Tag Archives: National Geographic

The Truth about Jesus

The Bible Today is a wonderful publication about various aspects of the Bible, published six times a year by Liturgical Press.  The current issue discusses the apocryphal gospels, like the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, that feature so prominently in many television programs on the History Channel and National Geographic.

These programs have their limitations, according to Bible Today’s editor, Fr. Donald Senior, CP. “In many instances the format of a television program allows only brief comments by experts. In a more leisurely setting they might add some needed nuance. And often, in the interest of stirring audience interest, the producers of such programs look for more provocative and unqualified statements rather than the carefully modulated views the complexity of biblical history requires.”

Underlying these presentations is the question why did the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and other Christian writings become accepted by the majority of Christians as the New Testament and other writings did not?

“In the view of some scholars” Fr. Senior says, “the driving force in the selection of the gospels, for example, was a combination of ecclesiastical control and imperial politics–a view presented in a popular format by Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code. The four gospels were selected because they favored the established powers, while the more creative and charismatic extracanonical materials were suppressed.”

A better explanation for the selection of our four gospels, Fr. Senior says, is “that the majority of the early Christian communities cherished the four gospels, used them in their liturgy, and circulated them widely soon after their composition–a much more compelling reason why the four ‘made the cut.'”

The articles in The Bible Today put the apocryphal writings in their place. Early Christians “had access to a wide array of gospel –type writings beyond those that were eventually recognized as canonical,” writes Christopher Matthews, an expert on the early Christianity. These writings “preserve a valuable heritage that enables scholars to understand the social and theological history of early Christianity, and  especially popular piety.” They do not shed much light on the life, teachings and significance of the Jesus of history, but “they do tell us something about those who seek to know more about such things…”

Fr. Ronald Witherup, SS, in his article on the Gospel of Judas, a recent favorite of National Geographic, writes, “What is clear from the hype that surrounded the publication of the Gospel of Judas is that some scholars have tried to use it to push their own agendas to limit the influence of the mainline Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Thus some have claimed that this gospel shows that diverse forms of Christianity that were (wrongly) rejected for their lack of revealed truth were just as ancient and valid as what became mainline, orthodox faith. This is fanciful thinking.”

Thanks to The Bible Today for taking on an issue that can color how we see the beginnings of the Christian faith.

Religious Bias in the Media

In the November 8th issue of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the paper, took one of their theater critics to task for his review of Terrance McNally’s play Corpus Christi, a play about the Last Supper. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/opinion/09pubed.html?_r=1)

“Set in Corpus Christi, Tex., where McNally grew up, it turns the story of Jesus and his disciples into a parable about the persecution of gays. Along the way, it pushes what have to be hot buttons for many Christians. Jesus is born in a shabby motel room; loud, abusive heterosexual sex takes place in the room next door; Joseph is a boorish, profane carpenter; Mary isn’t much of a mother; Jesus discovers he is gay and has sex (not on stage) with the young men who become his disciples; he performs miracles, officiates at a gay wedding, is ultimately betrayed by Judas and is crucified.”

Hoyt criticized the critic for making no mention that the play could offend the sensibilities of a large Christian public, Catholics among them. (He heard from a large number of Catholics prompted by the fiery Bill Donohue)  Hoyt said the review lacked objectivity. Indirectly, he also criticized the editor of the Times for standing behind  the review.

I wrote to Hoyt afterwards:

“Thanks for the way you dealt with the Corpus Christi review. Freedom of speech isn’t an absolute right to say anything you think or please. Speech is a gift for communicating, hard as it is.

Talking to ourselves and our own gang isn’t enough. That’s what your reviewer did, in my opinion.

Listening is a gift too. Thanks for hearing Donohue. He can be hard to take.”

I’m afraid this one-sided presentation rules the media nowadays, and I don’t see much effort to confront it. I saw a presentation by the National Geographic last night on the life of Jesus and I was ready to throw a shoe at the television. National Geographic, in its religious presentations, is especially offensive to mainline Christian belief, it seems. You also see the same thing at times on the History Channel.

For one thing, Catholics and others like the Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestants  are hardly represented  at all, and if they are mentioned  they seem somewhat reactionary. The scholars, most of whom I don’t recognize, are predominantly from the opposite side.

The Catholic Church, in these presentations, is often seen as a tainted source.

It’s usually Catholics who are singled out for their regressive opinions. Sometimes they’re pictured as conspirators holding back the tide of truth. That was the way they were pictured the other night in a program on the Dead Sea Scrolls. A bunch of Dominican priests, “Vatican agents,” controlled the scrolls when they were discovered, so that the “truth” would not get out, according to one television source.

Anyone aware of the history of the Dominicans in the Holy Land would know they were hardly Vatican agents. Just the opposite. They were progressive scholars, often at odds with Rome at the time.

Unfortunately, most of our people get their information about the bible and religion from the media. They are reading books and magazines less and less. They often ask me about it and I do what I can, but we need help. As churchgoing becomes rarer, the media will become for many their sole source of religious knowledge.

We need media apologists. God help us.