Emmys: Mark Burnett on Why 'The Bible's' Simple Message Resonated With the Masses

Emmys: Mark Burnett on Why 'The Bible's' Simple Message Resonated With the Masses

This story appears in TheWrap's EmmyWrap Miniseries/Movies Issue

"The Bible" executive producer Mark Burnett follows a very rare belief in Hollywood -- and no, we don't mean Christianity, which he says is much more widespread than people realize. 

Burnett espouses a way of living that is much scarcer in an industry obsessed with grudges: Instant forgiveness.

"I completely believe that our trespasses can be forgiven as -- and that word's in the Lord's Prayer -- as we forgive those that trespass against us," Burnett told TheWrap. "I believe as means instantly. I don't think it means forgive us our trespasses in the way that we forgive others. It means instantly."

Burnett, who produced History channel's record-breaking miniseries with his wife, actress Roma Downey, said spreading love and forgiveness was the most basic intent of "The Bible." He wasn't surprised that the message has resonated like nothing else he and Downey have done, from his reality phenomena "Survivor" and "The Voice" to her lead role on the acclaimed series "Touched by an Angel."

Since the 10 "Bible" episodes aired, they've been approached by everyone from TSA agents to "Voice" crew members to Ricky Gervais, a good friend of the couple despite their different religious beliefs. (Gervais has none.) Recalled Burnett: "Ricky turned to us and said, 'That was a big hit, "The Bible" … Have you heard of my new series, "The Atheist"?"

Burnett and Downey were disappointed by one aspect of the series: claims that the actor playing Satan was supposed to resemble President Obama. They said any similarity was completely unintentional.

Otherwise, "The Bible" -- which Burnett and Downey consider the most important work they've ever done -- managed to almost entirely sidestep the debate that often accompanies any religious discussion in America. Burnett talked with TheWrap about why they decided to avoid hot-button issues and focus on a unifying message.    

Aside from the one controversy, there wasn't a lot of argument about "The Bible." It wasn't widely accused of gay bashing or being anti-women or any of the things people say about the Church. Did you make a conscious decision not to get into social issues?
Absolutely. The entire focus of the story was God's love for all of us. God never gave up on us and has never given up on us. And we also were very focused on unity. I'm paraphrasing, but there's a part of the Bible that more or less says the world is won when the world is one. It's all about unity and love.

It could have been so much more controversial had we tried to get ratings with controversy. We did the opposite, and we couldn't be happier with the results. The reason it worked is so many people were looking for hope and love.

The storytelling is so unadorned. There's not a lot of overdramatic music. It just sort of lets the words speak for themselves.
I think the worst thing we could have done is get it wrong. With some literary license, we kept it on message. But the other thing we could have gotten wrong is telling people how we interpret it. In all cases of television, saying a little less is better. Certainly in the case of "The Bible." People will know how to feel.

There's a lot of talk about Christianity excluding people. But with "Survivor" and "The Voice," viewers who might not know any gay people, for example, are in a way welcoming them into their homes when they watch. Are you proud of that?
That is the ultimate mission: to spread kindness and love. If you and I met someone who has never ever heard of the Bible or our faith, and we were given the instructions, "You've got a minute to tell this person what this entire book you're holding means," there's only two things to say. One is: Love God with everything. And love your neighbor as yourself. That's it. You put a period there, and that is the ultimate essence of what we stand for, right?

So you don't have to be Christian to have that message.
I think that clearly around the world that message has been taken into all cultures who have never heard of the Bible or Jesus Christ.

Is it hard in the business you're in to practice your beliefs? To forgive people immediately, for instance?
No. We have to, every day. If you are praying every day, if you say that line -- "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" -- you'd have to be crazy to not forgive. Because by not instantly forgiving people, then everything you do wrong would not be forgiven. It's just the fundamental tenet of what we are.

Ohhhh man, I'm telling you. It's like a huge wave. "The Bible" series gave people the overt permission to talk about God with love. Imagine: Take the Bible out of it, and if I walked up to somebody on a set and said, "I love God," people would be too nervous, predominantly. With "The Bible," they get to walk up and refer to the series.

This series has awakened the confidence of people everywhere to speak up. And the other part of your question, no, it's not difficult. There are more Christians than anything else. Maybe the Christian community in Hollywood isn't exactly noisy. But it's probably the most dominant faith.

There are 400 people working on "The Voice." I've met every crew member at some point. But then we did "The Bible." In the right moment maybe 50 crew members have come over to me--be they cameramen, grips, PAs, producers--come over to me since the end of March, privately come over and shook my hand and said, "Thank you."

Emmys: Mark Burnett on Why 'The Bible's' Simple Message Resonated With the Masses