Confetti is falling as Christina Levasheff of Orange County, Calif., stands on a stage between her husband Drake and their friend Dean Bobar. The team of three, called Judson’s Legacy, has just won the championship round of "The American Bible Challenge" game show and claimed $100,000 for the charity of their choice. As Jeff Foxworthy, the show’s host, walks over to congratulate the team, Levasheff closes her eyes, trying to comprehend the moment.
“How did we get here?” she remembers thinking to herself.
The episode, which aired Oct. 18 on GSN (formerly the Game Show Network), culminated a record-breaking debut season for the show, which is an amalgam pop culture, Bible literacy and charitable giving. More than two million viewers tuned in for the premiere alone.
To answer Levasheff’s question, at least in part, Judson’s Legacy won the show by beating out 17 other teams in a bracket-style competition spanning nine episodes, each featuring several rounds of creatively posed trivia questions. One round, called CSI: Holy Land, asks participants questions about a crime committed in the Bible. Another, titled Faithbook, shows posts from a Bible character’s “Faithbook” page before asking participants to name the character’s identity. In last round, The Final Revelation, each team is given a copy of the Bible and 10 minutes to study a given topic before answering as many questions as they can in 60 seconds.
In its first season, the show gave away more than $200,000 to 18 charities. It also helped to revive biblical literacy in a nation that’s saturated with Bibles, yet famously ignorant of the Good Book. Last year, the Gideons alone gave away an average of two new Bibles per second. Still, only half of all U.S. Christians can name the Four Gospels. As the joke goes, “To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it, they just scroll to the bottom and click, ‘I agree.’”
Gaming the Bible
"The American Bible Challenge" played particularly well among the Dallas, Memphis and St. Louis markets and among women aged 25 to 54. The show has also spawned The American Bible Challenge Game, which is the top-ranking Bible trivia game for digital and social platforms with more than five million gameplays and 400,000 users.
All of this has GSN considering additional religious-based programming. According to David Schiff, a senior vice president for GSN, such content is in development, though nothing has been commissioned yet.
“This is an example where there was a huge swath of the country that wasn’t being catered to by mainstream entertainment,” he said. “We’re really excited that we tapped into this and activated a huge portion of the faith-based community. I hope it’s a lesson to other entertainment networks that there’s an audience out there.”
Meanwhile, preparations for the second season of "The American Bible Challenge" roll forward. Expect the show’s tag line to stay the same: "If you don’t know the Bible you don’t have a prayer." Also look for the gospel choir to return along with plenty of “amens." Beyond that, producers plan to shake things up by involving religious celebrities (a la Tim Tebow or Miranda Lambert) and by finding participants who, while passionate about the Bible, don’t necessarily look like your average Bible-study member. The sole requirement to be considered for the show is the ability to pass a Bible knowledge test.
Capturing the imagination
Some may balk at the marriage of pop culture and religion, but professor Stephen Prothero of Boston University noted that the two have long gone hand in hand. “Before you teach people you’ve got to first capture their imagination. Religion and entertainment have always been dancing together throughout American history. I think it’s effective.”
For an example, he pointed to the use of the organ in church services. “When the organ first came into church it was opposed by a lot of people because it was a secular instrument. It was a thing you played in a bar. ‘How can you have that in a church?’ people asked. Well, people will like the music and maybe they’ll come to church more, pay more attention, want to sing more, sing with more enthusiasm.”
When asked specifically about "The American Bible Challenge," Prothero, author of the book “Religious Literacy," said that enlisting a comedian like Jeff Foxworthy to host the show can help draw people in.
“He can get people laughing and, perhaps, wanting to know more," Prothero said. "Pop culture can make religious literacy seem cool.”
Tracy Fox, creator of the One Minute Bible Study, a daily email service, agrees. She said pop culture can help expose people to the Bible and make it seem less intimidating.
“Many people think they can’t read the Bible for themselves,” she said. “They think it has Shakespearean language, it’s too big, it’s out of date, it’s just some old dusty book in the back of the pew. That’s how I used think, even with my mother as a minister.”
Not everyone is comfortable with the show's treatment of the Bible. Eliza Wood is a religion columnist for the Huffington Post. Having watched every episode, she wonders if the program isn’t guilty of “sugar coating” the Bible.
“Is it really an honest assessment and cross-section of the teachings in the Bible?” Wood asked. “Or are they going for the more popular, crowd-pleasing, commonly taught aspects of the Bible? I find it curious.”
Schiff said the show’s intent is not to interpret. “The book has a myriad of meanings to different people,” he said. “Our approach is that whether you believe in this book or not, no one can deny how important it is to hundreds of millions of people. People have spent their lives studying it. We wanted to celebrate that.”
Prothero points out that in a pluralistic, post-9/11 society in which religion plays a major role, biblical literacy and religious literacy more generally can foster increased understanding as well as more respectful, intelligent debate.
Not only is the Bible the canonical book of Christianity, its Old Testament portion closely corresponds to the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. In addition, Islam counts the first five books of the Old Testament, the Psalms and the Gospel of Jesus — part of which is found in the Four Gospels — as three of its four Holy Books; the fourth and foremost being, of course, the Quran.
There’s another answer to Christina Levasheff’s on-stage question, “How did we get here?” That answer began long before "The American Bible Challenge" was in development.
Rewind to the spring of 2007. The Levasheffs’ 28-month-old son, Judson, was a loving, healthy boy who could sing "The Star Spangled Banner" word for word. However, within a period of just five months he became blind, mute and fully paralyzed due to a disease called Krabbe leukodystrophy, which breaks down the myelin, or fatty coating, surrounding the nerve cells in the brain. He passed away before his third birthday.
The $140,000 won by Judson’s Legacy over three separate episodes will fund a myelin repair lab in Judson’s name at the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Levasheff struggled to describe the feeling that came over her as she stood with her husband at the end of the game show.
“I was so aware that we wouldn’t have been standing on that stage if it wasn’t for our son. I get choked up just talking about it. What I felt then was this clash of deep, deep pain and tremendous joy all at one time. It was surreal. It felt redemptive that out of our son’s life and pain could come such a great gift.”
It's difficult to overstate the role the Bible has played in Levasheff’s life. "For me, biblical literacy has been essential to knowing how to navigate life,” she said. It helped her to deal with the unexpected and overwhelming loss of her son. Then, thanks to a game show, it became a means to perpetuating his legacy.
“The passage that often comes to mind,” she said, “is John chapter 16 verse 33: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.”
To view an award-winning documentary about Judson Levasheff’s life and legacy, visit: http://judsonslegacy.com/Judsons-Eyes
For casting information, or to watch an episode from the first season of "The American Bible Challenge," visit: http://gsntv.com/shows/the-american-bible-challenge/videos/
David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at email@example.com.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company