Television producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, discuss their new TV miniseries which examines the early Christian church.
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(Dramatic trailer from A.D. The Bible Continues mini-series)
Jesus: Peter, one day you will die for Me.
Caiaphas: Are you or are you not the Messiah?!
Jesus: I AM.
Woman: He threatened everything these people believe in.
John: She watched him being tortured and killed.
Zealot: You are disciples of the Nazarene?
Peter: We are.
Soldier: Dead or alive, find them and bring them to me.
Girl: If they find you, will they kill you?
Peter: I don't know.
End of Teaser Clip
John Fuller: Scenes from a brand-new television miniseries called A.D: The Bible Continues, which dramatically captures that pivotal time in history, the beginnings of the early Church. You're going to hear a lot more about that series on today's "Focus on the Family" with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller, and Jim, some very special guests in the studio with us.
Jim Daly: There are special guests here, John and I'm pleased to welcome the executive producers of A.D. and our good friends, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey into the studio. Mark and Roma, welcome back to "Focus."
Roma Downey: Thank you so much.
Mark Burnett: Oh, we're so glad to be here--
Jim: It is always—
Mark: --in this beautiful—
Jim: --good to …
Mark: --beautiful Colorado.
Jim: Oh, it is.
Jim: It's a nice day. You came on the Chamber of—
Mark: Blue skies.
Jim: --Commerce day.
Roma: Fresh air.
Mark: Dusting of the snow.
Jim: Let's talk first about "The Bible." You guys, you stepped out in faith and did that; 100 million people saw that. How did that make you feel?
Mark: It was great. I mean, you know, 'cause you know us well, that so many people in Hollywood and New York told us that's never gonna work. No one's gonna watch "The Bible" on prime time TV. Why don't you stick to Sundays in church or Sunday school? We said, "We think you're underestimating this audience." And of course, the numbers show how much this nation believes in God, believes in Jesus and it is one nation under God 'cause 100 million of us convened to watch "The Bible."
Roma: Yeah, but really the feedback has been the thing that's been the most extraordinary thing, as we, you know, 100 million is still an abstract number. But we're meeting people one-on-one who are telling us how it has impacted their lives, how it has made a difference in their lives and how it brought many, many people to Christ. And so we have just been so encouraged by that and thrilled by that.
Jim: It's wonderful, because I know you well enough to know you went in, not knowing what to expect. I think History Channel, which it aired on, maybe expected 3 million people, something like that. Is that right?
Mark: Yeah, they weren't sure. They were brave enough and bold enough to step out there and think this had a chance but it surpassed their wildest dreams. And one of the funniest stats is that in Canada, "The Bible" premiered opposite the first national hockey league game and "The Bible" beat hockey. (Laughter)
John: Oh, man. (Laughter)
Jim: So, our friends in Canada and this airs in Canada—
Jim: --I just want to say, "Way to go, Canada!"
Roma: Yeah (Laughter) and also during the finale of "The Bible" series, we were up against a show called "The Walking Dead," which I guess is about zombies.
Mark: And their finale.
Roma: And "The Game of Thrones" finale and we beat them both combined. But the headline ran the next day, that said, "God Beats Zombies" (Laughter)--
Jim: Well, I'll take that.
Roma: --which I just love. It was so funny.
Jim: The funny things that you see. Now Mark, before we get to your new thing, both you and Roma, just touch on the fact that God has really blessed your ability to bring shows to television. I mean, it's "The Voice," it's "The Apprentice," it's "Survivor." You're like a machine. I mean, how did you come up with these things?
Mark: I don't know. (Laughter)
Jim: I mean (Laughing), what happens?
Mark: It's not like it just happens one day. Some of them I come up with my head and other things, I've noticed and acquired. That one you didn't mention, the most-mentioned show lately that we are on and produce is "Shark Tank."
Jim: Yeah, "Shark Tank." That's a good one—
Mark: And we—
Mark: --we often, Roma and I lately have been laughing, but as naturalized Americans, you know, we're never leaving America. We have three, you know, teenagers. You know, one's now 21, but young kids. So, we're gonna be in America forever. And what built America was two things really--the Bible and free enterprise. So, we made "The Bible" series and we make "Shark Tank." So, we're covering both bases (Laughter) on God bless America.
