelites like a parent disciplines a child."

      But when Joshua dies, that faith seems to die with him. Generations of Israelites forget their covenant with the Lord, turning to other gods to meet their needs--gods of rain and fertility, gods of the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land, who they wrongly believe will bless their new way of life.
      God is grieved by this betrayal. He reminds the Israelites of the covenant with Abraham, and that the Promised Land is a gift that must be cherished. God uses hard, powerful armies to attack the Israelites, like a father disciplines his son.
      The cycle will be repeated for hundreds of years: Israel breaks their covenant; God sends foreign armies to subdue and subjugate them; they learn the lesson and cry out for help; God then raises a deliverer or "judge" to save them; and, once again, the land enjoys peace, until a future generation again forgets God.
      Of all the foreign enemies that subdued the rebellious Israelites to this point in history, none was more powerful than the Philistines. They soon conquer the Israelites and claim much of the Promised Land for themselves, yet God has not deserted his chosen people. He longs to renew His covenant with the Israelites and return to them the Promised Land.
      Once again, God chooses a most unlikely individual to carry out this plan--an eight-year-old boy named Samson, who has the strength of a lion.
Someone with super-strength is not an "unlikely" savior, and Samson is much older than eight when he saves the day. ("The boy is soon born and given the name Samson, By the age of eight, he knows the story of the angel by heart. His mother believes that he is destined to free the Israelites from the Philistines. Ten years pass. [101]")

Samson's enough of a jerk that I probably wouldn't have included his story in an evangelization tool (to my surprise, they do the full version of the story -- and as I approvingly noted above, they give his first wife a name). They take out the flaming foxes, which is a bit of a bummer; and they also kill off his first wife (rather than just marrying her off to the best man), which seems a bit excessive. The addition of his mother convincing him to turn himself in is a narrative choice I don't have particular thoughts about -- I'm not sure if it's meant to emphasize how malleable Samson is to the will of women or something. The decision to take out Delilah's repeated betrayals of Samson make Samson look like less of an idiot, though it seems like a cheat to me.

We get the story of the Israelites asking for a king (p. 121).

The Samuel/Saul/David story feels fairly standard (I totally channel Kings). I was bummed that we don't get to *see* the anointing of David. They leave in the 100 foreskins story which, um, is a choice you can make. We don't get Jonathan protecting David, though I've heard they have a 'shippy vibe onscreen (even the bible ships it).

We extrapolate a whole story from, "Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates [or, those who hate David]" (2 Samuel 5:8). [Wikipedia tells me, "According to the version of the story in the masoretic text, David managed to conquer the city by a surprise attack, led by Joab, through the water supply tunnels (Jerusalem has no natural water supply except for the Gihon spring)."]

David first lusts after Bathsheba BEFORE the famous "he saw her bathing on the roof...". Otherwise, the story stays fairly accurate -- and I appreciate that it's clear that David is sinning and Bathsheba is resistant (and did nothing to encourage the king's inappropriate attentions other than existing). We do get Nathan's indicting parable :)

After the death of Bathsheba's firstborn, we elide most of the rest of the story of that family. We're told in a sort of summary transition that they will have another son, Solomon, who "gains a reputation as the wisest man in the world. [...] But, like David, Solomon finds it impossible to follow God's laws. He is a man easily corrupted by his privilege and passions. After he dies, power continues to corrupt Israel's kings." (160)

Then we get:

      A new prophet named Daniel will speak in images telling of a dream in which God promised to once again save the Israelites by sending them a new king. "There before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power. All peoples, nations, and men of every language worshipped him." Daniel is dazzled as he speaks, overcome with the majesty and wonder of the dream that God revealed to him. But he does not know when he will come. Nor does Daniel know that this king will be directly from David, nor that his name will be Jesus.
I thought we would jump to the NT here, but actually we get Jeremiah.

Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem (e.g., "The only question remaining now is the degree of suffering the king Nebuchadnezzar will inflict upon Jerusalem, and who among the Israelites will find a way to escape it." p. 173-4) reminded me of the story of slaughtering all the Amalekites -- which I think is a discomfort the authors didn't intend, since I don't think they want us to be critical of God's sanctioned genocide(s).

