2016-06-30
Peter JenningsOn Monday, from 8-11 EST, ABCNews will broadcast a Peter Jennings Reporting special called, "Jesus and Paul: the Word & the Witness." In an interview with Beliefnet's Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman, Jennings discusses the show, press coverage of religion and more

There have been lots of TV specials about Jesus, including the one that you did in 2000. Why did you decide to tackle Paul?
Paul was read at me as a child every Sunday and I took it as something of an admonishment. I was a little bit like those people I interviewed in St. Peter's Square, who knew Paul was ever present, but didn't know anything about him. He turns out to be this astonishingly interesting character. His letters, which as I said, I heard like everybody else in church, are impossible to ignore as the earliest Christian documents we have. And so the paper trail and the character -- and the resonance that Paul's ideas have today -- all make him just simply that much more interesting.

What about his ideas are particularly resonant today?
His ideas about homosexuality are being debated in the United States today. His attitudes about women are being debated today. In the wake of "The Passion of the Christ," his attitudes, or the attitudes which get ascribed to him, about anti-Semitism -- [these] are all issues on which he spoke and we are still debating. I find it amazing.

Did your reporting change your views on any aspect of him?
I'd have to say no because I didn't know very much about him. His ideas about love and his ideas about tolerance are inconsistent, or inconsistent to a laymen, and so I think he is fascinating in that regard. Somebody had written that "His views of tolerance would have made the Taliban blush."

I have been to Damascus a hundred times, and never thought about 'the street called Straight' in anything other than the most casual way. I'd never been to the three places where three different groups believe his conversion took place. But when I got to the house of Ananias which has that wonderful priest -- an ex-fireman from Chicago -- now it comes alive.

As you were traveling around in that area, were there any places where you felt your heart speed up? Where there was just something about being there in this different context that was thrilling?
To some extent I think that's always true about me. But going to Ephesus [was] an extraordinarily moving experience. I'd been to Ephesus under other circumstances, but then to go back and have some sense that this was a place that made a difference to the character we were trying to understand, of course that made a difference. I remember going to Caesarea where he spent this time after he was taken from Jerusalem. To be in the place where he thought about what his future would be and what he would argue, given that he was a Roman citizen, on his own behalf when given the ability to confront the Romans. And I know this is corny, and to then go and do a little deep sea diving to understand the physical structure of the transportation system in the Roman empire which got him across the Mediterranean, is just exciting.

Tell us about the scuba diving...
Prior to being in Caesarea I had been on the modern border between Jordan and Syria. And I remember standing at a customs post and pointing out to people that these custom posts didn't exist in those days, so you could come up here from Jerusalem up through the Jordan valley and across the top of the Golan and get up here to the Syrian border and turn west. Paul and others were able to do that. And then, he went down to Caesarea. And here were a couple of underwater archeologists saying you really have to come and see what the Romans managed to do with concrete, that they could submerge [it] in water and make these great ports. And of course, if you believe the stories, it was from that port that Paul probably sailed to what is now Italy.


I saw someone analogizing the Roman transportation system to the Internet today...
I think that's an excellent analogy. One of the things that's really hard to come to grips with as a reporter, is that this tiny little sect in the eastern end of the Mediterranean, one of many sects at the time, would ultimately become the officially religion of the Roman empire. I remember asking [Professor Tom Wright] once about the resurrection and he said to me, "Something had to have happened. Something seemed to have happened to have moved people to cling to this for such a long period of time." But the first jump of that is, "What was it? What was it that was so powerful that a couple hundred years later the Romans were coming back and building churches in honor of this once upon a time, tiny little Jewish sect?" I think it's stunning.

Do you have a view on what "it" was?
No, to be honest. I mean I think there are lots of reasons. Not the least of which might have been fatigue with the imperial gods, fatigue with paganism, the understanding that one god and this particular God and the memory of Jesus was truly humane in ways that paganism was not. But that's as far as I dare carry it because people have spent their lifetime studying that. But I do think that this notion of love and having suffered and died for other people's sins, is a very, very powerful message.

