In a desperate bid for points, I present to you all the thing you dread the most: a series of blogs about religion and American culture.
You have Ray to blame for this. (Also, please remember I wrote this while sort of … altered … after wisdom teeth extraction. So you’re not allowed to get too offended, okay? Promise? Okay, away we go!)
I tuned in late, so the first scene I see when I settle in for the first part of the History Channel’s miniseries is Abraham’s first encounter with God. There’s a whispered, “Abram” against operatic vocals and then it cut to a Walmart ad which read, no lie, “The Bible is brought to you in part by Walmart”. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Bible with commercial breaks, for a modern attention-span.
The first question I ask, as we start the Sodom and Gomorrah story arch: is there a spin on this? Better yet, is there a modern spin on this? There is possibly one against city life – it is quite definitely emphasized that Abraham is going to live in the country. But maybe that’s more of the story, than the adaptation. Be in the world but not of it. My train of thought is suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the devil. Who knew that the History Channel would be so literal in their interpretation of evil? It doesn’t work for me, though. As any good student of history knows, the unseen is the scariest. Besides, this devil has white juggalo-esque ashes smeared across his face.
When I have time to think again (the narrative is nothing if not fast-paced), it strikes me that there are no metaphysics here. Abraham, when he pleads for intercession for Lot, is speaking to a physical Jesus that is reminiscent of a surfer dude. Jesus, not God. There is already a pattern here: Jesus as the present (if blurred around the edges) merciful man, God as the invisible commander who more often than not speaks through gales of wind.
This approach is very Bible-Belt American – the History Channel knows its audience. For example, the focus is already skewed toward the New Testament. The focus is on the person, for example, and not the god. There are little things, too. Everyone is caucasianoid, except the angels. Even then, the Asian angel kills with the sword, complete with kung-fu leaps. (No intentions of molestation are mentioned, of course.) I come to the realization that I cannot keep watching this. And why the hell is this on the History Channel, anyway?
Just as I reach for the remote, there’s another ad break. Get a new minivan at CarMax! Arthritis ad, buy, buy, buy, consume, make your life better. Then, astonishingly, a promo for the History Channel uses Amazing Grace as the track. It concludes, History: Made Every Day. But consider the show excerpts they are showing: Swamp People, American Pickers, etc. I’m hooked by the absurdity.
When the show starts up again, I can’t help but catch myself think that Abraham has a mental disorder. I think it’s probably to do with the narrative laid out so visually. Especially when Abraham exclaims, “A sacrifice? No. No! Have I not shown you enough faith?” to the wind through improbably tall grass.
During the next ad break, though, I’m caught off guard. The song over the Christian Mingle ad brings back memories of my childhood, eating snacks after school in the kitchen. It’s Jars of Clay “I Want to Fall in Love with You”. I actually had Jars of Clay on my first iPod, as a middle-schooler. I actually liked them, went running with their music in my ears, actually sang them in the shower. Now it sounds canned, and I can tell that this, too, is marketed to the faithful. Jars of clay, after all, is a Christian band. Their duty is to proclaim the faith first, and make music second. There’s a reason for all those horrible hymns that don’t rhyme quite and have all those unnecessary dissonant notes. And don’t overpay for motorcycle insurance! Pro wrestling live at the Alamo dome! Bacon worthy of the Mount Rushmore presidents! It goes on. Hashtags, Vikings. And back to the Bible.
It’s a nice touch, making Sara run up that mountain, screaming “Isaac! My boy!”. But it would not be her place, as a woman back then. Not even one so embittered as Sara. The deneumont: “Abraham has passed the test,” our anodyne narrator says. And cut to the pharaoh and Moses. It’s a good choice – dealing with Isaac’s anger (or lack thereof) would highlight too explicitly the cult-like overtones of some of these stories. All the Egyptians are bald, possibly a nod to Yul Brynner?
More cultural simplifications, grey-screen and cut to Egyptians tossing babies like footballs. The killing of the overseer is portrayed as a single blow to the back of the head: an accident, instead of the repeated beating, instead of the anger descending in a haze. As if to distract from that small instance of violence, we cut to clouds rushing across the screen. How did Ramses find the body, though? I’ve forgotten.
All these cuts … we’re 40 years later on Sinai, now. Here comes the money-shot, as far as the first episode is concerned. The burning bush, the plagues. But I have a problem with all this. People keep on getting called, in this mini-series. They do not just happen across things, as they would and did according to the Bible. The burning bush is far too large, more like a burning wall, a burning abyss.
And the pacing is too tight. Speaking of which: “Nothing has changed, so much suffering,” murmurs Moses to nobody in particular.
And then we have more ads. CatholicsComeHome.org implies that Catholicism started two thousand years ago, with His truly, the Messiah. Does that mean that Jesus was supposed to have been a Catholic? That Jesus can be simplified down to an institution? That God is a Christian? Or only a Christian?
No time to consider – the Pharaoh is screaming, “I am God! I am God!” and Moses is dragged out. Aaron lets loose the first plague. Of course, I know that it is not blood, but an algal bloom. If it isn’t all apochryphal, anyway. The pharaoh, covered in blood, screams again: “Moses!” and a smiling Joshua doubts no more, saying “I will never be a slave again.” This pharaoh needs to scream things in duplicate, even triplicate. And there are the locusts and the thunder, and the group of Israelites in a low chatter. Talk of pharaoh breaking, and the final plague, the angel of death. The group of Israelites in raised voices. And cut to Christian Mingle: Find God’s match for you!
Oh, my. This CGI is quite terrible, and that’s even when the Angel of Death is a dust cloud. Next morning, the sky is sunny and Moses is brought before a distraught pharaoh. The pharaoh screaming in triplicate again, so that Moses and the Israelites would go. Moses on his teammates’ shoulders, a soccer-pitch victory scene. More culturally-updated antics. Descendants as numerous as the stars, Moses updates us, for those who need that reminder. Does anybody who’s watching this on a Sunday night?
A nice touch, in this next cut: see the heathens sprinkle things on their dead, see their tattoos. See the slender arm, still dead. A sworn oath to his son, that the Israelites should build the tomb, with Moses’ body as the foundation. But. “This is the exodus. After 400 years of slavery, the Israelites are free,” the bland narrator reminds us. Then it’s steady-cams and horses’ legs, cue raised voices while the clouds race. Thunder booms out, and suddenly Moses knows what to do. There is a slow-motion pan from Egyptian chariots to Moses screaming at the sky, “Lord!”. And the staff comes down. Pan to storm-like conditions, and think of the children! Back on land it is misty, but sunny. More CGI. And this time, pharaoh only screams once. Moses bringing up the rear with a child. Does he pray to stop the Egyptians, or does he – ah, no. Of course he wouldn’t get his hands dirty. And the pharaoh screaming in duplicate again. And – “Freedom!” And think of the little children.
The narrator then leads us to Mount Sinai, amidst more thunder. Moses on the mountain, gasping. Moses tripping along with the Ten Commandments, like the nerd weighed down with too many textbooks. And Joshua must spy. And with nine minutes left, cut to 40 years later with the appearance of the Ark of the Covenant (no Nazis, though). Joshua the soldier, coming up! Christian Mingle, again. My sister comes out of her room, blinking. Oh, fuck that song, she mutters.
“The Lord brought us out of Egypt.” “Aye,” the Israelites improbably respond. They talk of taking Jericho. The spies climb the walls, and the Israelites are in. What of the prostitute, then? How will the good American History Channel handle this? By being obvious. “How’s my little whore?” And end on a sweet note: the Israelites killing Jerichoans. The Bible: to be continued. Not for me, though. I’ve had enough.