“Faithful Viewer” is an occasional feature where RNS reporters plumb religion and spirituality — in film, television, books, music and other forms of popular culture.
(RNS) If you’re planning to watch “Of Kings and Prophets,” bring your bandages.
In the first five minutes blood spurts from chests and mouths, streams downhill from bodies and is held up in handfuls. The rest of the hourlong episode has nudity, premarital sex, a beheading and an impalement. Children are slaughtered. A man is attacked by a lion in a scene the bear from “The Revenant” would be proud of.
This ain’t no Sunday school Bible filmstrip.
And that’s the point, say the creators of “Of Kings and Prophets,” which premieres Tuesday (March 8) on ABC. They were aiming less for the religious home-schooled crowd and more for the HBO crowd — despite the fact that the network is owned by Disney.
“We don’t view this as a revisionist history, nor do we view it as a literal translation” of the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel on which it is based, said Chris Brancato, executive producer of the show, during a press rollout. “We’ve sought to make the show modern. … This is a non-dragon version of ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Goal achieved. And like “Game of Thrones,” the production values are high, the costumes luscious, and the hair styles … creative. But has ABC misstepped by making the show, which will air at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) so adult?
“Of Kings and Prophets” tells the story of the aging King Saul (Ray Winstone), the ascending David (Olly Rix) and the women who love and hate them. David starts the series as the young shepherd he was before he slew Goliath, before he succeeded Saul as King of Israel and before he spied Bathsheba bathing.
There’s a lot here for Christian and Jewish audiences, who both revere the story as Scripture, to love. But will they?
“My problem, many times with shows like this is (that) instead of pulling out of the audience more recognition of the power or the love of God, or more compassion and more understanding of the human condition, they can instead pull out of us our love of being excited and titillated, which doesn’t transform us,” said Linda Seger, a television and film script consultant.
Seger, who said she has seen only trailers of the series, says there can still be a market for such shows among Christians, like herself, or Jews.
“A Christian audience can get hooked on exactly the same things that any other audience does: violence, blood, sex, etc.,” she said. “As Christians, we might want to be high-minded and enlightened but that doesn’t mean we are.”
Case in point: “The Passion of the Christ,” the 2004 film directed by Mel Gibson, was a ripping success. Christians rented out entire movie theaters and sent churchgoers by the chartered busload to fill them. The movie, made for $30 million, has earned $611 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
And religion and film scholars have seen its bloody fingerprints on dozens of other Bible-based Hollywood products, including television’s “A.D.: The Bible Continues” and “The Red Tent” and the movies “Noah,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (which the “Of Gods and Prophets” creative team worked on) and the current feature film, “Risen,” which mimics “The Passion of the Christ” in look and feel.
“Evangelical Christians seem to have less trouble with” violence, said Paul V.M. Flesher, a religious studies professor at the University of Wyoming. “Violence is not OK, but it has become such a part of our entertainment culture, from childhood cartoons onwards, that we are largely inured to it. In and of itself, I don’t see violence as causing a lot of Christian reactions against the series — especially if the blood and the violence is in the proper context, such as battles, or the fight between Goliath and David.”
But the line between too much violence and too much sex and just the right amounts is a very fine one for a television studio to walk.
“There is nothing here we haven’t seen before,” said Jeffrey Mahan, a professor of ministry, media and culture at the Iliff School of Theology. “The question of whether it is a misstep is probably one of timing. Is there a current audience for a renewal of the form? ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and last year’s ‘Exodus’ suggest that it is likely.”
(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for Religion News Service)