Are there any people in modern times, in either politics, religion, business, who Paul reminds you of?
No. There's no question he is one of a handful of truly towering figures who has formed our way of thinking. Gandhi certainly fits that context, or follows in that path. Martin Luther King follows in that path. I've always been reluctant to call him, or to refer to him, as the great salesman for Christianity, because I'm always a little anxious that people will regard that as an insensitive, slightly commercial remark. But the truth is, he was an astonishing salesman for Christianity, or for Jesus, and for the Jesus movement. When you realize that he, in his mind, believes that he's got so little time left, you feel the intensity of the salesmanship. Again, I wish to see that word taken in the best possible context.

One of the central questions that the show deals with and which people have been dealing with about Paul for a long time was, did he change the religion from what Jesus would have wanted, or was he simply expressing the essence of what Jesus was teaching.
I hope you noticed that we tried to have both points of view represented. I keep reminding people that we are reporters. We are not here with the answers, we are only here to lay out what we see. And this conflict between whether he spoke as Jesus' man or he purloined, borrowed, took Jesus' message on his own terms, doesn't seem to me going to be resolved by any reporter.

What do you think you learned from the "In Search of Jesus" show [aired by ABCNews in 2000] and the reaction to it?
I objected to some of the reaction in the Evangelical community which says, "You didn't have enough Evangelical scholars." At the same time, we, I think, learned quite a lot from the response to the Jesus program and went in this instance and looked more closely at some of the Evangelicals--even though we had some in the first time--and added a couple, which I think have made the program, to some extent, richer.

The parts of the show dealing with the crucifixion--as you were editing that, did you think about the controversy over "The Passion of the Christ" movie?
Not really because we had completed this virtually before "The Passion of the Christ" appeared, but I went to see "The Passion of the Christ," as so many other people did, and I thought after having seen it that we might, in this program, add a measure of understanding. Again I don't mean to brag about this, I just say that if you look at the debate that occurs in our program -- a little about Pilate and a little bit about Caiaphas -- you'll see that people will get a little more knowledge about why there is such an intense debate about the portrayal of the Passion in the Gibson film.

One of the most fascinating parts of the show is the extent to which you felt Paul's decision not to require circumcision was really an important turning point in the history of Christianity.

I did, I did. It was less of a judgment call for me than a revelation to me when looking at all of the debate about Paul, that this business of moving outside Judaism and wishing to bring the Jesus message to non-Jews was so powerful. The debate about the dietary laws or Jewish laws, particularly circumcision, just loomed very large in the arguments that Paul is having with the other apostles.

Someone on our staff who saw the show and saw some of the fascinating discussion of potential political motives said, "Oh, Bible scholars are always looking for the political explanation of things. Isn't it possible that it was just a spiritual phenomenon?"
I think it's a fascinating question. It's a question that should be addressed to a conclave of Bible scholars. One of the people who leaps to mind in this instance is [John] Dominic Crossan, who has tried to communicate to the general public about Jesus in contemporary, revolutionary terms. And I understand why they cause resentments in some instances.

On the other hand, what is just great about doing the history of this religion, and Judaism and Islam as well, is how many great people there are who are able to explain to us, to help us visualize, in real terms, what as going on a given moment. And I'll give you three small examples off the top of my head. Tom Wright at Westminster Abby is wonderful at helping us understand how a debate or circumstance might be explained in modern terms. Karen Armstrong is a master at this. Jerry Murphy O'Connor, I remember walking through the Valley of Kidron and into the Garden of Gethsemane, where he looked at the steps leading up out of the garden and said, "You know Jesus could have got away."

We had talked a little bit earlier about the conservative reaction to the first show. In general, many conservative Christians don't trust mainstream media, including ABC. Now why do you think that is?

