As I do not have cable TV, I never really get to watch the History Channel. But when some friends suggested that I check out the new History Channel series on the Bible Secrets Revealed, I thought I should investigate a little.
As it turns out, the History Channel does allow you to watch some of the previous episodes online fairly easily, at least for a limited time. I missed the window to see the first episode, “Lost in Translation“. However, I was able to view the next two episodes, “The Promised Land” and “The Forbidden Scriptures“. I will not attempt to give a full review but just offer some brief general observations and pointers to some resources for further study.
I like Bible documentaries because I always learn something from them, such as in this History Channel series, and it encourages me to dig deeper in the data even more for myself, even if I do not agree with everything presented. But what bothers me about some Bible documentaries is in the style of presentation and the overall narrative that the producers of the film are trying to convey. Genuine efforts to present views even handedly get unwittingly sidetracked by unexamined biases held by these documentary makers. Unfortunately, the History Channel’s latest film on this topic is no exception.
On the positive side, what the History Channel, advised primarily by Dr. Robert Cargill of the University of Iowa, is addressing is undeniably important. Evangelical churches typically avoid questions regarding Christian origins and critical Biblical studies like the plague. But gone are the days where church leaders can simply brush uncomfortable topics underneath the rug. Here are the days of the Internet, where young people can find information at the click of the mouse regarding issues that rarely ever get discussed in church. It is apparent that Dr. Cargill, an archaeologist and classics and religious studies instructor at the University of Iowa, has found more freedom in academia, the media and the Internet to ask these type of questions than in the church. I mean, if your pastor will not talk about it, then you can go view the History Channel, or even easier…just ask Google.
This is a tragedy. The church must do better than this. Here at Veracity, we want to help to try to change that.
The Bible Secrets Revealed documentary producers attempt to interview a wide variety of scholars with different theological perspectives to give a broad overview of controversial issues in scholarship and try to shed some light on points of contention. The goal is clearly admirable. But unless you know who the scholars are and where they are coming from, it is difficult to get the context for many of their comments. Typically, the film producers just give little sound bites here and there from each scholar. While this makes for a fast-paced and entertaining documentary, it does little to give you depth of understanding as to why a particular scholar arrived at a particular conclusion.
The second episode “The Promised Land” is thankfully more evenly balanced than the third episode “The Forbidden Scriptures“. In the third episode to the documentary’s credit, the narration does at least mention both conservative and liberal points of view. However, the narration style of the History Channel mostly puts forward interviews favoring the skeptical side and not the more orthodox side, offering more of a critique of the orthodox views and giving a large pass to the opposing skeptical views.
For example, in the “Forbidden Scriptures” the Book of Enoch is portrayed as one of the “banned books of the Bible”. The Book of Enoch was a popular ancient text that speculated on the details of the story in Genesis 6:1-8 where the “sons of God” came down and had sexual relations with the “daughters of men” to produce Nephilim offspring. The Book of Enoch is considered as sacred Scripture today only by some Ethiopian/Eritrean Orthodox churches, having fallen out of use by other Christians as well as by Jewish communities centuries ago. The History Channel suggests that possibly the Christian community sought to suppress the Book of Enoch because of its subversive message, even somehow tying in a feminist element that was really fuzzy to me. You got the idea that the male-dominated church leadership conspired together to wipe out opposition to their political power. But while this highlights an important theme in contemporary, 21st century affairs, it tells us very little about what really happened with the Book of Enoch. To think that the Christian community was simply following the Jewish lead in abandoning the Book of Enoch is apparently not sensational enough for the History Channel to explore in much depth. Or is the History Channel suggesting that the Ethiopian/Eritrean Orthodox communities that still include the Book of Enoch espouse a less “control-freak” oriented kind of Christianity at odds with other more “authoritarian” Christian communities? I hardly believe that.
The documentary was framed in the sense that there are mysteries whose answers can perhaps only be found by discovering the “secrets” hidden in the Bible. This was sadly misleading in that all one needs to do is simply READ THE BIBLE and discover for oneself that many of the supposed “secrets” are actually spoken of quite plainly in the text. What a radical, novel idea! Sure, there are variations in interpretations of the Bible and we can clearly benefit from scholars like Dr. Cargill and his colleagues who take the time to investigate the issues and what can be gleaned from other ancient documents and archaeological findings. But this is no substitute for digging into what the Bible itself says. I think the best way to measure the success of the History Channel’s documentary is to find out if it encourages viewers to read through the whole Bible for themselves.
Perhaps you think I am being overly pessimistic about Bible Secrets Revealed. Well, the problem is that I expect better. You see, most of the folks who will probably get into this documentary are folks who either have very little understanding of the Bible to begin with or folks who have developed a real antipathy towards Christianity. What the History Channel is not reaching is those in Christian communities of faith that need to address these type of issues. The average evangelical Christian has probably never, ever heard of the Book of Enoch, despite the fact that the New Testament Letter of Jude specifically references the Enoch text in Jude 1:14. But you would be hard pressed to find that many evangelical Christians who would be willing to sit through the History Channel’s presentation without flipping the channel off in ten minutes and dismissing it as “liberal” drivel. Sadly, this does not serve the work of the Biblical scholar that well either, as it puts in the mind of the believer the idea that scholarship can not be trusted, and it reinforces the stance of the skeptic and the hesitancy of the agnostic. If the History Channel really wants to engage people in a robust dialogue, they need to do a better job of faithfully representing orthodox belief in conversation with more skeptical critics.
Several more episodes are coming from the History Channel in the series Bible Secrets Revealed, 10 pm on Wednesday evenings.
More on Enoch from Philip Jenkins, an historian at Baylor University, giving what I consider to be a more modest reasoning why the Book of Enoch fell out of favor in Christian worship in most of the churches.
Michael Kruger, the president of Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, is giving an episode by episode review of the Bible Secrets Revealed series.
UPDATE: January 2018. I stumbled upon this fascinating review of the program by Eastern Orthodox scholar, Eric Jobe. Most excellent.