Are you ready for Tom Hanks and his mullet?

mulletLike everyone else in the world, I bet I’m going to go see The Da Vinci Code. But not because I expect it to be great or even a fun, brainless action flick. It’s more that I’m in a perpetual state of trying to understand how a book as ridiculous as The Da Vinci Code could enable Dan Brown to sit comfortably on piles of cash for the rest of his life. I had a colleague in my newsroom a few years ago who pronounced it the best book she’d ever read. How sad is that? Do readers really want three-page chapters? And do they need their characters reintroduced on every page? Was the book written for people suffering from short-term memory loss? Why why why?

So let’s go with Sunday’s Da Vinci Code wrap-up. Jeffrey Weiss has done amazing work covering the book and movie this week. Daniel praised his piece earlier in the week that looked at some of the facts Dan Brown got wrong in his “factual” piece of fiction. The piece struck a nerve with readers, and all of the letters to the editor on May 13 were about Weiss’ religion writing, many of them praising his work. Weiss also wrote about a satire of Brown’s work called The Da Vinci Mole. He followed that up with a Frequently Asked Questions piece. Sample:

Can I learn about art, history or theology by reading the book?

Most experts say that’s like trying to learn science from watching Star Trek.

As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” And Mr. Brown gets plenty of facts wrong.

For instance?

The Priory of Sion is the novel’s secret society. Mr. Brown says it’s a real organization founded in 1099. Last month, 60 Minutes stacked up the evidence that the Priory was a hoax invented in the 1950s by an anti-Semitic Frenchman. . .

Art historians also snicker at Mr. Brown’s repeated references to “Da Vinci.” That would be like referring to “Fred from New York” as “from New York.” Leonardo had no last name, as we now think of it.

The dude is even doing a live chat with the Dallas Morning News movie critic Philip Wuntch later this week. Jeffrey Weiss is everywhere.

The movie has not been screened for critics, a curious move for a flick everyone expects to be a huge hit. But it appears that a few people got an early look at it, including someone with the Daily Mirror. His review is short on info, but I really liked this part:

As it is, the film stands as a superb thriller which cleverly blends action and intrigue with some thought-provoking theories.

Thought-provoking theories? Okay . . . I guess. In a facts-don’t-matter kind of postmoderny way. Or in a Thriller-for-Dummies way that’s not very original and slightly kooky.

fleur21And then Jane Henderson had an interesting package in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She wrote up a what-Brown-got-wrong piece. Even better, in another piece Henderson takes advantage of St. Louis’ French history and architecture to show where Da Vinci readers can find aspects of the novel in their hometown:

Fleur-de-lis

What: Symbol of royalty, France, purity, the Trinity and more. Named after the lily, it is actually a stylized iris.

Role in Da Code: Symbol for Priory of Sion, a goddess-worshipping group that knows “the secret” of Mary Magdalene. Book implies fleur-de-lis intertwined with “Mona Lisa” as “flower of Lisa.” The novel says: “A secret pagan cult? Once headed by Leonardo da Vinci? It all sounded so absurd.”

Seen in St. Louis: Everywhere — on the city flag, on buildings, in paintings, atop fences. Associated especially with the city’s eponym, King Louis IX of France, an ardent Christian who led two (failed) crusades and died in 1270. Prominent statue of the king stands in front of the Art Museum, and he’s painted on the Sheraton hotel beside Highway 40 (Interstate 64) downtown.

Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY‘s religion reporter, wrote up a Gallup Poll about religion and movies in which some folks blamed Satan for trying to destroy people’s faith with books that raise doubts about the Bible:

“The devil has always been a scapegoat,” says Terrence Tilley, a professor of philosophy of religion and Catholic theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Still, “some of (Brown’s book) is so like what people would like to believe that it’s easy for people to start believing the whole thing. Scholars really get their dander up when obvious fiction and legend is called fact,” say Tilley, who has spoken about the book on panels from Dayton to Dublin.

Oh, and as for my why why why question from earlier? Weiss answered it in his handy FAQ:

Why is The Da Vinci Code so popular?

That, of course, is a matter of opinion. It touches on themes that resonate with readers: The role of women and spirituality, the power of conspiracies, suspicion about the Catholic Church (especially in the wake of the pedophilia scandals), the idea that hidden truths could change the world for the better. There’s a bit of salacious ritual sex, enough violence for a PG-13 rating, and some word puzzles that an attentive reader can solve at least as quickly as the characters in the book. Plus it’s a page-turner with tangled plotlines, cliffhangers at the end of many chapters, and dramatic feats of derring-do.

