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.