Jesus Christ, in both image and spirit, figures prominently on TV these days. He’s, um, everywhere: the sarcastic construction paper Jesus who pops up on the devoutly irreverent South Park; the Jesus who is invoked explicitly on the soon-to-be-departed Nothing Sacred and implicitly on the insidiously popular Touched By An Angel; and the flesh-and-blood Jesus who is examined at illuminating length this week on Frontline’s From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.
With its four-hour production spread over two evenings, Frontline intends, to quote exec producer David Fanning, to present ”the real story of the rise of Christianity, challenging and upsetting conventional ideas.” According to what Frontline terms ”new and exciting discoveries” that have sparked an ”intellectual revolution” in biblical scholarship, it will come as possibly disturbing news to some viewers that Jesus thought of himself as a Jew, not as a Christian and that Christianity as a movement, an alternative to Judaism, took shape only after his death. Frontline believes its other hot-potato topic is the notion that Christianity was not, in its earliest centuries, a united front, but rather a fractious miscellany of beliefs, in which anyone who claimed to follow Jesus’ teachings could pretty much cobble together whatever he or she wanted from the Gospels, to come up with a personal definition of this then evolving faith.
In the reverse of what we expect from TV, Jesus is exciting not for its visuals, which look like stock shots of the Holy Land, but for its lively interplay of ideas: As the show cuts from one biblical expert to another, it’s like getting a crash course in the New Testament by watching a bunch of smart people throw us their best curve balls. The highest compliment I can pay one of its featured scholars, John Dominic Crossan, is to say that his witty, incisive, yet knotty observations made me seek out his books. And one biblical professor and minister, Allen D. Callahan, has the warm presence and sound-bite savvy of a budding TV personality: Give him his own show and I’ll watch whatever he chooses to sermonize upon.
Holland Lee Hendrix, of Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary, deploys the phrase ”a plurality of Jesuses” to describe the many things Christ means to people. In keeping with that concept, I don’t think it’s rude to say that the image of Jesus sketched in by this Frontline — that of a passionate maverick, eager to debate and slap down weak-willed disbelievers — is comparable to South Park’s smart, scrappy Jesus. On the controversially vulgar cartoon, Jesus (a minor player, if you don’t watch the series) always wants to cut to the chase of any argument, whether he’s in a now classic battle with Santa, or disconnecting callers to his talk show.
This engaged, worldly, all-accepting, but impatient Savior is similar to the Jesus that Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) prays to on Nothing Sacred, recently pulled from ABC’s lineup and unlikely to return. Just as the brutal truths spoken by Frontline’s Jesus brought him the enmity of pagan Rome, so did Sacred’s attempts to make religion complicated and challenging bring the show criticism from conservative watchdog groups as well as a big shrug from TV viewers, who weren’t engaged by the show’s often plodding excursions into abortion, atheism, or the role of that Jewish accountant in the Catholic St. Thomas parish.
Frankly, I think one simple but crucial reason Sacred failed to attract an audience was its title, which signaled to pious viewers that this series was not going to be conventionally reverent, and yet promised everybody else a kind of no-holds-barred drama that never really materialized. The one episode that really threatened to confront the struggle of what it means to be a devout Catholic in the modern world — a story about an HIV-positive priest — never made it onto the air. And the show’s latterday addition of Jennifer Beals to the cast seemed cheesily half-baked: Her character was upright, if not downright uptight, yet ads for the show seemed to say, ”Hey, don’tcha think Father Ray’s gonna be a little, heh, heh, tempted by the star of Flashdance?”
Indeed, the Jesus that emerges in From Jesus to Christ — that of a questing commoner, ”down there in the mud of human history,” as Crossan so vividly puts it — seems to me the sort of fellow who would welcome the controversy that ABC has so assiduously avoided, that South Park courts, and that PBS too often fails to even attempt. This Frontline is an exception, and exceptional. A-