Ethnicity & "The Bible"
Why it matters in ways you may not have considered.
The Bible is a compilation of ancient literary texts, including stories, letters, prophecies, prayers and poems written in Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Greek, and has inspired untold millions of people, over thousands of years, to place saving faith in the work of Jesus, the son of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It's also now a ten-hour TV miniseries produced by the History channel.
Created by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (of "Touched by an Angel" fame, and full disclosure: also an early crush of mine), the premier of this series was viewed by over 13 million people, and has already sparked potentially two theatrical releases. Much could be said about this production, particularly the theological perspective it espouses, and before ripping into a critique, I would like to praise the effort of the creators to capture the entire narrative arc of the Bible. This is noteworthy, and I'm truly thankful that there has been a resurgence of interest in telling this story, for I believe it's the singularly most important story one could ever hear.
Now, on to the critique...
'The Bible' leaves much to be desired in many areas (just to be clear, I'm now referring to the History Channel series, not the previously-mentioned compilation of ancient literature, which I happen to believe in the essential historicity of), and I believe one such area of importance is the way it handles language and ethnicity.
In my immediate circle of friends, this discussion has primarily centered around its portrayal of one character: Samson.
It seems as though if you want to see American Evangelical Christians with their hackles up, all you need to do is suggest the possibility that one of the subjects of their beloved childhood Sunday School stories may have had dark skin.
In response, several questions immediately come to mind: Why exactly does this bother you? Did it NOT bother you that Moses had a British accent, or that Noah was apparently Scottish? (Both Noah and Moses were, of course, whiter than me in February - which is to say, exceedingly pasty)
I know tackling the subject of ethnicity, particularly when it intersects with faith, is a good way to make lots of enemies, but I think it's important for two reasons: historical accuracy and cultural assumptions.
First, let's briefly discuss the history, which is actually pretty straightforward. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) takes place exclusively in the Middle East, primarily in areas that we know today as Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The period of the Judges (where Samson's story is told) takes place after the Hebrew tribe has left Egypt and settled in the "Promised Land" of Israel, but before the monarchy was established (where we eventually learn about famous figures like David and Solomon).
So, for the purposes of our discussion the question becomes, "What ethnicity were the Hebrews (the Jews)?" Well, if you could hop in a Tardis and ask Moses what ethnicity he was, he would probably look at you strangely, smack you on the head with his staff, ask you where you got your funny clothes, and tell you to get back to your family. You see, people at that time identified with their tribe, or family, rather than ethnically. Over time and generations, this close tribal association is how ethnic identities would form. These people were Jews, of the tribe of Abraham. Since we know they settled in the Middle East, our best evidence of how they looked is to observe people in that region of the world today. The unavoidable conclusion of this: Moses was absolutely, certifiably not Caucasian. Not convinced? Well, I can tell you even more resolutely that he certainly did not have a British accent, though the producers of 'The Bible' would have you think otherwise.
Why does this even matter? Well, the creators of this series are depicting actual, historical figures. Now, I am 100% in favor of taking creative license when telling historical stories. In fact, it was the creative parts of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ that stick with me to this day. But blatantly monkeying with the language and ethnicity of historical characters eats at the very fabric of the story you are telling, (if, in fact, that story you are attempting to tell is historical). You can see examples of this throughout film, and it's why I can't take some lazy depictions (Tom Cruise in Valkyrie or Kevin Costner in the Prince of Thieves) seriously. Let's go back to Gibson's Passion. Notice that his creative choices played out in some of the actions of Jesus, while he went to great pains to preserve his ethnic look and his language (the actors spoke all their lines in Aramaic, the language Jesus would actually have spoken during his life). The Old Testament is the story of God working through a specific tribe of people in the ancient world, and changing their language and tribal identities effectively changes that story. At best, it's dishonest storytelling. At worst, and this is what I fear is happening, it perpetuates harmful assumptions about people, race, and identity in our culture.
Which, finally, brings me to Samson. Does it bother me that the creators of this series depicted Samson as a black man? Actually, it does. But, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, not because I think he should have been white. You see, every aspect of film deserves to be scrutinized, for every aspect is the result of a choice. The decision could have been from the casting director, the editor, the makeup artist, the set designer, the actor, the producer, or one of hundreds of other people, but every single thing you see in the final product was the result of a choice someone made. Therefore, someone intentionally decided to cast Nonso Anozie as the judge who saved Israel from Philistine oppression. Perhaps there was something about his personality that captured how they wanted depict Samson (and, for the record, I think he is a fine actor). Perhaps this choice honestly had nothing to do with his color, but his acting talent. But, in any case, in the final product we have a black man as Samson.
Now, our media has an extremely checkered past regarding its portrayal of black people, particularly in America. I know white people don't like to admit it, but examples are aplenty. From the use of "blackface" in the theater, to those racist crows in Dumbo, to a more recent cover of Vogue magazine:
To be responsible purveyors and consumers of media, we must admit this reality. Like it or not, black people have all-too-frequently been depicted as either primitive, violent, or both. To say that this same media has not played a role in perpetuating our culture's attitude towards blacks would be naive. One need not look further than the recent Trayvon Martin tragedy, and the various twitter streams surrounding it, to see current evidence of this. For myself, as a convinced Christian, to think that this creative attempt to tell the story of my faith's holy scripture, which has achieved surprising levels of popularity and even multiple Emmy nominations, is contributing to these racist, cultural attitudes is a profoundly disturbing tragedy.
In the second episode of 'The Bible', we see a noble, humble, and reluctant hero in Moses, who valiantly leads his people out of slavery and into the land that God has set aside and promised to them. Juxtapose this with Samson, who is characterized by excessive violence and his ability to be seduced by Delilah and tricked into giving away the secret of his strength. The role-model-hero is remarkably Anglo (complete with British accent), while the bumbling, violent one, who serves as an example of what not to do, is black. The superiority of the white man is protected.
Now, if we were discussing just any old story, this would still be enough to level a serious critique. But we are discussing the story of the Creator God and His intervention in human history to redeem our world. We Christians get so excited when something "biblical" gets mainstream attention that we are willing to forgive too many transgressions. As if God Himself gains some credibility with a few Emmy nominations.
God promised Abraham that his family would be a blessing to the nations, which presumably includes all ethnic groups (Genesis 12). When depictions of this very same story are used to maintain harmful ethnic distinctions, something has gone horribly, tragically wrong, and we need to stop being OK with it. We are keepers of what I truly believe is the greatest story in human history, and this story should be good news to the oppressed, not a tool to further their subjugation. For truly, Jesus came "to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free." (Luke 4)
Not the other way around.