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5-week Bible special a labor of love for famous TV producer and ‘Touched by an Angel’ wife

It’s a passion project.

The new 10-hour mini-series The Bible is “a story of enduring love,” says Mark Burnett, producer of TV mega-hits Survivor (CBS), The Voice (NBC), The Celebrity Apprentice (NBC), and Shark Tank (ABC). “It’s many, many stories that have endured over thousands of years. It’s how God has used many flawed characters and doesn’t give up on them.”

Roma Downey as Mary in “The Bible”

But the History Channel’s upcoming Easter presentation is also a labor of love, a long-planned first-time co-production by Burnett and his wife Roma Downey – best known for her nine seasons as Touched by an Angel star  Monica.

Their mission? To bring the Bible to generations who may not know the stories told and re-told so many times over the centuries, says Burnett.

For six long, hot, dusty months, the couple shot the docudrama on location in the Sahara Desert with an international cast of over 400 actors.

Premiering Sunday, March 3, the project spans Genesis through Revelation, presenting more than 30 beloved Bible stories from Adam and Eve to John’s Vision of the Apocalypse, from Noah’s Ark through Jesus’ life. The final segment, scheduled for Easter Sunday, includes Christ’s Last Supper, Betrayal, Crucifixion and Resurrection – with Downey playing Mary, the mother of Christ.

“We only had ten hours,” sighs Downey, “and we wished we could have had more and we could have told more. There were two ways to handle it. Either we could go through more stories, but tell them more quickly, or we could tell fewer stories and have an opportunity to go deeper into them – in the hope that we could engage the audience more emotionally with a deeper experience, inviting them to walk in the shoes of these wonderful, historic characters.

“That’s what we ended up doing,” she says. “In 10 hours, we knew we couldn’t do a Bible series and not tell the story of Abraham or Moses or David. One of the episodes that was of the most importance to us bridges from the Old Testament to the New Testament.”

Abraham and Isaac prepare for a sacrfice in “The Bible”

“We did that through the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, which, of course, tells how the conquering Persian king saw without a doubt that Daniel’s God is the only true God – and releases the Jewish people from their exile, allowing them to go back from Babylon to Jerusalem.

“There’s great celebration, but Daniel’s prophecy is such that he knows that the worst is yet to come – and we fire forward showing the clash of shields and marching of feet of the Roman Empire as we find ourselves in Galilee during the hard times, that oppressed era the Savior chose to dwell among men.”

Were there times when Burnett and Downey wondered why they took on such a massive undertaking?

“Oh, there were tough days obviously, but we never really wondered why we were doing it. It’s a project we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Burnett. “We love the Bible and, you know, when you have a couple of hundred people in a difficult location like the edge of the Sahara desert, anything can get difficult.

“We had a good sense of humor and we surrounded ourselves with an incredible film crew, a special kind of people. They’re problems solvers, not problem creators or complainers. That was the key, surrounding ourselves with the right kind of people to take on such an important project as this which means so much to both Monica and me.

“Nothing was that hard when you look back on it,” he said. “If you asked the same question maybe a year ago on the wrong day, when we were exhausted and we were thinking ‘Oh, wow, this is so tough–’”

Roma Downey portraying Mary, mother of Jesus

“It was a little bit like carrying a baby,” interjects Downey. “I think after the point of delivery, most women forget how uncomfortable their pregnancies were and so, here we are on the eve of delivery and we are just so grateful for the experience of making this series together, co-producing as a husband and wife team.

“It really deepened our friendship and strengthened our marriage.

“You know,” she says with a smile, “there were moments during it I’m sure where we felt we might never speak to each other again. It was highly pressured and very hard work. It was hard to be gone from home for so long. We were in Morocco from February to July, but we felt called to do this.”

“We shot in Morocco,” says Mark, “because our hope was to achieve an epic, big scale, quality production that would present the grand narrative of the Bible while at the same time allow opportunities for intimate storytelling – so that we could really make the emotional connection with our audience.”

“We know as movie makers that this sort of storytelling begins in the heart,” says Roma. “When your heart opens up, that’s the opportunity for grace to move in.”

This series is far more than just entertainment, say the couple.

