Religion on TV – Interview with Jeff Rose 30 June 2014

Academics are not always the most successful at communicating their work to a wider audience. We speak to documentary maker and academic Jeff Rose, presenter of BBC documentary ‘Bible Hunters’, about his experience of bridging the gap between academia and television.

Jeff RoseIf you’re a fan of documentaries, it is very likely you have come across Dr Jeff Rose before, whether on the BBC, National Geographic or the History Channel. Within academia, his research is archaeological and focuses on the history of human migration across the globe, but his interests include religion too. Dr Rose recently presented a documentary on BBC, titled ‘Bible Hunters’, that explored the stories of how some of the oldest known bibles were discovered. We spoke to him about his interests, passions, and bridging the gap between religion and academia.

You presented the show Bible Hunters with an incredible amount of passion; it is clearly a topic you are deeply interested in. What motivated you to research this particular topic and how did it develop into a documentary?

My fascination with world religions goes back to my childhood, to Hebrew school classes where I was first introduced to the Old Testament. I remember always wondering if these tales – the Great Flood, the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath – were actually true or just myths. When I was 17, my amazing parents nurtured my passion for Biblical archaeology and sent me off to volunteer on an excavation in Israel. I worked there every summer for three years, while studying ancient history and comparative religions at university. In fact, my undergraduate thesis was on the origins of the Philistines (who were actually posh Greek refugees who fled the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdom and came to settle along the coast of Israel).

As for how this became a documentary, that is entirely the achievement of Ray Bruce, our executive producer. He has been developing this story for over six years now, saw me on a previous documentary about Noah’s Flood and felt that I was someone who could be both a scientist and be respectful of the Christian faith at the same time.

And have you done any work on the teachings or scriptures of other religions?

Over time, my interests spread past the Old Testament to the sacred texts of other faiths, such as the Bhagavad Gita, Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Qur’an, Tao Te Ching, Upanishads, Rig Veda, and the Christian New Testament. In this process, my thinking gradually moved from secular scientist, to curious non-believer, to seeing the beauty and importance in all of these sacred teachings. I think Western culture is sick and dying by turning our back on the moral and ethical scaffolding that has helped build this very society. The reason for that, in my opinion, is because we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. By dismissing the historical accuracy of religious texts, we also think this nullifies the significance of the message. For instance, once you realise the story of Jesus is allegory, and the miracles are myth, people tend to become deaf to his actual message of compassion (which, in my opinion, is the most important achievement of our species). Conversely, those who take a literal view of the Bible have a tendency to worship the man, and forget about his teachings. This is the very same idolatry that was warned against back in the book of Genesis, when Abram smashed the idols of his father. Jesus has become an idol, where the question of his divinity is more important than his message.

We need to open our eyes and see the beauty in other people’s faiths, and to realize that there is no such thing as one right way.

You’ve been very successful in communicating your academic work as an archaeologist to a wider audience through documentaries and your writing – how did this come about? By accident or design?

Completely by accident. After my years studying Biblical Archaeology, I became more and more interested in the origins of humanity. My research led me back in time to the Palaeolithic, to the period when our earliest modern human ancestors first left Africa. This question brought me to southern Arabia, since it was there that I expected to find the archaeological traces of the earliest humans migrating across the southern Red Sea. This, in turn, led me to my theory about the Persian Gulf Oasis, thereby bringing me right back to the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Flood – those same questions that had been haunting me since childhood!

I think the reason this particular research has gotten so much attention is because it appeals to something primal in our psyche; a yearning to understand from whence we came. And who doesn’t love a good Flood Story?

What advice would you offer to other academics or specialists who are trying to reach wider audiences with their research?

Keep your audience entertained and don’t be afraid to be wrong.

We academics tend to fall into the trap of writing for those ten or twenty other specialists who will be reviewing our work, so the fruits of our labour tend to be dry, technical, and overly-cautious. We shy away from explaining how our research fits into the big picture. It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, especially when any challenge to the status quo might end in being lambasted for one’s ideas. So, we tend to keep our heads down and write in the most arcane language possible, using as much technical jargon at our disposal, in order to protect ourselves from the inevitable critique.

I enjoy writing; in fact, it is the only form of artistic expression of which I am capable. So when I sit down to work on a paper, I try to chisel and shape each sentence so it is as easily digestible as possible. I want people, both scholars and laymen, to enjoy reading my work. If you have to go over a sentence three times to figure out what the author is trying to say, then learning becomes a task. But if I can manage to pen a pleasing cadence, peppered with the occasional pun, alliteration, or silly joke, hopefully it will put a smile on my reader’s face and they’ll enjoy my papers that much more. What better way to teach!

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On Religion's editorial team is made up of postgraduate students and researchers of religion and across the UK.

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