Don’t Mess with the Barbecue!
I’m from Texas and one of the things I miss here in New York is good-ol’ Texas barbecue. I have really only had barbecue at one particular New York establishment that I thought made passing marks. (Surely there are other places as well! I have to hope so anyway.) But, about four years ago someone took me to a place here on Long Island that was supposed to be “the best.” No. It was more like essence of barbecue. It was barbecue in caricature. I left thinking to myself, Can’t they just go to Texas and learn how to do what they do up here? Don’t mess with the barbecue! An experience like that just leaves you nostalgic for the real thing. That’s how I felt about this week’s Burnett and Downey rendering of the Bible.
The High Points
Overall, this installment was an improvement over the first three. They chose a believable looking Jesus, Diogo Morgado. The actor’s disposition was engaging and there were some scenes that I thought were inspiring for their visual effects rather than any dialogue. The telling of the food multiplication miracle with a great thronging crowd around Jesus just as you imagine it would have been. The scene with Jesus and Nicodemus was pretty good, and I appreciate that B&D did not jettison the “born again” language. The scene at the Last Supper was visually nice and captured at least the emotional essence of the Eucharistic meal. Any problems with this version of Jesus were not due to the actor. I think his portrayal captured the compassion and vulnerability of the Scriptural Jesus, if not the strength.
Jesus: Kenotic, Weakly, Humanistic
But, alas, there were problems, and not just the usual trouble that comes when you ignore Scripture and put in your own details. No, these problems were more interpretive. For example, Jesus seemed to get premonitions that surprised Him (the crucifixion, Peter’s denial, Judas’s betrayal). It could be that B&D chose the less followed kenosis theory that says Jesus emptied Himself of His Divine attributes at the Incarnation, or at best willingly laid some of them down. Though some hold to this theory due to problems understanding how an omniscient God can be a baby, or how an omniscient Jesus does not seem to know important eschatological details (Matthew 24:36), there is not enough Scriptural evidence for this theory and, in fact, there is sufficient reason from Scripture not to hear it at all. Nevertheless, the B&D Jesus seemed entirely kenotic.
The Burnett/Downey Jesus was human as He should have been, but He was lacking in divinity. Last week, at His baptism there was no dove, no voice. And in the wilderness He said, “I will worship the Lord My God.” In the garden of Gethsemane, when He told the disciples, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” He seemed to be making a comment on His own status rather than giving an exhortation to them. But this was in line with the humanistic bent of the entire series.
The Thirteenth Disciple
Mary Magdalene was practically a thirteenth disciple in this story: standing near Peter most of the time and quite comfortable, very verbal; at one point uttering words that should have come from the mouths of the disciples. You will search in vain for anything like Sunday night’s depiction of Mary when you look in the real Bible. It is true that she, along with other women, including Jesus’ mother, did travel with Jesus and His disciples and helped support them out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3). But it is the inordinate emphasis upon Mary Magdalene that has given rise over the centuries to the idea that she and Jesus were married. Scripture knows nothing of the sort.
Nicodemus took quite a hit in this version. He carried the water for those opposed to Jesus for almost the whole story. Of course in the real Bible, Nicodemus is only mentioned five times and only in the Gospel of John, though still a significant figure because of the conversation he had with Jesus.
Once again, there was plenty enough violence to go around. In fact, it was amazing that Jesus had the opportunity to speak at all since turmoil and suspicion and intrigue were so rampant. And, of course, there were the usual rewrites of the actual Bible to accommodate for the story. One of the most notable was Jesus practically force-feeding the bread to Judas at the Last Supper.
Judas: “But Master, I don’t want to do this!
Jesus: “Eat it, Judas! You are the guy whether you want to be or not!”
Judas: “But Master . . .”
Then, there was Jesus running out of the Last Supper all by Himself. Gone was the singing of a hymn (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). But this panicking Jesus helped to feed the surprised, weak, and humanistic Jesus we saw moments later. And what was this scene where Jesus was playfully tickling a little girl while declaring that the temple would someday be destroyed?! Oh yes, and at a peak moment in the Passover weak, as Jesus was preaching He exclaimed that the most important thing was to love others as you love yourself (or something to that affect). That falls in line with the humanistic “God and all of us” approach of the series. What Jesus really taught was
29 “The most important one [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).”
Still, you can’t help but enjoy the gentleness of the Burnett/Downey Jesus. Makes you nostalgic for the real Jesus. And in that I can find at least some value in this week’s History Channel presentation.