TV History: With Almost Excessive Even-Handedness, Channel Works the Theologians to Unravel `Secrets' of the Bible. (Television)

Article excerpt

Our failure to teach history to the next generation is almost too obvious to mention again.

Walter Cronkite, in a recent interview on National Public Radio, said he is devoting his second career as a public citizen to improving the teaching of history. History, as Cronkite sees it, is the ongoing clash between the strong personalities on the world's stage who seek to impose their vision on us all.

Are we with Henry VIII or the pope in Rome, with Karl Marx or Adam Smith? With Winston Churchill or "that guttersnipe" Adolf (Hitler) Schickelgruber?

Christian catechists in the 1960s and '70s saw history as a linear narrative recounting the story of salvation. The Old and New Testaments traced God's plan-leading from Eden to Bethlehem to Calvary to Rome to our parish churches and college classrooms.

When Roger Mudd lost out to Dan Rather in the choice for Cronkite's successor as the "CBS Evening News" anchorman, he gave his presence to The History Channel, a member of the Arts and Entertainment Network, which now fills our screens with its own version of history 24 hours a day.

What is the channel's notion of history?

Well, no surprise, it's entertainment. After all, we've all read those stories about "great" teachers who get teaching awards for dressing up like Julius Caesar or George Washington to make their classes "real" and "relevant" to sleepy sophomores.

But, after watching it in big gulps in late December and early January, and on-and-off for several years, The History Channel's angle appears special: History is mystery. It's not what you expect. You have heard there was an island Atlantis that sunk without a trace; but what really happened? Ships and planes sinking in the Bermuda Triangle? What's the real story?

In an analysis of its prime-time schedule from late December to mid-February, the words secrets, marvels, mysteries, untold story, true story, total story (implying the story you have now is neither true nor total) leap off the page. Watch this show and be let in on a secret--perhaps one that ordinary--non-History-Channel--history has covered up.

No one just dies. He dies mysteriously: "Mysterious Death of Joe Kennedy," "Mysterious Death of Admiral Yamamoto."

Among its critics The History Channel is sometimes referred to as The Hitler Channel, because it seemed that whenever you turned it on there was Adolf, foaming at the mouth as the robotic ranks of his troops goose-stepped out of the screen into your living room.

But today's analysis doesn't back that up. World War II is up there ("Secret Japanese Aircraft of WWII"), but the big topics seem to be sex, Saddam Hussein, sacred scripture and UFOs. And ideally one show combines as many of the main elements as possible: "Love and Sex in the Bible," "Sex in the Vietnam War" and "UFOs in the Bible."

One way to encourage the study of history is to make it relevant, to apply its "lessons" to today's crises. Thus its three-part biography of Henry VIII, "the offbeat Henry we never knew about," is interlaced with footage of modern armies, Winston Churchill, and the mixed-up Windsors, today's "dysfunctional royal family." We see Henry dance at his wedding, then Prince Charles and Diana dance at theirs. How did this "nice little boy" become a monster? Answer: no happy family life.

Also, big blocks of the schedule are built around late-breaking news--like the seven days in mid-January dedicated to Desert Storm, with a special hour on "Why Can't They Kill Saddam?"--timed to coincide with our probable invasion of Iraq. And, for some reason, the offering all day Dec. 31 was on the history of sex. While, perhaps in repentance for the night before, New Year's Day went to God, with hours of "Bible Secrets," including the "The Violent God," an Old Testament survey that asks some provocative questions like: "Does God really justify killing?"

A theologian points out that the more powerful Israel becomes, the more it moves away from God. …