Demonstrating once again that the words “lowest common denominator” are not in his vocabulary, Bill Moyers challenges the prevailing short-attention-span school of television with his new PBS series. In each of 10 hourlong installments, Moyers sits down with a group of seven a varying combination of scholars, clergy, artists to discuss a Bible story. Sans special effects or any additional visuals, producer-director Catherine Tatge and company create compelling viewing in “Genesis: A Living Conversation.”
Taped at the National Academy of Design, New York, by Public Affairs Television, presented by WNET New York. Executive producers, Judith Davidson Moyers, Judy Doctorofff O’Neill; executive Current series breaks from past Moyers projects in its emphasis on group dynamics rather than one-on-one interaction. Opener “The First Murder” places one of the richest and most difficult stories in world literature, that of Cain and Abel, before Moyers, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky and six novelists. A pleasingly low-key Mandy Patinkin intros the seg with a reading of a capsule version of the tale, an elegant and direct narrative written by playwright-composer Elizabeth Swados. (Patinkin shares the role of “storyteller” for the series with fellow thesp Alfre Woodard.)
Politically fashionable but largely unexamined, the Bible here is the focus of humanist interpretation rather than fundamentalist proscription. The quintessential tale of sibling rivalry sparks a spirited conversation delving into matters as momentous as the struggle to be a moral person. As masters of plot and character, the writers in this group turn keen eyes to the psychology of guilt, sacrifice, envy and rage.
When Visotzky calls God a “tough cookie” or John Barth notes “if this were an opera, God would be the baritone,” these are no mere quips; the speakers are grappling with God’s role here as heavy, the rejecting father, and the subsequent crisis of faith. Similarly, the question of Cain’s culpability has profound resonance: In a world of increasing violence, the issues of rationality vs. passion and the ambivalence of the mark of Cain as both curse and blessing are crucial ethical matters.
There’s real emotion in this conversation, and one of its most electric qualities is the interplay between the participants as they speak and, particularly, as they listen to one another. Joel Shapiro’s intimate camerawork and Steven Wechsler’s dynamic editing draw us ever deeper into the joyful but serious atmosphere of intellectual engagement.
Charles Johnson’s observation about the first murder that “the elimination of the other is foundation for the rise of civilization” is weighty stuff indeed, and his pain is evident. The hour is full of such eloquence and insight, despair and optimism. Moyers, who has done graduate work in theology, conducts the discussion with his trademark enthusiasm and curiosity.
Mary Gordon notes that growing up in the ’50s she was discouraged from reading the Bible herself “You weren’t trusted to be able to interpret.” There are those who would still disallow such direct examination of the text, and certainly some viewers will find sacrilege in the proceedings here. But regardless of religious background, it’s exhilarating to witness how a close, considered reading of the Bible can be a source of mutual understanding instead of divisiveness.
Succeeding segments tackle stories of creation and apocalypse, among others. Airing on nine consecutive Sundays following its premiere, the series will take viewers into the season of miracle-holidays with a deepened understanding of where we are and where we came from.