By Jacob Hicks
Faculty, College of Theology
“When The History Channel makes a production about Jesus, how do they know that’s what it was like? Is it based on their interpretation or the Bible?”
Your questions touch on several related issues: the accuracy of media representations of the Bible, the presuppositions/motivations of the creators and consumers of said media, a general cultural distrust of any truth claims and Americans’ lack of biblical literacy.
Since 1995, The History Channel (now technically branded as just “History”) has presented to American audiences a wide variety of topics. As a historian of Christianity and religion in America, I cannot tell you how many times my students or fellow church members have asked me if I had seen the latest series from The History Channel and asked for my opinion.
I am generally wary of finding a significant amount of solid historical content on a network that has produced shows such as Ancient Aliens and Ice Road Truckers. Still, I do not want to dismiss the network and all its content completely and want to engage in discussion about shows that people care about. Also, I am not going to squelch any desire for someone to learn about history!
It is important to keep in mind that when we discuss whether The History Channel gets it right when they have documentaries and other shows that examine the Bible that the network is in the entertainment business (In fact, its parent company is called Arts and Entertainment, or A&E). While the network may seek to inform its audience, network employees also want to make sure that “history sells.”
Networks want ratings and ratings mean money, largely through advertising. To make such a long and influential book as the Bible digestible to television audiences, it tries to make scenes from the Bible more dramatic and take artistic license when telling its narrative about scripture.
In other words, it leaves out a lot of content and adds content as it sees fit. Perhaps the greatest movie about scripture of all time, Cecil B. DeMille’s epic masterpiece The Ten Commandments (1956), does not 100 percent accurately portray the events of the Bible. For example, it added the story of Joshua’s love of the water girl, Lilia. Some artistic license is expected.
However, what should concern Christians is that The History Channel has had programs about Jesus or the Bible that can undermine trust in an inerrant, infallible scripture. In 2003, Jesuit priest and professor Raymond A. Schroth pointed out the network likes to have programming using the “words secret, marvels, untold story, true story, total story (implying the story you have now is neither true nor total) leap off the page.”Watch this show and be let in on a secret—perhaps one that ordinary—non-History Channel—history has covered up .” When one applies those descriptors to Jesus or the Bible, one can see how the Christian audience can be confused. “So, my Bible’s not true? There’s an untold story of the Bible? Someone left out another gospel about Jesus other than the four we have? What is this secret book called the Gospel of Thomas?” To some extent, having a program question our beliefs is good because it should encourage us to read more about the reliability of scripture, the history of the canon, and other topics in order to be more informed Christians. Take programs with a healthy dose of skepticism, though.
Unless one thinks that I am being too critical of The History Channel’s programming and its financial motivations for making the programs it does, I am not. The network is simply supplying what the public, including the Christian public, either demands or uncritically accepts. In our wider postmodern culture, and unfortunately even among many Christians, there is no firm grasp on, or desire to grasp, absolute truth.
Believing that Jesus is God and believing that Jesus is not God are two separate viewpoints that are equally valid in the cultural moment that we find ourselves in. One cannot say that one option or the other is right because there is no absolute truth or sense of right (of course, such a statement is itself an absolute truth claim).
This postmodern mindset has also caused a distrust of sources of information. Many people no longer trust the news media and some people dismiss out of hand the opinions of experts and other “elites” as biased and not to be trusted. Everyone has bias or as I prefer to call it, one’s own perspective: reporters, historians, other experts, you, me. That does not mean that one cannot trust what someone says or writes because that person has a different perspective from one’s own. Experts in particular have gone to many years of school and spent countless hours studying, reading, writing and having their work critiqued by peers. That is not to say that non-experts have nothing to contribute to the conversations that we have in our culture. Instead, I contend that a scholar’s expertise in his or her discipline should be a valuable resource in our conversations.
Finally, many Christians get flummoxed over the claims that programs on The History Channel make about the Bible. However, biblical illiteracy is a major problem in America and even in churches. According to a survey that LifeWay Research conducted in 2016 and released in 2017, 53 percent of Americans have read just a few passages of the Bible or less. Also, only “thirty-nine percent of those who attend worship services at least once a month read a bit every day ” People get confused over the Bible because they do not know the Bible!
As Christians, we can do better when it comes to how we examine the claims that The History Channel’s programming makes about the Bible. We need understand the motivations that the network has for presenting its materials in the way that it does, engage in our own thoughtful research on controversial and problematic topics that the network brings to light and immerse ourselves in the Scriptures so that we know what it claims about itself.
Do not delay in adopting these suggestions. In a lead-up to Easter, The History Channel will launch an eight-part series called Jesus: His Life beginning on Monday, March 25. Will you be watching? Most importantly, will you be an informed Christian as you watch?
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Raymond A. Schroth, “TV History: With Almost Excessive Even-Handedness, Channel Works the Theologians to Unravel ‘Secrets’ of the Bible,” National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003, 16, emphasis original.
 Bob Smietana, “Americans are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read it,” LifeWay Research, April 25, 2017, accessed March 2, 2019, https://lifewayresearch.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-the-bible-dont-actually-read-it/.