March 15, 2016

Long road for Reza Aslan’s ‘Of Kings and Prophets’ from Bible to TV

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Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

“Faithful Viewer” is an occasional feature in which RNS reporters plumb religion and spirituality — in film, television, books, music and other forms of popular culture.

Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

(RNS) Reza Aslan is the best-selling author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” a religion scholar and a creative writing professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Ten years ago, he and his business partner Mahyad Tousi established BoomGen Studios, which consults with Hollywood on content about the Middle East. BoomGen is now a production company with two hit television shows, Ovation’s “Rough Draft with Reza Aslan,” a talk show, and the new “Of Kings and Prophets,” which airs Tuesday nights on ABC and is based on the Old Testament story of King David, as told in the biblical books 1 and 2 Samuel. Aslan was also a consulting producer on the HBO series “The Leftovers.”

Aslan talked with RNS about why Hollywood resists nuanced religious content and how BoomGen is trying to change that. Aslan was born in Iran, raised in the U.S. and converted to Christianity as a teenager before returning to Islam. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why does BoomGen Studios focus on developing stories about or from the Middle East?

A: When you talk about the Middle East you’re talking about the cradle of storytelling.

But we are not here to make the Middle East look good. That part of the world is profoundly in trouble. It has enormous political, social and economic conflicts and is dealing with a tremendous identity crisis, and if you are going to tell a contemporary story about that part of the world you cannot ignore any of that.

The question, then, is, can you tell that story with three-dimensional characters who have real motivations and are dealing with the human condition in a way that goes beyond their ethnicity, nationality or religion? We believe if you tell these stories with authenticity, not only will they be economically successful, you can also transform perception in America toward this complex and mosaic part of the world.

Q: Would you agree that, with a few exceptions, Hollywood has a short history of turning out films and television shows with nuanced religious content?

A: Stories that tackle religion in Hollywood tend to be one of two things. You either visualize the Scriptures, like Mark Burnett’s “The Bible” project. You take a piece of Scripture and you merely dramatize, as though it is a re-enactment. Those kinds of projects are enormously successful with faith-based audiences, but not with anybody else.

The other kinds are projects like the movies “Noah” or “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — remakes that go so far from the Scriptures they alienate faith communities even as they draw praise and viewers from nonfaith communities.


RELATED STORY: Reza Aslan defends controversial new book on Jesus


When we developed “Of Kings and Prophets,” we knew it could appeal to a faith-based audience because it is a loyal retelling of the biblical story, but it also appeals to secular audiences because that biblical story is crazy! The story of King David is insane! It is full of horrific violence, soap-operaesque drama, with a main character who is so deeply flawed. King David is an unavowed sinner. He is not Jesus Christ. He is compelling because he struggles. He sins and he repents. So we thought, we’ve got a story that will finally unite these communities.

Q: Did the networks and studios you approached to make “Of Kings and Prophets” agree?

A: We got no after no after no, primarily because Hollywood executives would say there is no way we can put this story on the screen because all the sex and violence will offend the faith-based viewers. We had to remind them that all the sex and violence they objected to were literally taken from the Bible. Hollywood assumes a faith-based audience does not have the sophistication to enjoy a show like this. But Christians watch “Game of Thrones.” They don’t mind sex and violence on their screen as long as it is used for dramatic purposes, and in this case it is not only used for dramatic purposes, it comes from Scripture itself.


RELATED STORY: ‘Of Kings and Prophets’ like ‘Game of Thrones’ minus the dragons


Q: What has reaction to the show been?

A: What I think has been remarkable is that the so-called secular reviewers of the show have blasted it, saying no faith-based audience is going to watch. The irony is, it has mostly been the faith-based audience that has rallied to the show and I think partly that proves that we must stop treating faith-based audiences like they are children. If you are a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim you are familiar enough with your Scripture that you don’t need it whitewashed for you. It is about time Hollywood treated these people like adults.

Q: Does your own faith inform what you take on at BoomGen?

A: I believe faith is nothing more than a mode of knowing. It is like a lens. It allows me to see the world and my place in it through a unique perspective. It allows me to recognize there is more than just the concerns of the material world. Of course my faith has influence on everything I do, because I refuse to believe I am working toward something that is solely material. I do believe the universe and everyone in it is pulsing with a soul, and it is that soul that I am interested in.

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS)

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  • “That part of the world is profoundly in trouble. It has enormous political, social and economic conflicts and is dealing with a tremendous identity crisis…”

    Part of my heritage is Syrian and Lebanese. I grew up Catholic with Christian and Muslim cousins from that part of the world. The problem with the Middle East is “Faith” – it is an imprisoning, paternalistic, profoundly stifling and simply impractical way of dealing with reality.

    Reza Aslan seems interested in uniting people of ‘faith’. But he misses the point. His book ‘Zealot’ was interesting – but it appears likely the Gospel of Mark is a riff on Homer’s Odyssey and not a commentary about a real Jesus at all.

