First let me say something positive: I like the visuals in the History Channel’s new eight-part Lenten series, Jesus: His Life. The acting is professional; the setting is authentically “Middle Eastern desert.” I am surprised by Jesus – the actor who portrays him is lively and energetic, not at all like the more serious performances I've come to expect in Bible films. The angel who appears to Mary is a surprise, as well: a buff, bald-headed black man.
But I'm disappointed that once again, as has happened in years past with holiday specials, A&E Networks uses the holy season of Lent to spar with classic Christianity, to reinterpret and to question the authenticity of certain Bible passages.
The creators of Jesus: His Life attempt to build credibility with a long list of 26 theological and academic contributors. Prominent in the first episode, which focused on the life of Jesus' earthly stepfather Joseph, were Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry (presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church); Rev. Otis Moss III (senior pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ); Simon Sebag Montefiore (author, Jerusalem: The Biography); Ben Witherington III (professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary); Joel Osteen (senior pastor of Lakewood Church who also serves as the executive producer); and Dr. Robert Cargill (Assistant Professor of Judaism, Christianity and Classics, University of Iowa).
One of two experts representing the Catholic faith is Fr. James Martin, S.J. (The other, who doesn't show up in the first episode, is Fox News' Fr. Jonathan Morris.) Father Martin's role in the first episode seems to be to demonstrate that Mary was a feminist. When she was asked by the angel to become the Mother of God, Martin explains, “...she doesn't ask her husband or her father. She answers on her own. So this is a very strong woman.”
But the expert who seems intent on dredging up controversy – and who is given a primary role in the series – is Dr. Robert Cargill. I should not be surprised by Cargill's questioning: Cargill, who has been called the “Skeptic in the Sanctuary,” sees his role as asking difficult questions. “This is where I stand,” Cargill wrote,
...atop the continental divide between faith and science, with one foot in the range of rigorous academic inquiry and skeptical scrutiny, and the other on the often slippery slope of competing religious worldviews. And from this marvelous vantage point I can survey both directions and ask difficult questions of both faith and reason. I imagine that I'll spend the remainder of my career here, the ever-searching soul attempting to mediate between the two.
But Lent, it seems to me, is not a time for debating and deriding faith; rather, it should be a season when faith is nurtured and encouraged to thrive, when skepticism is set aside in favor of pure love. During Lent, the U.S. Bishops' website explains, we are asked to devote ourselves to seeking the Lord in prayer and reading Scripture, to service by giving alms, and to sacrifice self-control through fasting.
Robert Cargill, rather than leading the viewer toward deeper faith and understanding, chooses instead to prod the believer with questions, large and small. Joseph learned of the real story of Mary's pregnancy, he explains, not in a dream, as Scripture says, but through an “apparition” as he was walking in the desert. There are two problems with the census as reported in Scripture, Cargill asserts: (1) the Roman census took place 10 years after Jesus' birth; and (2) Roman censuses did not require people to return to their ancestral home. Cargill believes – and he asserts that most scholars would agree with him – that Luke used the census as a mere storyteller's device to get Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem, because Bethlehem in Judea is where Old Testament prophecy said that the Messiah would be born.
And here Dr. Ben Witherington steps in, countering Cargill's skepticism with facts: We do, Witherington explains, have tax documents that show the Romans required people to group together as part of their ancestral group. If part of the family had moved, it would have been necessary for them to travel to their homeland to regroup with their relatives. Luke’s story of the Holy Family's travels is, Witherington insists, perfectly plausible.
Then Cargill returns with his tiresome dubiety, asserting that the massacre of the innocents isn't historical. But in fact, there is independent evidence supporting the veracity of the Scripture story. The non-Christian writer Macrobius, who lived from A.D. 395-423, wrote about the massacre:
On hearing that the son of Herod, king of the Jews, had been slain when Herod ordered that all boys in Syria under the age of two to be killed, Augustus said, “It's better to be Herod's pig, than his son.” (dicta 56 Malc.)
Jesus: His Life begins on the History Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern time (7 p.m. Central) on March 25. Whether to watch the eight-part series during the Lenten season is a matter for personal discernment. On the one hand, it draws one's mind to Christ – which is more than one can say of most network television programs. On the other hand, it seems a sad replacement for Lenten practices such as personal prayer. And viewers can choose, instead, to watch EWTN at 8 p.m., to see the beloved late Fr. Groeschel talk about Satan; or if CatholicTV from Boston is available in your area, you might tune in to the show “Walk in Faith,” an interview show in which guests explain how faith, spirituality and conviction have shaped their lives for the good.