'The Bible': Why the History Channel is smacked with 'Obama-Satan' accusation

'Why’s Jesus and the good guys always white and the devil’s looking like Obama,” a little girl watching a rec center TV asks. History Channel's 'The Bible' suffers from the same parenting issue we do here at home, that too often the messenger’s demeanor distracts from and derails the message.

History Channel
History Channel's 'The Bible' series has a Satan, shown here, that Glenn Beck said looks like President Barack Obama. Mr. Beck's description spread fast through the Internet.

First it was that the blood and gore were too graphic for young children, now The Bible, the History Channel series, is losing the scriptural education message to the perception that the actor playing Satan looks, to some, like President Obama. The real problem here isn’t that History has given birth to “Obama-Satan,” but that it suffers from the same parenting issue we do here at home, that too often the messenger’s demeanor distracts from and derails the message.

What parent hasn’t telegraphed, through a facial expression or gesture, the exact opposite of what we are trying to get across without realizing it? We make a child fear thunderstorms by racing to comfort and saying, “Don’t be afraid!” before the kid has made a whimper.

So, too, the History channel series that tries to parent viewers into biblical education is suffering to get its message heard above the faces it’s making in each episode. We saw angels in armor delivering a coup de grâce on the wicked as blood spurts onto the face of the holy. This week, African-American kids are seeing that the faces of all the bad guys look like theirs in hue, while the pious and Christ himself are the opposite.

“Why’s Jesus and the good guys always white and the devil’s looking like Obama,” a little girl, hands on hips, asked an older girl at the recreation center yesterday afternoon. The center has large TV sets in the game and workout rooms, plus a computer room where kids often scan headlines that pop us during searches. The older girl, who had her back to me, shrugged and replied, “White people make everything white.”

Both girls are in my after-school chess program, and when I cleared my throat, the younger child giggled and the older one whirled around and without missing a beat said quite frankly, “Right Ms. Suhay?”

Being about as light-skinned as it gets, I was at a total loss; and rather than step into this bear trap I just said, “I’ll have to look into that and get back to you.”

People are fond of saying, “I don’t see color.” Well of course they literally see it but are saying that their mind’s eyes are “color blind.” My son, Quin, 9, heard that phrase once in this same racial context and said, “Yeah, but if you’re color blind all you see is black and white, right? So how does that sentence work in real life?”

What I have learned from the past five years of working with any and all kids and parents who live in predominantly African-American neighborhoods here in Norfolk, Va. is that color is an issue right down to which side of the chess board you choose to play. I stopped bringing black-and-white chess pieces to first-time chess sessions and substituted green versus gold and red versus blue because I could not get kids or adults to play white if they were a variant of brown themselves.

In chess, if you never play white you never take the initiative, because white goes first and has the advantage of setting the pace and having a plan in motion, or start out controlling the game and so if racial lines can sink that deep into the culture then it’s not so surprising that in the northeasternmost notch of the Bible Belt, kids go to church on Sunday, do Bible study, are hearing about this series and asking the questions the girls asked. Even those not watching the series get a big enough dose of previews and commercials to know what’s what with the characters.

So I looked into it, via Google search, and there was “Obama-Satan” all over the place.

The actor chosen to portray Satan in History's "The Bible" mini-series, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazani, was given the nasty moniker by TV pundit Glenn Beck, sparking a social media smack-down over the weekend. Thanks Mr. Beck, just what the world really needs right now, someone stealing the light from the Bible and shining it on hate, intolerance, and political agendas.

According to The Christian Post, both History channel as well as "The Bible" mini-series producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, have called the suggestions "utter nonsense."

The problem with “utter nonsense” is that people just can’t seem to stop uttering it all over the Twitterverse and other social media sites.

To find answers I turned to the book I’m currently slogging through on my Kindle, “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don't,” by Nate Silver. Mr. Silver is a statistician, writer, and founder of The New York Times political blog FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver also developed PECOTA, a system for forecasting baseball performance that was bought by Baseball Prospectus. I’m reading it to try to understand why my kids and adults follow trends – i.e. The Harlem Shake. The first time I saw the video I dismissed it and then it was well, bigger than "The Bible" in popularity.

Silver talks about finding the signal or message in all the noise we tend to find generated around it and the chaos and unpredictability of audiences. I really feel for Ms. Downey and Mr. Burnett because on some level they must have believed that you can’t go wrong with a series on “The Greatest Story Every Told.” But they didn’t take into account the noise of people like Beck and, at some level, me. They gave us too much noise to work with in high volume and what they’re getting is feedback instead of people hearing the vital messages of the Bible’s stories themselves.

The Obama-Satan attack really kills me because Downey once performed in the TV series "Touched by an Angel," which I watched religiously. It produced of the most effective noise-free moments of racial introspection I have ever seen on television. In that episode Downey is transformed into an African-American woman in the South during the height of the Ku Klux Klan and finds herself being hunted down by the Klan across a wooded area.

The angel, running for her life as an African-American woman, falls to her knees just as the killers are about to discover her and begs God, “Please, Father, make me white again. Please make me white.” Just as the white hand of her would-be attacker falls on her shoulder she is suddenly white again and thus safe.

The angel is disgraced, bereft, and horrified by her choice and words, but is comforted by another angel, played by actress Della Reese, for the fact that she learned, and now her compassion, understanding, and vision would be true for all eternity.

That was a noise-free signal that was powerful and, while controversial, it was effective for me and I believe many others as well.

I want "The Bible" series to succeed, but there is just too much chaos in the audience and too much noise generated by the choices the producers made. In defense of the producers, there was no way the series' makers, who filmed prior to the election, could have known Obama would be president now. OK. I do see the resemblance between Obama and the actor playing Satan, but only after Beck framed them in that context and I really don’t think it was purposeful. The biggest note here is that only chaos theory can account that we’re even talking about this instead of Jesus being tested by Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11).

That’s more background story noise than the Easter Bunny makes laying eggs in the yard as I try to explain the Biblical underpinnings of a time of rebirth and hope to my sons.

It’s a beautiful effort to try to bring the history of the Bible to those who have no experience with it, but unfortunately they don’t make noise-cancelling headphones for this production. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to ask people like Beck to stop making use of the spiritual as a loud, untuned instrument of political destruction. Perhaps he could pipe-down and let the message through. 

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