Tuned In

Devil in the Details: The Real Problem With History Channel’s Satan

The Bible never specifies what Satan looks like. Why give him dark skin and a Sith Lord's hood?

  • Share
  • Read Later
History Channel

I guess this counts as progress in our political rhetoric: rather than arguing whether President Obama is Satan, we’re arguing whether Satan is President Obama. After the latest installment of History’s miniseries The Bible, a raft of viewers–including noted Biblical scholar Glenn Beck–claimed that the show’s version of Satan bore a striking resemblance to the guy who usually appears as Satan only on Glenn Beck’s show.

The cry got so loud that History, as well as co-producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, issued denials in a press release Monday. “This is utter nonsense,” said Burnett. “The actor who played Satan, Mehdi Ouzaani, is a highly acclaimed Moroccan actor.  He has previously played parts in several Biblical epics– including Satanic characters long before Barack Obama was elected as our President.” Added Downey: “Both Mark and I have nothing but respect and love our President, who is a fellow Christian.”

Should we believe them? Believe whatever you want. I doubt they intended any resemblance to the President, but if they did, it’s a silly controversy, and if they didn’t, it’s a silly controversy. (See also: the George W. Bush-like head on a stake in Game of Thrones.) Either way it will not jeopardize History’s status as the preferred channel of conservatives, as a study found last year.

The question for me is: Why portray Satan as a dark-complected figure in a dark hood to begin with?

The whole history of associating evil with darkness in general, and dark skin in particular, is a fraught one to begin with–much more so when one is making an adaptation of The Bible that is not generally particular about casting all its human characters as the darker-complected Middle Easterners they presumably were in real life. It’s not that every Bible actor has been a fair-hued European–the miniseries had a black Samson and other actors of color here and there–but it has gone with white Europeans for many more prominent roles, notably Jesus. (And, well, Roma Downey as Mary.)

Satan, of course, is not a human of any sort, Middle Eastern or otherwise. But if the casting were more diverse in general, the dark-equals-evil signifiers wouldn’t be as glaring.

That leads to a broader problem with the kind of storytelling History’s The Bible is doing. The Bible—the book, I mean—doesn’t tell us what Satan looks like, period. It doesn’t say he’s a shadowy guy in a hood. It doesn’t say he has red skin, a Vandyke and a pitchfork. It describes Satan, and Satan-like figures–variously and metaphorically. Sometimes a serpent, yes, but also a creature of light (or lightning), or a being perfect in beauty and covered in precious stones. “Even Satan,” says 2 Corinthians, “disguises himself as an angel of light.”

That’s part of a grown-up understanding of morality: evil doesn’t come billboarded with stereotypical wardrobe and art-direction cues. (Which seems the obvious intent of depicting a hooded or cowled figure–see any drawing of the Grim Reaper, e.g.) There’s no such thing as “evil-looking.” Evil is as evil does. You have to discern it.

In History’s The Bible, though, Satan is presented–regardless of the actor’s skin, through his enshrouded appearance and cues of direction–as a sinister figure of menace, to be feared and mistrusted.  is Why not depict him as physically nonthreatening, seductive, even? (You could do that, by the way, by using precisely the same actor but not dressing him like a Sith Lord out of Star Wars.) Why not put the moral emphasis on his words and promises, not his appearance?

When you depict Satan as a figure who screams “Danger!”–whether by giving him cartoon horns or goat’s legs or the Emperor Palpatine’s hood–it’s because you want to hold your audience’s hand through the storytelling. You do it—like the medieval artists who devised pictures of the devil as a horned, bestial monster–to make sure that there is no risk they fail to recognize evil or reach the wrong conclusion through independent thought.

That’s how you tell a story to small children, and it seems like that is ultimately how The Bible’s producers are treating even their adult audience. (Maybe believing doing anything else, introducing any kind of sophistication, would offend that audience.) All the rest–the casting and hooded costumes–are byproducts of that sensibility. Whether or not they intended to make Satan look like Obama, they did intend to make him a dark-shrouded bogeyman. And that’s the real sin here.

38 comments
moderator101
moderator101

This article is also "silly".  It doesn't matter how they portrayed Satan.  It is a movie, and there needed to be some type of physical, poetic license with every character.  Condense a book that large with that many stories in a 10-12hour mini series, some things are just necessary.  They didn't claim their movie was the Gospel word for word, each character and story line done exactly and only as the bible describes.   Well if the bible doesn't describe satan, it doesn't give a physical description of every character either.  Stop knit picking every little thing about everything. 

JohnKDN
JohnKDN

What I find interesting is the producer is responsible for many of the 'Garbage TV Reality Shows'...and so is this possibly him trying to make up for such terrible sins?

