Mark Burnett was taken aback by the scale of what his wife, actress Roma Downey, had in mind when she suggested over tea one morning four years ago that they make a television miniseries based on the Bible.
"Momentarily, I think he thought I'd lost my mind," Downey recalled. "He went out on his bicycle and he prayed on it and he came back and said, 'You know what, I think it's a good idea. I think we should do it together.' We shook hands and haven't looked back."
The series debuted on History Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, the first of five two-hour chunks that will air each weekend. The finale airs on Easter Sunday.
Different stories in the Bible have been Hollywood fodder for years. Burnett, the prolific producer behind "Survivor" and "The Voice," said no one had tried to tie it all together and use modern computer graphics to bring images like Moses parting the Red Sea to life on screen.
Instead of being all-encompassing, they tried to concentrate on stories in depth and on characters who would emotionally engage the audience. The first episode illustrates the wisdom of that approach: it flounders at the start with a discussion about the world's creation but becomes more gripping when the emphasis turns to the lives of Abraham and Moses.
Burnett said he believes there's a growing "Biblical illiteracy" among young people.
"It's like saying you never heard of Macbeth or King Lear," he said. "In school, you have to know a certain amount of Shakespeare, but no Bible. So there's got to be a way to look at it from a pure literature point of view. If it wasn't for the Bible, arguably Shakespeare wouldn't have written those stories."
Downey, the former star of "Touched By an Angel," said she wanted to be part of something that would glorify God.
After pitching their idea to several networks, Burnett and Downey found a fit with Nancy Dubuc, History's president and general manager. She likes the challenge of ideas that seem unwieldy. History made the 2010 miniseries "America the Story of Us," which was a big hit, and 2012's "Mankind the Story of All of Us," which wasn't. Last spring's miniseries on the Hatfields and McCoys was an eye-opening success.
Burnett and Downey have been building anticipation for "The Bible" by previewing it at churches and for religious leaders. Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, have all endorsed the work.
"The faith community is going to sample it, unquestionably," Dubuc said. "Whether they stay or go remains with the TV gods. Our job has been to present this as an epic tale of adventure."
History's own campaign is not targeting a religious audience, emphasizing some of the dramatic scenes to suggest that audiences won't be preached to. The screening that Downey and Burnett have sweated the most was when their teenage children showed it to some friends.
"We knew that we could make it heartfelt," Downey said. "We knew we could make it faithful. But we wanted to be sure that we could make it cool."