Prime Time Fiasco: ABC Takes on 'Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci'

Prior to its Nov. 3 airing, the ABC news special “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci” was described in The New York Times as “amusingly audacious and profoundly irritating.” In retrospect, the description was dead-on.

Trading in on the success of The Da Vinci Code, a novel that has sold more than 3.5 million copies since April, the network had promoted its show as a “respectful” and exhaustive examination of whether or not Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. This premise is central to the plot of the novel, written by Dan Brown, which is a pretentious mixture of romance novel, murder mystery, conspiracy theory and “religious exposé.”

Between and during travels to Italy, Scotland, France and parts of the Holy Land, reporter Elizabeth Vargas interviewed Brown along with feminist writers Elaine Pagels (author of The Gnostic Gospels), Karen King (The Gospel of Mary of Magdala), Margaret Starbird (The Goddess in the Gospels) and Henry Lincoln (Holy Blood, Holy Grail, from which Brown draws heavily). She also spoke with novelist Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), Anglican rector Robin Griffith-Jones — and, as if to throw a bone to any “conservative Christians” tuning in, evangelical Protestants Daryl Bock and Jeff Bingham.

Oh, and Vargas interviewed one Catholic, too: Father Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame theology professor who appeared unwilling to uphold the Church's belief that Jesus was celibate and never married. He did, however, insist that Jesus was “a great religious leader … who broke through the barriers of cultural bias.”

For his part, Da Vinci Code author Brown was treated as though he were both historian and scholar. Never mind that he is neither. He offered clichés (“Our history books have been written by the winners”) and falsehoods (Leonardo Da Vinci lived in “an age when science was synonymous with heresy”) without eliciting so much as a blink from Vargas. In over her head, the reporter attempted to appear studiously intent while entertaining theories that no reputable scholar would take seriously.

In a Beliefnet.com interview, Vargas defended the fairness and balance of her investigation, stating: “We spoke with a lot of scholars. [But] we couldn't have 10 people saying the same thing; we had to pick one voice for each point of view.”

So why did the show feature at least six feminist scholars but no Catholic scholars who know, understand and uphold orthodox Catholic teaching?

Unquestioned Audacity

This glaring lack was doubly irritating in light of The Da Vinci Code's unrelenting polemics against the Catholic faith, including ridiculous accusations that “the Church burned at the stake an astounding 5 million women” in the medieval era and that no one believed Jesus was divine until “Constantine turned [him] into a deity” in 325 A.D.

The novel never acknowledges the existence of Protestants or the Eastern Orthodox — only of the Catholic Church, often referred to as “the Vatican.”

These issues were never raised in the ABC program, even though Brown repeatedly made comments that begged for strong follow-up questions.

His comment about Leonardo Da Vinci and heresy was just one of many examples.

The Renaissance, in fact, was a time of notable scientific advancement, much of it directly encouraged and financed by the Catholic Church. Brown's remark even flies in the face of his novel's (completely incorrect) assertion that the famed artist accepted “hundreds of lucrative Vatican commissions.”

Consistency was in as short supply as clarifying information. In one section Brown explained how an art professor showed him that Da Vinci's painting The Last Supper depicts Mary Magdalene, not John, seated at the right hand of Christ. Later, when asked by Vargas why art historians and critics don't see Mary in the painting, Brown responded, “We see what we've been told we see.”

Are we to accept without question that this applies to trained scholars and historians but not to the brash writer of pulp fiction? Brown (whose wife is an art historian) also expressed puzzlement about why there is no chalice in The Last Supper, even though the masterpiece depicts the moment of Judas's betrayal of Christ as described in John's Gospel (John 13:21).

As if to cover her professional integrity, Vargas regularly intoned that “there is no evidence” for all of these claims and admitted there is no proof that Jesus and Mary were married, that Mary fled to France, that her child by Jesus married into the Merovingian dynasty or that these “secrets” have been protected for centuries by an underground society, the Priory of Sion.

A Novel Approach

Part of the special's bent was revealed when the reporter suggested that the topic is important for what it says about the possibility of a female priesthood.

Reinforcing that remark, King and Starbird longed for the day when women will be truly liberat- ed, while Father McBrien and Griffith-Jones praised the goodness of sex and condemned the Church's “unhealthy attitude” about sexuality.

Not surprisingly, there was no explanation of Church teachings on Jesus as divine bridegroom, the meaning of celibacy or the high regard the Catholic faith has for Mary Magdalene, whom it considers “the apostle to the apostles.”

Evangelicals Bock and Bingham offered intelligent, solid comments and Eco provided a moment of levity when he compared the legend of the Holy Grail to stories of Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood. Beyond that, enlightening points were hard to come by.

Wrapping up the assignment, Vargas commented that “we did learn a lot more about a man who changed history and a woman who was very important to him.” On the contrary, viewers learned only about the unsubstantiated opinions and sensationalistic beliefs of a novelist and his literary mentors.

In the final analysis, “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci” was a shallow and tendentious exercise, a pseudo-intellectual shot in the dark that offered no insight into the person of Jesus, his life or the Gospels. In short, the show proved audacious and irritating — but there was nothing amusing or profound about it.

Carl Olson, editor of Envoy magazine, writes from Eugene, Oregon.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy