Of the three major networks' news anchors, Peter Jennings of ABC has shown a consistent fascination with religion, producing such comprehensive reports as In the Name of God. Because of his advocacy, ABC is the only network to employ a full-time religion reporter. Jennings, who was raised in Canada as an Anglican, takes his interest in religion reporting to ambitious heights on June 19 with the special Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus. Jennings spoke with CT's Douglas LeBlanc about the program.
Tell me about the title, The Search for Jesus.
Jeanmarie Conden, the producer, and I had done a film called Jerusalem Stories, which was a compilation of the three principal views of Jerusalem, gathered largely by me over 30-some visits when I lived in and out of the Middle East. When it was over, Jeanmarie and Ben McCoy, our cameraman, said,
"This was just fabulous. What can we do next?"
We decided that I, as a reporter, could set out and see what I could find about Jesus, the man, as he lived in this part of the world in the first century.
Is the project similar to Albert Schweitzer's work in Quest for the Historic Jesus?
No, it's a journalist's work. "Quest," I think, would put the wrong spin on it because, while you cannot do a project like this without being particularly sensitive to the faith or spiritual dimension of it, I was interested in trying to find out: Who was Jesus as a person? Where did he preach? Where did he go? Who did he see in this short period of his life?
What aspects of Jesus do you find most fascinating?
I am utterly struck how, 300 years after his execution, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Though in the special we don't deal at length with the Resurrection, I'm struck by the intenseness of the debate and the intensity of belief: something happened after Jesus was executed that created this momentum that led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the empire.
I've been to Jerusalem many times. I never get over the feeling that one gets from visitors, from all over the world, who visit where the Gospels tell us Jesus rose from his tomb. I'm utterly struck by the power. In his very brief life, Jesus met and spoke with probably no more than a few thousand people at best. He wrote not a word we're aware of. He commanded no army. Yet he had a vision of a just society for which he was prepared to die.
Were some of your colleagues nervous about a show focusing on Jesus?
Sure [laughs]. Religion in the newsroom is a delicate subject to begin with. In journalism we are accustomed to dealing with concrete issues, and religion, especially the differences between religions, is unsettling to many people.
At ABC we have a slight advantage; several years ago, we did take a serious enough interest in religion to hire a full-time religion reporter. So there is a greater measure of comfort, I think, in our newsroom than there is in some others.
When you begin on a project like this, you know you're going to offend somebody. I don't mind offending people& amp;mdash;journalists should not mind offending people if they're in search of the truth. But television executives are sometimes more sensitive to the greater good than I am.
Do any of Jesus' remarks leave you wishing he had said more?
The very first place we visited was the controversial Jesus Seminar. I was struck by their intellectual attempt to try to decide what Jesus really said. As it turns out, we ended up using none of the seminar itself in the special, though I found being there exhilarating.
I was allowed to ask a question: Did Jesus have a sense of humor? And it led to a great discussion of Jesus' sayings and character on this subject.
What would you like to have asked Jesus yourself?
I would have been interested in talking to him as a preacher. I would also, given what I grew up with, be interested in talking to him about quite simple things: How difficult was it, for example, to ally yourself so specifically with the outcasts, with Mary Magdalene, with tax collectors? What did you think the consequences of your preaching would be?
Would Jesus be willing to grant interviews to journalists?
Oh, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have. I must re-create for you a scene in our editing room. The editor of the special is Ralph Avelino, who is probably a better Jesus scholar than I am. We all agreed from the outset that if we were going to do this historically, we had to acknowledge the fact that the Gospels were written many years after Jesus lived. They were written under different circumstances, by different people, and some of them may have been advertisements for early Christianity when Christians were competing for followers.
So we all said, "OK, the Gospels are only so good as evidence." And then we'd have these fierce fights: Of course the Gospel said this! Of course the Gospel said that! More than anything else, that speaks to the power of the stories; you are drawn in and suddenly find yourself arguing with the next person about a piece of evidence of which even you are unsure. Of course that's exactly what scholars do. They look at the same evidence, then go off searching on their own for historical context, and in many cases, they reach different conclusions.
Would Jesus' answers to reporters be good sound bites, or would they be too cryptic for typical journalism?
I'm going to take that as a frivolous question& amp;mdash;that may be insulting, but I sort of mean it to be. I would never want to reduce the notion of learning about, or the hypothetical exercise of talking to Jesus, to a sound-bite debate, especially in the pages of Christianity Today.
One of the things we did do early in the program was raise the question of what Jesus looked like. Unfortunately in this television day and age, what people look like and how they present themselves has a lot to do with the impact of their message.
I meant it more as a question of whether we, in our media-saturated age, could hear what Jesus says.