Jim: Well, you know, and I appreciate that, because you're coming from Britain and of course, Roma, you're coming from Ireland. And it's just wonderful to see. Now let's get on with the new one, "A.D." What motivated you to keep going and why "A.D.?"
Roma: Well, we you know, when we were over in Morocco filming "The Bible" series we were just loving the experience of making the program. And we thought, wouldn't it be great if we could keep this going? And "The Bible" series we had only 10 hours. I wish we'd had more. We had to try and tell the whole Bible in just 10 hours. And what this new series, "A.D.: The Bible Continues," gives us an opportunity to do is to take a deeper dive into our story, beginning at the crucifixion of Jesus.
Of course, the crucifixion wasn't the end. It really was just the beginning. And in that very first episode, which will launch on Easter Sunday night—talk about a perfect night--we will see the resurrection and then there are 12 episodes in total for this first season, we will follow along the book of Acts, the first 10 books.
Jim: I think it's fantastic that again, it's making it onto mainstream television. When you look at the early Church, what inspires you? You have to do a lot of background on that, of course, read the Word, but a lot of additional things. When you look at the early Church, what makes your jaw drop about that history?
Mark: Well, I think one thing is how in our modern life, we don't think that much about what they went through. And the parallels of the persecution of the people of the early church to the parallels in the same region right now—North Africa, Iraq, Syria, [the] Holy Land—of Christians, just for being Christians. So, we'd made "A.D." feel on a scale and drama like a[n] HBO show, "Game of Thrones," but it's actually our story. So, we're not doing Sunday school. It's on one hand, brutal, 'cause of the fear that these apostles and the growing group of disciples could have been killed every single day. So, you really feel this fear and their courage and their heart and their love.
And the incredible story, of course, of Saul, the persecutor, with his conversion and then him coming back to Jerusalem. The guy that was tryin' to round them up and of course, was there holding cloaks as Stephen was martyred, and then comes back and the meeting between him and Peter and the others. Imagine what they're thinking. Are you kidding? This guy was just tryin' to kill us all and now, he says he's one of us. They would've been great suspicion at first.
And so, the real feeling and the drama there. And then you layer into that the brutality of the Roman Empire, that Judea was the center of trade and commerce. It was so valuable in today's money, worth billions to the Roman Empire, as they charge the toll to pass through the land.
Mark: They didn't want any unrest. Hence, Pilate knowing the truth, that Jesus wasn't guilty of anything, and still crucifying Him, because he was making something that was convenient politically for himself. And that's why that great line from Scripture that we used in the first episode three times, "Truth, what is truth?" 'Cause Pilate couldn't even recognize truth. Didn't even know what truth was—
Mark: --which is very reminiscent globally of certain political leaders who are again, going for political expediency versus truth.
Jim: Mark and Roma, that's something that always captures my attention, is that we tend to read the Scripture with a stiffness about people in Scripture. In other words, we think they reacted or had different emotions in some ways. But they're human beings just like us today—
Roma : Yeah.
Jim: --right? And they play through the story—
Jim: --as we would.
Roma: And Jim, that was one of the important things for us as we began making this film, is that, it … remembering that these characters didn't know they were in the Bible, right? They are real people like you and me, struggling with the things that we struggle with. And it was our job to make sure that the humanity of these roles came across, that we would understand their fears and their doubts and their struggles and their pain and the love they felt and the courage, and when they were inspired, when they were low and how they called. How they were waited, huddling, waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.
And I think, you know, it's our job as filmmakers, to make sure that we create a pathway to the heart where we can open hearts. And I believe firmly, when hearts are open then, you know, God can move in and God will do the rest, you know.
But I think for anybody coming to this story, it's a great way to see it, brought to life on screen and then, with those visual images in your mine and in your heart, it's fantastic then to go back to Scripture. Read the stories again, informed with the pictures that you've seen. And sometimes it can bring a whole new aliveness to the experience of reading the Bible.
Jim: Well, and so often, we get trapped in thinking the way we're reading it is the only way that it played out . And I think the Lord is both big enough and open enough to allow our imaginations to think about those scenes, right? It's one of the areas that you sometimes can get some criticism, because you're trying to put into a film environment what that scene looked like, what people in the foreground are doing, the background are doing. And people can be critical about certain things like that. Why do you think we do have that critical spirit about some of the creative expression?