"The king of Babylon has been two long years in the battle waiting for Jerusalem to fall, and the simple act of leveling Jerusalem and burning the entire city to the ground has whetted his appetite for more." (178) So the conquest of the Near East ("every tribe and nation from the River Tigris to the River Nile, from the sands of the great Arabian Desert" to the great mountains that mark the gateway to what will one day become known as Europe") by the Babylonian Empire is the fault of the disobedient Jews? I don't think this is the authors' intent, but it makes me really uncomfortable.

The narrative takes up the "Fourteen generations of Israelites pass from Abraham to his descendant David, Another fourteen generations from David to the great deportation to Babylon. There will be fourteen more generations until the birth of Jesus" (176) and we get a longer version of the story of Daniel than the flash-forward allusion we got earlier.

I'm a little surprised that they left in the bit about "and God wants you to be subservient to the Persian king," though I suppose it's not all that problematic for the authors' theological worldview.

"They don't fear the new king--they welcome him. To them, he is a liberator. Daniel has studied the new king, and knows that the people in every territory that the Persian conquers have been left free to live and worship in their own traditions. Daniel smiles and says, 'He will set us exiles free.' " (184-5)

I knew that the story of Daniel in the lion's den as being that Daniel prayed to his God despite the ruler's decree. I'd forgotten that the ruler gets coerced (tricked, really, a la the story of Esther) into that decree.

In the original text, it's because Daniel has gained so much favor under the Persian ruler (who is named -- Darius -- in the original, but interestingly remains unnamed here) that the king is going to appoint him over the whole kingdom, whereas here we've already built up a narrative of the chief priests displeased that Daniel is favored under Nebuchadnezzar and thus they cut in front of Daniel to make accusations to the new ruler about Daniel before he can speak for himself. It's a nicer narrative flow this way, though I feel discomfort with the framing of the chief priests vs. Daniel (and, by extension, his God). It also lets the filmmakers add in "Daniel and his God are haunting the Persian king's dreams" (191) and a dramatic run through the palace (despite the fact that he's yelling, "Your God is real, your God will save you!"), rather than Darius fasting and unable to sleep because he has condemned Daniel to death and at dawn hurrying (wow, I am suddenly having flashes of "Early in the morning, on the first day of the week..." the Easter story) and calling out, "O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?" (Daniel 6:20).

At the close of this chapter, we get Daniel's vision of the Son of Man again, and this time the next chapter does bring us "[f]ive hundred years" (p. 197) ahead to the time of Jesus. In keeping with contemporary Christian culture, it's not until page 216 that we get the story of John the Baptist -- when we get to Jesus' baptism.

We open with a summary of Jewish history in the interim and the people's Messianic hope -- which begins with this devout couple in love. (In keeping with Matthew's genealogy -- from which we already got the 14 generations thing -- "Joseph is a direct descendant of King David" [197].).

The announcements to Mary and Joseph are fairly standard. On their way to the Bethlehem for the census, the ("[n]ow happily married" [201]) couple see the star ("Its brightness is a lamp unto their feet, and a light unto their path" [201] -- I see what you did there [Psalm 119:105, though really I just sing Amy Grant's "Thy Word" ... and now I'm thinking about the story of Jesus as the star]), which strikes me as a touch odd.

Babylonian Balthazar and two "Nubian potentates" (also called "Magi" in this text) also notice this star.

The captain of the guard comes to drag the elderly priest away. But the old man will not be silence, and even as he is pulled from the temple library, soon to meet his fate, he keeps reciting prophecy. -206-207
I'm reminded of slacktivist [e.g., this post] talking about contemporary apologetic evangelism -- the idea that you can (should) just tell people things and they will be converted by the power of the Truth (I joke that's how the Athanasian Creed works, but...)

I'm not sure why we make Herod ill. It's not like he surprisingly drops dead shortly after the escape to Egypt or anything. He's also explicitly *fat* and ill, which I think is supposed to be interpreted as symptomatic (his excess having corrupted both his body as his soul and his kingdom) -- which suspicion is supported by a later text: "Herod has lived a life of debauchery, and it catches up to him" (212).

As expected, everyone shows up at the manger together, including children -- "A young shepherd--the same boy who gave Joseph a bundle of kindling just hours earlier--now steps forward to offer something far more precious: a lamb." (208) I see what you did thar, authors. And oh, next sentence: "Joseph is thankful, but the truth is that he doesn't fully appreciate the gift." (208)

The star has led many to this site. The same angelic intervention [ed. what? this is the text's first mention of angels] that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem has also spread the news to those who need to hear it most: local. shepherds, neighbors, and ordinary people. These are the ones whom Jesus has come to save, and for them to be standing in this small barn on this cold night in a moment unlike any other in time. They are witnessing the dawning of a new era--the fulfillment of the new covenant between God and humanity. (208)
Balthazar and the Nubians arrive later that same night.

