The Bible Brought to Life

The Bible Brought to Life

The producer of shows such as  Survivor and The Voice tackles his greatest challenge.

Mark Burnett

My wife, Roma Downey (you might know her from the role of Monica on the TV show Touched by an Angel ), and I were having dinner. And Roma mentioned a documentary someone was doing on the Bible.

Roma thought the documentary focused too much on showing that God was harsh and unloving. It used examples like the millions drowned in the Genesis Flood and God’s demand of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

She asked me, “Why wouldn’t they tell the true story of a loving God with a plan for all humanity? A God who sent his only Son to die for us all?”

Then she spoke in that quiet, persuasive voice of hers, the one that Americans came to know so well from hearing it every Sunday night for over a decade.

“Mark, we should do this. We should make a TV series on the Bible. Not unconnected Bible stories, but the overarching, sweeping, loving narrative. A dramatic rendition that goes from Genesis to Revelation. We could tell that story in five two-hour episodes. We could bring it to life.”

I stared at her. It was an incredibly ambitious idea, and it’s not like we weren’t busy enough, raising three teenagers, and also producing some of the most demanding shows on TV (including The Voice and Survivor).

“How can we possibly take this on, and how can we tell this story in only ten television hours?” I asked, shaking my head.

“Think about it, Mark,” she said. “The Bible story is all the things that great television should be. It has adventure, it has drama and it has redemption.”

I do some of my best praying when I’m riding my bike on the country roads near our home, and clearly this was something to pray about. Pumping up the hills, watching the sun break through the fog, I kept talking to God and listening for answers.

All I could come up with were reasons why I was wrong for this project. I’m a producer, not a theologian. My biblical knowledge was pretty good (generally) and dates back to my childhood in England, from Sunday school and academic studies, and from rereading Scripture as an adult.

This project, I was convinced, would require a deeper knowledge. It would require a serious time commitment and building a huge advisory team.

The biggest question was, would a channel actually green-light this? Today’s kids probably know more about Batman and Robin than about David and Goliath, and more about the Matrix than about Daniel’s prophecies. They get their stories from the screen.

But that was it! Doing this “on the screen” would allow millions of people to discover the Bible. We knew we couldn’t teach it, but we could create an emotionally connecting dramatization that might make them open (or reopen) the Book.

We also knew that with today’s amazing technology, we could do a much better burning bush or parting of the Red Sea, even with a TV budget, than has been done before.

I considered my own career. My first job in Hollywood after leaving the Army was as a babysitter. I’d had no inkling I’d ever become a producer, but that is the essence of America—a nation that provides opportunities. All you have to do is go for it.

I knew it was time to go for it again. This time it would be with a project that gave back to God for all my many blessings.

I believe that God calls those with the right skills at the right time. Could it be that everything I’d learned about producing TV shows would culminate in this one massive project? It felt like a call. I couldn’t get it out of my head, as though the Holy Spirit was saying, “Yes, Mark, yes.”

One morning I came back from my bike ride, kissed Roma and said, “Let’s do it.”

We never looked back. I’d always loved the Bible, but making a TV series out of it only made me love it more.

You see, we just had to trust the story. The story was everything, from Noah in his ark to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, from Saul’s paranoia to David’s weakness, from Daniel in the lion’s den to the gift God gave to us of his only son, Jesus. His Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.

We put together an incredible team for the series—highly experienced producers and writers—and when they started adapting the text, the story swept them up, its power and its drama irresistible.

A film can make visual connections that dramatize a narrative. We asked ourselves, “Where was Sarah, and what was she doing when Abraham took their son up the mountain to be sacrificed?”

We would show her being left behind and slowly figuring out exactly what Abraham was planning, show her anguish, her fear and, finally, her overwhelming relief and trust in God’s goodness.

And in showing the moment when Nicodemus visits Jesus in the middle of the night, we chose to intercut this story with the nighttime moment when Judas goes to Caiaphas. One discovering what it means to be reborn, the other resolving to betray his savior.

The biggest challenge would be finding the right actors for the cast, especially the role of Jesus.

“He’s got to look strong, like a carpenter,” I told Roma. “He is described as ‘meek,’ but meek is not weak. Jesus needs to be shown with the human strength of a manual worker but with the compassion and love of a savior.”

“Yes,” Roma agreed. “The Lion and the Lamb.”

We auditioned hundreds of actors, checked videos, talked to agents, casting directors, friends. We chose some of the finest classical actors, who could bring life to lines from ancient Scripture. Our Goliath was so big he needed two seats on the flight to Morocco, where we shot the series.

A few weeks before filming, though, we still hadn’t found the right actor to play Jesus.

About Mark Burnett

Close of Jesus from The Bible miniseriesThe five-part miniseries The Bible will premiere on March 3 at 8 p.m. ET on The History Channel.

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