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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Religious > TV > Search For Paul (ABC News)

Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Paul (ABC News)


Picture:  B+     Sound: B+     Extras: B-     Documentary: B+



In his compelling book Representations of the Intellectual, the late Edward Said wrote, “It is in modern public life seen as a novel or drama and not as a business or as the raw material for sociological monograph that we can most readily see and understand how it is that intellectuals are representative, not just of some subterranean or large social movement, but of a quite peculiar, even abrasive style of life and social performance that is uniquely theirs.”  And in a strange sort of way, I was reminded of this quote as I watched ABC’s The Search for Paul, hosted by Peter Jennings.  I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed this disc, but I’m not sure I enjoyed it for the “right” reasons.


The Search for Paul on the one hand, from its opening frames of a bus racing past a sign for Damascus written in both English and Arabic – a knowing nod to almost anyone familiar with that “sudden” and “bizarre“ event that purportedly happened two thousand years ago on that very same road and arguably gave birth not only to the highest hopes of the Western mind, but also to all of its existential angst and greatest anxieties – is very clearly a sort of experiment in the representation of genius; albeit a safe, and contained one.  I don’t just mean the genius of Paul, but also those who might talk about him.  This is readily observed not only in the resonance between this disc and its predecessor The Search for Jesus, but also in the dissonance between these two discs.   Why is it that The Search for Paul has bonus material, while The Search for Jesus does not?  Perhaps because by the time The Search for Paul is produced, ABC has come to more fully understand the opportunities of digital video and the possibilities provided by the non-linear format we have come to know as the DVD.  Either way, The Search for Paul denotes for me what I think will be an increasing trend over the next few years where religious scholars will start to enjoy an increasing favor as celebrities with their own star personas in their own right as they find more and more places to represent themselves through digital media.


It would be an overstatement to say that ABC’s previous documentary The Search for Jesus (see my review elsewhere on this site) – which Jennings also narrated and presumably wrote – was a disappointment.  I would more likely say that while it did spark some critical thinking and reconsideration on my part, the extent to which I was persuaded was marginal to say the least compared to other documentary works on the topic.  This isn’t for lack of trying, but trying to hard…to be politically correct.  As a very apparent appeal to the mainstream of its viewership, a disproportionate reliance on contributors to Robert Funk’s Jesus Seminar reduces this seemingly unbiased and want-to-be rigorous work of broadcast journalism to nothing more than an interesting, but decidedly tentative exploration of one of the most controversial figures of human history.  That disc’s interest stems more from its subject matter, than its own technique as a digital medium in a rare instance where substance winning out over style is not necessarily a good thing.  Surprisingly though, I am delighted to report that there is much to learn on The Search for Paul, a promising documentary disc that not only exerts some style, but has a whole lot of substance.


Perhaps it is relevant, and perhaps it is not.  But for what it’s worth, I must note that I do not come to Jennings’ report uninformed, or without my own scholarly notions of Paul as deriving from the numerous books I’ve studied on the topic, ranging from John Zeisler’s Pauline Christianity and E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism – who incidentally offers comments on this disc – to Gene A. Getz’s Paul: Living for the Call of Christ and A. N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, to Marty Wooten’s Power in Weakness and John W. Mauck’s Paul on Trial.  I even took a class at the University of Pittsburgh taught by Dr. Tony Edwards, entitled, you guessed it: Paul.  Currently, I am reading John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed’s In Search of Paul, which brings me to my first point.  Considering Crossan’s 2004 book, it surprises me why considering ABC’s all-too predictable usage of Crossan on previous New Testament-centered documentaries like The Search for Jesus and many of their specials concerning Gibson’s The Passion, he doesn’t turn up here for as much as a soundbyte.  He did after all, quite literally, write the book on the topic.  I can only hope that the reason for Crossan’s absence on The Search for Paul in the very same year that he writes a book entitled In Search of Paul is legitimate and not the result of some political power play either on his part or that of ABC.  The fact that his bio still turns up in the bonus features, only compounds my confusion why what he had to say might possibly have ended up on the cutting room floor, or even worse, never even recorded.  Either way, Crossan’s forthright and pointed commentary is not only inexplicably absent, but noticeably missed – though not sorely.  Mainly because so many other equally intelligent minds have been tapped by Jennings for this particular take on the “co-founder of Christianity” who in his day began as the red-headed step-child, and most potentially alienated of all of Jesus’ first-century missionaries.


