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TV REVIEW: ‘Jesus in India’

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A major Christian holiday is just around the corner, and sure enough, here comes one of those revisionist “documentaries” attacking cherished beliefs. For Jesus in India, the focus is on historical gossip that has Jesus traveling east during his youth to learn from Buddhist and Hindu philosophers.

The program (9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time Dec. 22) on the Sundance Channel, looks at the “missing years” of Jesus, between his 12th and 30th years, when the Bible reports nothing about him. During those years, some say, he studied ethics and mysticism in the East before returning to the Holy Land. There’s even talk that he escaped crucifixion, returned to India, and died and was entombed there.

Author Edward T. Martin makes a brave, and apparently well-funded, effort to ferret out links between Jesus and India. With Paul Davids as director, he visits St. Thomas Mount in southern India, where Christians say their forebears hearken back to Bible times. He talks to the Shankaracharya, a pre-eminent Hindu leader. He consults a monk in a monastery, where a library is said to hold an ancient account of Jesus’ sojourn. He ventures into tense, violent Srinagar, where some locals say Jesus is entombed.

But you won’t be surprised to know that Martin finds nothing definite; otherwise, it would have been on CNN before the Sundance Channel. Nope. The Shankaracharya says he knows the story of Jesus in India, but the sourcebooks are long lost. And the monk says the head of the monastery is away, and he’s the only one who can approve a search of the books.

Some of the onscreen comments even contradict Martin’s premise. In Srinagar, a police officer and a Muslim leader vigorously deny Jesus’ body is there, saying it’s that of another prophet instead. Jesus in India notes this, then blithely moves on.

Quality control may be one of the problems here. Jesus in India quotes decent sources like a Vatican official, a rabbi from Loyola and two scholars from Georgetown. But it also recruits Elaine Pagels of Princeton, who detours onto her favorite topic, the Gnostic Gospels — a collection of third century Egyptian scrolls that she and others are trying to paint as lost Bible books. Incredibly, another source is a book by Elizabeth Claire Prophet, former head of the New-Agey Church Universal and Triumphant.

Jesus in India spends a lot of time on Martin’s background — perhaps to help us understand his viewpoint, perhaps to pad the program. Scenes abound of sleepy Lampasas, Texas, and the stark Church of Christ where Martin grew up, in a familiar portrayal of conservative Christians as crude and ignorant. However, the onscreen interviews don’t make them sound like the oppressive bullies that Martin makes them out to be.

It shows the immense shadow cast by Jesus that so many people — Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, New Agers, broadcasters, even Bible revisionists — want to claim him. But they’re mainly trying to recast him in their own image. That’s a danger for us all, of course, believers or not. But to get closer to Jesus and his teachings, it’s best to start with something better than revisionism.

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Written by Jim Davis

December 21, 2008 at 6:37 am

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