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Bible As Soap Opera

There’s no denying that even in our literate western society, the kinds of stories, films and TV programs that grab people’s attention are those with characters and storylines that readers/listeners/viewers can identify with, and relate to their own real life experiences.

EastEnders has consistently remained among the top-rated TV programmes in Britain. It's storylines examine the domestic and professional lives of the people who live and work in the fictional London Borough of Walford in the East End of London. However, strange as it may seem, one of EastEnders former producers recently claimed that the inspiration for the soap opera’s gripping and sometimes controversial plot lines came from the Bible:

Filled with tales of violence, sexual intrigue, marital strife and human misery, the plot lines of EastEnders have gripped and scandalised its audience in equal measure.But last night one of the BBC soap opera’s top producers claimed that the main inspiration for its gritty and often controversial storylines is the Bible.

See:Would you Adam and Eve it? EastEnders is inspired by Sodom and Gomorrah, says producer. John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor, Telegraph, 14 Sep 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9542015/Would-you-Adam-and-Eve-it-EastEnders-is-inspired-by-Sodom-and-Gomorrah-says-producer.html

 Ben Whitnall of the Bible Society responded:

So every EastEnders storyline comes from the Bible, apparently… It’s easy to see why: the Bible is bursting with human stories that will be around as long as people are – and it’s got to be one of the most honest, insightful, hard-hitting and brilliantly constructed collection of books about what Rowan Williams calls ‘the really important debates in the public arena [which] are about what it means to be human’.

See: Comment: the Bible and EastEnders  http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/news/comment-the-bible-and-eastenders/

Actually, the Soap Opera genre has much in common with other story genres, whether the classic novel, detective “who-dun-it”, short story, chick flick, or TV sit com. Just think of your favourite novel, film, TV program. How does it display the follow characteristics?

  1. Well-developed and rounded characters that enable us to share their joys and heartaches, and empathise with their feelings.
  2. A gripping plot-line, with a well-defined structure and resolution, but with plenty of twists and unexpected developments to maintain the tension and keep us involved.
  3. Descriptive writing or brilliant cinematography that captures the scenery and background context in a very memorable way.
  4. Intense emotional content that makes us laugh out loud, grab the paper hankies, or hide behind the sofa.

The narratives of the Bible have all of these characteristics, but we usually read the Biblical account from such a serious, analytical, systematic theology viewpoint that we fail to get involved with the plot-lines and empathise with the characters.

One of our friends shared the story of creation and the fall with her mother, who heard the story for the very first time. She told us that her mother broke down in tears when she heard how Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were thrown out of the garden.

When did you last bring out the paper hankies while watching a film on TV? When did you last cry over the sin and self-destruction revealed in the stories of the Bible?

But there are some specific characteristics of Soap Opera which sets the genre apart from other literary/visual genres.

  1. Soap opera characters are drawn larger than life – almost as caricatures of the real things, with warts and flaws exaggerated for dramatic effect, but portrayed in ways that enable the audience to love or hate them, because they all know people just like them in real life.
  2. Soap opera plot lines are condensed, like condensed soup or fortified wine. Of course this has to be the case. If you portrayed normal life in real-time on TV, it would be boring to the extreme, but if you take all the joys and heartaches and family rows that occur, say, over ten years and condense them into half an hour, then you have the material for a gripping Soap episode.

Biblical narratives frequently display the same features. For example, Jacob comes over strongly in the Biblical account as a manipulator and a cheat. Christian friends have confessed to me that they “don’t like” the character of Jacob and find it hard to relate to him. But the events that portray this side of Jacob’s character constitute brief snapshots from a life that spanned almost 150 years. Between these dramatic events portrayed in the Biblical account, Jacob led a pretty hard, humdrum life, which he sums up in his conversation with Pharaoh,  “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.” (Gen 47:9 NIV) .

Just as in the typical Soap episode, the stories of the Bible are condensed, and the characters swiftly sketched. But the events portrayed and character sketches drawn are chosen most carefully to illuminate the essential plot-lines of the story, and to enable us to see how the threads of this particular sub-plot weave into the grand tapestry of Biblical history and form part of God’s “grand narrative” of redemption.

Dr. Brian Bull