On April 5, ABC-TV aired Peter Jennings' 3-hour unspectacular "Jesus and Paul." The splashy, "special television event" showed what a TV network can do when it really wants to mangle Christianity.
Given the pervasiveness of television in American life, orthodox Christians must not remain silent when so much misinformation about their faith is broadcast to so many viewers at once. We must respond to this attempt to mis-evangelize America.
In three hours of interviews with assorted "experts," not one of them said, "This story, the gospel story, is true. We are talking about something that really happened."
In a live radio interview with Jennings the afternoon before the program aired, Rev. D. James Kennedy (Coral Ridge Ministries) pointed out to Jennings that he could have done the whole show from a believers' perspective, but chose not to. Dr. Kennedy is not bashful about proclaiming the absolute truth of God's word, but Jennings let his slip show (à la Pontius Pilate) when he answered, "That's your truth."
Jennings' sources included all the usual suspects: Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, who deny Jesus' trial, burial, and resurrection; Episcopal Bishop John Spong, who thinks St. Paul was a repressed homosexual; Marvin Meyer ("Paul, not Jesus, founded Christianity"); and Elaine Pagels, who is into gnosticism.
He also gave a lot of face time to fallen-away nun Karen Armstrong, who best summed up the liberal position, "Paul was able to take this tragic, sad little story [Jesus' crucifixion] and turn it into a great myth."
Airing this stuff on the first weeknight of Holy Week, it does make us wonder what Jennings and his friends consider "holy."
In television, presentation is everything.
The pop music soundtrack, from "Christian lite" to straight rock, didn't exactly lend gravitas to the subject matter. Worse was the editing: nanosecond flashes of classic religious paintings, special effects to speed people up or bounce them up and down, one backdrop melting into another — very cutting edge, very music video. Very "Bill Nye the Science Guy."
Commercial television has to have commercials. "Jesus and Paul" had plenty — for cars, allergy pills, snacks, a foot fungus remedy, etc. A few stand out as singularly tasteless:
- A promo for a new ABC sitcom, showing the characters mocking the sacrament of baptism.
- Promos for the next Bachelor series, and a show about a serial murderer.
- A perky, fluffy ad for a "contraceptive patch."
What we have here is a determined effort to level Jesus the Messiah and Paul the Apostle — to swamp them in waves of pop music, pop theology, and mundane material things. We jump from the cross to Gene Shalit trying to microwave his popcorn without melting the container.
Sometimes the medium really is the message.
As an example of the quality of thinking behind this extravaganza, consider:
In one segment, Jennings went to the Vatican to ask tourists (if they really were tourists, and not actors playing tourists) what they thought of Paul. They all responded, "Paul who?"
But on the "Beliefnet" website ( beliefnet.com) accompanying the show, ABC provided a poll — offering these same ignoramuses the opportunity to decide whether or not Paul "distorted" Jesus' message. After what you just showed us, ABC, why ask them anything?
The website is an indiscriminate mix of Christianity, liberal tripe, non-Christian religions, New Age, and pop culture. As far as the folks at ABC are concerned, it's all equal. You can take a quiz that will reveal your "Spiritual Type," check in with the Dalai Lama, or read Bishop Spong's fulminations against Paul's moral character — all in the spirit of leveling.
Yes, there were a few legitimate Christians thrown into the kettle for what Jennings conceives of as "balance" — a little bit of Paul Maier and Ben Witherington III on the broadcast, a snippet from Chuck Swindoll on the website. But it would have taken a lot more than that to balance out the cumulative effects of Karen Armstrong, the naysayers from the Jesus Seminar, and the foot fungus ads.
It's no surprise when pagans try to talk about Jesus and get it all wrong. Ask Peter Jennings or John Dominic Crossan about Jesus? Might as well ask a fire hydrant.
But one thing TV shows like this do — and this is where we can make use of them — is get people thinking and talking about Jesus.
Liberals like Jennings would rather you didn't believe in the real, Biblical Jesus. After all, if Christ is King, then man can't be. But they fall into the same trap that caught Caiaphas and Pilate. These, by crucifying Jesus, only set the stage for His resurrection. Today's Pilates, by trying to debunk Jesus, only get more and more people thinking about Him. The harder they try, the worse it is for them.
That's where we come in, and our churches.
First Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and now this — lately there hasn't been a better time in America for talking about Jesus, or a better chance of finding an audience. All of a sudden, the media have discovered Jesus. They've discovered the Christian market: there's gold in them thar hills.
Whether the liberals hope to stifle belief in Christ, or simply to make money in Mel Gibson's footsteps, needn't concern us.
They are giving us a golden opportunity to talk to America about Jesus. We can't all be pastors; we can't all be theologians — but anybody can get into a friendly conversation around the water cooler.
"Hey, did you see that Peter Jennings thing the other night — 'Jesus and Paul'?"
"I sure did. Boy, did they ever get it wrong."
"Oh, yeah? What do you mean?"
"Well …" And there's where we have our chance to teach — if we're equipped for it — or to direct our friend to someone who can. Remember, if he weren't interested in the subject, he wouldn't be talking about it. And he wouldn't have spent three hours watching "Jesus and Paul."
If we wait for ABC to get it right, we'll die of old age first. But the beauty of it is that we don't have to wait. ABC's debunkers have opened the door for us.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.