Ya....you had a calling (CBC interview) and you talk like you assume everybody will agree with how biblical stories are portrayed without any intelligent realization that Jews and Muslims won't see it the same way (despite the same origins)....gee 'The Bible' vs 'The View'...hard to pick wouldn't that be for your audience?   

blue21jen
blue21jen

The Bible only gives charcteristics of who the big anti-christ will be. Whoever it may end up being, he will fool a whole hoard of people until it's too late. The understanding of who this anti-christ will be won't be truly understood until those days come into play for those who accept Christ. People who are overtly evil, such as sociopaths, etc. can have characteristics of the biblical end-times anti-christ. Satan is a sociopath after all and has every evil thing and then some within him. But, anyone who doesn't accept Christ's gift is anti-christ no matter how good we try to be, how many times we go to church and so on.  

IsabeloSAlcordo
IsabeloSAlcordo

Here is the Urantia Book description of Satan. 

67:1.1) For three hundred thousand years Caligastia had been in charge of Urantia (planet Earth) when Satan, Lucifer's assistant, made one of his periodic inspection calls. And when Satan arrived on the planet, his appearance in no way resembled your caricatures of his nefarious majesty. He was, and still is, a Lanonandek Son of great brilliance. "And no marvel, for Satan himself is a brilliant creature of light."

Megillasaurus
Megillasaurus

"This is utter nonsense" is the quote from the makers of the show, and I think it applies just as equally to this article. If true racial equality is desired, then forbidding the depiction of an "evil" character by a person with dark skin is not equality - it's actually playing into the old fears of racism itself. Claiming that the show's decision is some sort of racist comment is pure conjecture and ingorant.Why people have associated the color black with evil is probably a lot more elementary than racism. It's the same reason that humans, from the dawn of time, have seen "light" as good and beneficial and "darkness" as scary and unpredictable; and I mean ALL humans. It is not as if only "white" people embraced the day and shunned the night, or as if people of dark skin embraced the night as their "goodness" - to suggest such a thing is ridiculous. Sometimes there are univseral symbols among humanity that are not colored by race. Don't generalize these people as racists.

banjoist123
banjoist123

The article refers to the popular interpretation of the serpent in Eden being Satan, which is neither stated nor implied, but which is used as a metaphor for sin, evil, temptation. In fact, Satan really plays a pretty small roll in the Bible. The name itself is derived from a Hebrew word that didn't necessarily refer to an individual, but to one who "obstructs" or "opposes". Satan as the arch villain, seen as a foil to God and Jesus, is an image that is really only popularized in modern times. We need clearly defined bad guys, and Satan has become this in modern Abrahamic religions.

glakediden
glakediden

That photo on here really doesn,t show him in the right light as it does while watching it on TV...He looks like he has a silver tone to his skin when you are watching the show.

Piacevole
Piacevole

In the film of "Jesus Christ, Superstar," the portrayer of Judas was black.  And he was a whole lot more interesting, as a character, than the portrayal of Jesus Christ.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"Evil is as evil does. You have to discern it."

About as easy, for most of us, as imagining the devil. Psychopaths, about as close to evil incarnate as one is likely to find, are extremely difficult to discern. They tend to be intelligent and very charming and, although they lack normal human empathy, shame or remorse, they are very good at "reading" and manipulating the emotions of others, and we tend to project our own empathy upon them. We're as likely to make them political leaders and captains of industry, as discern their evil.

JaneRavenswood
JaneRavenswood

It's unsuprising that evangelical American Christians want to depict Satan as a dark skinned figure. They know their audience.  They could have cast satan as caucasian, oriental, etc; the producers sure didnt' have trouble casting blond-highlight jesus and african Samson which make no sense whatsoever.  

The whole idea that the "History" Channel (with the garbage it shows, the quotes are necessary), shows unhistorical nonsense like religious myths is rather silly.  I wonder, will they show a Qu'ran all decked out with flying ponies?  This miniseries of the bible is hilarious when one actually knows what the bible says.  All of the ridiculous things are removed (silly talking snake and original sin), stories are changed wholesale (Samson) and anything that shows the bible as the primitive ignorant religion it is (genocide, human sacrifce with Jephtha, ) has been removed.  It's pathetic when events that have no evidence to support them are shows as if they really occured.  

Now, for a good satan, I'd say use  John Glover circa Brimstone. 

awood0813
awood0813

The real problem is that the bible isn't history, it's fiction and should have no place on The History Channel.

Chris_Kw
Chris_Kw

Well said James. They should have had Ray Wise's Devil from Reaper (suit and all). In all seriousness, I actually liked the Satan in Passion of the Christ. I think it was a shaved head female (no eyebrows either) with a man's voice. I never thought "Oh, that's clearly what the Devil looks like." No, I just thought it was weird, creepy, and different. This Devil was not different.