We hear about the ~anarchy that ensues after Herod's death, and about the Romans quelling the disturbances. We are told that "The penalty for political dissent is crucifixion" (212) which I really appreciated, since so often in evangelical circles, Jesus' death is de-politicized.

Jesus' family returns to Nazareth and then at age 12 his parents take him to Jerusalem for the first time, for Passover, and we get the familiar story of Jesus in the Temple -- with bonus dove guiding Mary to him (heavy-handed foreshadowing, much?). "Nearly twenty years" later we finally meet John the Baptist. I do appreciate that we retain the familiar John the Baptist stories that precede Jesus' baptism, though I don't love the contemporary evangelical way we talk about baptism.

The Messiah is here. Now. His head and body are submerged in a baptism that he does not require, for Jesus has no sin. But the ritual sends the symbolic message that a time of renewal for all mankind has begun. (219)
The blogger who wrote the Christianity Today piece interestingly notes:
For a mini-series about the Bible that makes a point of showing how conscious its characters could be of the scriptures and traditions that already existed in their day, it is striking — if not puzzling — that the scene of Jesus’ temptation in the desert downplays any reference to the scriptures.

The gospels make a point of showing how Jesus refused each of Satan’s temptations by quoting scripture, and when I was growing up, this story was always held up as an example of how we needed to know our Bibles. But in this episode, Jesus seems to appeal to nothing more than his own impulses.

He does quote the verse about man not living on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God — but he never says “It is written.” He never makes it clear that he is quoting the words of God himself even as he speaks.

After the three temptations in the desert, Jesus immediately goes to synagogue and reads from Isaiah.

      "Mary's fears are well founded. For she knows, just as Jesus knows, that they live in a world where making waves and challenging the status quo is met with unrelenting violence." (222)

This is the part where it started feeling overmuch to me -- because I know the context of the authors, and I worry about a USian Christian persecution complex.

This is immediately followed by the arrest of John the Baptist.

I had recently read Mark in its entirety ("chronological" NT read-through) and was struck by how it feels like it's quickly moving from story to story.
Maybe the gospels read more compellingly onscreen, but reading this book, it felt even more disjointed and less compelling than the actual gospels do.

Jeremy commented about the salesperson feel, somewhere I can't find, but the Christianity Today article also says:

More significantly, when Jesus first meets Peter and gives him a miraculous catch of fish, the script omits any reference to Peter's awareness of his own sinfulness (as per Luke 5) and, instead, has Jesus make bland pronouncements such as, "Give me an hour, and I will give you a whole new life." Later, Jesus tells Peter he's giving him "the chance to change your life" and says that, together, they will "change the world." This is the language of talk shows and infomercials, not the language of first-century Jews and Christians.
The chapter ends with "Change the world" and the next chapter opens with a picture of Roman-occupied Israel. I don't love the heavy-handed "The baker is the busiest vendor of all, with crowds lining up to purchase their daily bread, the symbolic reminder of God's ultimate authority over their future. It would be foolish to buy 'monthly bread.' It would spoil. They buy it day by day, living in the moment, not fixated on a future they cannot control. That gives the people of Israel an important sense of peace at a time when their nation is tormented." (229), though I do like that the first miracle we see (okay, fine, after the miraculous haul of fish) is sending the 7 demons out of Mary of Magdala, though it feels a little strange to me that they don't keep with John's account (2:1-11) of the wedding at Cana as the first (public) miracle.
The Roman soldiers study Jesus as if he is a threat. Their job, should this be the case, would be to subdue him immediately.
      But Jesus doesn't give them cause to do so. His every action is one of peace.
Erm... Okay, Jesus never acts violently except overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (which story we do get later, pp. 264-266), but come on, "I have not come to bring peace but a sword" (Matthew 10:34) anyone? Plus, I feel like this makes Jesus into someone who is explicitly about not upsetting the status quo.

I'm uncomfortable with the "Jesus' forgiving sin was blasphemous because only God can do that" (even when I hear it in my own Christian contexts, I'm not entirely convinced) -- and REALLY uncomfortable with the "Jesus offered them a new way to connect with God, without animal sacrifice etc." (since I think that oversimplifies the Judaism of the time).