Mark: "A.D.," you know, about 50 percent of "A.D." is the book of Acts. And built around it is the history of the time, because what was going on with Pontius Pilate and the Roman Empire? What was going on with the Herod family? What was going on with Caiaphas and the Temple authorities? What was going on with the growing group of Zealots? We have great scenes that we've imagined, which probably happened, where it's logical that Peter and the disciples probably knew the Zealots well. They all grew up in Galilee. They didn't all come from Jerusalem. So, the chances are, the disciples and the apostles knew Zealots.
Mark: And so, we imagined the scene where the Zealots, after Christ is crucified and resurrected, the Zealots obviously don't believe that. And they're saying to Peter and the others, "They've killed your leader. They're not gonna be content till they kill you and kill the Word. You guys are gonna die. Join us and let's just beat Rome."
And Peter has a great line that we imagine that he says, "We are fishermen, not fighters." And the zealot says, "So, you won't join and fight?" Peter says, "I cannot, because it's not the way. You know, it's not the way." And we have a great scene where, we imagine some scenes where Peter has come back after the crucifixion and he's there with John and Mary. They're like, "Where were you?" He said, "I was recognized." And Mary thinks about it and says, "Jesus predicted that Judas would betray Him. He also predicted that you would deny Him. Peter, tell us you didn't do that." But Peter said, "I can't lie. I did." And Mary says, "I never had you for a coward."
Roma: And it's told in a way that I think is very touching, because I think that for many of us, we read the Scripture and we think, "Well, I would never do that," you know. Like I would never have denied Jesus.And we hope and pray that we wouldn't, but when you see what Peter does here and the way that he does it, we have such compassion for him. And then we understand, you know, that the forgiveness element and how, you know, that it's, you know, it's the beauty of our faith, isn't it? That--
Jim: It is and I—
Roma: --that He loves us and forgives us.
Jim: --and I think what we see in Peter thankfully, is all of us—
Jim: --certainly myself, that—
Jim: --if pushed, I mean, where is that limit? Hopefully, I could respond differently. And if I did, it would be because Peter taught me how to.
Jim: And that's—
Jim: --the beauty of that. That's what the Scripture should do--
Jim: --is inform us how to behave, how to honor the Lord in those pressure moments.
John: Well, if you'd like to learn more about the miniseries, "A.D.: The Bible Continues," we'd invite you to swing by our website. We'll have some details. Also coming up in just a few weeks in mid-April, Dr. David Jeremiah has a companion book that ties right into the miniseries about the book of Acts. And it's not released yet, but be one of the first to get a copy. Just stop by focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And in fact, if you can make a generous donation to Focus on the Family today, we'll send that book when it's available, to you as our way of saying thank you for supporting this family ministry.
Jim: Mark and Roma, when you're making "A.D." and concentrating on the attitude and the personality of the early Church, did anything pop into your mind about the "then" and the "now" in terms of our faith and the fallen world we live in today?
Mark: One thing that did come into my mind of living through "The Bible," "Son of God," and now "A.D." where "The Bible" continues on NBC is so much has changed in transportation, our clothing, our food probably, communication devices. And yet, nothing's changed in human failings and the struggle for power and keeping power and attaining power and persecuting people. And you look at Jerusalem in A.D. 33 with the authorities, you might as well be in Washington, D.C. in 2015!
Jim: That's interesting.
Mark: So really and there's a great line that we have given John, the Beloved, when Mary asks him when he comes out of the tomb, you know, and the body is gone. And she says to him, "What did you find?" And John, the Beloved, played by a fantastic African actor, Babou Ceesay, says, "We found nothing and everything." Well it's the same thing in how things have changed: everything's changed and nothing's changed—
Mark: --in terms of human beings. It's a reversal of that. And so, that's really what I've taken away. The other thing to say is clearly God often calls people who are flawed. And so, just when you think things can't work out, I mean, look at just the simplest thing as Saul. What could've been worse for the apostles, the disciples than having this guy Saul after you? He's given the power by Caiaphas, the money, the men. He's chasing them to Damascus. He's not content they've run away from Jerusalem. They've gone to another country to Damascus. He's gonna get them. What a nightmare having him after you.
Mark: And yet, just when you think, it couldn't be worse, he has a conversion! And now he joins the team! I mean, and if you go right through the Bible, how many great figures in the Bible have been in one situation and it seems hopeless and things have turned out for the better.
Mark: And you think, why would that person be given that calling and that job? Well, we don't know, but God knows and that's another thing that came to me when she goes through this. Wow, it's amazing. It all works out.
