Recent National Specials on Jesus and Christianity - Some Reviews - Dec 22
Well it is Christmas and the specials on Jesus and Christians are pouring forth. Three key pieces have already come out, two by CNN and one by ABC. The CNN pieces are likely to repeat as one of them (What is a Christian?) has already appeared twice, another is scheduled ot air four times durign the holidays (After Jesus). In addition, these specials have a way of showing up again and again on niche history cable channels. So be ready for discussions at the water cooler. So what is the story on the specials for the Christmas season 2006? The ABC 20/20 piece on the Nativity did a good job of sorting out the views out there: the more skeptical take and the one that holds the story is literally so. More time was given to the skeptical take (no real surprise), but both sides were at the table. The key thing not developed was that those who take the story seriously as history do also affirm the symbolism of the accounts. The impression was left that one has to choose between history and symbol, expect on the report on the web site. Neither was there the idea clearly presented that Matthew tells the account from one angle (Joseph, conflict, Jewish) and Luke (Mary, Joy, Gentile) from the other with the two accounts complementing each other. This is a hard story to tell on TV, given there is only so much time, but it could have been done. Voices here were Marvin Meyer of Gnostic Gospel fame, Paula Fredricksen, and myself. The CNN special After Jesus is a two-hour sprint through Christian history. It started with Jesus then runs to Peter and Paul (really presented Peter-James versus Paul), persecution, heresies, the Gnostics and the Missing Gospels, persecution again, and then the growth of Christianity, Constantine, and Nicea. Major face time goes to Bart Erhman, who does well, and Marvin Meyer, who loves to hype alternative Christianities and the different approach of Gnosticism, including the positive take on women (something Erhman did counter). No clear use of evangelicals here, although Claire Pfann does a nice job throughout of explaining the content and Gerald O’Conner gives a Roman Catholic take. Other who appear include Judith Lieu, Gerald O’Conner, Amy-Jill Levine, and Laurence Schiffman. In many places the most articulate spokespeople were the summaries from the Jewish scholars Levine and Schiffman. Three important problems belong to this one: (1) the impression that alternative and orthodoxy Christianity in somewhat equal force existed side by side from the beginning, (2) the ignoring that women in the Gnostic materials included female creators who botched the creation (although Schiffman got it right that these gospel are anti-Semitic and would never have been a reflection of the earliest Christianity), and (3) an appeal to the tired, old theory of F. C. Baur that it was Peter with James versus Paul in the earliest church. What was especially galling here is that the report on the Jerusalem Council failed to note that the three agreed on the basic point, leaving the impression Paul swayed James on the key point, even though it was Peter’s address that was the turning point to agreement. But old critical theories die a slow death even when they ignore key evidence. The second CNN effort is entitled “What is a Christian?” This piece was very well done. It covered an array of topics tied to the current state of evangelicalism and managed in its hour to nuance issues carefully. There were interesting demographics on who believes, a look at the environment, at the prosperity gospel, at younger evangelicals, at the appeal to the devil in the cultural wars, and at last days theology. Here Richard Land and Jim Wallis were among those interacting with Anderson Cooper. Among those given a close look are Cleflo Dollar and John Hagee, as well as Richard Cizik on the environment. Any one of the several topics covered could get a solid half hour to hour (rather than eight minutes), and one hopes CNN will come back to some of this in more detail with the same care to nuance. Catch this one of you get a chance. It is kaleidoscope of the current scene. So there you have it, a cafeteria of choices on the world of the Christian faith for Christmas. By the way, do take the time to go see the Nativity, if you can. It is worth the reflection on Christmas it generates. It is well done with a solid taste of first century life and worked hard to give a sense of what Mary and Joseph faced given the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Merry Christmas to all.