"never talking down to the disciples, patiently letting the words soak in until they understand them fully" (234)

Haha, that's cute...

'His revolution is a grassroots movement" (234-5)

Yup, the Tea Party has ruined me on this. It's totally a true statement, but knowing that this text is being written by conservatives I get squicked.

"He has chosen this moment because his audience of farmers, shepherds, laborers, and their families do not have the financial luxury of taking time away from their occupation during working hours" (235). Nevermind that fishermen "fish all night, mend nets in the daytime, sleep, and then fish some more" (223). I understand what they're trying to get at (and again, I should be a fan, but knowing their background I make inferences and get squicked), but they're being sloppy.

At one of his sermons, Jesus quite clearly told the crowd to uphold the law, knowing that to ignore Roman law would mean a wave of punishment against his new followers. In Israel, Roman law and religious law are closely intertwined. If the Pharisees can catch Jesus in the act of breaking a religious law, then they can try gum before a religious court. Based on the words of the Pharisees, if Jesus is also shown to be a radical or a revolutionary whose teachings will incite rebellion against Rome, he could also be tried before a Roman tribunal. (238)
I appreciate the build-up to Jesus being crucified by Rome, but since when was Jesus an accomodationist? I am forever referencing Horsley's Jesus and Empire and dude, what sermon are you effing talking about? There's the "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," which I don't think we actually get in this text, but that's about all I can think of. Dear authors, you're thinking of Paul (or perhaps more accurately, "Paul").

Jesus writes "Judge not, lest you be judged," in the dirt in the story of the woman caught in adultery. I've possibly encountered that before, but I still don't love it. I haven't seen much midrash about *what* (or even why) Jesus wrote in the dirt there, but I want some serious payoff for that mystery.

I'm not sure what to make of the addition of the woman caught in adultery having an infant baby.

"Jesus and two of his disciples" (240) dine with Simon and a small group of Pharisees. Mary Magdalene slips into the room, bringing with her a woman who is a sinner and who brings with her "a small stone jar" (241), She "pours a few drops of the precious liquid on Jesus' feet, and rubs it in with her bare hands" (241). Her fear seems really plausible, and the text tells us that Jesus recognizes how important this moment is for her, but the original text is about an outpouring of excess -- and we don't get Jesus schooling the Pharisee, which I was a bit disappointed about.

The Sabbath healing of the man with the withered hand triggers a riot in the streets, which I was not stoked about, especially because Jesus then leaves the riot to happen -- I'm not disputing his nonviolence stance, but it seems callous to not do anything when "The city's streets are now in a state of unrest. Roman soldiers wade into the fracas, grabbing the Pharisees and dragging them back toward the synagogue. The Romans are only too happy to mete out punishment with fists and clubs. Jesus goes one way, leading his followers to safety. The Pharisees go another In the streets, it escalates into a bloody scuffle between the oppressed Jews and the Roman legionnaires" (244). (Okay, I do like that we used the word "legionnaire," even if we don't get the "We are legion" Gerasene demoniac.)

"The Pharisees represent the common man." (244). I'm glad that the authors acknowledge that, since it's so easy to vilify the Pharisees based on the way the gospel writers always talk about them in opposition to Jesus.

"Peter eyes the man with suspicion. 'We went through all sorts of trials to become disciples,' he mutters to Matthew. 'Now this guy just walks in from who knows where and gets to join?' " (248). No, you didn't. I would like to think that we the readers are supposed to roll our eyes at Peter, but this guy turns out to be Judas, and while the text doesn't go overboard in making him a bad guy from the get-go, it also sort of suggests throughout that Judas doesn't exactly fit as a disciple.

"The crowd is soon demanding more food" (249) bzuh? Are we supposed to dislike the crowd? This seems to really undermine the power of the miracle -- canonically there were always leftovers!

When we hear about the death of Lazarus (p. 253), we learn that Mary of Mary-and-Martha-and-Lazarus is the "sinner" who anointed Jesus' feet -- which is one way to reconcile the multiple accounts of the anointing of Jesus, though it seems a bit random to tell us here that Lazarus is a friend of Jesus' when we've had no prior indication of any relationship (the Mary-and-Martha story is kinda fraught, so I'm okay with losing it, but still) including when the woman showed up and anointed.