So there you go.

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A Bloomian critique of Harold Bloom

JesusAndYahwehFranklin Foer became the editor of The New Republic in March, and this already seems to be good news for people who seek lively and opinionated coverage of religion. Only a few weeks after publishing a lengthy cover-story attack on Richard John Neuhaus, it has now published a lengthy cover-story attack on Harold Bloom.

Like the article on Neuhaus, the essay on Bloom feels too ad hominem. James Wood, a New Republic senior editor, describes Bloom as “addicted to continuous [book] publication,” which means “Bloom must fatten his thesis” in his latest book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.

Still, Wood offers much legitimate criticism of how Bloom mixes his literary criticism of the New Testament with his quirky theological tastes as a Gnostic Jew:

Since he has no interest in the tradition of Jewish or Christian theology, he never quotes from it. Since he disdains much of the New Testament, he would rather confess his bewilderment than examine its sources. He gestures constantly toward the majesty and vividness of J’s portrait of Yahweh, but he rarely quotes from it, referring us instead to The Book of J. His chapter on Paul, who is supposedly Bloom’s arch-antagonist, runs barely to two thousand words, and maunders amid idle speculation …

What a strange parochialism, that imagines everywhere only a literary mode of being! (And what strange literary taste, that gets itself so much more excited by the Book of Mormon than the New Testament.) Why is Bloom so sure that the “warfare” between the two books is aesthetic and not theological? … Does Bloom really think that Paul and John sat down to write thinking to themselves, “Well, it is time to take on that immense literary rival, the Yahwist”? The curious effect of Bloom’s theological blindness is that his book reduces theology to aesthetics and simultaneously inflates aesthetics to theology: there is no greater religion here than the religion of art, and in the warfare of the religion of art Yahweh is just “greater.”

Wood mentions in passing that he grew up in an evangelical home, where he was “tortured … with a song whose vilely mnemonic refrain was ‘Your way, not my way, Yahweh.’” The wording does indeed sound agonizing.

Might any GetReligion reader point us toward the melody?

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Can I get a witness?

JamesDid you all catch Frank DeFord’s rather pretentious defense of sportswriting in the Washington Post Book World Sunday? I love Frank DeFord and listen to him all the time on NPR and watch him on (the best sports show out there) HBO’s RealSports with Bryant Gumbel. I also love sportswriting. I’ll never forget the transformative experience that was reading Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes while on a transcontinental flight.

But not only did DeFord violate my rule against more than one French word in a paragraph, he told too many too-perfect stories. He acts like sportswriting is some derided ghetto when most folks think that the sports pages have the liveliest writing in newspapers across the land. Case in point is the Washington Post‘s Mike Wise and his excellent analysis of Nike’s new ad campaign that uses religious ideas to sell shoes:

At the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on Quincy Avenue, on the fringes of East Cleveland, the guest minister’s voice rose with fervor on Sunday morning.

“We worship at the cathedral of entertainment,” warned Peter Matthews, “where athletes and rock stars are high priests and high priestesses.”

The pastor looked prescient if you drove 15 minutes toward downtown. An entire building’s facade is dedicated to a black-and-white mural of LeBron James. The basketball is held aloft like a torch pointed toward the heavens.

“We Are All Witnesses,” reads the most visible symbol of Nike’s ad campaign for James, Cleveland’s 21-year-old wunderkind, the NBA’s best young player since Magic Johnson.

The intersection of sports and religion is an area not mined enough. Last year Thomas Herrion, the offensive guard for the 49ers, collapsed and died after a preseason game. His casket was draped not in a baptismal pall but in a blanket with his team logo. And not that it ended well, but I found it interesting that stranded New Orleans residents were told to find sanctuary in the Superdome. Dell deChant, a professor of religion at the University of South Florida, has written a bit about the religious role sports play in our culture. Wise provides examples of the intersections:

Sports Illustrated christened James “the Chosen One” when he was 16 years old, which explains the large tattoo on his back. He also goes by “the Golden Child,” and “King James.”

The unabridged version, of course.

LeBron is not coached as much he is “shepherded” by Mike Brown. LeBron also did not lead the Cavs to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. No, he took them to the promised land.

The Cavs team store is not yet selling nativity scenes with Bron-Bron in a manger, but it’s only April.

Nice. The piece is enjoyable and thoughtful. And largely because of Wise’s original reporting — in a church no less! I wish more non-Godbeat reporters would see the value in considering the religious stories in their areas of coverage.

