Though books and magazines have trafficked in Jesus scholarship for years, "The Search for Jesus" is a landmark for prime-time network television. It is, in a way, not surprising that Jennings and ABC would be the ones to do it. As a former Middle East correspondent, Jennings has long been fascinated by religion. He has been sharply critical of how the media cover religion and likes to boast that ABC is the only network to have a full-time religion reporter.
Will the show be controversial? Jennings has heard criticisms that the show relied too heavily on the Jesus Seminar, a group of controversial scholars who challenge the historical accuracy of many key elements of the New Testament. (Jennings counters that those scholars are well-balanced in the show by more conservative academics.) More important, the very premise--a journalistic look at Jesus--will strike some as, at best, beside the point, and at worst, offensive.
Jennings recently sat down to talk about Jesus and the show with Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, which starting Monday will host a weeklong discussion about "The Search for Jesus."
Jennings also discussed, reluctantly but ultimately revealingly, his own faith.
Beliefnet: There may be some who would say the whole idea of searching for evidence [is misguided]. Religion is not about documentation--it’s about faith.
Jennings: I’m beginning to appreciate the notion that what I guess I correctly or incorrectly refer to as “literalists” will not accept the premise that you can go looking for evidence of the man.... I always knew that we might offend some people who think it's not a legitimate exercise in the first place. I don’t know how to answer that except that as a journalist, one tends to think there’s nothing off limits. I similarly hoped--maybe this is inadvertently intended as advertisement--but I do hope that for literalists, they may find that this broadcast makes Jesus the man accessible to a wider audience.
Beliefnet: What effect did it have on you?
Beliefnet: How should someone of faith process this show?
Jennings: I think it depends to some extent how you parse faith. Because it struck me, with all of our characters, they all regard themselves as believers, and none of them regarded themselves as seekers to use conventional language, or contemporary. Therefore, we accepted their bona fides as being believers, and yet in several instances when discussing the resurrection, for example, or the authenticity of Mary’s virginity, I think in some cases we are able to see that metaphorically.
So I think it depends--if you believe literally everything written in the New Testament, and much of [what] is written in the Old Testament is to be taken literally, without any examination, then I think there will be parts of the broadcast that should be quite objectionable and may be difficult to process--maybe not worth processing, probably more to the point, except maybe to get your dander up, which again was not our intention. But I am fascinated by how someone like Dominic Crossan and Tom Wright and Jerry Murphy-O’Connor, three of our very significant players, three extremely worthy scholars and churchmen, can process the resurrection in different ways.
Beliefnet: Was there anything that surprised you through the course of this, things you learned?
Jennings: Well, it all surprised me. I mean, yes, little things surprise me. I was quite fascinated by the scholarship that seems to find that the virgin birth may have its roots in Roman mythology--and these are very small examples--or that the water-into-wine miracle may have--notice how I hedge and qualify everything--a genesis in Greek mythology.
Father O’Connor and I were sitting outside the Valley of Kidron, and we’re talking about Jesus arriving for Sabbath--Passover--and I said, "How many people do you think came with him?" He said, “Maybe a dozen,” and I said, “A dozen?”--another reminder that what became so vast in the subsequent centuries probably was in the first century very small, very risky.
Beliefnet: What can you tell me about how you practice your own faith?
Jennings: That’s a difficult question because...I don’t want to be identified as someone who, at any given moment in their life, gets down on his knees and seeks whatever. But I certainly grew up in the Christian tradition in which I was taught, fairly young, that there was a set of rules, a set of recommendations, a set of standards by which a Christian could and should try to live.
[While working as a journalist overseas] I came to have an appreciation that in all parts of the world, people like me of other faiths struggle to be conscious of that which they have been taught. In time, I became much more conscious of a religion as a political or more widely embracing notion.
I think the fairest thing to say about myself is that I am sensitive to the value of faith and religion and spirituality in people’s lives because I’m a journalist. I try to tell young producers here that when they go to interview the survivors of a plane crash, and they ask the woman, “How did you get through this?” and the woman answers, “God got me through it,” they are never to then say, “I understand that madam, but what really got you through it?” That’s the one thing I would say about myself. I’ve come to appreciate the value of that. I do not question people’s literalism, even though I don’t always share it. And as a reporter, I’ve come to realize that this is a terrific story, a terrific, wonderful story.
Beliefnet: A couple of years ago, in a speech you said that there was a “new spark to my own faith.” What did you mean by that?
Jennings: I think a wider awareness led me to seek. I don’t like the word--it’s become a popular word, “Are you a believer or are you a seeker?” But I do think that I have gone through a subsequent period of seeking to understand what or how strong or what are the connections I have to God. So I’ve spent some time with other men who have tried to understand that about their own lives. I’ve spent a little more time in Bible study, though my goodness not enough, and I’ve sought to go out and find the value of this in other peoples lives...I suppose, subconsciously I’m finding it so invigorating, enthralling, that maybe--I haven’t taken enough time to stop and examine it yet--in some time it will take me some other places.
Beliefnet: I know very much what you mean. It is not dissimilar to my own situation --but it’s not always easy to articulate this.
Jennings: And I haven’t been asked this before, and you can see I’m having difficulty.
Jennings: You’ve made me very self-conscious. I’m not ready to answer that because I know that when I go off to try to report on religion, faith, spirituality, it is just so easy to put a label on something, and people put labels on other people. Our religion editor here [Peggy Wehmeyer], who I was instrumental in hiring, is a conservative Christian who lives in Dallas, Texas. So, first of all she sounds different than the chattering classes here in New York, and she takes her faith very seriously. That means there’s a label put on her in this and other newsrooms immediately--it’s instinctively what journalists do. I think journalists in the main are quite good at fighting past labels and taking labels off people once they began to peel the onion, but I saw it at the beginning, people here just listened to Peggy at the beginning, and because she sounded the way she did she got identified as being part of that bit of fabric in the country not this bit of fabric.