HardyCampbell
HardyCampbell

The construct of Satan as a dark or black figure is totally based on racism. The Bible says NOTHING about what Lucifer looked like. indeed, since he was the most beautiful angle in heaven, depictions of him as a tall blonde blue eyed stud would seem more appropriate. But that would hardly juxtapose with white Christian racism, would it? Just like the current hubbub about Obama and this Hollywood version of Satan.

Tero
Tero

The Real Problem With History Channel's Satan?

Umm, he doen't exist...

Nor is "The Bible" real history for that matter, but the "History" Channel does not concern itself with actually presenting historical content.

grape_crush
grape_crush

> In History’s The Bible...

Not that I'm the first to make this observation, but what is a channel about history doing re-enacting Bible stories? 

The History of The Bible - how the book came into being - would be something interesting to watch.

anon76
anon76

"but it has gone with white Europeans for many more prominent roles"

The only clip I saw gave some love to Westeros, as well.  I saw Yoren of the Knights Watch portraying King Saul and Ser Gregor Clegane taking on the role of Goliath.  Neither one was exactly chewing up the scenery, though I miss Yoren and hope that Conan Stevens comes to his senses and gets back to GoT before the big scenes with Ser Gregor.  No offense to Ian Whyte, but he just doesn't exude the same sense of malice and brooding as Conan.

drudown
drudown

@blue21jen 

Is that so?

You seem to presuppose that someone has to know God through a person that lived thousands of years ago. Someone that himself said: "when you meet someone who was not born of a woman, bow down and worship HIm for that is your Father in Heaven." But now you claim we are to worship the person that said not to worship any person. 

If you need to live through other persons' experience with God, I don't think you know God at all. 

Megillasaurus
Megillasaurus

Banjoist123: you're exactly correct! There's not a competent Biblical scholar alive today that will claim Satan as the serpent in the Yahwist account of Creation. Many long years of tradition and re-interpretation have turned that subtle and wily snake (it's main difference between the humans and itself being a wordplay in Hebrew between the snake being "shrewd" and the humans being "nude" - that's probably the closest English equivalent to catch that little ancient joke) into the diabolical Enemy of God and all Mankind. He has become a popular scapegoat to take attention away from the traits of God that were both Evil and Good (just take a gander at the Book of Job) and a convenient answer to the problem of Theodicy.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@shepherdwong I've only known two people who (imho) would likely be adjudged sociopathic.  Both were superficially charming, but on getting to know them better, the surface charm sort of melted away, revealing something much different.

Both did a good bit of damage to other people.  One did some time in a psychiatric facility; I lost track of the other one fairly quickly.  One of the reasons I have a hard time crediting the notion of "love at first sight" is because of those two.  "First sight" was far from their reality.

Sparrow55
Sparrow55

@JaneRavenswood In 2008, Andrew Schlafly, the son of Phyllis Schlafly, started a project to rewrite the Bible because he claimed it was too liberal.  I guess all that stuff about helping the poor, loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek was just some kind of crazy liberal revisionist propaganda and not the way things really happened.                                   

JustinLawson
JustinLawson

Before you go downplaying the historical accuracy of the Bible and it's contents do some research and please try to avoid jumping on the bandwagon of using the word "conservative" as a duragatory term while at the same time stereotyping.  It's funny to me the masses of people so eager to bash the Christian conservative community...so quick to point the finger claiming to be "judged".  Why so defensive? Why is it that you picked the one article pertaining to a Christian Bible character that prompted you to comment negatively towards this production.  Why this article over say.....I don't know, any countless number of useless and pointless "Yahoo" ..."NEWS" articles.  Why is that I wonder, just something to ponder I guess.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@awood0813 I heard that  they're going to do one on Noah's Ark and the flood.  That ought to be interesting.  I have wondered how they put up enough hay to feed the herbivores they'd have to keep to supply the carnivores with meat, how they would do the slaughtering and clean themselves up enough to risk getting near to the carnivores' cages to feed them.  What would they do for bedding materials for all that stock?  

 How would they ever get dry clothes during a 40-day rainfall?  For that matter, what would they feed themselves?  How could they have taken care of animals with specialized diets, how did they handle aerobic bacteria to keep the soil working after the flood, when they didn't even know such things existed?  What did they do about insects and necessary other species they couldn't handle?  How would they feed a hummingbird?How would they feed a vulture?  What about cobras?

How did they get the kangaroos and ostriches aboard?  How did they round them up in the first place?  Or is the "History" channel going to take a somewhat more limited version of just what constituted the "whole world" in the flood?  Nobody then understood the genetic diversity needed to maintain a species.  "two and two" or even "seven and seven" isn't enough.  The whole idea raises a lot more questions than it can ever hope to answer.

reallife
reallife

@HardyCampbell   what kind of "angle" was he? acute? right? obtuse?

another product of the liberal education system...

curt3rd
curt3rd

Oh here we go with the race card. 

