In his youth, four-time Emmy Award winner Mark Burnett saw the Bible as an angry God's strict rule book.
But in time, Burnett, the producer of Survivor and The Celebrity Apprentice, and his wife, Touched by an Angel star Roma Downey, begin to understand the Scriptures as a love story.
Now, in an epic five-week, 10-hour television miniseries premiering March 3 on the History Channel, the Hollywood couple is bringing The Bible to life in a way the world has never seen before.
"We wanted it to be heartfelt and we wanted it ultimately to be a love story – to tell the Bible from the beginning to the end in a grand, sweeping embrace," Downey, a celebrated Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominated television and stage actress, said during a recent webinar hosted by Outreach, Inc.
"The metanarrative is love. We see it throughout the Old Testament – God so loved us that he sent Jesus for us. It's a beautiful story of redemption and hope and that episode will appear on Easter Sunday (March 31). It will be a very powerful night on television."
The miniseries, which will air on Wednesday and Sunday nights on the History Channel and on Monday nights on Lifetime TV throughout the month of March, features the Bible's most compelling stories beginning with the Book of Genesis and concluding with the Book of Revelation.
"We wanted to tell this story in a way that would emotionally connect with the audience – that we could reach out and pull an audience in as if we're walking side by side with these characters in the Bible," Downey says.
With a $22 million budget - "an enormous amount in television" - and the talents and expertise of a company that won the Oscar for computer-generated imagery (CGI) elements in the film Gladiator, Downey says the miniseries will "bring miracles to the screen in a way it's never been seen before."
Thanks to the latest special effects and film-making techniques, the miniseries promises to bring Noah's Flood, Moses parting the Red Sea and David killing Goliath to audiences in all their divine, cinematic glory.
"From the burning bush, Moses crossing the Red Sea and the walls of Jericho coming down to firebombs on Sodom, Daniel in the lion's den and Jesus, of course, walking on water, it has the most beautiful and extraordinary special effects," Downey says. "I think that is very exciting and something that will reach a whole new generation of kids. We want to excite kids and bring the Word to young people."
The miniseries comes as a dozen Bible-themed movies are set to hit the Big Screen over the next few years, including Mary Mother of Christ, a prequel to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ; Noah with Russell Crowe; Steven Spielberg's Gods and Kings; Ridley Scott's Moses; Scott Derrickson's Goliath; Pontius Pilate with Brad Pitt; Left Behind with Nicolas Cage; and a remake of Ben-Hur.
The Bible miniseries, a docudrama featuring the great Bible stories spanning thousands of years, is an apropos beginning to Hollywood's Bible storytelling revival. The last time this happened was in the 1950s and 60s when director Cecil B. DeMille and others produced a deluge of Biblical films like The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and The Greatest Story Ever Told with Max von Sydow.
"I've probably seen most, if not all, of the films about the Bible produced in the past 50 years," says Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life, in a prepared statement. "This one stands alone, in a class by itself, as the best I've ever seen.
"Brilliantly produced with stunning cinematography, a Hans Zimmer score and academy-worth acting, it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Too many "Bible' films end up feeling like documentaries, with stilted dialogue, second-class sets, and narration that feels like a lecture. In contrast, this series draws you into the story from the start."
To help insure the accuracy of the miniseries, many Christian scholars served as advisors and hundreds of Christian leaders have endorsed the miniseries.
"We have read all the scripts, spent time on the set and viewed some remarkable footage," says Geoff Tunnicliffe, chief executive officer/secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, in a prepared statement. "The World Evangelical Alliance stands fully behind this incredible Bible project. It could be one of the greatest gifts provided to the global church for this and future generations."
Scott Evans, founder and president of Outreach, Inc., the parent company of Outreach magazine, says his company is encouraging churches to use the miniseries as an evangelistic tool. The company is offering The Bible 30-Day Church Experience Campaign Kit and other resources churches can use to engage people. For more information, go to www.outreach.com/Bible.
"I think there is going to be a lot of people, especially among the younger generation, in which this might be their first experience with the Bible," Evans says. "I believe it's going to cause Christians and non-Christians to want to dive deeper into the Bible. There is even some talk that this could spur on a Bible-reading revolution. I think people will come away and go, "Wow, I didn't know that was in the Bible. I want to know more. What else is in the Bible?' "
Downey says she and her husband, who co-wrote the novel A Story of God and All of Us to coincide with the release of the miniseries, have come to understand the Bible through the eyes of Jesus while making the miniseries.
"One of our goals was to bring fresh, visual life into these stories that we are all so familiar with so you could see them in ways perhaps you hadn't considered before with the intention that you will go back to Scriptures and back to your Bible," Downey says.
The miniseries – "a three-and-a-half-year journey" for Burnett and Downey - was shot on location in Morocco from February through July of 2012. The 400-plus member crew consisted of people from the United Kingdom, South Africa, the United States and Morocco.
Likewise, the miniseries features an international cast. Downey stars as Mother Mary, Portuguese TV star Diogo Morgado plays Jesus, The Iron Lady star David Rintoul is Noah, William Houston plays Moses, Exodus star Daniel Percival is John the Baptist, Conan the Barbarian star Nonso Anozie plays Samson and Invictus star Langley Kirkwood is cast in the role of David.
It was humbling, Downey says, to play Mary.
"I had to try to bring my own mother's heart of being a mother myself to the role," Downey says. "It was so poignant to see the scenes through the eyes of a mother and feel those moments through the heart of a mother."
When it came to the role of Jesus, Downey says the crew became anxious because filming was about to begin, but Jesus hadn't been cast yet.
"We put it out in prayer circles through our churches and communities and everybody we knew, and I sent out an email to everyone I know with the headline, "Looking for Jesus.' And honestly, it was just a few days later that (Morgado) showed up, and it was the most extraordinary way he came to us."
Suffice to say, God was "all over that and an absolutely perfect actor" appeared, Downey says.
"He has the qualities of the lion and the lamb," Downey says. "He has strength and compassion and a beautiful humility in his work. Through him, through his portrayal of Jesus, his performance is going to touch people in amazing ways."