Skip to comments.The Volatile Notion of a Married Jesus (George Stephanopoulos' Mom Objects)
Posted on 11/03/2003 8:03:28 PM PST by Destro
The Volatile Notion of a Married Jesus
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: November 3, 2003
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 building on 66th Street in Manhattan late last week. Mr. Westin wore a sharp suit, as did some members of the clergy; others had dressed casually. Many were diffident. Some were quietly furious.
Part symposium and part focus group, the meeting had been convened to discuss "Jesus, Mary and da Vinci," tonight's ABC News special; 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 on Thursday, they rushed to the editing room to make changes to the show.
Though set mostly in modern Europe, Mr. 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 Mr. Brown's fiction, the ABC special, which the group on the 22nd floor had seen before the meeting, 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.
Soon after the floor was opened for questions, 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, ravenous images of Mary Magdalene on display 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.)
As a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, Ms. Stephanopoulos also objected to the show's restrictive use of the word "orthodox." In an interview, Ms. Vargas uses the word to denote the repressive church hierarchy in the Middle Ages. Joseph De Feo, policy analyst for the Catholic League, then asked the show's producers why they hadn't solicited opinions from Roman Catholics other than the Rev. Richard McBrien, a priest and theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who, Mr. De Feo said, is known chiefly for his far-out views and his "shtick" about Mary Magdalene's primacy among Jesus's apostles.
Rudy Bednar, an executive producer at ABC, responded that the Catholic view had been expressed in the documentary by various evangelicals the producers had consulted. Mr. De Feo, perhaps bridling at the idea that arch-Protestants should represent the opinions of Catholics, shot Mr. Bednar a look of incredulity.
As several people mused about whether a married Jesus could still be divine the consensus was that he could the subject of the documentary almost seemed to stymie further discussion.
Its logic is of an especially enervating kind. Like a seatmate on a train who voices ardent ideas about Procter & Gamble's satanism, the ABC special is both amusingly audacious and profoundly irritating. If you're not freshly familiar with the invariably eclectic materials under discussion, you can express only general skepticism, which makes you a sucker. You're suddenly in the camp of the uptight "orthodox," those joyless suppressors of truth who enjoy none of the pleasures of heresy. The more attractive option may be to keep quiet.
On the other hand, 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 Ms. Vargas puts it.) Early in the show, too, Ms. 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.
To establish and then half-dismantle its arguments, the show relies on interviews with Mr. Brown, whose novel is simply called a book in the voiceover and who is treated as a historian; Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician and novelist; Elaine Pagels, the Princeton professor of religion; Karen King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School; Robin Griffith-Jones, an Anglican rector in London; Margaret Starbird, an independent scholar; and Daryl Bock and Jeff Bingham, two Evangelical scholars in Dallas.
These experts have divergent reputations. Ms. Pagels, for example, wrote "The Gnostic Gospels" in 1979; that book is still considered the gold-standard explication of the way the Gnostics illuminated the power struggles of the early church. By contrast, Henry Lincoln, a chief source for "The Da Vinci Code," is an author of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," a weird farrago about Jesus and the Knights Templar.
The juxtaposition of ivory-tower erudition and antic amateurism creates odd effects. Did Ms. Pagels know that 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's 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?
More important, how did ABC manage to persuade this group to come together to use a popular thriller as a pretext for a serious discussion of religious history?
Individual motivations seem to surface in the show itself. Ms. King and Ms. Starbird are eager to make a case for the importance of Mary Magdalene in the early church and, more generally, to elucidate the ways that women have been denied access to power and had their reputations smeared for seeking it.
In contrast, Mr. McBrien and Mr. Griffith-Jones appear determined to advertise Jesus as a sexual man. And by arguing that Jesus was heterosexual and monogamous married, even they offer a new portrait of him that may be more palatable to some contemporary Christians who, following sex scandals in the Catholic Church, now find the idea of a celibate priesthood unnerving. In the view of the priests consulted for the ABC documentary, Jesus wasn't an asexual Jewish radical who consorted with a prostitute and a gang of guys, one of whom was an androgyne; instead, he was a normal family man.
"Jesus, Mary and da Vinci" has, however briefly, provided common cause for feminists and Catholics who are discouraged. Formally, it mixes fable with history in an absurdist way that, while indecent as documentary, can nonetheless activate the intellectual immune system in viewers, implicating them in the drama of historical debate. That's an exciting aim for network documentaries.
On this note, a sensible summation comes from Ms. King at the end of the hour: "Sometimes religion is presented as something that's fixed and stable. When you have to accept it and reject it. But the fact is that religious traditions, and certainly Christianity among them, are very diverse, very filled with possibilities. And we need to take responsibilities for the kind of religion that we make."
But others at the meeting missed the uplift of the day, and found the implications of ABC's show unnerving. As the meeting broke up and participants bussed their sodas and plastic plates, one minister grumbled that the last thing he wanted to offer to his congregants was a married Jesus. Conceived that way, Jesus's role as consoler of gay people, single people, widows and widowers, as well as the lonely, would be diminished, he said.
Jesus with a wife also implies favoritism, someone else said. Wasn't he supposed to love us all?
When cultures start to die (like the feudal culture of te aristocracy) they produce funky myths.
Theosophists, lesbians and airheads unfettered by conscience, science or discretion.
Didn't you see "Eyes Wide Shut?"