Also, we miss the one time when Jesus weeps :(

Immediately after the raising of Lazarus, the chapter ends with Jesus declaring that they're going to Jerusalem. I don't love the framing of, "Don't you think it's time, Peter. that we finally go to the one place that needs to hear my message more than any other?" (256)

We have a recurrent theme of Pontius Pilate's wife Claudia, which I'd forgotten actually shows up in canon (Matthew 27:19) rather than just being a development of tradition.

"He rides a donkey, which is most unusual for a man who walks everywhere, but it is the traditional way a king would come to visit his subjects if he came in peace." (261)

I don't know how actually accurate that is, but I think it's interesting.

"The symbolism is not lost on the crowd, who know their scripture well." (261)

While I don't love (including in the canon) the incessant "and this was to fulfill the prophecy," I actually felt fondly at this line, because it treated "the crowd" as intelligent, thoughtful, well-versed in their traditions.

"What does he mean?" asks the one they call Thomas, the one who is constantly so doubtful. "Destroy the Temple? I don't get it."
      John has a gift for vision and insight that is unparalleled among the disciples. "He's saying that we don't need a stone temple to worship in. He will be our access to God."
      "Really?" Thomas questions him, once again showing his unerring ability to question every little fact.
-p. 269
Oh, so we're using John the Gospel writer as John the disciple -- and could we not be such a jerk about Thomas? I'm glad we retained his "Let us go so that we may die with him" as they head to the dead Lazarus even if he says it "glumly" (254).

[And on page 336 we learn that this same John is on Patmos, too.]

Thomas gets a bit unfairly treated, I felt. I get that having a recurrent characteristic can be a way to flesh out characters, and I kind of liked what they did with Peter as rock, but with Thomas it felt like harping on one note ... like the little sister always wearing purple in a children's book I proofread.

The way Caiphas frames to Judas turning over Jesus to them ... "Save him from yourself while you still can" (273) -- yeah, "This is not at all what he intended." (289) And so we get the version where he gives back the money and hangs himself (Matthew 27:5).

Mary Magdalene is the only person besides the Twelve to be at the Last Supper, which I understand is consistent with traditional representations of the story, but which is contrary to the way I read that story (as an abundant open table).

Interesting that the authors (through Nicodemus) bring up "Judas is bringing him to us before dawn." (Caiaphas) / Nicodemus: "But the law does not allow it. A trial must be held in daylight." (278) -- and again, "You can't go through with this. This is not legal. Our laws say that a capital trial should be held in court, in daylight, and in public." (285) I'm not sure what the authors are trying to get at with that -- almost no one reading this is going to be familiar enough with Jewish law to know that (and if they are, this will likely be the least of the problems they have with this mini-series); does the extra vilifying of the authorities add anything to the story?

I was confused by, as one character states, "The witnesses' evidence in clear and unequivocal" (287) since Mark 14 is at pains to tell us the witnesses' false testimony did not agree (which retaining would seem to support the authors' stance that the authorities are conspiring to unjustly condemn Jesus):

Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'" But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?”
-Mark 14:55-60

We get the story of Mary going to the tomb alone. She enters it, so initially she doesn't recognize Jesus because of the darkness she is literally in (wow, I see what you did thar). She recognizes his voice when he says her name. We don't get "Noli me tangere." He tells her, "Go and tell our brothers I am here," and, "overcome with joy, she sprints back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples the good news" (309).

She drags Peter and John back with her, and Peter enters the tomb and is greeted by white light Jesus, who disappears before Peter can touch him (echoing "Noli me tangere"?).

Peter's exuberant response to this is to buy some unleavened bread and pour a cup of wine and say, "His body. And his blood, Believe in him. He's here. In this room. Right now. Remember what he told us: ''I am the way, the truth---'" and then Jesus appears and finishes the sentence: "'--and the life.'" (311)

Hello, Real Presence.

Wow, we totally vocalize the skeptics through Thomas -- "This is not possible. There is no way you are Jesus standing here with us. This is all a fantasy, an apparition brought on by our insane mourning for a man we loved so very much" (311). Which, actually, doesn't feel to me like a jerk characterization of Thomas -- yes, he's standing in for all the modern-day skeptics, but it's legit.

