The Bible, currently running on History Channel (and on my DVR while I’m in Rome).  Megan Basham reports on the way The Bible stacks up against other cultural phenomenons on TV:

This past Sunday the television industry felt the ground shake when the first installment of the History Channel’s five-part miniseries, The Bible, drew a whopping 14.3 million viewers.  To put that in perspective, those are higher ratings than American Idol drew on Fox in the same week.  Higher ratings than the premiere of Celebrity Apprentice on NBC.  And it officially made The Biblethe number one scripted cable broadcast of the year.

The news was apparently so astonishing it prompted Business Weekto investigate exactly how the basic cable network pulled it off and inspired Timemagazine’s resident T.V. critic, James Poniewozik, to ponder whether The Bible’s success will lead to further mainstream forays into religious-themed entertainment.

What’s more astonishing, given how often pro-faith productions put up massive numbers, is that major media outlets still feel the need to run shocked headlines about it.

Ed Driscoll has a thought about that astonishment, too:

Regarding Time’s astonishment that a religious TV series is cleaning up in the ratings, again, consider the source, and the environment its editors and writers marinate in. While there’s a move afoot to spin-off Time, Inc. by the end of the year, at the moment, it’s still part of Time-Warner-CNN-HBO. Anti-religious messages are reinforced by all corners of that conglomeration, ever since Time famously asked “Is God Dead?” on its cover nearly half a century ago. As Andrew Klavan noted in his PJM column, Sports Illustrated, its sister publication, attacked religion and the NFL shortly before the most recent Super Bowl. Both illustrate how far the collective worldview of the staffers of magazines founded by Henry Luce, whose parents were Christian missionaries to China, has come.

Both Ed and Meghan bring up the unexpected and unprecedented success of the independent and controversial Passion of the Christ, and Megan reminds readers of the very profitable independent films from Sherwood Baptist Church (Fireproof, and the most recent, Courageous, which was probably its finest effort yet).  Ed and Megan wonder how Hollywood and the media can be so surprised when these films succeed, and why studios don’t begin working again in religious-themed films.  The studio business culture prevents it, Ed posits:

The Passion got made because Mel Gibson, at the height of his career, was willing to gamble $25 million or so of his own money and had sufficient experience as a filmmaker to shepherd (pardon the pun) the movie through to completion and to secure a distributor. In contrast, the vast majority of the rest of Hollywood’s product is made by committee. A Hollywood executive who’s an atheist or agnostic has to ask himself, can he assemble a crew — a producer, a screenwriter and a director at a minimum — who are religious enough or, at a bare minimum, respectful and knowledgeable enough of religion to produce a product that a religious audience would accept? Then, is the executive who oversees the movie willing to ride out the controversy such a film would engender from the left, including attacks from, say, Time, the Daily Kos, Huffington Post, and MSNBC? Perhaps most importantly, at least from the point of view of our hypothetical executive’s ego, is he willing to be ridiculed by his peers at cocktail parties in Beverly Hills and on Park Avenue? (It’s not a coincidence that these are some of the same reasons why there isn’t another conservative or libertarian television channel to siphon viewers away from Fox News.) Best to bankroll Star Trek 26, Die Hard 13, or Star Wars: Episode Seven, instead. Besides, I hear this year is The Year of the Sequel, anyhow.

Every year is the year of the sequel these days.  Seriously, can anyone remember the last year that didn’t have some major or middling franchise coming out with a number following the title, or some new riff on the original title? I might have to go back to my teen years, and I’m turning 50 in a few weeks.

On the bright side, however, this shows just how much people are thirsting for religion, even if in entertainment form.  Our culture wants to treat religion as an artifact, a remnant, an ancient superstition — and that’s actually good for Hollywood, as it justifies its other choices in the fare it presents.  Yet we have thousands of journalists competing for space here at the Vatican for the papal conclave, and The Bible is the top-rated show on American television.  So much for irrelevancy, and the shock from the media has more to do with a narrative failure than surprise.

This actually plays into exactly what George Weigel has to say in his new book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. I have an interview with Weigel later this morning, so stay tuned.