Most media consumers will think of MSNBC as a heavy-breathing, politically and socially liberal cable television news operation — 24/7/365. Nor, so far as The Guy knows, has it shown much interest in religion coverage.
So it was quite the eyebrow-raiser when the March 11 edition of “Morning Joe” aired a relatively long and serious discussion of a theme that journalists may want to grab if they’re looking for a promising Easter feature idea.
Adding to the surprises, MSNBC located and featured two intelligent evangelical Protestant leaders of the sort who all too rarely get air time on cable news networks, whether liberal or conservative.
One of this era’s most successful pastors, the Rev. Timothy Keller of New York City, appeared to chat about his newly released book “Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter” (Viking). Joining him was journalist-attorney David French of TheDispatch.com, booked this time not as a #NeverTrump scribe but to undergird Keller’s case for why modern people can believe in Jesus Christ’s literal resurrection and what this means for them.
Adding to the drama, Keller mulled his simultaneous publication of one of those must-read articles, a very personal account for The Atlantic about writing an objective book on life and death during a year when he was coping with his own fatal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
As Keller confesses, it’s one thing for a pastor to try to help parishioners face terminal illness and quite another for the pastor himself to face the same. In Keller’s case, it took months for questions to give way to an even sweeter appreciation of life and of faith.
The wonders of MSNBC continued the very next day when “Morning Joe” offered another notably thoughtful discussion, this time about manipulation of human genes via the CRISPR technique (which was The Guy’s eccentric pick as 2018 story of the year). Again, the peg was release of a brand-new book , “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race” (Simon & Schuster) by Walter Isaacson. (Disclosure, Walter was The Guy’s onetime boss as the top editor of Time magazine.)
To join Isaacson on screen, “Joe” was fortunate to book one of the world’s leading genetic scientists, Francis Collins, now immersed in COVID-19 research as the director of the National Institutes of Health since 2009. The news here was Collins’ strong assertion that CRISPR therapy should only be applied to a particular patient and not manipulate genes that would be passed to future generations.
Host Joe Scarborough (who said unnamed family members attended Keller’s church) often mentions his Southern Baptist background without embracing the foreground. On this occasion he asked Collins to explain how he combines a top-rank scientific career with belief in Christianity. The result was an amiable and thoughtful televised profession of faith from an adult convert to evangelicalism.
These pieces on two successive days resulted from the fact that “Morning Joe” often devotes the last segment in the daily three hours to a new book, which can generate quite interesting discussions depending whether knowledgeable panelists are involved.
This got The Guy to thinking about how much we’re missing on TV and religion. Leave aside fictional entertainment, which when religion turns up in the plot too often causes anybody who knows anything about religion to cringe. And let’s not get into the fare transmitted by paid-time preachers.
Eastertide or Christmas may bring seasonal documentaries, often over the years sensationalized attempts to debunk the church or the Bible. David Gibson’s 2015 archaeology series on CNN, “Finding Jesus,” was an exception.
But what about intelligent treatment throughout the year of news and ideas in the world of religion, which interests masses of today’s viewers just as it has gripped imaginations across human history?