Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly claims that it was the Holy Spirit, and not his literary agent or his bank manager, that inspired him to write Killing Jesus, the last book in his bestselling series of portraits of famous men (to date they’re all men) that changed the world.
The book, which has already been dismissed as credulous “fan-fiction” by senior historians and New Testament scholars, has been transformed into an epic miniseries on the National Geographic channel that debuts on March 29.
If audience figures for his previous go-rounds Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy are any guide, it’ll be another ratings smash for the popular Irish American cable host.
But the question is, will it be in any way accurate?
O’Reilly, 65, has been in increasingly hot water lately due to a growing chorus of fact-wielding critics who say that many dramatic claims he makes in his books and on air have been fabricated to inflate his importance or intentionally mislead.
In his 2013 book, Keep it Pithy, O’Reilly recounted, “I’ve seen soldiers gun down unarmed civilians in Latin America, Irish terrorists kill and maim their fellow citizens in Belfast with bombs.”
Asked about O’Reilly’s statements on shootings in the North, a Fox News spokesman told the press that O’Reilly was not an eyewitness to any bombings or injuries there. Instead, he was simply shown photos of bombings by RUC officers.
But seeing a photograph of a sectarian attack isn’t the same thing as witnessing a sectarian attack, of course. O’Reilly was undaunted, however.
“I’ve seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador,” he said on his radio program in 2005, and on his Fox News program in 2012 he added, “I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head.”
O’Reilly clarified in a statement last month that he was describing photos of the murdered nuns, not the actual crimes themselves. Having seen the best and worst of human nature in combat zones (if only through black and white photographs) it gives him an edge over other commentators he says.
“I’ve been there,” he told the press. “That’s really what separates me from most of these other bloviators. I bloviate, but I bloviate about stuff I’ve seen. They bloviate about stuff that they haven’t.”
Given that he sub-titles his Fox News nightly program The O’Reilly Factor “the no spin zone,” the latest charges of mendacity are hardly welcome, but neither the Fox News host nor the channel have anything less than total faith in their word.
NBC’s Brian William’s was suspended for six months for exaggerated statements, but Fox News would not be doing likewise with their star pundit they said.
Meanwhile, historians say the most basic problem with Killing Jesus is that O’Reilly approaches the task with the same blunt journalistic approach he used to explore the life and legacy of presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
Writing about historical figures of which there are already multiple eyewitness accounts and documents is one thing, but reconstructing the life of a world transforming and virtually unknown deity is something else, critics charge.
Since Killing Jesus refers most frequently to the all too credulous studies written by Christian fundamentalists and evangelical pastors (who believe the Gospels are accurate down to the last detail, miracles and all), that means that history is already giving way to parable and myth in O’Reilly’s book, they say.
Writing a historical document requires an impartial and academic approach, but O’Reilly (and his co-writer Martin Dugard) approach the book as self-professed believers. That’s the root of the problem.
Either your intent is to write a carefully researched and thoughtful study of the life and legacy of Jesus, or you want to reinforce the beliefs of the already religious – because you can’t do both, in all honesty.
Critics say that O’Reilly doesn’t even make a convincing stab at impartiality. Instead we see another by the numbers life of Jesus that is presented in a pseudo-historical format to convince the general reader that all the legends that grew up about Jesus are historical facts.
O’Reilly is so good at applying a patina of documentary realism to legend that some critics suspect that in Killing Jesus he has even fooled himself. If you want something to be true it takes less time to do the research, after all.
It is not controversial in 2015 to say most scholars now consider that the Gospels are composed of mostly myth or legend. What’s controversial is to suggest they are not, as O’Reilly implies in his book (and though the forthcoming miniseries).
What emerges instead in Killing Jesus is a fantasy wish fulfillment narrative that will appeal most to conservative Christians, eager to be rid of troubling questions about legends that they prefer to think of as facts.
Your first clue that history is intentionally being bowdlerized is the casting of Kelsey Grammer as King Herod. “He's famous for being big and loud and ugly and killing children, so I got the offer,” Grammer deadpanned to the press.
Actors are famously less circumspect about the historical accuracy of the films they star in, being on the lookout for their next vehicle. That may be the case for young Dublin actor, director and author Eoin Macken, 31, whose breakthrough role as an army medic on NBC’s The Night Shift. Macken was reportedly handpicked for the part of young King Herod in the four-part mini-series.
“It is fantastic fun because I usually play the easy-going drunk dude and this is a proper bad guy, a meaty role and it's harder to portray,” he told the press recently. “It's very political and I make grand speeches. I think it might ruffle some feathers,” he added.
It’s almost certain to ruffle feathers, since the book on which it was based already has.
If the hero of your book is a man who may or may not have existed, who may or may not have said the things the Gospels attribute to him, and who may or may not have been a deity, it becomes very problematic if you present almost everything the New Testament says about him as unassailable fact.
Meanwhile even conservative Christians are voicing concern about a casting decision taken in the new Killing Jesus miniseries. When Muslim-raised actor Haaz Sleiman was announced to play Jesus in the show, it garnered the strong disapproval of many conservative commentators.
Sleiman responded to their criticism in the press this week saying: “In Islam, we believe Jesus is a prophet and respect him and follow his teachings and put him beside the Prophet Muhammad – a lot of people don’t know that.”
The difference between knowing and not knowing, between myth and history, legend and fact, is at the root of the controversy that surrounds the book and now the miniseries.
O’Reilly’s bottom line is the impressive book sales, but readers who pick it up and have their religious faith confirmed as fact may get more for their money than anyone else.
Killing Jesus premieres Sunday, March 29 on the National Geographic Channel at 8pm.