Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Most Documentary TV Shows On Ancient Topics (Biblical Studies And Early Christianty, Mostly) Really, Really Suck

A recent program about the fragments of the True Cross did a fairly good job of presenting the viewer with a story about the activities of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and a devout Christian, who according to that story pretty much invented what we now know as Christian veneration of relics. The program tells us that Helena went to Jerusalem, found a piece of wood and declared that it was the Cross on which Jesus was put to death, cut it up into little pieces and distributed these pieces to churches all across the Roman Empire. This is the traditional story about how Helena began the belief that all of those pieces of wood in churches are pieces of True Cross. There are very good reasons to doubt whether Helena ever interested herself in relics at all. If these reasons were presented during this program, I must have blinked or zoned out at the time.

The same program did a particularly bad job of presenting the information it had on some recent scientific evaluation on the authenticity of the True Cross: a piece of wood considered since the 11th century to be piece of the True Cross was carbon-14 dated, and found to have come from a tree which lived in the 11th century. Not even close to the supposed time of Jesus, not even close to Helena's discovery in the 4th century of what she called the True Cross.

The carbon-14 dating was presented to the viewer in the very last several minutes of the 1-hour show. Why not at the very beginning of the show? Why not inform the viewer right at the start that any preoccupation with the Cross or any other relics on Helena's part is not solidly demonstrated by any historical evidence?

Perhaps the show's producers were afraid that if they did that sort of thing -- made sense -- it would be hard to keep viewers' attention for the rest of the hour. Perhaps they were exactly right about that. In any case, their handling of the material was pretty typical of such shows purporting to present the latest scholarly knowledge about ancient religious things: present a mix of comments by serious scholars with obfuscating narration, as if what the producers actually want is mainly to keep the viewer confused. The scholars will discuss "the tradition," that is, what the most conservative of believers regard as history, although almost no-one else who's studied the subject matter still does. The shows do not make plain what is meant by "tradition," they don't make plain that the experts are not relating what they consider to be fact. To make things worse, often crackpots who DO regard the traditional fables as factual are interviewed along with the experts.

Is there any rational reason at all to believe that Helena would have had any means at all of determining that what she had discovered was the True Cross? (IF, for the sake of argument, she actually looked for the Cross at all?) I doubt it very much, but my point is that the question was not discussed on air. The people most well-qualified in the world to discuss such matters, and quite willing to share their expertise, were interviewed, and we got a recitation of a bunch of fairy tales and precious little evaluation of what history, if any, is contained in them.

I have to wonder just exactly how much edifying information is routinely edited out of such interviews. I wonder whether one can hold out some hope that the raw footage of the entire interviews tends to be preserved, and will someday be edited into something much better than most of what goes on the air these days.

Thank goodness, these scholars write books, books with which the producers for half-assed "Secrets Revealed" shows on the so-called "History Channels" and NatGeo and the Smithsonian Channel, etc, have nothing to do. If you watch some of these shows and are intrigued by what is said by people like Professors Ehrman, Pagels and Chilton, you might find it quite interesting to read their books and see how badly the TV shows present what they have to say.

And then you'll walk around angrily muttering to yourself all the time about how TV jerks us around, just like I do. Just like me, you'll shout, "Why don't the experts insist on better shows being made? Is it just money, simple as that? Are the experts afraid that if they rock the boat they'll kill the golden goose? Et tu, Bart?!" Yes, you'll be angry, but I'll be a little bit less alone.

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