JERUSALEM — S. Kent Brown sits alone in his family room in Utah. He watches a PBS documentary with intense interest, quietly taking notes. He knows several of the people being interviewed in the show. They are fellow scholars, people Brown respects, experts on the New Testament. Brown knows them well enough that he could almost write their answers for them.
But his peers' answers to questions about Jesus of Nazareth are not Brown's answers.
\"I would say that so much differently,\" he says to himself.
Brown's answers are also scholarly and based on the best research, but the PBS documentary did not seek out his voice or similar voices. The documentary is scholarly, but there is no testimony. There are clouds, but no rain.
It is April 1998 and the program Brown watches is \"From Jesus to Christ.\" He videotapes the program and reviews it. It isn't the point of view that surprises him. It isn't that the documentary casually dismisses Jesus as the Son of God. There is nothing new in these positions to a professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
The thing that impresses Brown, that gets into his belly, is the way the story is told. \"From Jesus to Christ\" is beautiful. The vistas of the Holy Land are sweeping. The close ups of artifacts enchanting. The music mesmerizes. It is visually compelling.
Brown gets an idea to make a documentary that looks at Jesus' life in a scholarly but faithful way. He will show that the same questions addressed in \"From Jesus to Christ\" can have different answers. The life of Jesus didn't begin in Bethlehem or Nazareth and it didn't end on Calvary. Brown gets hold of the idea to make a film for PBS using Mormon and other faithful scholars — and he won't let go.
But making a documentary is not a solitary project. It requires many different people with many different skills. It takes money. It takes time.
Within a week, Brown hands his proposal to Robert L. Millet, dean of religious education at BYU in 1998. The documentary will begin with the pre-mortal council when Jehovah is chosen as the Savior.
\"And following the sweep of all that through his relationship with prophets through the ages down through his birth and then beyond,\" he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem where he now is the associate director of the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies in charge of academics.
In 1998, Brown anticipates that the final documentary will be done in a few years, maybe 2001. It will take much longer.
The first order of business is to create a doctrinal and historical overview of the life of Jesus Christ. Brown can't do it himself. He needs multiple scholars to use their particular expertise to illuminate various aspects of the Savior's ministry.
\"And that meant trying to free them up at least in some minimal way through the next summer (1999) so that they could write their parts and then stitch it all together,\" Brown said.
To \"free them up\" Brown needs permission. He needs to convince department chairs that the documentary is a good project.
\"I was surprised that I was not turned down in one instance. All the department chairs were cooperative. They saw the value in the project.\"
One colleague, however, tells Brown she can't participate because of a mission call, but she expresses her hope about the project.
\"I needed to be sure that this wasn't just all scholarship,\" she says to him, \"that there would also be testimony.\" She says she hopes that the project would not be like the scripture that describes \"waterless clouds\" (Jude 1:12, International Standard Version).
By 2000 Brown has taken his colleagues' work and stitched it together into what he calls the \"basic document.\" It is the backbone for the project; the blueprint.
But there is a problem.
Early on, Brown begins meeting with a committee of Web site and film experts. His original idea was to produce a PBS-style film.
\"I really hoped in my heart that we could create something that would be appealing to a broad audience and that people could look in and see how Latter-day Saints ... see the life and ministry of Jesus.\"
The committee asks questions. The more questions they ask, the more Brown's dream seems unattainable.
\"How are you going to deal with Jesus' birth?\" committee members ask.
Mormons believe that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary. But if the film is for a broad audience, it means interviewing a wide range of scholars — not just Mormons. Some of the other scholars will say there is no miracle in the birth.
\"The more we got into it, the harder it seemed to me to have our voice and the voice of others mixed together in a way that would be balanced and fair,\" Brown said. There is also the issue of how they could get other scholars to even participate. Who would be willing to appear in a documentary that was produced and structured by Mormons?
\"I could think of maybe seven or eight whom I could coax; colleagues of mine who might be willing to come on camera and appear with Latter-day Saints. But there are Christian scholars who would be very unwilling to appear in (such) a film,\" Brown said.
The committee wonders if KBYU was even the proper place to produce such a film. Perhaps another PBS station in another state can do it. Bit by bit it looks like the control of the content is slipping away.
