The Trashing Of The Christ

Contrasts In Media Treatment of The DaVinci Code and The Passion

6. The networks also bought into the DaVinci Code craze by picking up and publicizing other Code-related books attacking Christianity and the Catholic Church, but their standard of evidence was hardly an example of what a skeptical journalist would apply.

Authors of new books like The Jesus Papers and The Jesus Dynasty were offered publicity forums, even though the network journalists announced the evidence behind the claims were flimsy at best. So why did the networks promote them?

The April 2 edition of Dateline on Michael Baigent’s new book The Jesus Papers is perhaps the richest example. The show included Baigent critics, such as Father Thomas Williams to defend the Vatican, but also included liberal professor Elaine Pagels, a promoter of "alternative" takes on Christianity, to question Baigent’s claims.

First, Baigent claimed Pontius Pilate wanted to spare Jesus from dying since he had supported paying taxes to Rome. Reported Sara James: "According to Baigent, Jesus and his supporters were also in on this plot. Baigent acknowledges there’s no proof of his theory, but points out that it was possible to survive crucifixion."

Dateline chronicled how Baigent was searching for a letter claiming Jesus was alive in 45 AD, more than 10 years after the crucifixion. Baigent claimed the letter was seen by an Anglican canon, Alfred Lilley. James and Baigent have this exchange:

2006-04-02-NBC-DL-BaigentJames: "Baigent admits he never met Lilly, who is dead. He’s never seen the document. Nor does he have any idea what the document said. Even Baigent concedes this story has a lot of holes."

Baigent: " I know, it’s terrible, isn’t it?"

James: "It’s a pretty tall order."

Baigent: "It is a tall order, and I wish we could make it more solid. But we can’t."

James: "Especially when you’re talking about something as fundamental as questioning whether or not Jesus died on the cross."

Baigent: "I know, but what can we do?"

"We" could start by not airing TV "news"segments until there’s a shred of evidence. This happened several times more during the show, providing a new explanation for why Baigent is so inept in finding his Jesus papers: It’s the Vatican’s fault.

James: "What do you think happened to the document, the one that said that Jesus was alive in 45 A.D?"

Baigent: "I think it’s in the Vatican."

James: "Michael, are you suggesting that the Vatican knows that Jesus was alive in 45 A.D., and is hiding that fact?"

Baigent: "I am suggesting that, oddly enough."

James: But you have no proof."

Baigent: "I have no proof."

To demonstrate how Dateline was almost comedic in their indulgence of the unproven, host Stone Phillips asked viewers to stay tuned: "He’s already made a wild claim that Jesus survived the crucifixion. Wait until you hear what else Michael Baigent writes in his new book. Should anyone take him seriously? When Dateline continues." Obviously, Dateline took him seriously. They aired his bizarre, evidence-lacking claims in front of millions of people.

2006-04-02-NBC-DL-JesusThen at the end, the Jesus-denying expert turned the show on its head. James asked Baigent: "It strikes me that what you’re doing is asking us to take a leap of faith." Baigent replied: "I suppose in one sense, that could be true."

ABC devoted a Good Morning America segment and a Nightline segment on April 7 to Dr. James Tabor, whose book The Jesus Dynasty claims that Jesus was not divine, and that John the Baptist was his equal, and that Jesus was fathered neither by God nor Joseph, but another man, possibly a Roman soldier named Pantera. ABC Nightline anchor Martin Bashir showed his casual approach to the facts by noting the recently discovered "ossuary of James," now discredited by archaeologists, is still perhaps authentic: he reported that merely "some scholars have dismissed it as a forgery," but Tabor has not.

ABC aired an entire 60-minute PrimeTime special last December 29 spreading the anti-Catholic legend of "Pope Joan," a supposed female Pope slaughtered by the faithful when she when into labor pains. Host Diane Sawyer, the same one who demanded facts from Mel Gibson, was clearly enamored by this feminist-pleasing tale: "Amid the clues, the controversy, denials, and from scholars, ridicule...But something whispers across the years. If it is myth is there a meaning?...Legend, fact, fantasy. Tonight, the astonishing tale ripped from a dark-age headline, the woman said to have become the Holy Father, the mystery of Pope Joan."

2005-12-29-ABC-PT-Popejoan2Sawyer’s syrupy prose continued throughout: "It is a story as old as the cobblestones of Europe, as immediate as any woman’s ambition, any century’s dreams...remember this is not a fairy tale. It is one of the world’s oldest and most fascinating puzzles." She sees a modern parallel to this mythical church of the ninth century. While Italians on the street acknowledge the female-Pope legend, she said, "try asking those questions to some nuns and priests, and they shy away. After all, take a look at the hierarchy of the Catholic Church today. Women resolutely excluded from true circles of power."

And she had an inspiration: "The DaVinci Code has made conspiratorialists of all of us."

Wouldn’t you think that in the supposedly tough-as-nails environs of the hard news business –– with the newsroom mottoes about "if your mother says she loves you, check it out" –– this entire type of show would be forbidden? "News" specials based on novelists and legend-spinners? Long elaborations of "extraordinary claims" about Jesus, and proof is not required? Why is Christianity (and in some cases, Catholicism) singled out for these dogmatic, evidence-challenged expressions of unbelief?

Christian evangelist and talk-show host Hank Hanegraaff has argued that The DaVinci Code "is based on an idiosyncratic brand of fundamentalism that is fond of making dogmatic assertions while failing to provide defensible arguments." On questions of faith and reason, religion and science, why are Christians assumed to be lacking the evidence to make them worthy to appear on network broadcasts, but the networks freely award time to dogmatic anti-Christian critics of Jesus with an almost non-existent burden of proof?