The Bible on TV: Popular programming for many reasons

Apr. 05, 2013 @ 04:16 AM

The Bible is alive and well on American television. The History Channel’s “The Bible,” a five-part mini-series that concluded on Easter Sunday, attracted viewing audiences larger than the competition on the major broadcast networks.

Holy Week and Easter programming also included the National Geographic Channel’s series “Living in the Time of Jesus” and “Doomsday: Book of Revelation,” as well as TCM airing the classic movies “King of Kings” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” To some people, the most surprising thing about the popularity of the Bible on TV is that it comes at the same time that recent polls have shown that a larger percentage of Americans are identifying themselves as “atheists” and “religiously unaffiliated” and that well financed campaigns are funding books, billboards, and bus-wrap advertising promoting atheism. How can the percentage of people identifying themselves as religiously affiliated be down, atheism be up, and the Bible on TV be more popular than ever?

Here are three reasons.

First, the size of the audience. Research conducted in 2012 by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that nearly 78 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians of one denomination or another. For television producers and advertisers alike, that’s a glass three-quarters full.

In a highly competitive environment of hundreds of channels on cable and satellite, a potential audience that large is not likely to be ignored. The unexpected success in 2004 of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” the top-grossing R-rated movie in the film industry’s history, opened the eyes of media and advertising executives to the size and viewing power of the audience for programming related to the Bible. That audience is too big for secular television outlets to leave to religious broadcasters.

The result? We are seeing more programming on the Bible and other religious topics than ever before on television. Second, shifts in the sources of spirituality. Not all people who tell the pollsters they are “not religious” or they are “religiously unaffiliated” are atheists. Many of them, especially former churchgoers, say they have soured on “organized religion.”

But they are still “spiritual,” they say. They have turned away from the church, but they have not abandoned their sense of the underlying spiritual dimension of human life. Instead, they are cultivating that dimension with sources of spirituality outside the church. In addition, sociologists of religion have documented the fact that since the 1950s, many people who are still affiliated with a church or denomination are no longer relying on the church alone to meet their spiritual needs.

Religious self-help books and magazines, community Bible studies, neighborhood prayer groups, internet sites, and television programming, among many other sources, are playing roles that were once reserved exclusively for local congregations and their denominational publishing houses. The shifts in sources of spirituality among Americans are contributing to an increase in the popularity of biblical and religious topics on television and in the movies. Besides, even some of us who are dedicated Bible readers would agree that the Bible is easier to watch on TV or the big screen than it is to read!

Third, the broad appeal of history. For more than 200 years in Protestant circles and more than 50 years among Roman Catholics, the study of the Bible has been pursued in colleges and universities that are less constrained by church authorities and parishioner sensitivities than the local congregation or denomination.

In the academy, the primary focus has shifted from doctrinal and devotional studies to historical investigation: studying the historical times and places, geography, archaeology, languages, and cultures reflected in the Bible. Exploration of these features of the Bible has proven to be of much broader popular interest than church doctrine.

In recent decades, historically oriented celebrity-scholars such as Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and Elaine Pagels have written bestsellers and guested on late-night television shows. It has never been safer or more popular to speak of “the Bible as history” or to debate its historical features without risking the rack or the stake, so it’s never hard to find a college or university professor who is ready and willing to appear in a documentary or consult on a project. And since it’s not hard to find an audience ready to watch programming about the “latest discovery” related to the Bible, we have a match made in heaven as far as television producers and advertisers are concerned.

These three factors—the size of the audience, shifts in the sources of spirituality, and the broad appeal of history—along with this year’s success of “The Bible” on the History Channel, mean that we haven’t seen the last of the television programs and big-screen movies related to the Bible.


Dr. Jeff Rogers is Dean of the Gayle Bolt Price School of Graduate Studies and an associate professor of religion at Gardner-Webb University.