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@grape_crush"The History of The Bible - how the book came into being - would be something interesting to watch."

That is one hell of a story.

reallife
reallife

@grape_crush   and yet it's beating all the ratings, get your liberal dumb head wrapped around that one... LOL

curt3rd
curt3rd

You realize the History Channel is like any other channel. They want ratings. I dont here you complaining about all the reality shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Swamp People, Top Gear ect which have nothing to do with history.  It would be compared to saying MTV doesnt play music anymore.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@grape_crushThat's why I watched all of 15 minutes of it.  I agree (almost) entirely with James' post about depicting Satan in general, but I also thought that this actor's resemblance to an older Obama insidious.  I know from feedback through friends who have born-again relatives that this series is BIG with them.  This is a demographic that already sees something demonic in our President, and I'm afraid that this depiction of Satan plays too well into the hands of those who would use it.  Look for Mehdi Ouzaani on a Tea Party placard near you.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@Sparrow55 @JaneRavenswood You know, I always wondered who was taking care of Phyllis Schlafly's husband and family while she was gadding around telling other women to stay home and take care of >theirs.<


Maybe the answer is "nobody."

drudown
drudown

@JustinLawson 

And, sorry, the word "conservative" is not something everyone should embrace. Last time I checked, "conservatives" are the ones trying to deny or at least hinder minority voting, deny same-sex partners equal rights, "outsourced" our industrial base overseas, want to "deregulate" commerce so that our rivers/streams/oceans are nearly uninhabitable (see, e.g., the toxicity of Killer Whales), and, to top it off, claim that "no new taxes" is the "solution" to all our woes...event the deficit...which the Bush tax cuts materially exacerbated. 

I'm still waiting for someone- and I mean ANYONE- to explain how to reconcile the "conservative" movement with the Founding Fathers intent when this great Nation was formed. They prate on and on about "strict construction" and yet apparently cannot apply any reasonable construction to the 1st Amendment. 

Get a life. Enjoy your religion. If you need to "live through" some guy that lived in Galilee to find God or meaning in your life, great for you. But the Bible is not the law and not the truth when it comes to interpreting conduct in the United States. So, come correct.

drudown
drudown

@reallife @HardyCampbell 

Gee, reallife, are we to believe that the GOP plan to cut "head start" preschool program is best? The more I read your idiotic talking points, the more I realize you ARE the GOP. 

Zero ideas.

drudown
drudown

@FuzzyPotato @drudown @JustinLawson 

Ps. the Progressive movement is premised on personal liberties and the "right to do what one pleases" ("the mind must be loosed- it will be loosed." - John Adams). For you to assert that our Founding Fathers' vision was anything OTHER than Progressive is laughable. What, the mostly agnostic Founding Fathers were conservative Christians? Sure. 

You wish. 

drudown
drudown

@FuzzyPotato @drudown @JustinLawson 

Well, Fuzz Ball, you seem to presuppose that the "jury is still out" whether the non-Christian world deems either Christianity or the GOP to be a "judgmental religion"...particularly gays, minorities and the underprivileged. Aside from the last election tending to show the latter is, in fact, the inference most make, common sense and empirical evidence shows that many of the GOP uber-Christian leaders in Congress have no qualms trying to "discredit" Evolution for the naked motive that it contravenes the Bible. Not only is that a gross subversion of our Founding Fathers' enumerated intent (see, e.g., express language of the 1st Amendment), it is the opposite of what America was (as I was always taught) supposed to embody: a place where the State respectfully takes no position on organized religion and where a robust debate is a necessary function of democracy. I get it. The Religious Right is a huge campaign contributor of the GOP and, as such, many policy agendas are shaped to appease the hand that feeds you. But spare me the "war of Christmas" gibberish. Spare me the notion that saying "forcing children in public schools to say Christian prayers is Unconstitutional" is "anti- Christian". I devoutly believe in God and say prayers but there is no place for that in government.  

FuzzyPotato
FuzzyPotato

@drudown @JustinLawson Uh, I'm Hispanic and a conservative.  Plus, my cousin is gay (and also Hispanic) and he votes conservative as well.  Please continue to enlighten me on how conservatives oppress me and him.

Also while you're at it, please explain to me how to reconcile the "progressive" movement with the Founding Fathers intent when the nation was formed. You can't do that either - neither term was coined.

And lastly, while some people in your opinion might need to "get a life" because they're Christians, perhaps you should "get some manners" and stop insulting people based on blind biases.