Imagine a major TV news organization reporting in respectful tones on the scientific merits of phrenology (the study of human skulls to determine intelligence) or alchemy (medieval experiments to turn base metals into gold).
That’s akin to what ABC News did in “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci,” which was broadcast Nov. 3. With a straight face, correspondent Elizabeth Vargas examined whether Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and sired children who moved with Mom to France and established a royal bloodline that exists to this day. Huh?
ABC’s production displayed how the TV news business has become show business, erasing the lines between fiction and fact and between information and entertainment.
A New York Times critic said ABC mixed “fable with history in an absurdist way” that was “both amusingly audacious and profoundly irritating.”
After an hour toying with a married Jesus, Vargas acknowledged: “We didn’t find any proof.” Not surprising, since nobody ever has.
On its face, the rumor is historically implausible. As former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn observed, to buy this you’d have to believe that “four Gospel writers and thousands of eyewitnesses somehow missed the fact that Jesus had a wife and a child.”
The program ran in prime time during ratings sweeps for one reason: the hot sales for novelist Dan Brown’s latest thriller “The Da Vinci Code,” which promotes the Mrs. Jesus yarn. Even George W. and Laura Bush read the thing.
Gnostic point of view
Brown’s scenario of conspiracies and codes treats the Catholic clergy like a pack of sinister liars who covered up truth. He recycles propaganda from folks who dislike orthodox Christianity and favor the ancient world’s rival secret-knowledge (“Gnostic“) sects.
ABC might have avoided embarrassment by scanning the article “Dismantling the Da Vinci Code” in Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine.
Free-lance writer Sandra Miesel provided one of the few serious historical analyses of this pop culture phenomenon.
That’s important because Brown’s novel purports to draw upon historical research, though much of it came from Gnostic fans. A few of Miesel’s contentions:
* The legend of Mary Magdalene’s voyage to France originated 800 years after her lifetime.
* The Priory of Sion, Brown’s purported cult that preserved secrets about Jesus, is not ancient and was first documented after World War II.
* There’s no solid historical evidence that the lost Holy Grail, Jesus’ Last Supper chalice, was thought to be Mary Magdalene’s body.
* Brown says Da Vinci’s famous painting “Last Supper” lacked a chalice because it contained the coded message that Mary’s body was the chalice. But the artistic consensus is that Mary does not appear in the painting but rather the young apostle John. And there’s no chalice because Da Vinci portrayed John’s Gospel, in which Jesus didn’t mention the cup.
* It’s unthinkable that Israel would practice sacred prostitution in the Jerusalem Temple, and there’s no good evidence that it ever happened.
* It’s a ridiculous stretch to think Gothic cathedrals symbolize intimate parts of the female anatomy.
* The five-ringed Olympic symbol represented the traditional number of game sequences, not pagan goddesses.
On ABC, it was disconcerting to see professors lending the prestige of Harvard, Notre Dame and Princeton alongside opinions from novelist Brown and other personalities with murky scholarly credentials who left debatable points unanswered.
Vargas did, however, allow two sober evangelicals to join the talking heads.
Conservatives predictably panned the show. William Lane Craig of California’s Talbot School of Theology called it “historically worthless” and Flynn accused ABC and the news media in general of “anti-Christian bigotry.”
ABC denied bias and defended its show as “thoughtful and objective.” In an interview with beliefnet.com, Vargas cited her youthful attendance at Catholic catechism class and weekly Mass and said she had her son baptized (he’s being raised as both Catholic and Jewish).
It’s disheartening to recall that ABC, to its credit, was formerly the only network news shop with a qualified religion specialist.