Jim: Well, and it should give us confidence that God's in control, even today. He is still in control today and sometimes we are more about fear and our environment, being fearful of our environment, than knowing that God's in control. The thing that I look at in the New Testament is that unyielding trust, that God knows what He's doing, even as they're being martyred. I mean, that is incredible—
Roma: It's extraordinary. You know, as we were putting together the casting for "A.D.," you know, when we were seeing some amazing and beautiful actors, to be able to realize and interpret these roles on screen, it struck me that the real star of the show is the Holy Spirit.
Jim: Yes! (Laughter) That's good.
Roma: And you know, episode after episode, we have 12 episodes that will be on this first season and you feel the Spirit of God moving on the screen. Of course, we had as a resource, the wonders of special effects to help us do that. But it really gives you an understanding of how empowering that was for them and a reminder of how available [the] Spirit is for us, you know. That hasn't changed. That is the beauty and the power that we can still call upon when we, in our prayers, that we do, you know. Rick Warren is a very dear friend of ours and he often has shared with us that the most dangerous prayer that you can pray is, "Lord, please use me" because you have to be ready that He might just do so, you know.
Mark: That's right.
Roma: And this has been a prayer of my husband and myself now for a long time. And my prayer always was, "Less of me, more of You." And as we have made "The Bible" series, the film "Son of God" and now, "A.D.: The Bible Continues," that remains our prayer--less of me, more of You. And it is our hope and prayer that this series will go out on network television. You don't have to buy a ticket. You don't have to subscribe. Just turn your TV set on Easter Sunday. We hope and pray that families will be gathered together and for 12 weeks, they will be able to take this journey in the footsteps of the disciples at the beginning of our church.
Jim: Let me ask you at the end here, as we wrap up, you have a passion for the Bible being taught in school as a book of antiquity. I resonate with that, because I find it very fascinating that people would be threatened by the Book. I mean, not in a sense of become a Christian, just read it because it's one of the most important books of Western Civilization. You mentioned to me one time at dinner, Mark, that in Britain, it's compulsory. You have to read it, because you know, it's a book that frames and shapes so much of the last 2,000 years and 1,000 or 2,000 years before that. It's a powerful and important document, just on its own, isn't it?
Mark: Yeah. I don't know today if it's still compulsory in England. For us growing up, it was a compulsory class, because here's what I'd like to say to the listeners on this. So, as Christians, clearly we don't have a hidden agenda. We have a really overt agenda. We want everybody to know Christ. But take that out a bit for a second. Take that side. Let's just take the Bible as the book that has been written by God. And how dumb is it for an American to get to 25 or 30, be sent overseas on a global piece of business in whatever they're doing in the media business, banking, insurance, whatever they're doing. They're at dinner and someone overseas says, "It kind of reminds me a bit of David and Goliath." And the young American look and goes, "I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean." "You know, David and Goliath, the story." He says, "Sorry, can you tell me what that is?" That's how nutty it is.
Mark: Because it's embarrassing. Now if you would've said to someone, mentioned Shakespeare, they'd know what it was, because it's mandatory in school. You don't have to know all the words of Shakespeare, you just know that generally what it is. And with many, many novels, there's required reading to graduate in an American high school or college. There's required things. And I don't understand why the Bible isn't one of those required things. Not the entire Bible, but in the way we did the Bible series.
Mark: You know, just the--
Roma: And we—
Mark: --just the basics.
Roma: --we've been so surprised by some questions that have come our way out on the road, things that seem outrageously funny, but really have such a tragic resonance to them. We were asked if Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.
Jim: (Laughing) Right!
Roma: And the story of Daniel and the Lions, that it might have come from The Lion King. And you know, you think, how is it possible? But if families aren't going to church and the Bible is not taught in schools it just takes one generation to fall away, you know?
Jim: Right. It's like a planned illiteracy.
Jim: And that's so sad, because again, embrace it or reject it. Be knowledgeable about it.
Mark: Yeah, what you should do, Focus on the Family, on your website, you should look up, have your team here look up the BBC studies in the last year on this stuff, like crazy figures. I can't remember the exact number, I think it could be as high as 35 percent of British kids couldn't identify that Jesus was a character from the Bible.
Jim: Yeah, that (Laughing) --
Roma: When the …
Jim: --would not shock me.
