Actress and producer Roma Downey explains why she is stepping out in faith with her new project, A.D.: The Bible Continues.
- Posted on Mar 20, 2015
Our dear friend Pastor Rick Warren has always said that the most dangerous prayer you can pray is Lord, use me. You don’t quite know what will happen after you say those words, but you’d better be ready.
A few years ago when my husband, Mark Burnett, and I produced The Bible, a series for History Channel, we did it because we felt a calling in our hearts to do so. We went on to produce the feature film Son of God for the same reason.
Before The Bible, we hadn’t a clue whether anyone would watch a cable series dramatizing the Scriptures, and the challenge of squeezing the entire book into just 10 hours was daunting, to say the least. We were also committed to staying true to the text despite knowing that many of our peers in Hollywood would question our openness about our commitment to faith in Jesus Christ.
Between the two of us, we had all the experience we needed, Mark with his background as the producer of such mega hits as Survivor, The Voice and Shark Tank, and me playing the angel Monica on the series Touched by an Angel for many years. So we poured ourselves—heart and soul—into the project.
The Bible and Son of God were successful beyond our wildest dreams. We have heard from so many people who came to faith because of them, and we were especially encouraged that the series was a catalyst for a greater discussion about the Bible across the nation.
Biblical illiteracy has been on the rise for decades, especially among the young. I was so saddened to read that according to one recent survey, people thought that Daniel was a character from The Lion King and that “David and Goliath” was the name of a ship. Mark and I felt moved to use our Hollywood experience to remind millions of this book that has changed people’s lives generation after generation.
It’s very true that that prayer, Lord, use me (or, in our case, use us), can be dangerous. You never know what will be asked of you. Mark and I were ready to take a deeper dive into our calling by bringing the Book of Acts—and the story of the birth of the church—to television in a brand-new series for NBC. It’s called A.D.: The Bible Continues. It begins airing on Easter Sunday and continues for 12 weeks.
A.D. is set during a time when the Jewish nation was under occupation by the Roman Empire. Some fought for freedom from oppression and others fought to maintain their power and status. The politics make those on the cable-TV series House of Cards look like a badminton match. Amid all this violence and struggle, we see Jesus’ utterly radical message of faith, hope and love prevail.
Jesus came as a prince of peace when no one knew anything other than war and conflict. He sent a vagabond bunch of fishermen out to start a movement that is still changing the world. A.D. tells their story. The story of regular people changing the course of human history through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Casting A.D. was especially important to us because we were committed to showing the diversity of this global movement. We used actors from more than 10 countries, from the Italian actress Greta Scacchi, who plays Mary, to Chipo Chung from Zimbabwe, our Mary Magdalene.
Of course, the biggest challenge was how to cast the lead character, the Holy Spirit. How would we show the tongues of fire that alighted on the apostles’ heads at Pentecost or convey the howling of the fierce wind that filled the house? How would we present miracles like the stone rolling away from the tomb or locked prison doors opening in the middle of the night?
I suppose you could say we gave the part to CGI (computer-generated imagery), using computer graphics to bring to life what Scripture describes.
We wanted the power of God to be present in every moment. God clearly heard us. In fact, he produced some pretty amazing special effects of his own, like when we were filming the trial of John and Peter and looked up at a clear blue sky to see a perfect cross formed by two clouds. We had to stop shooting so everyone could grab their cell phones. It felt like a sign that he was watching over us.
On another day, a beautiful double rainbow arched over our set, reminding us again of God’s presence. God doesn’t need CGI technology to perform his own signs and wonders.
The Roman rulers of first-century Palestine did not tolerate dissent. Jesus’ death on a cross was not the first or the last crucifixion of that period. Thousands faced similarly gruesome ends. It was very important to us in telling this story to show the stark reality of that era, to show the context that surrounds Scripture.
Paul alone was imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked three times, stoned once, and tormented by hunger and thirst. He endured sleepless nights and endless threats. He was even bitten by a viper. Both Peter and Paul faced struggles within their own hearts trying to forgive themselves, Peter for his denial of Jesus at the Crucifixion, and Paul for his persecution of Jesus’ disciples.
But throughout the travail, those who followed Jesus spread God’s love to all people, not just to the elite, and all the power of Rome couldn’t stop them. The aged Gamaliel in the Book of Acts makes a telling point about the apostles. He says, in effect, that if their plan is of human origin, it will end in ruin. But if it originates with God, nothing will be able to stop them.
Mark and I were particularly struck by the strong women who make up so much of the story of the New Testament. The most misunderstood of them, I think, is Mary Magdalene. For some reason, a few centuries after her death, several stories were conflated, turning her into a fallen woman. Yet the Gospels actually say that she was an injured woman, whom Jesus healed of seven demons.
Mary Magdalene was there when Jesus was crucified, and she was the first person the risen Lord showed himself to. Think of what that must have meant in an era when women had very few rights. God’s love was bigger than that world, bigger than man’s law. This is the Mary Magdalene we show in A.D.—a woman of extraordinary strength, faith and courage.
The apostles prayed, and prayed often. Mark and I took our cue from them. Sometimes we felt we needed prayer just to get through the day as we burned the proverbial candle at both ends.
I believe in the power of prayer and I can’t think of any decision in my life big or small that I have not prayed my way through. Yet I have never prayed as I prayed this fall, for in the middle of shooting, our family was hit with a crisis that called on all of our spiritual resources—and more. Our teenage son, Cameron, fell very ill. He had to be hospitalized and undergo emergency surgery.
I can feel a tightness in my chest even thinking of that time. We were terrified, and our fear and concern for him brought us to our knees like never before. Our family lived at the hospital for many tense and exhausting days.
If there ever could be an enemy of faith, it is fear. And we were full of fear and anxiety. At times it was very hard to pray or to completely trust God—and yet, like the disciples, we had to do exactly that.
We turned to the words of Scripture that were still fresh in our minds from filming. In the Book of Acts, and in A.D., there are many healings. People lie in wait for Peter to pass by in the hope that the mere touch of his shadow will heal them.
And as the apostles made clear, it was belief in God and in the power of Jesus’ name that made these miracles happen. So, we prayed for a miracle. That was all we could do. Many others prayed for us too, and we are so grateful for all who stood with us in our time of need.
And we were given a miracle. Cameron is strong again and restored to us. The doctors have been left scratching their heads while we have fallen to our knees with different prayers—prayers of gratitude.
Soon you will have a chance to see our series and, I believe, see your own miracles as you are reminded that the God of the Book of Acts is the God of today.
The story that starts with the Crucifixion ends with a Resurrection. And it was no ending, actually. It was just the beginning of the story of faith in billions of hearts over thousands of years.
You will see the stone rolled over the tomb, a stone so heavy it takes an army to put it in place and to secure the seal that couldn’t possibly be broken. Then you will see the moment that changed history: in the year of our Lord—Anno Domini—when an angel from heaven came down to that tomb as Jesus was raised again.
He was alive, and he is alive.
It is the most amazing story any producer could be privileged to tell.
And all because of a simple—but sometimes dangerous—prayer: Lord, use me.