The disc presents a pretty accurate chronology of Paul’s life, though certain key relationships like with Titus, Timothy, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila are either glossed over or completely missed in this particular telling.  But this is not all that surprising – Roger Young’s Paul the Apostle (2000) basically does the same thing, and that was supposed to be a dramatic presentation of his life…and death.   But in the last section of this disc, scholars are divided over exactly how Paul died.  But to me, that is precisely the point.  That such an influential Western thinker could die in obscurity is the stuff of true intellectual endeavor.  His was not a day when scholars powdered their noses and put on make-up to muse over the depth of the Scriptures in perfect prose, and rhythmic edits.  No, his was a day where opening your mouth could get you stoned or beheaded.  But now, as if the truth is suddenly en vogue, intellectualism has been a commodity bought, sold, and marketed to the highest bidder.  So perhaps this is why John Dominic Crossan, the same man who wrote The Essential Jesus – a must read for anybody even remotely interested in understanding the message of the gospels -- bowed out of this particular outing of playing the expert.  Or did he?


Crossan’s ambiguous absence is probably my biggest and only real critique of what is otherwise a very fascinating and informative piece of educational cinema.  The opening frame of The Search for Paul is very explicit in its attempts to be different, even if only slightly, from other talking-head documentaries.  While many of these marks of difference are in some cases subtle, I think they do suggest impending shifts in the mise en scene and cinematicity of television reporting, marked as much by MTV as recent scholarship.  No longer is the stereotypical biblical specialist an immobile Anglophile in glasses, a bow-tie, and a cardigan with three degrees after his name captured in uninspired jump cuts of close-up and medium close-up.  In The Search for Paul the scholars are men and women of various ethnicities and ages, with almost deliberately most of the foundational commentary provided by two very disparate but noteworthy voices: Pamela Eisenbaum, a very articulate, vibrant, and conveniently photogenic expert in Jewish history; and the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, a black minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church whose admission: “I’m sure that I might be more a part of the culture of that day who kind of looked askance at Paul…” because of the “cult”-like nature of his ministry, while shocking to come from a man who somehow is able to preach the word of God every Sunday can at least be respected for his candor and self-effacing honesty.  Butts further hypothesizes that he would have probably wondered: “Who is this weird looking guy running around talking about this other guy that some God raised from the dead?” We can only assume by the size of his New York church that later gets depicted on the disc and the fact that he serves as president of the Council of Churches of New York City that somehow his placement in our modern world has more adequately stabilized his prominently featured faith and understanding not only of Paul, but of Jesus.


If documentaries were merely textual productions and not cinematic ones, I am curious as to whose understanding of Paul among these scholars would prevail.  I would like to think that such considerations do not matter, but having spent many years in undergrad around the all-too frequent droll professor, it is quite obvious that Jennings and ABC are not only interested in the ideas of its scholars, but also their personas and personalities.  Not only is this almost reality-TV inspired attempt at hipness evidenced in The Search for Paul’s soundtrack, a raucous hodgepodge of speed metal, rock, hip hop, and standard video production library samples – whoever thought one need comment on the soundtrack of a New Testament documentary? – but also in its occasional moments of rapid-fire montages of paintings of the balding, bearded apostle, and Ben McCoy’s shaky-cam, fast-motion, skip-frame photography of pedestrians, crucifixes, and priests.  While such approaches are not completely innovative in terms of nonfiction filmmaking, when combined with the typical location shots of the Forum, The Arch of Titus, St. Paul’s Basilica, and long-aerial shots of un-swaggering critics who dress comfortably in sunglasses, polo shirts, and khakis combined with ubiquitous road shots that to the literate baby-boomer may suggest Kerouac, on the other hand, to the cineliterate Generation X’er may suggest the early moments of Godard’s Breathless. 


But please do not mistake my tone as sardonic.  I like these moments for several reasons.  One, these moments are interesting to me as they suggest new possibilities for the place of the scholar in post-modernity not only no longer as a hidden and imagined persona behind some canonical text, but now as a visible face with its own quirks or and idiosyncrasies.  Let’s be honest, the scholar has and always will be a sort of performance and act with its own script, dialogue, and wardrobe – but to see these performances deconstructed somewhat by the lens only to be co-opted once again by the sensibilities of Mark Burnett is the irony I take note of.  Heck, I enjoy an episode of The Apprentice just as much as the next man; but to see these experts assert with such conviction what was going on in the minds of the likes of a Paul with such conviction, I often wonder how many takes it took to get it all out without flubbing.  I don’t know whether it is good or bad that now, like doctors hired by both sides for legal depositions on the same case, that scholars not only need to be smart, but look smart – not a Jean-Paul-Sartre-type smart, but an Abercrombie & Fitch-type smart.


