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TV History


Our failure to teach history to the next generation is almost too obvious to mention again.

Walter Cronkite, in a recent interview on National Public Radio, said he is devoting his second career as a public citizen to improving the teaching of history. History, as Cronkite sees it, is the ongoing clash between the strong personalities on the world’s stage who seek to impose their vision on us all.

Are we with Henry VIII or the pope in Rome, with Karl Marx or Adam Smith? With Winston Churchill or “that guttersnipe” Adolf (Hitler) Schickelgruber?

Christian catechists in the 1960s and ’70s saw history as a linear narrative recounting the story of salvation. The Old and New Testaments traced God’s plan -- leading from Eden to Bethlehem to Calvary to Rome to our parish churches and college classrooms.

When Roger Mudd lost out to Dan Rather in the choice for Cronkite’s successor as the “CBS Evening News” anchorman, he gave his presence to The History Channel, a member of the Arts and Entertainment Network, which now fills our screens with its own version of history 24 hours a day.

What is the channel’s notion of history?

Well, no surprise, it’s entertain-ment. After all, we’ve all read those stories about “great” teachers who get teaching awards for dressing up like Julius Caesar or George Washington to make their classes “real” and “relevant” to sleepy sophomores.

But, after watching it in big gulps in late December and early January, and on-and-off for several years, The History Channel’s angle appears special: History is mystery. It’s not what you expect. You have heard there was an island Atlantis that sunk without a trace; but what really happened? Ships and planes sinking in the Bermuda Triangle? What’s the real story?

In an analysis of its prime-time schedule from late December to mid-February, the words secrets, marvels, mysteries, untold story, true story, total story (implying the story you have now is neither true nor total) leap off the page. Watch this show and be let in on a secret -- perhaps one that ordinary -- non-History-Channel -- history has covered up.

No one just dies. He dies mysteriously: “Mysterious Death of Joe Kennedy,” “Mysterious Death of Admiral Yamamoto.”

Among its critics The History Channel is sometimes referred to as The Hitler Channel, because it seemed that whenever you turned it on there was Adolf, foaming at the mouth as the robotic ranks of his troops goose-stepped out of the screen into your living room.

But today’s analysis doesn’t back that up. World War II is up there (“Secret Japanese Aircraft of WWII”), but the big topics seem to be sex, Saddam Hussein, sacred scripture and UFOs. And ideally one show combines as many of the main elements as possible: “Love and Sex in the Bible,” “Sex in the Vietnam War” and “UFOs in the Bible.”

One way to encourage the study of history is to make it relevant, to apply its “lessons” to today’s crises. Thus its three-part biography of Henry VIII, “the offbeat Henry we never knew about,” is interlaced with footage of modern armies, Winston Churchill, and the mixed-up Windsors, today’s “dysfunctional royal family.” We see Henry dance at his wedding, then Prince Charles and Diana dance at theirs. How did this “nice little boy” become a monster? Answer: no happy family life.

Also, big blocks of the schedule are built around late-breaking news -- like the seven days in mid-January dedicated to Desert Storm, with a special hour on “Why Can’t They Kill Saddam?” -- timed to coincide with our probable invasion of Iraq. And, for some reason, the offering all day Dec. 31 was on the history of sex. While, perhaps in repentance for the night before, New Year’s Day went to God, with hours of “Bible Secrets,” including the “The Violent God,” an Old Testament survey that asks some provocative questions like: “Does God really justify killing?”

A theologian points out that the more powerful Israel becomes, the more it moves away from God. Maybe, the theologian says, the scripture is trying to tell us that Israel should not be a military power at all.

The History Channel works theologians fairly hard, and there are moments when it could almost be called The Theology Channel, especially during Christmas week, when we unraveled the mysteries of the Shroud of Turin (“Secrets of the Ancient World”), the birth of Jesus, the conflict between different schools of archeologists on the historicity of the Old Testament, and an all-day showing of the Franco Zeffirelli/Anthony Burgess made-for-TV epic film, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Despite the hype and sensationalism inherent in popularizing history, the History Channel is remarkable for its thoroughness and almost excessive even-handedness in its religious documentaries.

