Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Jesus: His Life, episode 3 (Nutopia, Joel Osteen Ministries, History Channel, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the fifth and sixth episodes of the interesting History Channel series Jesus: His Life, at an odd time for me to be watching this in that I just finished reading Sheldon Vanauken’s book A Severe Mercy. Vanauken was an English professor who grew up on a landed estate in England called Glenmerle but moved back and forth between Britain and the United States. During that odd interregnum from 1939 to 1941 when Britain was a combatant nation in World War II and the U.S. was not, he lived in New York City and met a woman named Jean Davis, who for some reason he and just about everyone who knew her gave the nickname “Davy.” They eventually married and he studied at Oxford University for three years — she studied, too, albeit informally since Oxford didn’t yet admit women (damn those silly prejudices the male slightly-less-than-half of humanity held for so ridiculously long against the female slightly-more-than-half, and the relentlessness with we denied our species the talents, skills, intelligences and insights of women just because of a few minor differences in reproductive plumbing!). When they met they were both intellectual agnostics, unwilling to make the several leaps of faith required to become Christians, but eventually first Davy converted and then so did Van (not wanting to deal with his mouthful of a name, he got nicknamed “Van,” so both of them went by variants of their last names), though she was a good deal more whole-hearted about it than he was. Van got help with his spiritual journey from an intriguing source: C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books and quite a lot of literature expressing his views on life as both an intellectual and a Christian. The cover of this book, published in 1977, ballyhoos that it contains “18 Letters by C. S. Lewis” within its text — and the inclusion of Lewis’s letters only makes Vanauken’s overstuffed, self-consciously “intellectual” prose seem even worse by comparison (he’s a mediocre prose writer and a terrible poet — there’s one surprisingly good sonnet in which he takes on the persona of the Virgin Mary but most of the rest of his poetry is trash, doggerel forced into regular meters and rhyme schemes at a time well after his countrymen, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, had shown you could write great poetry without rhyme or meter), but one thing about this book haunted me: Vanauken has a problem becoming a Christian because he believes (and Lewis confirms this when Vanauken writes him about it) you must believe that Jesus was literally both the begotten Son of God and God Incarnate, and you must believe in the historical accuracy of the Virgin Birth, the Miracles and the Resurrection. 

I was bothered by this enough that when Charles’ last Sunday school session was wrapping up I went there and asked the group, point-blank, if they believed you had to accept all those things to consider yourself a Christian. One woman in the group said, “Those were just words,” and Charles himself gave a one-word answer: “No.” (I didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question whether Charles believes in the historical truth of the Virgin Birth, the Miracles and the Resurrection. He did say that the later miracles the Roman Catholic Church attributed to the saints were far more historically dubious than the ones attributed in the New Testament to Jesus Himself.) I’m writing this extended preface to my reflections on parts five and six of Jesus: His Life because the experience of going to church a lot (mostly to St. Paul’s Cathedral in Bankers’ Hill to hear the Tuesday afternoon organ concerts, though when Charles has had Tuesdays off we’ve gone together and attended the mini-service that precedes the concert and I’ve taken Communion, even though I’ve occasionally asked myself, “What’s a nice little atheist boy like you doing in a place like this?,” and that didn’t stop me from praying for a particularly sick home-care client this afternoon while I was waiting for the concert to begin) and experiencing the company of believers has affected me in a lot of unexpected ways — including, during last Sunday’s American Country Music Awards, being a lot more tolerant of the awards recipients who thanked God (among others) for their wins, and also the presence on the program of songs with titles like “God and Country Music” and “God’s Country.” The fifth and sixth episodes of Jesus: His Life were narrated — more or less: the conceit of this program is that “for the first time, the story of Jesus is told by those who knew him best” (which made me wonder wasn’t that what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were supposed to be doing?), which means that we get snatches of voiceover narration from some of the most important supporting characters in the Jesus story: Joseph, John the Baptist, Mary (His mother), Caiaphas, Judas, Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Peter. 

I give them points for including the villains, as well as the heroes, in the Christ story, and episodes five and six — told kinda-sorta from the viewpoints of Judas (Abhin Galeya) and Pilate, respectively — offered some interesting slants on the tale even though neither the authors of the series’ scripted portions nor the talking-head interviewees with which the cast is studded really had much of a clue as to what made Judas betray Jesus. to the extent we get an explanation, it’s that Judas’s relationship with Jesus began to go south when Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus — the fact that three important people in the Jesus story are named Mary gets rather confusing at times) gives him a precious ointment and rubs it on his feet, and Judas gets mad because they could have sold the ointment and given the money to the poor — and really went off the rails when Jesus went to Jerusalem and attacked the money-changers outside the Temple. The script explains that Jesus had appointed Judas his treasurer, and this meant Judas would have been especially concerned about the movement’s sources of funding, not wanting either to waste a precious gift that could have added to the organization’s coffers or to alienate wealthy people who might have been persuadable to give to it — and also it suggests that when Jesus attacked the money-changers Judas saw the movement changing from the nice little peace-and-love group he’d signed on for to something more violent and more interested in taking on both the Roman authorities and the Jewish priesthood in ways that conceivably could get them killed. At the same time others among the talking heads suggested that what Judas wanted was for Jesus to spark a revolutionary uprising when he got arrested and act like the warlike figure the Messiah was depicted as in the Old Testament, and instead Jesus endured the tortures before the crucifixion with admirable patience and gave non-answers to the questions, “Are you the Son of God?,” and “Are You the King of the Jews?” 

