Use this as a catalyst or jumping-off point. This is their intention. They (Downey and Burnett) don’t want this (show) to be the end experience for people. They want this to attract people to the Bible. —Eric Huntsman
PROVO — Latter-day Saints who tune in to “A.D.: The Bible Continues” can expect a fairly accurate visual depiction of the New Testament, according to a trio of scholars at Brigham Young University.
And hopefully, they say, the forthcoming NBC miniseries will bring viewers closer to the Holy Bible.
“No depiction can completely agree with my spiritual experience or your expectation,” said Camille Fronk Olson, chairwoman of the ancient scripture department at BYU. “But it can inform, it can help me crystallize my own understanding and belief. I can feel that same spirit of God in their attempt to portray something that has definitely touched their lives. This is (done) by believers, and you can feel that.”
Olson joined Eric Huntsman and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel in discussing "A.D." during a panel interview with the Deseret News. The scholars discussed what they've seen from the miniseries and its predecessors, the 10-part History Channel series "The Bible" and the theatrical film "Son of God"; what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can expect from "A.D."; and the positives and negatives of dramatizing sacred text.
“For most Americans, (media) is what speaks to them,” said Holzapfel, a professor of church history and doctrine at BYU. “While scholars and historians might quibble over certain interpretations or licenses, the vast majority of the people are going be moved by this.”
“A.D.” premieres Easter Sunday, April 5, on NBC at 8 p.m. A special about the making of the series, called "Finding Faith in Primetime," will air on KSL at 4 p.m., following LDS general conference.
Married couple Roma Downey, an actress known for her work on the show "Touched by an Angel," and Mark Burnett, producer of hit reality TV series such as "Survivor," "Shark Tank" and "The Voice," surprised the entertainment world with the success of the "The Bible," which chronicled several events between Genesis and Revelation over five two-hour episodes. "The Bible" was viewed by 100 million people, according to History Channel.
Viewership in the Salt Lake City market, however, was lower than the national average, according to Nielsen. In Salt Lake City, "The Bible" averaged a 2.30 rating and 4.53 share, compared to the national average of 3.18 and 5.96, respectively.
Holzapfel explained that other Christian faiths, especially in the South, are accustomed to "entertainment worship" where individuals view or experience a religious service with bands, choirs and sermons, but don't necessarily participate. The experience is "very moving," he said.
"They naturally go to these films and it's part of their experience," Holzapfel said. "... (LDS audiences) have a much different approach to the kind of visual experience. We don't naturally watch this film as a worship experience. For us, it's a movie. We are also more critical about how things are portrayed."
Huntsman, a professor in the department of ancient scripture at BYU, said Mormons are used to getting their religious material from church headquarters and seeing it presented in a familiar way. Like "The Bible" and "Son of God," "A.D." relies on Bible translations that are more current than the King James Version that Latter-day Saints are accustomed to.
But from what he's seen of the miniseries, he's been impressed.
"I think it will be effective in drawing people in," Huntsman said.
Olson said that many who read the New Testament struggle to see the stories through a first-century lens. Dramatizations can take viewers back in time to those crowded, dirty streets of Jerusalem where one can see the juxtaposition of the squalor with the nicely dressed leaders in fancy homes.
“This is a great gift in a sense to allow people to travel in time and feel like you are right there. To travel and see that in time makes a difference when you go back to scripture and visualize,” Olson said. “From what I have seen, they are trying to be as faithful as possible.”
Huntsman pointed to a scene from "A.D." depicting bleating lambs on their way to being sacrificed and blood being splashed on the altar. It was clear to him the producers had consulted scholars and done their research.
“All these wonderful, subtle, powerful things, this is the strength of a dramatic visual portrayal,” Huntsman said. “Even though you have some inherent problems with interpretation and historical fictionalization of events, there are things you can do visually that you don’t get from reading. When they have taken creative liberties, they did it consciously, trying to be true to the spirit of the text, but aware of how it might work with an audience.”
Anciently, there was little ethnic diversity among the apostles, Huntsman said. Yet "A.D." incorporates actors of different ethnicities.
“There probably was not this ethnic diversity, and yet, I think the choice they are making is the inclusive nature of the good news of the message of Jesus Christ has to include everyone,” Huntsman said.
Olson, Holzapfel and Huntsman hope the series leads families to the scriptures.
“Use this as a catalyst or jumping-off point,” Huntsman said. “This is their intention. They (Downey and Burnett) don’t want this (show) to be the end experience for people. They want this to attract people to the Bible.”
Holzapfel said it’s important that parents not be “the corrector of the story." Rather, they should engage children in a conversion with questions such as “What did you like about it? What questions did you have? How did you feel?”
“Some parents will want to go through and find all the mistakes, but that would not be beneficial," he said.
Families should take note of the TV rating that appears at the beginning of each episode. Some material essential to the biblical story, such as the crucifixion scene in the first episode of "A.D.," may be too intense or graphic for younger viewers.
"A.D." roughly covers the first 10 chapters of Acts in the New Testament. For Latter-day Saints, these chapters, which include Peter's emergence as the leader of the church along with the conversions of Saul (the apostle Paul) and the Roman centurion Cornelius, have modern parallels.
“The first 10 chapters of Acts are instructive and talk about how a church begins, its steps, half-steps, missteps and its misunderstandings, which reflects our own church history,” Holzapfel said. “I think Luke (the author of Acts) is trying to give hope to the church. If we let God come into our lives, this is what believing in Jesus can do to a person, a family and community.”
Peter is a great character to get to know better, Huntsman said.
"You see him become who he was meant to be, empowered by the Spirit, bold in testimony, and you see him work the miracles of Jesus and receive revelation for the church,” Huntsman said.
LDS audiences will also be able to relate to the selection of a new apostle (Matthias) and a general theme of missionary work, the trio agreed.
Huntsman said he is excited to see the series debut on Easter Sunday because it’s an opportunity for Latter-day Saints to find common ground with friends of other Christian faiths.
“Christmas and Easter are these times when we can set aside a lot of our theological differences and celebrate the things we have in common in Christendom,” Huntsman said. “It’s an opportunity to say, 'Hey, we are also celebrating with the rest of the Christian world the greatest thing that ever happened.'”
“This is a huge opportunity for us,” he said. “We should be grateful these people have done it. Sit back and enjoy it.”
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