By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Influx of Christian programming at Easter prompts mixed reactions
A scene from "A.D. The Bible Continues." Juan Pablo Di Pace plays Jesus. - photo by Jeff Peterson
As the biblical epic continues to make strides, however awkwardly, toward a full-fledged comeback in Hollywood, Christian programming is doing its part on TV at least during the weeks leading up to Easter.

This year saw several new programs aimed specifically at Christian audiences and premiering on non-religious channels. Whats more, they occupied TVs marquee hours of Sunday night prime time.

It's a huge turnaround from just a few years ago, when husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downeys concept for what would become The Bible was, according to Burnett, rejected by nearly every network out of fear that the subject was too niche.

Of course The Bible handily proved that wrong when it went on to earn a total viewership of around 100 million people.

The flood of Christian programming this year began with CNNs Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery. A six-part series based on a book of the same name, Finding Jesus looks at archaeological discoveries and religious relics in an effort to understand the historical Jesus. The season finale aired April 5.

Finding Jesus became the highest-rated original series in CNN history during the 9 oclock time slot, according to Nielsen Fast National Data (via CNN). The premiere episode, dealing with the Shroud of Turin, averaged 1.1 million viewers.

Reactions to the series from both religious and non-religious critics were somewhat mixed. Varietys Brian Lowry expressed discomfort at the basic idea of a news channel producing religious-themed programming, saying, Theres something uncomfortable about seeing an actor playing Jesus being nailed to the cross on CNN, even if there are theologians and scholars providing commentary over the swelling music and the sound of hammering.

Reviews seemed to agree that Finding Jesus made a serious effort to be fair-minded and not do a hatchet-job on religion, as Tim Gray, one of the experts consulted for the episode on the True Cross, put it in an interview with the website Aleteia.

The television version is typical, well, television, wrote poet and author Jay Parini for The Daily Beast. The music is overly dramatic. There are trite dramatized scenes of Jesus being arrested and tried, nailed to the cross, his body being wrapped in a shroud, and so forth.

However, Parini continued, The CNN series and the book offer a genuinely compelling look at many aspects of Jesus life, which has lately come into focus with numerous fresh discoveries of gospel fragments.

National Geographic Channels three-hour TV event Killing Jesus, based on the book by Fox News host Bill OReilly and Martin Dugard, was even more successful in terms of ratings, pulling in an average 3.7 million viewers during its premiere, according to Deadline. It was the biggest audience in the networks history.

However, as a depiction of the life and death of Jesus, it was not so well received among its core audience. Faith Driven Consumer, a Christian advocacy group, gave the made-for-TV movie a 3 out of 5 stars rating, saying it only gets the story half-right since it largely ignores the divinity of Jesus Christ a non-negotiable for the faith audience.

Likewise, the Catholic News Services John Mulderig called it incomplete and unsatisfying, saying, Like any number of doomed academic attempts to isolate the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith, this small-screen narrative finds itself neutralized by the impossibility of separating the real-life events of the Gospel from the otherworldly understanding with which those occurrences have, from the beginning, been inseparably intertwined.

Most non-religious critics didnt take a much more positive view. The New York Daily News called it just OK, while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it a clunker.

Easter also marked the premiere of Downey and Burnetts sequel series to The Bible, A.D. The Bible Continues, a 12-part series on NBC. Set mostly after the crucifixion, A.D. looks at the aftermath of Christs death and resurrection from the perspective of different factions the apostles, Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin, etc.

Even with the much larger platform that NBC offered versus the History Channel, A.D. couldnt match the ratings of The Bible." According to Variety, A.D. drew 9.5 million viewers in the 9 oclock hour, compared with The Bibles 13.1 million viewers two years before on cable.

However, "A.D." was a success on several fronts. It was the highest-rated show of the evening on Easter Sunday and the networks most-watched regularly scheduled Sunday scripted telecast (excluding programs that followed the Super Bowl) since 2006.

Perhaps even more significant than Nielsen ratings and numbers of viewers, though, is just the fact that something like A.D. would air on NBC at all.

Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, said, "We think its a game-changer. It's a very pivotal point when one of the legacy networks, broadcast to the whole country, recognizes that the audience (for Christian programming) is there."

Unlike Killing Jesus, A.D. received mostly favorable reviews from Christian groups, including Faith Driven Consumer, which gave it a 4.5 out of 5 with Stone quoted as saying (via Reuters), It has the potential to be the most successful faith-based TV franchise in history.

Even though A.D. had a Metacritic score of 53 the same as Killing Jesus non-religious critics had some very positive things to say about it, comparing it to shows such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones in terms of its gritty, character-driven approach to the political maneuverings of Pilate and Caiaphas.

That aspect might be able to bridge the gap that has existed in the past with Christian programming namely, presenting something Christian audiences can get on board with but that doesnt drive away non-Christians.

As Vincent Regan, the actor who plays Pilate and who is an agnostic, told the Christian Post, "My biggest hope is that we go beyond the Christian audience. That it's not just people of faith who watch the show. It's a really good drama. The scripts are wonderful. I'm so hoping that it crosses over because I know that probably there'll be people that'll be a little cynical about the show that's the way people are. That's my hope."
Sign up for our E-Newsletters