In recent years I’ve had the pleasure of taking part of one of the annual rituals of British broadcasting – putting together the documentaries that will air in the Easter season. It’s something I enjoy doing – after all, acting as a ‘talking head’ in these productions is not entirely unlike teaching, my chosen vocation – but it always brings with it a frisson of worry. When you are lecturing in a classroom, you are the one who is calling the shots – you get to choose what you think is important, and you get to give due emphasis to the things you think are most important. But when your talk is being recorded to use in a documentary, someone else is making the choices. It’s the director who gets to decide – long after the interviews are recorded – which aspects of what you said will be used, and which will land on the floor of the proverbial cutting room. (Though of course none of my students is old enough to know what a ‘cutting room’ is, or to remember that films used to be printed onto strips of celluloid, and ‘cuts’ were actually bits of celluloid that were spliced together, once the footage that wasn’t wanted had been removed.)
What got me involved in The Jesus Mysteries – which airs today in the US and tomorrow in the UK – was Mary Magdalene. She is one of the superstars of early Christianity, and one of my own personal heroes. Really, she is a figure whom every generation has remembered in its own strange way, from Pope Gregory the Great (who invented the image of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute) to the Da Vinci Code. A historian like me who writes about early Christian women gets used to being asked to tell her story and to explain why it has been so perennially fascinating over the millennia. I contributed to Melvin Bragg’s The Mystery of Mary Magdalene documentary not too long ago, which looked at her role as a leader of the early Christian movement, so I was intrigued to know what the new angle for this new production would be. For the most part, print and broadcast media are looking for a Da Vinci Code kind of angle – they have to keep their audience numbers up. On the other hand, sometimes the editors feel they need to make things sound respectable. I was quite surprised recently when after a roundtable about Mary Magdalene at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (here is a podcast link) I was asked by a US religious publication to give a short written summary. I sent in what I thought was quite an edgy piece on how Mary – a disciple who was probably a respected leader in the earliest church – had been reinvented as a repentant prostitute by medieval preachers. A perfect illustration of female leadership being airbrushed out, surely? But it was printed, along with a beautiful illustration, under the pious and uplifting title ‘Mary Magdalene: An Enduring Icon of Repentance’. (You can read the article here.)
In the way of these things, I ended up getting a bit more than I bargained for with The Jesus Mysteries. As we were discussing the Mary Magdalene segment, it emerged that the producers were having trouble finding someone to explain the Jesus at Galstonbury myth. So I agreed to do a little lecture on how it was that the monks of Glastonbury Abbey came to develop the tradition that Jesus had visited the site of their monastery during his boyhood. It’s a marvellous case of medieval monks trying to protect their monastery by weaving wonderful historical traditions around its history and pre-history – they also claimed that Glastonbury was the site of Arthur’s Camelot. An early clip posted by National Geographic suggests that I end up as one of the star players in the ‘Did Jesus Visit England’ section – – but I am not sure, from the preview, that there was very much emphasis on my sober little lecture!
So I have no idea what to expect from The Jesus Mysteries!
Gentle reader, do rest assured that what I actually said on the day was quite scholarly and sensible. I found the production staff incredibly interesting and thoughtful, and they were clearly trying to take seriously the balance between historical accuracy and putting something out there that would thrill an audience. If things got too wild in the cutting room, I may well end up doing a future post to set the record straight! In the mean time, I’ll watch with trepidation tomorrow evening. Do let me know what you think!