Last fall, a conspiracy sprung up around the Wikileaks release of John Podesta emails. Theorists from various dark corners of the internet worked one another into a frenzy via social media around the idea that a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. was actually a hub for a human trafficking ring. The pizzeria owner, James Alefantis, told The New York Times: “From this insane, fabricated conspiracy theory, we’ve come under constant assault. I’ve done nothing for days but try to clean this up and protect my staff and friends from being terrorized.”
The hysteria finally died down after Edgar Welch, a 28-year-old from North Carolina, decided to “self-investigate” the alleged crimes, and walked into the restaurant with a rifle and indiscriminately fired off three rounds into the wall. Forbes reported, “Welch surrendered to police peacefully after failing to find any evidence of the abused children he believed were trapped in the pizzeria’s secret passages.”
In 2017, we don’t just live in a world of fake news, but one where conspiracy theories are on the rise.
Cue season two of CNN’s Finding Jesus. The show blends on-scene footage with expert interviews from a variety of world views, and is at least partially inspired by the recent “Jesus truther” movement online, a view that Jesus never actually existed.
It’s a far-flung concept—one that’s been rejected by famous atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who have dedicated their lives to fighting against all organized religion. But it just might be gaining steam. Author Timothy Feke tells CNN, “Jesus never existed. He was a myth created by first-century Jews who modeled him after other dying and resurrected pagan gods.”
David Gibson, author of Finding Jesus: Fact. Faith. Forgery. sees the rise of this Jesus-was-a-myth movement as an opportunity to engage non-believers, rather than hide from controversy. He shares with Patheos:[lborder]
Rather than discrediting and running away from the historical Jesus and the quest for the Jesus of history, we have to double down. You have to go back and look at what’s really true and what is not, ask, what do we know? I don’t think there’s any reason to be afraid of that. It can actually deepen faith.
Jesus was not a myth. I have to say, in most of our chapters, and in the TV show, when you follow the trail, and you look at all the theories, you wind up, for the most part, back at the canonical Gospels.[/lborder]
Denominational Controversy, Fresh Perspectives
Wherever you fall on the theological spectrum, it’s certain that something in Finding Jesus will rub you the wrong way. The experts and scholars featured on the show run the gamut from authors and pastors to university professors Fordham, Brown and Duke.
The show takes some liberties that should feel comfortable for all believers, such as recreating imagined dialogue between Thomas and the other disciples in the days between Jesus’ death and resurrection. Other topics will likely cause predictable divides along pre-drawn theological and denominational lines.
In the episode “Doubting Thomas” (which is set to air April 9th), the show visits a Catholic Church in Italy, which allegedly houses (at least some of) the bones of Thomas the disciple.
Just bringing up the topic will cause most believers to dig in. If you’re protestant, odds are that you’re highly skeptical, or at least leery, of such a claim. If you’re Catholic, it’s possible that you may take the unbelief of fellow Christians as a personal blow.
But whatever your viewpoint, the show brings up fascinating world topics that are rarely, if ever, discussed in American Christian circles. To CNN’s credit, Finding Jesus strives for balance, and explores divisive topics of faith without sinking to the level of attempting to create click-bait controversy.
For example, in the aforementioned episode, Thomas’ alleged journey to India is covered. Even today, there are thousands of Indian Christians who believe that Thomas baptized their ancestors. Because India was involved in world trade at the time of Christ, some traditions hold that Thomas traveled to India to share the Gospel with Jews who had taken up residence in India for business reasons and planted an anchor point for Christians that still holds today.
One of the reasons that this is not verifiable, one way or the other, is the persecution of Indian Christians at the hands of their European brethren. In 1499, the Portuguese arrived in India. A century later, the Indian Thomasine Christians were declared heretics, and the Portuguese destroyed all the church documents. As the narrator on Finding Jesus puts it, “the entire history of Christianity in India, recorded on palm leaf manuscript, was put to the torch.”
Regardless of whether you find yourself at buttoned down Baptist service, Roman Catholic Mass, Pentecostal worship service or any other of the hundreds of flavors of Christianity in the U.S., odds are that this particular topic will never be covered from the pulpit.
Nor are there any small-group curriculums in circulation that contain a chapter on the DVD called “that time the Portuguese Christians persecuted Indians and destroyed irreplaceable records of church history.”
CNN, a network that is certainly not without its journalistic faults, deserves credit here. We’re living in an era where the History Channel, once purveyors of quality topical documentaries, has produced 11 seasons of Ancient Aliens.
A program about the deity and history of Christ could just as easily have tried to whip up conspiracy theorists with a format where the most extreme “experts” the network could find screaming at each other for a solid hour.
Instead, Finding Jesus is a thoughtful, engaging series that strives for balance, whether or not it’s always achieved. Even if you’re not normally drawn to programming of this nature, it may be worth setting your DVR. This one could surprise you.