A PBS Easter (A 20th Anniversary Post)
originally March 23, 1998 – David R. Weiss
On April 6 and 7 PBS debuts a new entry among the annual Easter specials. Beginning the day after Palm Sunday, coincidentally the day Jesus cleansed the Temple (no doubt unnerving a few of his own fans), the PBS Frontline special, “From Jesus to Christ: The Story of the First Christians,” will surely unsettle its fair share of the faithful. [NOTE: you can find this and watch it online now–still worthwhile.]
Contrary to the usual Easter viewing fare, which retells the story of Jesus as though the Bible allows us to recreate it in all its detail, PBS will instead confront us with just how shadowy this man’s life was, and will suggest that from the very beginning the Jesus story was a contested narrative. Indeed, the documentary covers four centuries in the conviction that telling the life of Jesus requires telling the story of how that life, with all its historical gaps, came to be told, retold, and often argued about, already in the first Gospels and continuing on into the early church.
This might seem like nothing more than agnostic scholarship by historians determined to get at the truth in history no matter what. At best it might anger us in its arrogance to purportedly tell “our” history, minus “our” faith. At worst it might do such a good job of that as to unravel, or at least fray, that faith itself. And yet Christians are, after all, are convinced that the Truth has gotten at us–in history, and no matter what.
There are good reasons, both for Christians and non-Christians to tune in. Non-Christians, put off by endless intra-Christian disputes, may have the edifying insight that it’s always been like that: we’ve always argued about who this guy was. That’s not so much reason to discredit us as it is cause to be curious about why we remain so tenaciously fascinated with something that’s been unclear for 2000 years now. Meanwhile, despite the in-house squabbling, many Christians still believe that the Gospels record Jesus’ life purely, without the messiness associated with other historical sources. The PBS production will make painfully clear that whatever guarantees God might make, a crystal clear record of Jesus’ life is not among them.
That’s worth knowing. And it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just reading the Bible one senses that if this whole story, from Genesis through Revelation, is to be trusted at all, it involves trusting a God who thrives on working with messiness. From the chaos prior to creation to the cataclysms envisioned by John on Patmos, God is not shy about pressing historical messiness into divine purposes.
More importantly for Christians, given our claim that Jesus is God incarnate, the PBS documentary deepens the wonder of that. It’s somehow too easy to believe that God became human—but in a majestically humble way: born in a stable, yes, but heralded by angels and with his story preserved indelibly for future generations. Much more astounding—and biblical—is the PBS intimation that becoming human meant setting aside most of the divine PR apparatus we assume was kept in place.
Becoming human for this God, unlike the deified rulers of ancient Egypt or Greece, meant slipping into the world at the margins. And for the most part staying there. When Jesus sought to describe the Kingdom of God he chose images like mustard seeds, leaven, and salt, precisely because of their apparent insignificance. PBS will show that in many ways Jesus himself lived up to that billing: he was barely worth noticing … until suddenly he was so much worth noticing that everyone, from friend to foe, had to have a special slant on him.
That’s worth knowing, too. Because we so easily forget it. If PBS succeeds in presenting the ambiguity of Jesus in history, it does Christians a favor. For the first Christians, faith meant staking one’s life on the pretentious claims, almost always rendered second- or third-hand, about the decisive importance of a no-name preacher from a small town who eventually got crucified for, among others things, insisting that compassion was the way to live even in a society driven by values not all that unlike those that drive American capitalism today.
For the first Christians, the movement from Jesus to Christ, from history to faith, wasn’t guaranteed by the Gospel text or a Hollywood movie. It was purchased by individual discipleship and communal commitment in the midst of ambiguity. If PBS helps us recapture that chance, I say thank you, and God bless.