So given the fact that I have some influence in this regard, I don’t want anybody to put a label on me. It would be easy to say in this broadcast, “I am a believer, and therefore you should not second-guess me on this program.” I don’t want to do that at all. First of all, it wouldn’t be true. It would be the wrong thing to do. I’m very self-conscious about that...
Having been raised an Anglican--again I would appall Anglicans [and Episcopalians] by saying this--but I was raised with the notion that it was OK to ask questions, and it was OK to say, “I’m not sure. I believe, but I’m not quite so certain about the resurrection.” And I was very impressed by Tom Wright’s notion that something must have happened--that something must have happened--by which in less than 300 years Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Something must have happened.
As a journalist, I’ve covered several occasions, you know--The Blood on the Wall: The Shadow of the Virgin Mary--and I’ve seen people respond in a profound way--I mean I can’t even say "profound" as strongly as I feel it. And do I believe what I see on the side of the wall? Do I, as a journalist, [remain] slightly suspicious that it may be the pipe leaking up there behind the cheaply-constructed edifice? Yes, to be perfectly honest, I am. But I’m not prepared to easily say to the woman, "Madam, you’re crazy."
Beliefnet: Have you ever experienced anything that you believed was miraculous?
Jennings: I would prefer not to answer that.
Beliefnet: Do you pray?
Jennings: Yes. I have prayed. But I am quick to qualify that I was brought up--I was taught to pray as a child. I went to a school where we went to a chapel everyday and three times on Sunday, and I was a sacristan and I was crucifer, I carried the cross, and all that stuff. But your question should be, “When you pray, do you know what you are doing?” And that question I won’t answer.
I don’t know what people will find controversial in the broadcast, but I am very conscious of the fact that in looking at Jesus the man--what we think we saw--and I’m careful not to use the word "found"--what we think we saw was a young man who was seeking a solution for people then. And I have to be very faith conscious in order to continue to be aware that many people believe that what he was doing then as a young man had a direct relationship to their sins two millennia later. And this is, in some respects, the danger of doing these stories, because inadvertently you may be seen to be undermining people’s faith--the last thing I would ever want to do. By simply looking at the man, and by looking at it in the context of the first century, are you undermining the very notion that he is the Son of God and he did die for our sins? That’s a tough one.
Beliefnet: You talked about your experience as a journalist overseas and seeing how the power of religion has sustained a lot of people. You also witnessed and reported on many instances in which faith was used to justify atrocities. How do you come away from those situations without being cynical about religion?
Jennings: I think you can be cynical about religion on occasion, and certainly skeptical about the degree to which some people use religion to manipulate other people. [But] I went back to Iran with the Ayatollah Khomeini--sat beside him as he went home and spent a lot of time within arms length in the early days of the revolution, which of course began even before he came. And I always thought it was an easy thing to think he was a manipulator and that he used power that he could see in front of him every day in order to get rid of the Shah, who hadn’t made the deal with the mullahs. It’s a very tempting way to see it. In time, I think I came to see Islam, or at least one part of Islam, as an important defense mechanism against the Americanization of the world or the commercialization of the world. In other words, we got profoundly angry by the phrase “the great Satan.” I didn’t meet many Iranians even at the most intense times who believed that we were Satan in America but that we represented, contextually, Satanic ideas, and they were afraid. And I could see them huddling behind these religious barricades in order to defend their own cultures. I feel very strongly about that in terms of Islam.
Beliefnet: I’m sure you have written and talked about why you became a journalist and why you pursued this career. I want to ask that classic question in a slightly different way: Do you feel like you were put on earth for a certain purpose?
Jennings: Yes--but not for the one you think. I actually think--the one thing that I have done really well in my life--is be a father. And I think in some respects that’s as much by luck as good judgment, but, like most people, you do some things naturally and you do other things not so naturally. The only thing I really think I did without thinking was to be a father. Now, I’m sure that’s not true and that [it’s actually] some romantic notion of why I was put here. But to answer your question, do I think I was put here on earth to be a journalist and to seek truth? No, I don’t.
Beliefnet: For the last couple of months, I have been on the other end of the tape recorder and been asked about how my personal life story affected the creation of the web site.
Jennings: I myself have been very careful--by the way--not to ask you that question.
Beliefnet: Well, I sort of feel like, if I’m asking you, you can ask me.
Jennings: But I don’t want to ask you. I mean, I do, I’m dying to ask you. When Beliefnet came along, I thought it was, first of all, very exciting because for me [it was] a great resource tool--a few too many spiritual chat rooms for me. But, having said that, I want to think about it as a journalistic exception. I don’t want to think about it as a messianic adventure, because I will think differently of you, because the labels are irresistible. Then I would have to spend time peeling away the labels. I like you just as you are, which is a journalist. I can deal with that.
The one thing I would want to have you understand absolutely clearly about me is that I think in one respect, I think I am very mainstream, so therefore I’m committed to good works in my life...But don’t be confused at all that somehow my interest in religion, faith, and spirituality is somehow driven by any sense of faith or spirituality of my own. It is a fabulous story. It intersects with people’s lives in ways that other people in newsrooms are not as lucky as I am to understand. I really think that’s the most important thing to know about me. This is a good and irresistible story--and it is, my God, what else are we looking for in life? It is relevant. So I in some respects should have said in the beginning, I don’t want to talk about my faith in spirituality at all, or my faith in my religion at all, and I may have done so inadvertently in an ingratiating way, and I feel badly about that.