“I believe that people will be able to go back to the Scripture with these images in their minds and be able to engage God’s Word in a whole new and exciting way,” says Downey.

Wasn’t telling Bible stories an abrupt change of direction for Burnett? Is it a recent thing that he would tackle a project focusing on the Holy Scriptures?

John the Baptist in “The Bible”

“This project certainly deepened my faith immensely,” he says. “I mean, anybody who spends three and a half years working on telling the story of the Bible cannot help but be touched.”

But a personal faith isn’t something new to him, he says. “I grew up in a wonderful home with a Scottish Presbyterian mother and a Scottish Catholic father. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s probably in America that I realized there is a difference between Catholics and Protestants.

“That was a great way to grow up – with tolerance for each other.”

Given his success with reality TV, wasn’t this a major challenge professionally?

“Oh, yes,” he chuckles. “I mean it was my first time working with actors so closely.”

It was also his first time directing his wife.

“I didn’t go over to Morocco with the intention of playing any part,” recalls Downey. “We ended up you know, trying to cast the role of Mary while we were over there and Mark urged me to step into the role after we didn’t find who we believed was the right actor for Jesus’ mother. That was a great privilege for me, an unexpected privilege to step into that role, to experience those things through a mother’s heart and to see them through a mother’s eyes.”

Burnett, on the other hand, does not appear on screen.

“At one point,” Roma remembers, “I tried to throw him in to play a farmer, but he resisted. So, don’t scan the crowds and try to find him amid the multitudes. He stayed behind the camera.”

“I remember, here I was in Morocco sitting on a little craggy piece of rock in the middle of the Sahara Desert, longing for some shade and finding it,” recalls Downey. “We would gather around with these actors who would express such touching sentiments about how much this project meant to them.

“So many times as an actor, you wish you could have access to the screenwriter, to ask, ‘What did you mean here? What are we trying to do with this scene?’ So, I would reach into my little dusty backpack and just happen to have my Bible.

“It was extraordinary to open it up and see exactly what the scene was all about.

“And it was the most extraordinary, wonderful thing when the actors allowed me to pray with them.

“Many of the crew were deeply affected,” recalls Burnett. “It was a wonderful challenge, studying the Scriptures and thinking ‘How do we tell this? How do we present that?’ and trying to be creative and be true to something that means so much to us.

“In the end,” he says, “what we’ve done is a meta-narrative, a grand narrative of emotionally connected stories.

“Roma and I know we’re not qualified to teach the Bible. But we’re qualified to be good television producers and storytellers.

Roma Downey as Mary

“By telling these emotionally connected, big stories, hopefully millions of people will reopen their Bibles.”

“And be touched,” agrees Roma, smiling like the angel we all remember so well.

Who should be allowed to pray for Obama?

It seems preposterous, but there’s a major debate over who is worthy to invoke the presence and blessing of the Almighty on the leaders of this land we love!

Obama pauses to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall

So, who is qualified to pray for the President of the United States?

Everybody and anybody, according to the Apostle Paul writing to young follower Timothy in what author Mark D. Roberts calls “one of the most commonly disobeyed verses in the Bible.”

“I urge you,” Paul told Timothy, “first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

“They were to do so even if that ruler was tyrannical, and even though they had no ability to influence the choice of ruler or the policies of the ruler,” writes Roberts.

It’s not always easy to pray for those in power.

In other words, even if a Christian detests the person in power, we are supposed to pray for him or her anyway.

And there’s nothing in the Bible about clergy being the only ones who can lift up our leaders to the Almighty. So, President Barack Obama was well within Bible guidelines when he broke historic precedent on the eve of his second inauguration. He selected the first layperson ever, Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, to offer the benediction.

Myrlie Evers-Williams

In the past, that honor has been reserved for men of the cloth. No woman has ever given an official prayer at an inauguration. In 1937, the first recorded time that a clergyman opened the inauguration, the invocation or opening call for God to help and be present was given by the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Episcopal Clergyman ZeBarney Thorne Phillips.

The benediction or closing prayer asking God’s blessing on the departing officials and crowd was given by Catholic priest John A. Ryan, a professor at the Catholic University of America. 

This year, the benediction was going to be Continued on Page Two

Do parents have a say in what schools teach?

