If there is one thing the first two weeks of The History Channel’s blockbuster miniseries, “The Bible,” has proven, it is this: There is an appetite for Bible stories.
Television industry insiders indicate “over 50 million cumulative viewers have seen at least a portion of the series since it began on March 3.”
“The high ratings show what kind of huge numbers entertainment outlets can enjoy if they treat religious material and viewers with respect,” said Geoffrey Dickens, deputy research director at the Media Research Center.
None of which is lost on Bill Elliott, director of media resources and programs for the LDS Church’s Priesthood Department, who oversees the church’s ongoing series of short videos based on the New Testament story of the life of Jesus Christ.
“It’s nice to see people telling stories from the Bible,” he said. “There is power in these stories. They can make a difference in people’s lives.”
But there is a huge different between what people are seeing on The History Channel — a sweeping 10-hour docudrama that encompasses both Old and New Testaments — and what the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is doing with “The Life of Christ Bible Videos.”
“We’re not doing the whole Bible,” he said. “We’re doing scenes — small, simple stories from the Bible that focus on the words of Christ and the scriptural narrative as accurately and precisely as we can.”
At the end of each scene there is the scriptural reference to the story. “It’s our way of saying, ‘If you liked the video, go read the book,’ ” Elliott said. “We want to encourage people to read the scriptures.”
To date 43 such scenes are available for use — about half of the total number of scenes Elliott expects will eventually be completed.
“We don’t know yet how many there will ultimately be,” Elliott said. “Sometimes we’ll take a long scene — like the Sermon on the Mount — and then decide to break it up into several shorter scenes.”
As the production crew approaches the third year of filming, they have also expanded the original scope of the project to include several scenes based on the New Testament ministries of the apostles Peter and Paul.
Which is a good thing, as far as Elliott and his staff are concerned.
“How often in your life do you get a chance to spend your professional work day focused on something that completely immerses you in the life and teachings of the Savior?” Elliott asked. “Every day they have a prayer on the set before they start shooting. We are praying and asking for the spirit of the Lord to guide us in everything we do, from shooting to editing to mixing the sound. Everyone is so focused on doing this right, and making sure that we are accurately reflecting the Savior.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to do this,” he said.
While most of the videos are 3-5 minutes long, the most recently released video in the series, “Render Unto Caesar and Unto God,” is a 57-second dramatization of the account from the Gospel of St. Mark in which the Pharisees try to trick Jesus by asking him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Christ responds by saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12: 13-17).
New scenes are released and added to the collection every two weeks.
“We’re creating a library of scenes from the Savior’s life that can be used in the church in a wide variety of ways, such as LDS seminaries, institutes of religion, Sunday School classes and in other settings as well as by the Missionary Department and other church organizations," Elliott said. "Our objective is to make them as true and accurate as we possibly can, and of such excellent quality that they will be useful in the church for a long time.”
The videos are being seen and used by non-Latter-day Saints, as well. For example, Elliott spoke of a group from Texas that wanted to use the project’s “Good Samaritan” video at a special event for people who provide services for homeless people there. And with the videos available online through lds.org and the Mormon Channel on YouTube, and via mobile apps, there are doubtless many who are not LDS who are among the more than 5 million video views documented thus far.
“It’s very gratifying to see the response by people who comment on the videos on YouTube and say how they have made a difference,” Elliott said. “We see comments that say, ‘I needed this today,’ or, ‘I feel like I was led here.’ Regardless of their faith background, they seem to resonate with the spirit of the message of the life of Christ.”
And that, he said, is what the LDS Bible videos are really intended to accomplish.
“We’re not promoting it or pushing to see how many views we can get, or competing with the History Channel,” he said. “We’re just trying to create beautiful footage that will serve the needs of the church and bring people closer to Christ. That’s really our purpose: to share these Bible stories and touch lives.”