    The Bible stories are not based on reality. They are a distraction. The more people look at ‘Holy’ books, the more ridiculous they appear to be.

    May Atheism spread through the Middle East – it is a place truly desperate for less religion.

  • yoh

    Martin Scorsese ruined the Biblical Epic genre for all time with Last Temptation of Christ. Since that film, everyone after him went for the realistic, historical accurate look to life in Judea. So instead of nice looking costumes with perfect hair and teeth, everything is ruddy earth tones and shabby .

    Of God’s and Prophets looks terrible, too desaturated color/lighting wise and is trying too hard to portray a story better suited for pay cable.

  • Wardo00

    Atheism worked out so well for the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and China, it will likely turn out well for the Mid-east as well.

    What would really be great is the removal of theocracies and national religions, permitting everyone to worship or not as they please.

    When was the last time you saw a Western Democracy with freedom of religion going to war with another Western Democracy with freedom of religion?

  • Wardo00

    Yes, nothing like realism to ruin a good movie based on the Bible.

  • ben in oakland

    The nineties? Serbia vs. everyone else?

    Seriously, Nazi Germany was not atheist. It was Christian.

    Russia and china also had religions– communism, with the cult of personality surrounding the leaders.

  • Tom

    Actually ,many Biblical stories may be based on reality. The Great Flood from Genesis is a prime example. Many scholars agree that a flood of a catastrophic proportions did actually occur. It may have been a more localized event ,caused by the melting of Northern glaciers which created an outburst flood in and around the Black Sea. Many cultures including those of the Native Americans and even the Australian Aborigines have flood tales. Further embellishment as in the story of Noah is open to skepticism , but it makes one wonder.

  • The existence of many flood tales need not – in fact, does not – indicate one massive flood event as many creationists claim. Indeed, the only way to conclude they all refer to the same event is to ignore even the most basic facts, such as when & where the flood myths originate. Of course, when your goal is simply to affirm your conclusion, it’s all gravy.

  • yoh

    I know. Realism has nothing to do with the Bible. It’s too jarring a contrast.

  • yoh

    Actually no reputable peer reviewed scholar believed a global or even huge regional flood ever happened.

    Fundamentalist Christians tend to alter, misrepresent or outright fabricate flood myths of other cultures to appear congruent with the Noachian model.

    Generally the most plausible ideas concerning flood myths is independent origins. Early literate cultures where agriculture first developed were riverine. People who lived in river valleys. Places prone to regular flooding. Flooding is a universal fear for such cultures and the only natural disaster of the time capable of destroying whole communities at a time.

  • @Wardo:

    1. America’s Atheist Constitution seems to be working just fine for you:
    “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion, nor prohibit the free exercise thereof”

    2. Atheism means “I do not believe in God” – that is all it means – people who do not believe in god have no religiously inspired motivation to kill anyone.

    3. Your straw men : Stalinism, Kmehr Rouge and Mao are not examples of Atheist policies. They are religious dogmas, Messianic Religious Agrarian Cults which claimed supernatural garbage. That is not Atheism.

    Please show some respect and appreciation for American separation of church and state. It is exactly what protects you from Messianic nonsense!

  • @Tom,

    You are correct. Cultures which matured near rivers and seas developed flood stories.
    Noah is clearly a ripoff of Gilgamesh, a 10,000 year old babylonian story written in stone tablets. Even the cubit measurements are identical !
    Noah didn’t happen.

  • skepticalspirit

    Is Reza Aslan going to make a similar tell all, sex and violence, and looting, movie about the prophet Mohammed?

  • Yngwie

    Seriously ? Make up any rubbish to protect your belief system. Im not going to even bother educating you but simply suggest some basic history research. Good luck

  • Ben in oakland

    Please educate me. I desperately need it.

    Germany was Christian before hitler. Germany was Christian after hitler. Hitler said, “we tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity. Our movement is Christian.”

    So educate me. Hitler wasn’t a Christian?

  • yoh

    There really is nothing more brain dead than claiming Nazis were somehow atheist. They were dependent on support from mainline and national churches throughout Europe.

    The internet is your friend. Try using it for something besides slinging p00 at others.
    http://www.historytoday.com/robert-carr/nazism-and-christian-heritage
    https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005206

    “Nazi Germany was both a product of, and established in, Christian Europe”

    “Hitler’s regime was legitimised by various Christian churches from the start”

  • yoh

    Actually it was already done. “Mohammed Messenger of God” in 1976
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Message_(1976_film)

    By a Muslim no less, Moustapha Akkad (producer of the Halloween films).
    Remakes have been proposed.

  • Fran

    Yoh,

    When Noah and his family are resurrected back to life on earth (John 5:28,29) during Jesus’ upcoming millennial rule (Isaiah 11:1-10), then you can get all the details about the flood directly from him, or as they say in this world of ours, from the horse’s mouth.

  • Fran

    False religion doesn’t have much to do with the Bible, and it’s a shame that it tells so many lies about God, his name (Yahweh or Jehovah), his personality, and his purpose for mankind on earth.

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