Well, quite frankly I think some of it's justified. Because I don't think the mainstream media has taken religion very seriously. You and I have talked about this before.the newsroom has long been an uncomfortable environment for religion and for religion discussion. [But] I think ABC should be exempt from this because we have tried in the 15 or 20 years that I have been back from overseas to take religion and its role in people's lives very seriously. I think trying to do these programs is a reflection of that.

We tried very hard to say in the program that we understand people's faith and we understand that people believe certain things, and we are going to not deal with those things because we are, after all, only reporters and we can only deal with reporting. We certainly put lots of people's beliefs in the program, but subscribing to the notion of the absolute truth of the Gospels is a matter of faith, not a matter of reporting. So I understand that. The very first chapter in the book [I wrote about America] is called God's country, and it's an attempt to understand this deep-seated religious importance in large part to the county, which hardly anybody else in the media pays any attention to in a serious way. So I guess I feel a little unduly beaten up on occasion.

If you could go back in time and ask one question each of Jesus and Paul, what would you ask?

I don't think that's a question I can answer off the top of my head because it's a very profound question. The easiest, quickest, obvious one: "Could you ever have imagined?"

I think I would ask Paul a question about the end of the world. Paul thought of himself as someone whose job it was to spread the word about the redemption of the world, but do it in such a hurry because he believed the world was coming to an end. This is deeply hard for many people in the 21st century to grasp. I don't know if he could even imagine a world beyond the Apocalypse because all the evidence suggests he didn't.

The conversation between a reporter and Paul and between a reporter and Jesus would be utterly different.

Oh, how so?
Because I think a conversation with Paul would deal with his travels and his writings in a fairly intellectual way. You know, "What was it like in...?" "How are things going in Corinth?" And "Why you try to do this?" and "What were you disagreeing about?" And "When you got to Rome, what were the issues?" I'd really love to know, did Paul really die south of Rome as it is held in Catholic doctrine, or did he really get away? Did he somehow end up in Spain? I'd love to have known more about his time in Rome. I'd love to know about his relationship with Peter.

With Jesus, one of the first questions I would have to ask is, "Tell me about that miracle that you performed." You take any one and just tell me. I think I know the answer he'd give. Having read the Scriptures you think you know the answers. I think it would be very difficult. I would have liked to have traveled with both of them. I would have deeply loved to have traveled in either one's wake, but close enough to take notes. I would have loved to have wandered around the Galilee, with Jesus, with my notebook, not even necessarily with a camera, but certainly with a notebook.


I have to ask you about the distinction there between having the camera and not.
Because anybody in television knows that as exciting and as important as it is to record history, sometimes when the camera is there, history gets a little, I don't want to use the word "distorted"... It is just sometimes easier for everybody to be a fly on the wall [without] a camera. All reporters know that when someone doesn't notice you in the crowd you sometimes get something you didn't get if the person in question looks across and sees a camera on your shoulder.

The music in the show. It was a different style of music, very varied. You had classical, rap, blues, gospel, contemporary, it was really a very wide mix. I was just curious what the thought process, the creative process was in making that decision.
Well, we've argued quite a lot about the music. In both the good sense and the bad sense. The general answer is, this is a contemporary program about Christianity, about Jesus and Paul, which we hope will appeal to and be meaningful to people in various communities and of various ages. So we're aware that Christian popular music and pop rock and Christian rap even which there is some in the program are a huge part of people's lives. It's a huge industry in America and lots and lots of people listen to and get the message from pop, contemporary Christian pop and rock and rap. At the same time, we're aware that an older audience finds that a little discordant. So I've had people going into this program that said, "Oh, I just loved the program. I didn't like that piece of music." My argument was always, if I could understand the lyrics, it was acceptable. There are pieces of music in the broadcast that I'm sure you won't like, and my sister won't like, but we're trying, as one always is when dealing with religion, to have a variety of communities get the message.

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