‘A.D.’ miniseries brings Acts of the Apostles to life

Riots in the streets. Crowds crushed by collapsing walls. Phalanxes of Roman soldiers closing in. Zealots hot for blood. An empty tomb. An angel with a shining sword. A Roman ruler trying to keep order. A Pharisee trying to prevent revolution. Cripples healed. A dead man returned to life.

And that’s just in the trailer.

“A.D.: The Bible Continues,” a 12-part NBC series debuting on Easter Sunday, promises to start where the “The Bible,” the hit cable series from executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, left off.

But what will viewers see when they tune in? NBC is being cagey, releasing photos, teasers and even music videos — but little in the way of material to review.

Diverse cast

The story, producers say, is half invented, half straight from the Book of Acts. The scale is immense, “huge, in the epic, biblical sense of Hollywood movies,” says actress Chipo Chung, who plays Mary Magdalene.

The Zimbabwean actress, whose features combine African and Asian traits, exemplifies another striking element of the production.

Babou Ceesay, left, stars as John, Greta Scacchi as Mary, and Chipo Chung, right, as Mary Magdalene. LightWorkers Media photo

Its multiracial cast includes actors from 10 countries and places African actors not only among the apostles (Zimbabwean actor Denver Isaac plays James), but among the evangelists (Babou Ceesay, from Gambia, plays John). Icelandic actor Johannes Johannesson plays Thomas, Argentinean actor Juan Pablo Di Pace plays Jesus, and others in the main cast come from Greece, Italy, England and Scotland.

It’s a different kind of cultural diversity than was found in the real Roman Empire, where Roman citizenship was all that mattered. And it’s different from the diversity among the “hearers” at the Temple in Jerusalem — people of many nationalities interested in what the Jews taught. Instead, it’s a reflection of modern Christians. “Christianity is among the most diverse movements in history, so when Mark and I looked to bring this epic story of A.D. to life on NBC, it was important to us to find a cast as diverse and beautiful as the church is around the world,” Downey said in a press statement.

Balancing the international cast is an attention to authenticity in dress, set design, props and landscape. The goal was to create a first-century Jerusalem so real, and a cast so at home in it, that viewers all over the world could imagine themselves there.

Into this diverse ancient Jerusalem (which, like less diverse productions before it, doesn’t seem to include many people who look Jewish, Persian or Arabic), comes adventure, intrigue — and faith. Mark Burnett calls it “‘Game of Thrones’ meets the Bible” in one promo, and the scenes released so far bear him out.

Promotions promise “the audience will enter the world of the Apostles, of Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod Antipas and others, all from their own points of view,” and much of the invented story seems to concern the desperate machinations to contain the “Christian cult” before it disrupts the various interlocked regimes of the city, the priests and the empire — not to mention the would-be Jewish revolutionaries trying to overthrow them all.

Catholic resources

That’s more than enough material for more typical Hollywood fare: either a series that soft-pedaled its religious roots or that used them as a springboard for a blend of myth and legend that no one could mistake for real religion.

But real religion is at the heart of this production. Its producers make no apologies for asserting that the story it tells is true. Jesus rises from the dead; Peter heals people, Christianity conquers paganism. A special website, separate from the NBC series site, is devoted to helping churches use the series for Bible study and discussion groups.

Advisers from various strands of Christianity (including, for Catholics, Father Jonathan Morris) consulted on the script. Two commercial study programs will be available before the show debuts, one Protestant and one Catholic. The Catholic materials, written by Mike Aquilina with Veronica Burchard, are being published by Sophia Institute Press.

“They approached us” for the fast-track production, said Charlie McKinney, president of Sophia Institute Press, whose staff went to work in late October on materials that went to press in February. No one at Sophia Institute Press has seen any of the episodes, McKinney said, but they’ve read the script, which he calls “incredibly engaging and authentic.”

McKinney, a convert from Protestantism, said Catholics will be happy with “A.D.”

“Our materials have to meet a very high threshold regarding consistency with Church teachings, and there is nothing in this production Catholics would find to be out of line in a significant way,” McKinney said. However, he added, it’s not a Catholic production, either. Instead, it faithfully follows the first 10 chapters of the Book of Acts, presenting things Catholics prize and Protestants often overlook, such as Peter as the head of the Church.

That’s to be expected when early Church history is concerned, he said. “When ‘The Passion of the Christ’ came out, I was a Protestant,” McKinney explained. “When I watch it now, as a Catholic, there are things that are clearly Catholic about it that, as a Protestant, you don’t see. For instance, I didn’t know about the Stations of the Cross, so I was unaware that’s basically what it was.”

Entertain and educate

The Sophia Institute viewers guide will help readers delve into both the history and theology of the early Church, including maps, explanations of politics and Jewish theology, character profiles, pre- and post-viewing discussion questions, Scripture verses and ways to “apply the principles of the episode into your own life.” Illustrated with more than 100 color photos from the series, the book will be far more lavish, as well as more in-depth, than materials for the previous shows.

“I expect Protestants, if they see our book, will be inclined to buy it” for that reason, McKinney said, and that means an opportunity to introduce Protestants to the fullness of the Catholic Faith.

Several Catholic bishops, including Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (“ambitious and promising, with potential to enrich the culture like few others before it”) and Washington, D.C.’s Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl (“a triumph!”) have endorsed the series as a tool for evangelization as well as for the production itself.

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez called the series “a rich and faithful retelling of the Acts of the Apostles ... filled with drama and danger, holiness and heroism. ... In showing us where we came from, ‘A.D.’ gives us insights and inspiration for the New Evangelization and the continental mission today.”

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” McKinney said. “An authentic portrayal of Acts — on network TV! It’s an opportunity that providence gives us that we have a responsibility to use to evangelize.”

If the trailers are any indication, it’s an opportunity that will entertain as well as educate. It’s one that is likely to end in a cliffhanger that could lead to a second season (there’s a lot of Acts after book 10, after all). But perhaps most of all, it promises to be the most in-depth of a long line of theatrical productions, from miracle plays to Christmas pageants, meant to help us understand that we, too, are players in a great drama that is still going on.

We know how it will end. But our own parts are a mystery. Thanks to NBC, we can enjoy anew the drama of the Church’s early days, while we live the drama of our own.

Gail Deibler Finke writes from Ohio.