As it is, the documentary from the days of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is an investment in the dialogic relationship between sound and image for the purposes of information – with a strong emphasis on the image.  Though this was not always the case.  The good thing about the stuffy, distant, and alienated intellectual of black & white newsreels and Eisenhower-era documentaries was that it was precisely those codes of dress and behavior that made you trust them – precisely because they were not trying to look too good for you for fear of being perceived a hack.  But now when even the so-called “everyman” of Survivor or Fear Factor looks like a chiseled god or goddess, it is interesting to note how even the experts of today are much more likely to resemble Indiana Jones than Walter Cronkite.  It is no wonder Dan Brown describes his Robert Langdon, professor of Symbology – a discipline not as fictional as some might think – in The Da Vinci Code as a “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”.  Just note the moment in The Search for Paul where Peter Jennings accompanies archaeologist Eduard G. Reinhardt out on a boat in Caesarea, and then we follow them both down into the sea, and get a quick shot of Jennings underwater in full scuba gear.  I must admit I was impressed, thinking to myself of Jennings, he’s smart, he’s in a great shape, he even scuba dives!  What can’t he do?  But then I quickly remembered, he’s a journalist part of a corporate media conglomerate and quickly remembered, Oh yeah!  He can’t tell us what he really thinks or believes, otherwise it might compromise his fair and balanced objectivity.


Yet in spite of this predicament, Jennings does have some teeth and shrewdness to go with it.  Take for instance the moment in Rome when he tells Don Alessandro, the clergyman who keeps the grounds of sacred site it is “cheating” to use an engine to keep the water running where supposedly two springs welled up from the two bounces of Paul’s decapitated head – a telling metaphor perhaps for the systematic and regulating function of the church as a whole, where clergy would rather manufacture symbols of faith because they don’t believe in the devotion of their constituents, rather than be truly devoted themselves and thus become true symbols of faith in their own right.  In response to Jennings’ quip as to why he allows for the engine, according to Jennings, Alessandro allegedly responds, “Tradition is important to teach the faithful about suffering and sacrifice.” But it is an interesting logic that supposes technological innovation might best reinforce tradition and teach of suffering and sacrifice, but a logic nonetheless exercised by much of Christendom, especially in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where just a few feet from St. Peter’s tomb, one can enter a gift shot and buy post cards with waving Popes and grinning Jesuses, while listening to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” on the gift shop’s automated soundtrack.  (While this is a personal anecdote of my own recent experience in Rome, and not featured on the disc, I had to chuckle knowingly when we go with Jennings to Ananias’ house on Straight Street in Damascus where former Chicago firefighter Brother Tom Courtney, who supervises the site, asides, “Of course we have the donation box.  If you want to drop something, we’ll take it.”)  Jennings also chuckles.  


What I like about Paul is that he was a man who boldly and fiercely grappled with what it meant to be devoted to a religious tradition, which was threatened to be annihilated by a now ancient form of imperialism known as Emperor worship.  For just as many people in his day and today who accuse him of betraying Judaism, just as many could also say that he helped reform it so that it might endure the destruction of the Temple, paving the way for an eventual Judeo-Christian political alliance that has even greater implications now post 9/11 than it did in the first century in terms of defining what it means to be devoted and religious in the 21st century. 


Without necessarily intending to do so, I think The Search for Paul, with its schizoid and eclectic musical rifts and music-video-ish editing, what comes to bare is what lies at the very root of all religious quests – identity and all of the various politics and modes of discourse that accompany any such notions.  What we have on this disc is a documentary trying to finds its own style, though confined by the format of prime-time reporting, featuring scholars and ministers undoubtedly concerned just as much for the advancement of their own reputations as they are for who Paul actually was.   The bonus features are informative, and appreciated – but more text is given to the scholar’s bios than the information about the places featured in the disc.  And the photo gallery comes off almost as an afterthought.  But nonetheless, each of these as potential bonuses on future documentaries shows promise, so I must commend ABC on their vision.  Still, no doubt somewhere some filmmaker goo-goo eyed over the inexplicable success of The Passion is pining over a screenplay about Paul hoping to grasp just the hem of Gibson’s pocketbook.  Because of this, there is also no doubt that some of those featured on this disc will be consulted as experts on that film – their appearance here being the ultimate job interview.  And if that is not enough, there are always the bonus features, which provide all the necessary biographical information for contacting these scholars in the digital age of the Internet.  Truly Paul’s gospel is being preached to the very ends of the earth.  I’m sure the apostle would be pleased.



-   Greg Allen


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