Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What were they thinking? (Sunday Reflections for October 16, 2011)

This week I watched a TV program that left me puzzled and more than a little annoyed. Thursday night WTTW Channel 11 broadcast the first episode of a series called Catholicism. It is the creation of, and hosted by, a Father Robert Barron. Barron heads up the Chicago-based Catholic evangelism organization called “Word on Fire.”
And that’s what Catholicism is: an evangelism tool. Ok, but what is it doing on public television? As I looked around WTTW’s website and local newspaper reviews, there seemed be no effort to explain this or even any real surprise at it. Well, color me surprised.
The show is well made with lots of HD quality video shot on-location around the world. Father Barron is certainly an engaging narrator. He doesn’t come across preachy but just enthusiastic.
In the reviews and summaries I read, the program is described as being like a religious version of Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking BBC documentary Civilization. Father Barron is likened to being Ken Burns (the famous US TV documentary maker) with a Roman collar. To which I say: No and No.
There is one huge problem with this program which belies either of the above comparisons: it doesn’t even pretend to be objective. Instead of scholarship, we get Father Barron giving his personal views on the church. This is all slickly shot against lovely and fascinating backdrops but we are never told why we should believe him. Other authorities are never interviewed and rarely quoted because, for this piece, Father Barron is the authority. This is contemporary propaganda at its most beguiling: believe what I am saying because I am articulate, attractive, and a nice guy. I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?
The first episode is about the life of Jesus. The presentation by Barron is made as if the past two centuries of biblical scholarship never happened. He recounts numerous sayings and incidents of Jesus without even a hint that some of them may not be historical. Most scholars today, for example, doubt Jesus himself ever claimed to be divine, though the early church came to that conclusion later. For Barron, however, this is a key part of Jesus’ teaching and self-identity.
Barron carefully weaves together an appealing picture of Jesus that fits perfectly with traditional church teaching. He does it well and is certainly free to do that. But this is 2011, not 1511. We know so much more now, and Barron surely knows how much more we know now. His choice to simply ignore the mountain of critical scholarship about Jesus and the early church can only be described as deliberate deception.
Why deception? Because of the format of his presentation. It is intended to look like a modern documentary. The audience is supposed to believe that what he says is researched fact, as one finds in a Ken Burns production. But it’s not. Instead, it is one man’s view as filtered through the teaching of his church.
Earlier this year a group of us watched a 1990s PBS program called From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. It was an episode of PBS’ premier documentary program Frontline, and featured high quality on-location video and interviews with numerous scholars in the field of biblical and early church history. The contrast between this programs and Catholicism couldn’t be greater. While the Frontline series used multiple, recognized authorities presenting the current findings of research scholarship, Catholicism gives us one voice of uncertain qualifications giving his personal opinion.
From Jesus to Christ was groundbreaking for PBS at the time, yet totally appropriate. It easily met and even exceeded their standards for objective broadcasting in the public interest. I don’t understand at all what Catholicism was doing on Channel 11 Thursday night.
Actually, I probably do. The explanation is, of course, money. The program’s production was privately funded. The broadcast is being supported by Loyola University Hospital and a long list of individuals, presumably mostly local Catholics. As a result, this probably isn’t costing WTTW anything and might even be making them a little money. (Another sign of their money status was the program that followed. Rather than pickup—and pay for—the PBS’ feed of Live from Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, they repeated an old program about the abdicated King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.)
It isn’t my place to tell WTTW what they can and can’t broadcast. Yet to keep their integrity as a public television outlet they should at least acknowledge upfront what they are doing. Catholicism is not a documentary about the Catholic Church (which I would actually probably enjoy watching). Instead, it’s a piece of propaganda.
It really fits into that strange category, common on many cable channels filling broadcast time, called an “infomercial.” Rather than on Channel 11, Catholicism belongs on Mother Angelica’s EWTN network. And guess what? It turns out that is where most of it is going to be shown. The whole series is 10 parts but only the first 4 will be  on WTTW. EWTN is picking up the remainder starting in November.
What I a most disappointed at, however, is the church attitude reflected in a program like Catholicism. Once again it is assumed that ordinary people can’t handle the truth. Instead, they have to be given a highly polished, whitewashed picture of Christianity.
As an evangelism effort, however, I can’t see how this will be anything but preaching to the choir. Contemporary people, and especially young people, know when they’re being sold a bill of goods. This is a day when everything about everybody gets revealed. A soft-focus, romanticized portrayal of the church just isn’t going to cut it. People outside the church are going to smell it from a mile away and be reinforced in their suspicion that religion just tries to pull the wool over their eyes. And in the case of Catholicism, they would be right.

1 comment:

Michael_SC said...

There is a strong constituency for the comfortable, simplistic explanations that have been in use since 1500 or 350 AD. I guess if people are happy in the history-avoiding bubble they are in, there is no incentive for them to want to break out. But agreed, a PBS station that takes journalism seriously should present information from outside the bubble.