Peter, Paul, and Infotainment
In a scene that neatly summarizes what’s good and bad about ABC News Presents: The Search for Paul, host Peter Jennings asks passersby what they know about St. Paul, only to receive a lot of blank stares. It illustrates why the documentary is relevant now, when U.S. politics is dominated by fundamentalist Christians who display no more awareness than Jennings’ subjects about the man who did as much as, if not more than, Jesus to establish Christianity.
But the scene is also a tele-journalistic cliché, a simplistic self-justification. While The Search for Paul provides some genuine information, it’s short on complexity and challenging thought. The real excitement of this program, now released on DVD, is not to see where the titular search will lead, but whether it will withstand all the sentimentality and dumbing down deployed to dilute it into mainstream mush.
Things look grim from the start. The impressive array of religious scholars (including Elaine Pagels, for all you Gnostic Gospels gnuts) offer just enough pithy information to make you wish you could’ve heard what they say next. Instead, the director cuts away to an extended close-up of candles burning, or a man riding his bicycle in fast motion, or a bird flying, all spastically edited under a cheesy soundtrack performed on a Casio keyboard.
The Search for Paul starts to give the impression that it’s embarrassed every time it wades too deeply into bookishness. This impression is cemented with every line of Jennings’ religion-for-dummies narration (as when he explains that temples are “Jewish houses of worship”). As annoying as such patronizing may be, it’s overshadowed by another of Jennings’ bad habits. Succumbing to the temptation to be the worldly host, something like R. Kelly at a middle school dance, he poses with top button unbuttoned at exotic locales throughout the Middle East, gets himself filmed nonchalantly speaking French to a monk, and then goes scuba diving for no apparent reason.
The DVD bonus features are equally lame. First up are the interactive maps that allow you to trace the path of Jesus and Paul. This combines DVD technology with all the fun of Wikipedia. Next are the scholars’ biographies. These blurbs are fine, but it’s hard to imagine who cares to know more about these people after watching the documentary, since so many of them are crowded in for so little screen time.
Nevertheless, Paul’s story is a good one, and it manages to shine through once the editors come down from their sugar high. Gradually, the number of pointless tracking shots over Middle Eastern terrain slows to a trickle, and some genuine analysis takes place. And here, The Search for Paul is strong and even slightly brave in making its point that much of what we believe about Christianity comes not directly from God but from Paul. The scholars, all of whom sound content with historical orthodoxy on the subject, treat Paul as a brilliant but earthly figure, one who profoundly shaped Christianity not through holy guidance but by being a smart salesman with plenty of hustle. Without him, Christianity might not have survived, or at least might have stayed as the fringe Jewish sect it was before Paul came along.
It was Paul who took the teachings of a tiny cult and spread it across the Roman Empire. It was Paul’s writings that codified Christian ethics. It was Paul who helped boost the budding religion’s numbers by inviting pagans to make a direct conversion to Christianity when previous followers of Jesus (and Jesus himself) expected converts to go through Judaism first. That last act transformed Christianity from a sect of Judaism into its own separate religion, and this, combined with Paul’s documentation of his angry interfaith squabbles with contemporary Jewish leaders, led to the view that Paul was history’s first Christian anti-Semite. When this charge is raised in The Search for Paul only to be wholly rejected, it provides a nice reminder of what we’ve really been watching—a documentary willing to tell a provocative story only after all the sharp corners have been sanded down. It’s intellectual vanilla pudding; pleasant enough while it’s going down, but nothing you’d ever crave.