The Zeffirelli film, for example, depicted Mary giving birth to Jesus in pain; The History Channel interrupts the film for a roundtable discussion of her cries. Was it disrespectful to imply that the New Eve, free of Original Sin, suffered the pangs of childbirth, when Genesis clearly says that these pangs are the consequence of Eve’s sin?

The New Oxford Bible suggests that “toils” is an alternate translation to “pangs.” The History Channel commentators say that exaggerated stories about Mary’s not suffering in childbirth became so common that by the second century the church suppressed them. Then the film beautifully reintroduces the crying motif at Jesus’circumcision. Old Simeon, magnificently portrayed by Ralph Richardson, hears the baby Jesus cry in pain and comes forth to tell Mary, “Your own soul a sword shall pierce ...” And we the viewers understand how the destiny of suffering was woven into the family’s life from their first moments.

When popular media history works well it does not satisfy us with what we used to call in the army the “school solution” to a question but prods us into the library to look up things for ourselves. The History Channel does this well, but sometimes its insistence on balance and perhaps its fear of offending a segment of its audience is maddening.

“In Search of Christmas,” promises “controversial new theories that shed light on Mary and Joseph” and describes Mary as a “revolutionary woman with political savvy,” which is how a standard feminist or liberation theologian might describe her today. The virgin birth, however, might be described as a mystery of faith, or as John P. Meier suggests in A Marginal Jew, his multi-volume study of Jesus, a theologoume-non (a theological affirmation in narrative form). The History Channel, however, rath-er than rest with a theological idea, calls upon science. Perhaps it was parthenogenesis, a process by which some insects singly reproduce.

For another example, I would consider the 1988 carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin -- which contains the image of a crucified man whose face resembles paintings of Jesus -- conclusive evidence that the garment and image come from the 13th century and thus the image is not the actual face of Jesus.

But the program goes on to give credence to a string of defensive theories. Did a modern fire, which damaged part of the garment, radically change the substance so carbon dating wouldn’t be valid? Was the image caused miraculously by a zap of radiation shooting out of the resurrecting body? While religion and science are now closer than ever, are we asking too much of science to solve this question? The History Channel concludes: “It’s all up to our own hearts.”

That’s not a historian’s answer.

Meanwhile, the London Tablet reports that the custodians of the shroud have sent the object to the professional cleaners, thus rendering it virtually impossible to conduct further scientific studies of the original material.

Finally, the Christmas Day documentary on contemporary archeologists, known as minimalists, who deny the historicity of nearly all the Old Testament prior to the Assyrian conquest of Northern Israel in the 7th century B.C., is a challenging opportunity for both Jews and Christians to rethink a number of the ideas on which their faith may be based (for more details, see Daniel Lazare, “False Testament,” Harper’s, March 2002).

During the post-World War I “golden age” of biblical archeology, under the leadership of William Foxwell Albright, the diggings tended to support the historicity of Old Testament stories, like Joshua’s conquest of Jericho. But, as an example, a 1952 carbon dating placed Jericho’s destruction 200 years before Joshua’s lifetime. And, alas, historical evidence of Moses’ life and exodus from Egypt does not seem to exist. Nor of the Jews’ conquest of Palestine. Rather, the Israelites were Canaanites who evolved from the local population.

Nor was David, if there was a David, a great king; he may have been a mere tribal chief. Yet The History Channel reports every evidence -- an inscription here, a stone there, ancient water tunnels under Jerusalem, which David might have used in capturing the city -- that might validate Israel’s historic claim to the Holy Land, which modern science now seems to wipe away.

Fair enough. In the long run a strong faith -- in either our nation or our God -- must not rest on myth but on historical truth and the daily human experience of our nation’s justice and of God’s presence in our lives and the lives of others.

If TV history and journalism can do their business honestly and keep us honest at the same time, they are a true Christmas gift.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, N.J., and author of Fordham: A History and Memoir (Loyola Press).

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003