Bill Moyers is an intelligent and interesting man. Not only did he serve as the White House Press Secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson but he's made quite a name for himself as a commentator, speaker and writer. He's also worked extensively with PBS over the years, which brings us to this release, Genesis: A Living Conversation, a ten part discussion (spread over four DVDs)of the first book of the Bible and how it affects not just Christianity, but Judaism, Islam, and even the more secular side of things. Originally made back in 1996, the series allowed Moyers to gather together an interesting team of 'experts' from various walks of life to discuss different aspects of Genesis and the end result is insightful and interesting, if sometimes a little bit on the dry side (this despite the efforts of some very interesting and often times very animated participants) depending upon your personal tolerance for such discussion.
The first part, The First Murder, not surprisingly covers the tale of murderous brothers Cain and Abel with some interesting insight into the morality and logic behind this famous story and how it would go on to shape history and have a huge influence on the shape of things to come. The second, Temptation part carries on where the first part left off by examining the story of the Tree of Knowledge and the idea of original sin. Walter Brueggemann, Roberta Hestenes, John Kselman, Hugh O'Donnell, Burton L. Visotzky, Renita Weems, and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg contribute to the discussion.
Part three, In God's Image takes us all the way back to the garden to talk about the story of Adam and Eve and the concept and idea of creationism in general. It includes input from John Barth, Rebecca Goldstein, Mary Gordon, Oscar Hijuelos, Charles Johnson, Faye Kellerman, and Burton L. Visotzky serve as commentators. The the fourth entry, Apocalypse deals with the story of Noah and the ark which he build to save the animals before God flooded the Earth. Karen Armstrong, Byron E. Calame, Alexander Di Lella, Carol Gilligan, Blu Greenberg, Samuel Proctor, and Burton L. Visotzky serve as commentators here. Part five, Call And Promise details the story of Abraham while part six, A Family Affair follows up on that with discussion of Abraham and his involvement with family members Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. Part seven, The Test discusses Abraham's sacrifice of his own son, Isaac. All three of the sections on Abraham feature the same commentary team - Both parts feature the same commentary team in the form of Robert Alter, Azizah Al-Hibri, Bharati Mukherjee, Eugene Rivers, Lewis Smedes, Elizabeth Swados, and Burton L. Visotzky.
Part eight, Blessed Deception, examines the morality and lesson behind the stories of Rebekah and the twins, Esau and Jacob, with input from Leon Kass, Stephen Mitchell, Elaine Pagels, Naomi H. Rosenblatt, Jean-Pierre Ruiz, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Robin Darling Young. Part nine, the aptly titled God Wrestling, discusses how Jacob came to be a changed man after the deception of his brother and contains input from Walter Brueggemann, Roberta Hestenes, John Kselman, Hugh O'Donnell, Burton L. Visotzky, Renita Weems, and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. The last chapter is Exile and through commentary from Dianne Bergant, Norman Cohen, Francisco Garcia-Treto, P.K. McCary, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Phyllis Trible, and Burton Visotzky it examines Jospeh's time in Egypt and the events that were spun out of that time.
By consulting with various authors, scholars, professors, religious leaders and experts in their respective fields, Moyers has assembled a reasonably non-partisan crew of people to discuss the mysteries of Genesis in a manner that's surprisingly down to Earth and easily accessible. You don't necessarily have to be of any one specific faith to find these discussions interesting as the varied participants input ensures that it never gets particularly one sided, instead you just really need to have an interest in history and theology as a whole. Moyers acts as a moderator for the discussions and tends to lead the group but they don't always wind up taking the discussions in the directions you might expect them to.
The series doesn't purport to deliver any specific answers - it's too smart to fall into that trap. Instead it feeds us loads of food for thought by offering up interpretations and thought processes which can help us better understand and appreciate the importance of the work they're collectively examining. You get the impression that these discussions were very free and not just open to but encouraging of other points of view, and that, as much as the topic itself, is what keeps it interesting. The series does tend to play things very 'middle of the road' by not inviting anyone of particularly extremist or fundamentalist beliefs into the mix, but that's maybe not a bad thing and indeed it keeps things quite logical.
The fullframe presentation is fine for what it is. This isn't a series with flashy visuals or special effects so don't expect much in the way of visual flash, rather, it's a simply shot conversation, basically. That said, the video quality is fine. There are spots where it's maybe a little bit softer than we might hope for but aside from that, well, it is what it is. The discs are reasonably well authored and don't show any heavy compression artifacts or pesky issues like that. This isn't a remarkable presentation at all, but it is a perfectly sufficient one.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound mix on the disc is fine, though there isn't really all that much to it. Most of what's here is simply dialogue based, there isn't much in the way of background music or sound effects to deal with. That said, the conversations are all perfectly audible and well balanced and there are no problems to report with any hiss or distortion. The audio here isn't fancy but it doesn't need to be, it gets the job done well enough.
Extras are slim on this release but there is an episode guide included with the set that includes background information on Moyers, information on the various sources used to compile the information relayed in the series, and some writing on the book of Genesis. The discs in the set include only episode selection and simple menus.
While it helps to have an interest in the material before sitting down with this set, Moyers and company have crafted a pretty interesting series. Regardless of your own personal religious beliefs, what we wind up with is a very well rounded and insightful look into an incredibly book that crosses theological divides and which provides intelligent and thought provoking discussion without passing judgment on differing points of view. PBS' presentation isn't overly fancy but it's certainly sufficient enough. Is this something that you're going to watch over and over again though? Probably not, though it would make for a great teaching tool. Either way, for those interested in theology and Biblical history its worth checking out, though probably best served as a rental.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.