APRIL 5, 2004
Wilken's Sneak Peek
Martin E. Marty
No, I am not guilty of plagiarism or piracy, but I may be guilty of promotion: while the gist and meat of this column come directly from someone else's, Sightings will give full credit. So, no plagiarism. Promotion? Guilty.
The column is "The ABC of Holy Week" by Robert Louis Wilken, "a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia." Robert and I go back all the way to 1960, when he was my "Sunday Assistant Pastor" in a busy suburban church where I was pastor. He went on to complete a doctorate in early Christianity and has written a number of path-breaking books. I didn't know he was at home in popular culture and television criticism (as I am not) until I read him in The Wall Street Journal on Friday (April 2). So, let him do my work for me and perhaps together we can perform a service for those of you -- I suppose, and maybe hope, the majority of you -- who do not read that newspaper every day, as I do.
To the point (at last): Wilken has seen in advance an ABC program airing tonight, a three-hour documentary titled "Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness," narrated by Peter Jennings. Jennings is a pioneer of sorts; he brought a full-time religion-telecaster to his prime-time news program but then dropped her and the regular religion theme, I don't know why. I doubt that it was penance, but it may have been curiosity and a sense of public service, that helped him bring to the TV screen what Wilken, who never suffers fools or foolishness gladly, speaks of in very positive terms.
Jesus from the beginning is presented as "an object of faith and devotion … not merely a historical figure." We are shown excellent examples of Christian art, historical-type reporting, first-person analysis by some who are not in the usual cast of characters in public religion, and some "refreshing" theological statements. Wilken cannot resist a bit of a smart crack against Harvard Divinity School as he praises the choice of an evangelical to make some comment. The quiet crack and the choice are standard these days.
Tolerant of the Christian rock used to pose some personal-theological question, Wilken does praise the range of scholars called to comment. Jewish scholars especially, he says, are generous and perceptive. The critic is happy to see a treatment of Paul, so often the bad guy in films and books devoted to Jesus, but unhappy (as I would be) to find him portrayed as "a puritanical and intolerant moralist on the wrong side of elite opinion today."
Being a learned historian, Wilken cannot not find some historical blunders and sees some silliness in one Jennings interview. "But this is a show for serious-minded viewers, scholarly yet respectful of belief, informative and entertaining." Coming from Prof. Wilken, that's almost four stars!
I'll be driving to a college commitment in Iowa today, so I won't see it, but I hope many of you will be watching and checking up on Prof. Wilken, Peter Jennings, Paul, and, of course, Jesus. And next week I'll do my own work of Sightings again.
And if you share Wilken's enthusiasm, let the Jennings people know.