Your question is answered by the effectiveness and power of those who preach on television. A wonderful guy from Memphis, G. E. Patterson, was here at Madison Square Garden the other night. Here's a man whose power around the country has become known by television.
To what extent has your background as an Anglican helped you report on religion?
I went to a school in Canada where we went to chapel every day. I grew up in a fairly traditional, middle-class family that took Communion seriously. But I also grew up with a much more social sense of religion (which I don't demean at all) than with a primarily spiritual sense.
I'm sympathetic to the notion that people are moved by faith. I once gave a brief talk here at ABC in which I said to reporters, "When you go to an airplane accident and you ask people what they think it was that got them through this crisis, and they say, 'God did,' don't ever ask them, 'No, I mean what really got you through?' " I'm sensitive to faith to that extent. But on this project, what interested me most was the reportage.
What do you hope people will take away from watching this special?
That people will enjoy it as much as I did. People around here will tell you that it's been a long time since I have been so excited about a project.
Larry King also interviewed Jennings about the project.
On Friday, Baptist Press (the house organ of the Southern Baptist Convention) ran not one but two articles criticizing the show. Daniel Akin, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's school of theology, calls it "a marvelous commercial for the Jesus Seminar's perspective on who was Jesus and what did he do." Adds James Merritt, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, "There certainly was not a balance there with good solid conservative evangelical theologians." (Christianity Today was not given a preview tape, but the current word on the street is that Merritt is right and that evangelicals probably will be disappointed in the program.)
The Washington Post's Tom Shales agrees, calling it "an exercise in myth-debunking potentially offensive to devout members of the Christian faith. The program, he says, "doesn't accomplish much more than a dog chasing its tail. And it's not much more illuminating to watch."
The New York Post's Linda Stasi has an incredibly offensive review of "The Search for Jesus," which she praises for "demystify[ing] many of the Jesus stories." "Demystification will not stand Jennings in good stead with Christian fundamentalists who will brook no controversy, nor even differing opinions about what's written in the New Testament. (Look, they don't even want to update the language in the King James Bible as though Jesus, a Jew from Bethlehem, spoke in olde English.) hellip; Jennings will probably get stoned, not for having the nerve to analyze the life of Christ, but for hanging around with intellectuals."
The Dallas Morning News, on the other hand, says the show is balanced. "Christians who think that Mr. Jennings isn't always accurate will have to agree that he tries hard to be fair," writes Susan Hogan. "It's a show that stretches the mind& amp;mdash;though not too terribly much& amp;mdash;without trampling the heart."
Similarly, Newsday's reviewer wrote, "Terribly sorry to disappoint, but there's virtually nothing here that will cause undue anxiety within the multifaceted Christian community. (A few will gripe, but they always do.) Jennings and producer Jeanmarie Condon have done what so many others have done before them: report on a range of scholarship that seeks to understand (among other things) the discrepancy of fact within the four Gospels."
Peter Jennings hasn't quit his day job. The Web site for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings offers the audio of his nightly television news broadcasts, related links, and a daily 'behind the scenes' report from Jennings on the making of each newscast.
An excellent collection of Web resources on the 'historical' Jesus is available from The Text This Week. John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Luke Timothy Johnson have debated at length what we can know about Jesus. The Web site for the PBS special From Jesus to Christ also covers this topic.
Christianity Today and our sister publications have given extensive coverage to quests for the historical Jesus. Christianity Today reports on the Jesus one scholar would prefer to know and the centrality of Jesus' resurrection. Books & Culture assembled six leading Jesus scholars to investigate the meaning of Jesus, and issue 59 of Christian History discussed what the gospels can tell us about Jesus.
ABC News religion reporter Peggy Wehmeyer, an evangelical and a colleague of Jennings, has spoken about the importance of showing the religious dimensions of news stories. A profile of Wehmeyer is available from USA Weekend.
Other recent 'Jesus programming' on American television has included: The Miracle Maker, a claymation film about Jesus' life; the Jesus miniseries; and the made-for-television drama Mary, Mother of Jesus. Last month at ChristianityToday.com, Roy Anker looked at how Jesus is playing on TV and in the movies.
Like Peter Jennings, Lee Stroebel was a journalist who was intrigued by Jesus. Read about what he found in his book, The Case for Christ.
Previous CT 'Conversations' include:
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen talks about reclaiming feminism , September 6, 1999
Re-Imagining Women, May 24, 1999
The Jew Who Is Saving Christians, March 1, 1999
Max Lucado's Maxims, February 8, 1999
The Re-education of Jim Bakker, December 7, 1998
The Good HMO, October 5, 1998
The Politics of Patience, August 10, 1998
De-Seiple-ing World Vision, June 15, 1998
Jimmy Carter's Lesson Plan, March 2, 1998
A Different Kind of Guru, January 12, 1998
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