Culture > Television

TV: The PBS Jesus seminar

Television | Special Easter show tries to undermine Christ

Issue: "Paying with your life," April 4, 1998

PBS is observing the Easter season with hours of theological toxin aimed directly at orthodox Christianity. Frontline, the long-running PBS documentary film series, will kick off Holy Week with two evenings of a reimagined Jesus and a deconstructed early church, titled From Jesus to Christ, the First Christians. Frontline's films are conceived and developed by David Fanning who-as Laurence Jarvik has shown in his book PBS:Behind the Screen-has made it a regular practice to use his position as executive producer to advocate left-wing sentiments. So it is not surprising that the press releases for his program promise to reveal "the real story of the rise of Christianity ... challenging and upsetting conventional ideas." Utilizing slow-pan footage of significant archaeological sites and artifacts of the Holy Land and ancient Rome, director William Cran avoids the impression of dogmatism as a dozen scholars, among whom are Jesus Seminar co-founder John Dominic Crossan and PBS perennial Elaine Pagels of The Gnostic Gospels fame, freely fantasize about the person of Jesus (not the Christ), and how his memory was exploited to fuel a seditious political movement which became known as Christianity. The panel consists of scholars from big-name universities and divinity schools, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Brown, Boston, Union, DePaul, and the University of Texas at Austin. Yet not one among this group represents evangelical scholarship. Only postmodern heterodoxy is allowed. Biblical Christians will hardly recognize their Savior. Professors Michael White, Allen Callahan, Shaye Cohen, Eric Meyers, Paula Fredriksen, Holland Hendrix, and Mr. Crosson paint a picture of Jesus as a wheeling, dealing artisan-turned-follower-of-John-the-Baptist-turned-preacher-complete with the standard-issue bag of miracles that sometimes work and sometimes "miss the mark." His message was "100 percent political and 100 percent religious," which led the Romans-not the priests or Pharisees-to want Jesus crucified for insurrection. As for the developments that followed, Professors Harold Attridge, Elizabeth Clark, Helmut Koester, and Wayne Meeks dismiss the Resurrection. They blow Peter and Paul's disagreement over dietary concerns into a power struggle that was decided in favor of Peter by a pecunious, ham-fisted James (and Paul goes off in a huff to proselytize the Gentiles). They go on to extol the diversity of Christianity in the "secret gospels" of Thomas and Philip (heretical Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt), note the political savvy of Christian martyrs, and trace the "apocalyptic fulfillment" of Jesus' prophecies about the establishment of the kingdom of God to the adoption of Christianity by the emperor of Rome. Narrator Judy Woodruff concludes, "The kingdom of God and the Roman Empire had now become one and the same. Jesus of Nazareth had become Jesus Christ. And his church had become a power on earth." It is intellectually shoddy of the producers to present these ideas as though they represent the assured finding of all scholars rather than a few cliques. In fact, the scholarship is flawed at its foundations. The "historical-critical" approach to Scripture starts with the assumption that the supernatural claims of the Bible cannot be real. Then, working from this naturalistic worldview, it constructs other explanations for the biblical text. As Professor Peter Enns of Westminster Theological Seminary told WORLD, this school of criticism assumes that "a religious approach to the text is a biased approach, so they discount the canon of Scripture. Instead, finding hints of something in the biblical texts, they make narrow, ideological assumptions that necessarily pit them against Christianity." So happy Easter from viewer-supported, tax-supported public television.

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