Should a Hindu foundation be allowed to finance yoga instruction in California grade schools – despite vehement parental objections? Should a student production featuring cross-dressing and gender confusion go ahead in Utah despite protests from furious parents?

What rights do parents have over what their kids are taught?

Should Massachusetts teens be subjected to school assemblies in which homosexual practices are described in detail by a gay-rights group – even after parents have battled and lost in court for their rights to pull their own children out of such sessions?

Parents have a right, say New Hampshire state legislators. Parents have no rights, says a federal judge.

In fact, there seems to be a new battle shaping up as the federal courts increasingly rule against parental rights while state legislatures seem determined to give parents a choice over what their child is taught.New York’s legislature allows parents “to opt their children out of sex education classes,” writes K.J. Dell’Antonia in the New York Times. “Texas allows for the exception of students from any class or activity that ‘conflicts with a parent’s religious or moral beliefs.’ Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s law is the most far-reaching, permitting parents “to have their children opt out of anything from the teaching of evolution to the teaching of phonics.”

It was yoga that had Encinitas, California, parents up in arms.

“Should yoga sessions in public schools be subject to the same restrictions as religious ceremonies?” asks the North County Times newspaper. “A group of 60 Southern California parents thinks so – they want to pull yoga out of their school district’s curriculum.

“The yoga controversy is the latest twist on the contentious issue of anything having to do with religion in schools funded by taxpayer dollars,” notes Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center. “In this case, a lawyer for the parents says yoga has ties to Hinduism and that there is no place for it in the Encinitas Union School District.

Kids are our most valuable national resource.

“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” the parents’ attorney, Dean Broyles, told the Times.

At issue was a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, founded by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who according to the Jois website “spent his entire life dedicated to the study, practice, and transmission of Ashtanga Yoga, and was known affectionately by his many students simply as Guruji.” The website goes on to describe Jois as born in India and “studying the Vedas and Hindu rituals at the age of five.

Broyles told ABC News that the Ashtanga yoga being taught Encinitas kids is offensive. “The poses and positions are acknowledged by Ashtanga and Hindi yoga as forms of worship and prayers to Hindu deities. They have a spiritual and religious meaning behind them. It would be like a charismatic Christian organization funding classes in worship and praise.”

Parental involvement is a key to a child’s educational success

In another case in Utah, parents were upset that the local high school’s modernized version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night included cross-dressing and a same-gender kiss.

In Massachusetts, U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf dismissed a civil rights lawsuit brought by parents David and Tonia Parker and Joseph and Robin Wirthlin, who had objected to their children being taught to accept and endorse homosexuality, reports Bob Unruh. Wolf ruled that the Christian youngsters need the teachings to be “engaged and productive citizens.” He ruled that it was unconstitutional to uphold “the rights of religious freedom and parental control over the upbringing of children.”

Doing so, he argued, “would undermine teaching and learning” in class.

“Wolf’s ruling is every parent’s nightmare,” says the pro-family group Mass Resistance. “Wolf makes the absurd claim that normalizing homosexuality to young children is ‘reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to become engaged and productive citizens in our democracy.’

What is more precious than our kids?

“In addition, Wolf makes the odious statement that the Parkers’ only options are (1) send their kids to a private school, (2) home-school their kids, or (3) elect a majority of people to the School Committee who agree with them. Can you imagine a federal judge in the Civil Rights era telling blacks the same thing – that if they can’t be served at a lunch counter they should just start their own restaurant, or elect a city council to pass laws that reflect the U.S. Constitution?” the organization said.

The judge concluded that even allowing Christians to withdraw their children from classes or portions of classes where their religious beliefs were being violated wasn’t a reasonable expectation.

“An exodus from class when issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage are to be discussed could send the message that gays, lesbians, and the children of same-sex parents are inferior and, therefore, have a damaging effect on those students,” he said in his opinion. “Diversity is a hallmark of our nation. It is increasingly evident that our diversity includes differences in sexual orientation.”

In a sharp contrast to his ruling, the legislature in neighboring New Hampshire overrode their governor’s veto to enact a new law allowing parents to object to any part of their child’s school curriculum, reported John Celock, in the Huffington Post. The state House voted 255-112 and Senate 17-5 to enact H.B. 542, which allowing parents to request an alternative school curriculum for any subject to which they register an objection. Gov. John Lynch vetoed the measure, saying the bill would harm education quality and give parents control over lesson plans.

