Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

On ‘American Bible Challenge,’ God is in the details

GSN/GSN - Jeff Foxworthy with contestants on “The American Bible Challenge.”

GSN’s new game show, “The American Bible Challenge,” is just as dull as it sounds, like mandatory fun time at Sunday school, with three teams competing to answer arcane questions about details buried in the verses of the Old and New Testaments. (Although for most of the show, the questions aren’t that arcane. Even your lapsed, heathen, former altar-boy TV critic called out every answer to the category “What do you ‘Noah’ ’bout the ark?”)

But why does this sort of thing have to be dull? For as long as there has been television, there have been pastors, priests, ministers and flocks who have deeply desired to translate the energy and excitement of their beliefs to the secular airwaves. God knows they’ve tried.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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And yet, for some reason, church services make for the least exciting programming in all of creation, even when jazzed up with everything from puppets to Christian rock to tears that streak the mascara. The same is true in the music and movie industries — entertainment is just stubbornly secular. Even when something remotely divine breaks through — the “Highway to Heaven” or “Joan of Arcadia” effect — it still has to keep its light partially under a bushel.

The same is true for “The American Bible Challenge,” premiering Thursday night. Because it’s on the Game Show Network, the show at least knows that it wants to be a competition, but beyond that, what are its aims? To salute the knowledge of the devout and fervent? To evangelize? Comedian Jeff Foxworthy of “you might be a redneck” fame is the show’s host, and beneath his cheesy mustache grin, one detects weariness, a half-there quality of a man contractually obligated to middle-American blandness. It’s a Bible show, so he can’t tell any real jokes.

Nor can Foxworthy be too religious, and that’s the real problem here: Everything about “The American Bible Challenge,” from the songs performed by the multi-ethnic choir in matching chambray shirts to the megachurch-style staging, feels tentative and mealy. This is the same Good Book that some folks want to cut-and-paste into the U.S. Constitution (talk about a Bible challenge), yet here it is made to seem like nothing more than a big catalogue of trivia.

The teams in the pilot episode include the Suburban Saints, three men from Sacramento, one of whom is an Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient (about which much is made — the war deepened his faith) and another of whom works in media production and says he wants to make mainstream entertainment more Christian.

The other two teams are from the South: Three women from Plano, Tex., one of whom started a faith-based group of extreme couponers who donate their extra food hauls; plus three golf buddies from Charlotte who call themselves the Gospel Geezers and offer up a prayer at tee time.

The teams are playing to win money for their favorite charities, but we don’t get much sense of what these players actually believe. Are they fundamentalists or do they approach the Bible as more of a metaphorical guide? Are they Baptists? Non-denominational Protestants? Lutherans, Methodists? Gay Episcopalians vs. Chick-fil-A enthusiasts? Will there be Catholics? (Yes, there will be — three brothers from Chicago will compete in a later episode.) It seems unlikely that there will be Jews, because the questions cover the Old and New Testaments, although a Yeshiva school team might have aced the pilot episode’s lightning round — dubbed “The Final Revelation” — which focuses on “women in the Bible” and, as such, is filled with more Ruths, Esthers, Hagars and Bathshebas than it has Marthas, Marys and Eunices.

I’d tune in to the show if it were fearlessly, piously righteous. I’d like it better if it were churchier, and if the contestants were given time to “witness” to the audience with their personal tales of woe and redemption. Maybe what I’m saying is that I’d like it better if Mike Huckabee were on it.

The American Bible Challenge

(one hour) premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on GSN.

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