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TV Reviews: Easter brings two takes on Jesus -- one beautiful, one debatable

Friday, April 13, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two radically different films on Jesus will air Easter Sunday on PBS and the Discovery Channel.

"The Face of Jesus in Art," at 3 p.m. on WQED/WQEX, is superior both in intellectual coherence and the sheer beauty of its presentation. Discovery's "Jesus: The Complete Story" at 8 p.m. offers an uneven but vivid view of the world Jesus lived in.

The PBS film shows how Christian theology is reflected in nearly two millennia of art. It explains the faith, without asking the viewer to believe. But the Discovery Channel, in attempting to depict Jesus' life, presents a Christ created by committee. He could indeed have been born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead -- but he had no idea he was the Messiah.


'The Face Of Jesus In Art'

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday on WQED.

'Jesus: The Complete Story'

WHEN: 8 tonight on Discovery Channel.


PBS's "The Face of Jesus in Art" is itself such a work of art that viewers can appreciate it purely on that level. With sponsors including the U.S. Catholic Conference and United Methodist Communications, it is both accurate and respectful in its treatment of Christian beliefs.

It begins with the art of the catacombs and sweeps through the glorious iconography of St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai Desert. The second hour covers the Renaissance to the present, with an emphasis on how Jesus is portrayed outside Europe.

The Discovery Channel documentary was co-produced with the BBC, and it raised a stir in England. Canon Tom Wright, a renowned New Testament scholar and consultant to the film, charged that it had reduced Jesus to "a politically correct social worker." He also warned that it could be perceived as anti-Jewish.

The Discovery Channel has eliminated a controversial BBC news anchor who served as on-air presenter in the British version. However, the overall presentation of Jesus is strikingly inconsistent. Both conservative and liberal Christians may want to use the film in Christian education classes, but both will also want to challenge some of its claims.

The film has many virtues for those who want to learn about the world Jesus lived in. It uses computer technology to "reconstruct" ancient Galilee and Judea, including the awesome Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It uses forensic archaeology to propose a model of Jesus' ethnic appearance. It focuses on archaeological discoveries, including a Galilean fishing boat that probably resembled the one the Apostle Peter owned.

But theologically, this film is all over the map. On one hand, it treats as fact biblical stories that many liberal Bible scholars reject, such as the wise men who follow a star to find the baby Jesus. It even presents arguments in favor of the virgin birth and the resurrection.

At the same time, the narrator says Jesus grew up ignorant of his mission and acted only when he was enraged by Roman cruelty and the decadence of Jewish priests.

Of course, there has long been lively Christian debate about when Jesus realized he was the Messiah. But the film takes one side in that debate while accepting the other side's beliefs about Jesus' supernatural origins and power. The result is like reading an account of an around-the-world voyage written by a member of the Flat Earth Society. The details are illuminating, but the perspective is odd.

The grounds for Wright's concern about the portrayal of Judaism are also evident. The film does not reflect contemporary scholarship on Jesus' Judaism. As a result, it has a potential to reinforce ugly stereotypes.

The Discovery Channel emphasizes Jesus' conflict with the Jewish priestly class more than his threat to the Romans. The film goes to great lengths to describe Jewish priests as rich and greedy. Little is done to place Jesus' criticisms within the rich theological ferment of first-century Judaism, or to provide the biblical background to the system of temple sacrifice and worship.

Jesus' own Jewishness is not stressed. His cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is treated as only an expression of despair. But it is the first line of Psalm 22, which Jews still recite in times of suffering, and which Christians view as a prophecy of the Messiah.

Elements that publicists used to hype the film won't amaze anyone who attended Sunday school in the 20th century. Outside of a few fringe groups, no one in America thinks Jesus was likely to have had blue eyes or blond hair. Anyone who has ever read John's account of Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper has probably wondered if they had an agreement. And the theory that Jesus might have been drugged to merely appear dead was popularized more than 30 years ago in The Passover Plot.

The documentary rejects that theory anyway. It concludes that belief in Jesus' resurrection must always remain a matter of faith. The last is something on which viewers across the theological spectrum can agree.

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