Exactly, said legislators, proclaiming that parents should have the last say.

A majority of states are siding with the parents.

Under the terms of the new law, which was sponsored by state Rep. J.R. Hoell (R-Dunbarton), a parent can object to any curriculum or course material in the classroom. The parent and school district then determine a new curriculum or texts for the child to meet any state educational requirements for the subject matter. The bill also allows for the parent’s name and reason for objection to be sealed – not made public – by the state.

And so the tug-of-war seems to be shaping up. Consistently, federal courts are ruling that parents have no rights, whereas the state legislatures are specifically giving parents those rights.

“While parents may want extensive curriculum opt-out rights, federal case law makes it clear that parents have no constitutional right to excuse their children from any part of public school curricula, even if the parents’ objection is based on religious or moral grounds,” writes Dr. Tommy Kevin Rogers at the University of North Texas. “Nonetheless, parents continue to express increasing concern and sensitivity about public school curricula, particularly sex education.

Rogers cites the 1995 case of In Brown v. Hot, Sexy, & Safer Productions, Inc., “which dealt with alleged sexually offensive remarks made at a high school AIDS assembly.” In that session, actual techniques for performing homosexual sex acts were described in detail to youngsters. When parents were furious, the First Circuit Court of Appeals stated they do not possess “a fundamental constitutional right to dictate the curriculum at the public school.”

Almost in response, noted Dr. Rogers, “many states have recognized the importance of parental rights in education and the sensitivity to curricula such as sex education. As a result, many states provide statutory rights allowing parents to opt-out of all or part of courses such as sex education and family life education.

“Eight states are even more parent-friendly by prohibiting public schools from teaching sex education to children unless the parents opt-in.

“A few states, such as New York and Ohio, provide some distinctive opt-out statutes. For instance, in New York, a parent may only opt-out of instruction that covers the prevention of AIDS. In Ohio, there are statutory rights given to parents for opt-outs from courses not seen in other states such as CPR, and personal safety and assault prevention. The procedural process is uniform with 31 states specifically requiring a written parent note in their opt-out statutes.

“Eighteen states give authority to the local education agency to develop the procedure for curriculum opt-outs.

Who will win, the federal courts or the state legislatures?

“Texas may have the most permissive curriculum opt-out statute in the U.S. Since the adoption of the statute in 1995, there has been no published litigation over opt-outs in Texas. The conclusion can be made that the implementation of the statute has not been a problem for Texas public schools. In fact, having such a permissive law may actually be helpful to school authorities when they are confronted by parents objecting to some curricular element, whether sex education, evolution, HIV/AIDS instruction, animal dissection, the celebration of Halloween, etc.

“In my opinion,” writes Rogers, “as a Texas administrator for the past 13 years, opt-out and opt-in statutes are extremely helpful from a policy standpoint. Parents are a critical part of the educational process, and it is important, within limits, to value their input into curricular decisions in public schools, or in other words, to be parent-friendly.”

“Clearly, the strategic development of opt-out statutes and regulations by state legislatures and state education departments must maintain the integrity of curricular requirements while balancing the sincere beliefs of parents with religious or moral objections.

“The ultimate motivation of public educators is to serve the public good, ensuring the product they offer is of the highest quality and providing that product to as many children as possible within constitutional constraints from individual states.”

“Most educators genuinely work for the best interests of their students and community. Parents, more than anyone else, have a sincere, vested interest in the education of their children. Both public school administrators and parents must work together to maintain a beneficial balance to sustain a democratic society. I conclude that curriculum opt-outs, within reasonable limits, provide benefits for both educators and parents.”

 “A recent plan by President Obama to address students nationwide via the Internet energized the debate over what rights parents have once their children enter a public school setting,” noted Rogers. “Airing the speech to school children created great opposition among some parents across the United States.

“The uproar over the speech was widespread, but in many states where school districts were under pressure from parents, plans were developed to let parents opt-out their children from viewing the speech.