The show depicts Judas taking the thirty pieces of silver from the Jewish high priests to betray Jesus but then trying to return them after the arrest — one of the talking heads says that was a quite sizable sum of money in those days — and what happened to the money is unclear (though the image Cecil B. DeMille depicted when he staged Judas’s suicide in the 1927 King of Kings of the pieces of silver dropping off Judas’s body as he hangs himself is the one that’s remained indelibly with me). Only one of the talking heads, Dr. Robert Gleason (though I suspect his doctorate is in divinity), mentions the uncomfortable reality that Judas had to betray Jesus for the prophecy of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection to be fulfilled — an inconvenient part of the legend that Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges grabbed hold of and used to make Judas, not Jesus, the real Messiah — which may explain Jesus’s equanimity when he dopes out at the Last Supper that Judas will be his betrayer, as if he knows he has to be betrayed so he can be executed and then rise from the dead as the final fulfillment of his mission on earth. The sixth segment deals with Pontius Pilate and — like the fourth, which dealt with Caiaphas — ran headlong into the “Jews Killed Jesus” problem, the fact that the writers of the Gospels went out of their way to absolve the Romans as much as possible and blame the Crucifixion on the Jews. This led to centuries of anti-Jewish oppression in the Christian world, Western Europe in particular, as the idea that “the Jews killed Jesus” was used as the excuse for all sorts of discrimination against them, including walling them up in ghettoes, barring them from virtually all businesses or jobs, and sometimes simply slaughtering mass numbers of them in pogroms

The makers of this show point out that the Gospels are simply labeled as “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; they were in fact written 50, 70 or 100 years after those original apostles had died. Their argument is by that time Christianity had spread from its base in the Holy Land and started spreading through the Roman Empire, and so in order to make the church more palatable to the Roman authorities (and also make it easier for garden-variety Romans to adopt Christianity as their religion) the Gospel writers — not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John themselves but the scribes who took down the oral traditions and “froze” them in place by writing them down — “bent” the stories and went out of their way to make the bad guys the Jews. Not only did Judas, a Jew, betray Jesus, the actual trial that condemned him to death was carried out by Caiaphas and the Jewish Sanhedrin, and when Pilate wanted to get Jesus off the hook by invoking the ancient Jewish custom of freeing one convict sentenced to death on the eve of Passover, the crowd cried out for Barabbas (who’s often depicted as a “thief” but was in fact a political revolutionary and terrorist — usually the sort of person a Roman governor would have automatically executed without a second thought) over Jesus, a story which enabled future generations of Christians to blame Christ’s execution not just on the leaders of the Jewish priesthood but the entire Jewish people. As it happens, because he was a Roman we have historical records of Pilate outside the Christian accounts, whereas we have almost no documentary evidence of the other major players in the Jesus story outside the Gospels — and what we know about Pilate was quite different from the way the Gospels portrayed him. The Gospels depict Pilate as genuinely torn over the execution of Jesus, telling the Jewish authorities more than once, “I find no fault in this man,” and at one point trying to bail out of any responsibility for Jesus’s condemnation by sending him to Herod Antipas to see if he would kill Jesus and thereby Pilate wouldn’t have to — only Antipas sent him right back and Pilate was still on the hook. 

The historical depictions of Pilate describe him as essentially Saddam Hussein 2,000 years early, a tyrant and despot who was quite decisive and utterly without conscience in having great numbers of Jews put to death if that’s what it took to maintain the Roman authority over Palestine and scare off anyone who might even try to revolt. At the same time he was also treading on thin ice with the ultimate Roman authority, the Emperor Tiberius, because of a big boner he’d pulled earlier in his tenure as governor of Judea and Samaria. He had sent Roman legions into battle against Jewish revolutionaries carrying shields bearing the name of Tiberius and his full royal title, including his claim to godhood — and that had pissed off the Jews (and potentially added to the number of revolutionaries Pilate was trying to suppress) so much that Tiberius had threatened to have Pilate summoned back to Rome and possibly even executed for his mistake. At the same time this show argues that Pilate was particularly incensed at the idea that Jesus’s followers believed him to be the Son of God because Pilate, as a practitioner of the old Greco-Roman religion, believed that gods were coming to earth, fucking mortal women and producing demigod sons and daughters all the time. If the Jews had come to believe that Jesus was a demigod — the product of a union between a divine father and a mortal mom — he’d be even more dangerous to the official order than he was, which is no doubt one reason why Jesus never made the “Son of God” claim himself (interestingly what he did call himself was “Son of Man”!). The show solves the “Jews Killed Jesus” problem by splitting the difference between the ruthless, decisive historical Pilate and the conscience-stricken, conflicted Pilate of the Gospels, which in a show produced by evangelist Joel Osteen raises an issue of its own — if we acknowledge that the portrayal of a key character in the Jesus story was skewed for propagandistic reasons to make the Romans look better, and the Jews look worse, than the facts warranted, how can we accept that everything else about the Gospels was the infallible Revealed Word of God?