Roma: No, that's horrifying though.
Mark: It's crazy; that's crazy.
Roma: So sad.
Mark: I mean, and didn't have any idea, you know, who King David was, thought maybe it was Lord of the Rings. Yeah, look, really crazy, crazy misunderstandings, like Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
Mark: I mean, crazy stuff.
Jim: But points to, I think, a culture that is so inundated with entertainment. It has swept us away from some of these longstanding traditions of learning about faith and learning about who God is. And I think that again, it's one of the brilliant strokes here of what you've done with "The Bible," with "Son of God," with "A.D." And again, I just want to say thank you. "A.D." will air on NBC.
Roma: Yeah, on Easter Sunday at 9, 8 Central. And then it's on for 12 weeks and we hope it's just the first of many seasons to come. And we just see it as a group potential to reach, you know, I think the faithful will show up for it, but there's an opportunity also for it to reach people that don't know anything about our story. And you know, and I think that's very encouraging.
Jim: I like it. Have an "A.D." party. Bring your neighbors. Sit around your comfy sofa and let God do His work.
Mark: And we actually have a study guide and even just Scripture references, you guys. We're doing Acts chapter 1 through 10 in season one, which goes right through the conversion of Cornelius. And we've identified what Scripture matches which Sunday nights, which you can put up on your website.
John: That's a great idea.
Mark: I'm sure we give you some--
Roma: --we have some great resources that share www.adtheseries.com.
Jim: Sounds like a Bible study furnished by NBC. I like that!
Mark: There you go, how about that?
Jim: Yeah, that's great.
Mark: You know, on that, Jim, just a quick thing. So, you think about this story as Christians. It's one of the broadest stories in America. And NBC is a broadcaster. They're not a "narrowcaster." Therefore, the nightly news is a broad subject. The NFL, a broad subject. Don't we think the Bible and the story of Christianity is broad enough to be on broadcast TV?
Jim: Absolutely, yeah. That is good. It's been great to talk with you. We, you know, for the sake of the Lord, we wish you great success. Thanks for being with us.
Roma: Thank you for having us.
Mark: Thank you. God bless you.
Roma: Thank you.
John: Well, what a bold witness the two of you are offering both Hollywood and the world, as you've made this great miniseries. And we trust that God will hear your hearts and that many will be touched by the truths that you present week after week in "A.D.: The Bible Continues." And as a reminder, that begins airing Easter Sunday night on NBC television and I hope you'll make plans to enjoy it together as a family or with friends, perhaps as part of a small group from your neighborhood. Let it be the occasion for a spiritual conversation that you have with some that may not normally go there.
There are a lot of follow-up resources for you to dig into the Bible and the book of Acts, which is the foundation for the miniseries. And we specifically mentioned earlier, the companion book by Dr. David Jeremiah, which provides a lot of great insights and notes for further study. That book released in April, but you can preorder your copy right now at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
And when you contact us, let me encourage you to, if you can, make a generous donation to this family ministry so we can continue to proclaim the Gospel truth and help families like yours, to improve your marriage and to equip you as a parent and to help you grow spiritually as Christians. And when you're able to make a gift of any amount today, we'll say thanks by sending a complimentary copy of that companion study book by Dr. Jeremiah. And your gift of any amount will mean so very much to us, as we do our work here, so I'll say thanks in advance for your generosity and please know that you're part of proclaiming the truth of the Gospel around the world.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Focus president, Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, hoping you have a great weekend and inviting you back on Monday. We'll have a look at how you can heal a difficult marriage and offer trusted advice and encouragement to help you thrive.
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Mark BurnettView Bio
Mark Burnett is the executive producer of several highly successful television series including Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice. He has produced nearly 3,000 hours of television which regularly airs in more than 70 countries, and has received 112 Emmy nominations throughout his career. Mark is married to actress Roma Downey, and the couple has co-produced the 2013 TV miniseries The Bible and the 2015 follow-up, A.D.: The Bible Continues.
Roma DowneyView Bio
Roma Downey is an actress who is perhaps best-known for her starring role in the television series Touched by an Angel. She is also a singer, producer, author and an ambassador for Operation Smile, a medical service operation treating children around the world with cleft lips and palates. Roma is married to TV producer Mark Burnett, and they have co-produced the 2013 TV miniseries The Bible and the 2015 follow-up, A.D.: The Bible Continues.