\"As a committee, sitting there in a BYU office, we all sensed that we wanted the content to introduce people in a fair and inviting way to what Latter-day Saints believe about Jesus,\" Brown said.
But they can't have it both ways. To control the content means it can't be a PBS project. To be a PBS project means that the unique testimony of Latter-day Saints will be marginalized.
\"And the whole reason to respond to that film would be diminished, lessened, almost flattened,\" Brown said. \"Our voice would just be one of many.\"
Then, Brown comes up with a solution: Make one documentary for a Latter-day Saint audience and then make another one for a PBS audience.
\"Rather than just being in the discussion of what Jesus did or said, we become witnesses of what Jesus said or did. We shift from being people who talk about it, to people who can bear witness about Jesus and his ministry,\" Brown said.
Even though Brown does not pursue the PBS audience documentary, it frees him — and the project now targeted toward Mormons — to move forward.
\"I felt somehow that I had been liberated from a chain that was around my neck.\"
Not long after this decision, Brown is introduced to Matt Whitaker, who wrote the screenplays for the second and third \"Work and the Glory\" feature films. Brown, Whitaker and Thomas Lefler, the associate chair of BYU's department of theater and media arts, hatch an idea to create a class at BYU called \"Jesus Christ in Media.\" The class begins October 2001 with a dozen students. The next semester, winter 2002, the students develop scripts. The documentary is beginning to take shape.
For the next three years the project goes through several scripts — each refining and building upon the last. But no matter how good the scripts, it will never be made without approval and funding.
To get approval of the project from BYU's administration requires the production of a prototype version of the documentary.
The prototype is shot in February 2006 at the LDS Motion Picture Studio and on the shores of Utah Lake. A one-page document describing the proposed project is also created.
\"With the DVD prototype in hand, and the descriptive material, we took it over to the BYU president's council.\"
It is June 2006.
There is no in-person presentation.
\"Everything that was to convince anybody that this was a good project had to be on the DVD and had to be on that one page of written summary,\" Brown said. \"They had to sell the project.\"
The approval of the BYU administration is not a foregone conclusion. It also doesn't happen overnight. It doesn't happen in a week, or a month.
\"We sent it in June, knowing that everybody would be on vacation in July or August. So, we probably wouldn't hear back until September at the earliest, and maybe November,\" Brown said. \"But, of course, November came and went that year ... but I thought the longer we didn't hear, perhaps the better for the project. Because if somebody had wanted to kill it, they would have killed it within the first ten minutes.\"
It takes almost a full year. In May 2007 the word comes: \"Good luck with the project.\"
The only condition is that the documentary did not attempt to dramatize the Savior's life using actors.
Now that the project is greenlighted, the script is again revised. A target is set to begin filming in April of the next year — a full decade since Brown watched \"From Jesus to Christ\" alone in his family room in 1998.
The director of the film is Sterling Van Wagenen and the producer is Russ Kendall of Kaleidoscope Pictures.
But as April approaches, all of the money needed is still not in hand. They could begin filming, but the university officials want all of the funding to be ready first. It is the end of summer before everything is finally in place.
The documentary uses four on-camera hosts — joining Brown as hosts are Gaye Strathearn and Andrew C. Skinner, who are both professors of ancient scripture at BYU and John S. Tanner, academic vice president at BYU.
Shooting begins in October 2008 in Israel, Egypt and at the site of the original Christus statue in Denmark. Plans are made to film 50 LDS scholars a few months later. When the footage is edited, the seven-part documentary will begin its run on BYU-TV on Jan. 10.
Brown is in Israel as the film crew shoots some documentary scenes along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It stormed heavily the night before and the ground is soggy. Light drops leave small circles in the surface of the lake as Tanner speaks lines from the script. His words are full of faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
The moisture seems, at first, an inconvenience. Yet another obstacle to overcome. But then they look at the sky. The weather provides a dramatic — and filmable — background to the Sea of Galilee. The wind had brought something beautiful to Israel's dry land. Clouds full of life-giving rain.
The seven-part series \"Messiah: Behold the Lamb of God\" begins with the first episode \"Before Abraham Was: Premortal Savior\" on Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. MST on BYU Television.