ABC edits program after meeting with religious leaders

NEW YORK – Half a dozen religious leaders joined David Westin, the president of ABC News, and others from the network and the press for lunch on the 22nd floor of ABC’s headquarters in Manhattan late last week. Some were quietly furious.

The meeting had been convened to discuss ‘‘Jesus, Mary and da Vinci,’’ an ABC News special to be broadcast tonight. The show is a woolly and underthought treatment of the religious sophistry in ‘‘The Da Vinci Code,’’ the best-selling novel by Dan Brown. The producers, along with the show’s on-camera reporter, Elizabeth Vargas, were troubleshooting. After the meeting Thursday, they rushed to the editing room to make changes to the show.

Brown’s thriller centers on Leonardo da Vinci’s role in maintaining a secret from biblical times. In pursuing what it calls the ‘‘claims’’ of Brown’s fiction, the ABC special bares Leonardo’s so-called secret: Mary Magdalene, far from being a prostitute, was the rightful wife of Jesus; Mary and Jesus had a child and heirs; and finally, the heirs, whose existence threatened church dogma, were protected by a clandestine priory that counted Leonardo among its members.

One of those at the meeting, Nikki Stephanopoulos, the communications director for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, whose son is the ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos, complained that the voluptuous images of Mary Magdalene in the documentary bore little resemblance to Eastern representations of the Magdalene. (Sexy music by Me’shell Ndegeocello accompanies one sequence of semi-nude pictures on the show.)

The show relies on interviews with Brown, whose novel is simply called a book in the voiceover and who is treated as a historian; Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist; Elaine Pagels, the Princeton professor of religion; Karen King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School; and Robin Griffith-Jones, an Anglican rector in London, among others.

Did Pagels know her statements would be marshaled in the service of an argument that, at its outer reaches, contends that the pregnant Mary Magdalene was the holy grail, the lost vessel of Jesus’ blood? And further, that the figure in Leonardo’s ‘‘Last Supper,’’ generally taken for the effeminate apostle John, is none other than Mary Magdalene, leaning away from Jesus in a telltale ‘‘V’’ that symbolizes her femininity?

Many theories advanced in the ABC special are not ultimately endorsed by it. (‘‘Not all the claims made in the book are true, and some have been made before, but there is some surprising truth,’’ is how Vargas puts it.) Early in the show, too, Vargas asks a series of questions that begin with, ‘‘What if we told you,’’ which suggests that the ideas that follow are being proposed so that viewers might entertain them as beliefs – and thus be entertained, while not informed. This is a curious approach for network news.

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