The Discovery & History Channels, and “Honest” Scholarship

Posted on April 11, 2008


The Discovery Channel is at it again with another provocative production entitled, “Jesus: The Missing History.” The host, Kent Dobson, as a result of this endeavor has tendered his resignation at the school where he was employed (story here, and here).

This begs a couple redemptive insights on three fronts, 1) the value and accuracy of popular programming (on channels such as the Discovery Channel) in communicating real history and scholarship; (I chatted with a close acquaintance about his appearance on the show, and his insights and experiences are worth noting), 2) the emotional and political implications for religious communities (such as Dobson’s school) when confronted with scholarship, and 3) Dobson’s comments on “being honest” at the close of his program and what I would suggest true “honesty” is when faced with the fullness of historical reality.

What is the value of popular level programming when addressing disciplines such as history, archaeology, and theology? I can’t find it, but several months back, the Biblical Archaeological Society in a BAR edition, published a short article on the Discovery and History channels’ compromises that are made regarding scholarship and truth for the sake of the production. While I can’t make a fully conclusive argument, generally speaking, trusting any of these channels with accurate and precise scholarship is somewhat dubious. While chatting with an acquaintance/friend of ours who was interviewed for the “Jesus: The Missing History” program, he said that the release he signed in order to appear on the program is in essence “signing your life away.” The words you say, the context in which it was said is now owned 100% by the producers. Control over what is actually communicated is completely relinquished. Our friend says that knowing what he knows now, he’ll probably never go on another program again.

This has happened before. Those who have appeared on similar shows will go public later saying that their content was manipulated, often to convey things that are contradictory to what they intended; more in line with what the producers were wanting. The most recent figure of this kind of controversy has been Simcha Jacobovici and his productions, “The Exodus Decoded,” “Quest For the Lost Tribes of Israel,” and the most controversial, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” You can read here, here, here, here, or even here, to see that coming to any sense of certainty about the issue is really difficult. Add to that the theatrics and sloppiness that high-cost productions require, demand, and succumb to. An example would be the rappeling that Dobson and another host did in a previous History Channel program called “Digging For The Truth: Beyond the DaVinci Code” in order to get to a cave at Qumran to discuss the Dead Sea Scrolls. Well, that’s fine and dandy, but the problem is that none of the 11 caves that held the Scrolls requires that kind of acrobatics for access (I don’t think first-century Essenes had that kind of equipment). So why did do that?

And it is this kind of quandry that makes me ask the value judgment of this kind of programming. Clearly there is question of the validity of the scholarship in light of the production and provocation values. But how much? To what degree? Is it blatantly misleading, or only slightly? Or, does it actually accomplish some good?

A few months ago a congregant of mine handed me a DVD saying “Watch this…this is very interesting.” It was Jacobovici’s “Lost Tribes of Israel” which he had recorded on his TiVo. I admit that I faked a smile, feigned interested, and promised I would watch it with rapt curiosity; which I did. And though I was skeptical at every turn, having wrestled with Jacobovici’s journalism before, something struck me then that has been exacerbated with the recent controversy surrounding Dobson’s Discovery Channel production, and in writing this post. It was the interest my congregant had in the subject, his enlightened awareness of the issues, and his desire to engage with the material. Had it not been for the programming, how engaged, enlightened, or desirous would he be? My feelings are well summarized in the closing line of this New York Times article:

In this film Mr. Jacobovici, whether he gets to the truth or not, succeeds amazingly at what any good historian of antiquity must do: he brings the stones to life.

Many in the scholarly world decry Jacobovici, and (as we will get to in a moment with Kent Dobson), the Christian education community is not far behind. Poor scholarship, sloppy journalism, and even manipulated truth ought to be denounced. But while the truth in these programs is dubious, if we’re really honest, so is a lot of that which is promulgated through “reputable” scholastic publishing. Papers that are presented at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are full of presuppositions and biased materials. Textbooks in every class are biased. Everyone is biased. We are humans first, archaeologists, scientists, theologians second.

So, while several months ago I would have said that watching any of these programs was a waste of time, misleading, controversial, and deceptive, I wonder if there isn’t a value that we should captivate and leverage, that is, the ability to bring to light, and to bring to the public’s attention in entertaining ways, very real discussions and debates about some very real history. Anyone who has ever been to a SBL meeting will tell you…well, okay, I’ll tell you…Those lectures are boring! Academicians aren’t going to cut it. So how else will the general public engage with these kinds of important issues? Perhaps that’s what the Discovery and History Channels are for.

(Another article with a nuanced conclusion).

to be continued…

Posted in: Culture, Religion