      "No," says Thomas. "This is not possible. There is no way you are Jesus standing here with us. This is all a fantasy, an apparition brought on by our insane mourning for a man we loved so very much"
      Jesus walks toward Thomas and takes his hand. "Thomas," Jesus tells him. "Stop doubting and believe." He places Thomas's fingers into the gaping holes in his hands, and them to the hole in his side. Looking down, Thomas can clearly see the awful marks atop Jesus' feet where the spikes passed through flesh and bone, then into the wood of the cross.
      Thomas doesn't know how to respond. He has traveled far and wide with Jesus, and he knows Jesus' voice and appearance as well as he knows his own. But when Jesus is asking of him is impossible. Thomas is a man of facts--a man committed to truth that cannot be disputed by emotion or trickery. He is being asked to believe that he is touching Jesus, as alive as the last time they all broke bread together in the upper room. It seems impossible. But it is real. This is Jesus, not some dream or vision. Thomas touches the wounds and hears his teacher's voice. Overwhelmed, Thomas looks into Jesus's eyes. "My Lord and my God," he stammers, tears filling his eyes. "It is you."
      Jesus looks at his disciple with compassion. "You have believed because you see me. But blessed are those who have not seen me, and yet have believed."
      Faith floods Thomas's entire being as he slowly accepts what it means to believe that anything is possible through God. This is the faith in Jesus that will transform lives. Not seeing and yet still believing.
What really struck me when I was reading this book the first time was the Pentecost. We get cheated out of Road to Emmaus :( and then the disciples are gathered together just them when Pentecost happens.
But Jesus' disciples are not in Galilee. They are gathering in Jerusalem, easily concealed among the hordes of pilgrims. Jesus has promised them that the Holy Spirit will come to them, but they're not quite sure what that means. So they remain in their hiding place, waiting. [....]
      The lamps in the room flicker and smoke as the prayer continues. The room grows suddenly dark. The wind outside rises and sound fills the room. Shutters bang open. Scared but unbowed, the disciples continue praying. Tongues of fire enter the room and settle upon each apostle. The Holy Spirit fills them. Soon each of them is praying in different languages, even though none of them have ever understood those tongues before. In this way, they are being prepared to go out unto all nations and preach the Word of God.
      Their prayers and their foreign words now miraculously reach out across the city. People can hear the apostles, even though they cannot see them. [....]
      The wind howls across Jerusalem. Even a Roman soldier understands the simple phrase now ringing in the ears of every man, woman, and child in Jerusalem: "Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved."
Okay, rereading Acts, that is the last line of the Joel quote -- apparently what I always remember about the Pentecost story is the actual experience of the tongues of fire and everyone hearing the message in their own language.

We get "silver and gold have I none..." (to quote the song I learned as a child), the martyrdom of Stephen, and the conversion of Saul/Paul -- which adds in Saul meeting Ananias earlier in his journey to Damascus and having him arrested and beaten (he escapes). I don't love, "Saul hasn't touched the meal provided for him last night, and he has knocked over a bowl as he groped in the darkness" (324) since I think Saul fasted on purpose and I don't love the "poor helpless disabled people."

Rather than the bedsheet vision before Cornelius' visit, we get Jesus telling Peter to move out of the Jewish communities to Caesarea -- Peter: "But cleanliness keeps us close to God." / Jesus: "Peter, you could not be closer. I am with you always. And it is I who make all things clean." (328) The narration continues: "Peter is confused. All along, he has been thinking that only Jews can be led to faith in Jesus. It is a radical notion that anyone, of any faith or nationality, can also receive God's blessing." I eyeroll a bit, because the battle Paul fought was whether Gentiles had to convert to Judaism first -- there was never any doubt that Gentiles could e.g. come to Jesus.

We do get the conversion of Cornelius' family, which is sort of a nice nod to the historical fact that entire families would convert, though it's also a little uncomfortable because it's the patriarch (word used advisedly) making the decision on behalf of everyone else.

Paul's best lines are all packed into one opening evangelism speech (actually directed at a community of believers who, remembering his past, "debate within themselves whether or not to set aside the peace of their beliefs just long enough to kill this awful man standing before them" [331]) -- which I can buy for dramatic narrative purposes (I'm reminded that we don't know exactly *how* Paul started his communities). Interestingly, one of the new converts is Luke the Gospel writer.

Then we get a series of martyrdoms (including Peter famously being crucified upside down) and John on Patmos -- because of course you have to end with Revelation (though in a very abbreviated fashion).

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