“Some public school districts refused to allow students to watch the speech, while others welcomed the opportunity for students to hear the president.

“Independence, Missouri’s school district superintendent Jim Hinson received ‘more calls than we’ve ever had on an issue,’” reported Rogers. “Hinson confirmed that the speech would not be shown in elementary schools, but individual teachers in upper grade levels could decide whether students should hear President Obama’s speech.”

In Florida, “Sarasota County School District administrators gave permission for teachers to show the speech if it fit into the curriculum, but allowed parents to decide whether to opt-out their children.

“Wellesley, Massachusetts superintendent Bella Wong allowed teachers to make decisions on a class-by-class basis.

“In Arizona, multiple options were used by school districts’ officials. For Mesa’s public schools, parents could opt-out for their children only if they contacted the school first, the same policy used for other situations in which parents desired to shield their children from a particular part of school curricula. Other Arizona districts, such as Tempe School District and Prescott Unified School District, demonstrated opposite ends of the dilemma.

“Tempe officials required all students to watch the president’s speech with no opt-out provision while Prescott’s officials did not show the speech to any students (Parker, 2009).

“In Texas, Ector and Midland County Independent School District officials allowed the broadcast to be available to all campuses and teachers, but it was not required viewing. The communications officer in Midland Independent School District stated, ‘It’s an educational opportunity and we will make educational opportunities available to our students. We’re not saying everybody has to stop doing what they’re doing though.’”

Nationwide, 26 states now allow parents to opt out of classes without stating a reason. The District of Columbia and 17 states require parents to cite religious or ethical objections before they can pull their child out of class. Seven states have no statutes covering the issue, but three of those – Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota – said that parental rights are traditionally observed.

Will parental rights be the next battleground? As state legislatures and the federal courts appear to be squaring off, it should be interesting to see who wins.

What has Americans so scared? Why are millions stockpiling guns?

Why is fear stalking the land? Why in the wake of tragic shootings across the country are Americans buying guns and ammunition at record rates?

Could it be that with the President’s re-election, as taxes and government spending spiral out of control, as an unpopular Congress dithers, as entertainment featuring apocalypse surges in popularity, and as the latest failed doomsday prediction is replaced by yet another, many Americans have been gripped with an uneasiness that each of us is on our own?

“Fear of crime, a potential crackdown on gun owners, a social collapse and even zombies have Americans loading up as never before,” writes Kim Peterson for MSN Money. But why? “One widely held belief is that President Barack Obama’s election spurred fears that he will crack down on gun ownership. But there’s more to it than that. People are buying more guns now for security, particularly as the economy has struggled. More Americans are getting permits to carry concealed weapons. Sport shooting is seeing newfound popularity. And you never know when economic doomsday will hit or, yes, even when zombies will attack.”

“Gun sales in Florida have surged since last week’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children and six adults,” writes Dan Sullivan for the Tampa Bay Times. “Statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show that requests for background checks on the state’s new gun buyers began to rise on the day of the shooting.

“At least one local gun shop owner said buyers are particularly seeking assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, which were used by the shooter in the Connecticut tragedy, and are likely to become the target of gun control proposals.”

Why are gun sales booming?

Nationwide indicators suggest that the boom is not unique to Florida. The Wall Street Journal reported gun stock prices were up in the shooting’s immediate aftermath. The Washington Post reported that prices for handgun magazines were increasing on eBay and semiautomatic rifles were selling out at Wal-mart stores.

Sullivan reported the Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, racked up more than $1 million in sales on one day for the best single-day performance since the store opened in 1959, according to Justin Anderson, director of online sales. Topping the list was the Bushmaster AR-15, the model used at Newtown that sells for as much as $4,000 and had almost sold out, Anderson said. He noted that revenue at the shop, one of the largest U.S. gun stores, surpassed even the spike just after Obama was elected president in 2008.

Speculation over stricter gun laws will continue to boost sales, Anderson told Sullivan.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm for the gun industry,” he said. “When these things happen, even though it’s sad, it does pick up sales.”

But why are people so afraid? “In the age of 9/11, the Iraq War, financial collapse, and Amber Alerts, our society is defined by fear,” writes  author Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More . “So it’s not surprising that three out of four Americans Continued on page 2

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