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Breaking the tightrope of objectivity

time on opus deiI guess we’ll never find out whether Opus Dei is a scary “authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise” or merely a “teaching entity,” an “advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation.” In this era of postmodernism, where there is no truth, might both realities be presented as truth?

The cover story on Opus Dei in Time magazine this week was a letdown, but not completely unexpected. In portraying the group, Time presented little not already known. As Time attempted to balance both “truths” on the tightrope of objectivity, the rope broke and the story came crashing to the circus floor.

Time was no doubt inspired to explore the controversial Catholic group by the much-hyped movie The Da Vinci Code. Time based a great deal of its pro-Opus information on John Allen’s recently released book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church (Doubleday). Time says it spoke freely with the organization, but little of the article is attributed to high-level Opus Dei officials.

As a side note, I would like to take issue with the title of the cover piece: “The Opus Dei Code” is quite similar to “Cracking the Opus Dei Code,” which our own Mollie Ziegler wrote in October 2005 for the New York Sun. Go figure. (By the way, Mollie’s piece, which covers a lot of the same ground as the Time article, raises some great issues with Allen’s book that Time failed to address.)

Back to my main complaint. The Time cover piece uses the well-known journalistic trick of taking both sides of an issue and presenting both as meriting equal levels of skepticism and credibility. And it does so unashamedly:

But Opus’ public relations offensive hasn’t quite managed to close the gap between what critics say it is about and its own version of the story. On one side there is “Octopus Dei,” or, as the current issue of Harper’s magazine puts it, “to a great extent … an authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise that manages to infiltrate its indoctrinated technocrats, politicos and administrators into the highest levels of the state.” On the other is the portrait painted by Opus’ U.S. vicar Thomas Bohlin, who sat for several hours with Time at his group’s Manhattan headquarters. Opus, he explained, is just a teaching entity, a kind of advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation with minimal global coordination or input as to how members and sympathizers apply what they learn. “You know Dale Carnegie courses?” he asked. “Businesses send their people there to learn to speak better, to organize — they teach all these kinds of things. People go there because they get something out of it, and then when they graduate, they don’t represent Dale Carnegie.”

ciliceJames Martin, an editor at the Jesuit publication America who has written critically about Opus, offers a middle ground between Dale Carnegie and the octopus: “Opus Dei provides members with an overarching spirituality for their life,” he suggests. “It’s an ongoing relationship that helps buttress and further shape the thought of people who are already conservative Catholics. That’s a powerful symbiosis, and there’s a personal connection between members, whether they’re housewives or politicians. It’s not an evil empire, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues that need to be addressed.”

A first journalistic pass, by Allen or Time, cannot fully resolve all those issues. But it can answer some of the questions that have long dogged the organization, and it may also show how The Da Vinci Code could end up helping Opus Dei.

On seven questions — How did it start? Who are these people? How secretive is Opus? How rich is it? How much power does it have? Do members really whip themselves? What about rumors of mind control? — Time does little more than spew out rumors and attempt to pin down answers.

disciplineFour mini-profiles, two of current “supernumeraries” (here and here) and two of disgruntled former members (here and here), are somewhat compelling because they put a real face on the subject. As a reporter, though, I always add an extra dose of skepticism toward disgruntled former members or employees of any organization. Sometimes what they have to say has real merit, other times the claims turn up bogus. That said, the official line can often carry just as little truth. Digging to the bottom of the story is what journalists are supposed to do, but for profiles, presenting both sides as equally valid is probably the best one can do.

While the Time package fails to live up to its billing, I was able to draw a couple of conclusions from the article. One is that a lot of the initial criticism of the group came from jealous and turf-protecting leaders in the Catholic Church when the group was founded in 1928. The other is that the rest of the criticism comes from disillusioned former members.

Opus Dei’s problem is not that it has encountered turf-protecting priests, or that people leave the group disappointed, but that it has been so secret for so many years. I don’t know the reasons why Opus Dei kept itself in the dark for so long, but if the whole Da Vinci Code drama is indeed responsible for getting Opus to open up to the public, as Time claims is the case, then the end result is good.

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News flash: Resurrection story has staying power

Resurrection2Holy Week is so nice that we have it twice here at GetReligion. The Western Church, which includes Daniel and me, had Holy Week last week. The Eastern Church and Terry are in the midst of Holy Week now. Oh that wacky Julian Calendar! Because of our many services, I was a bit out of the loop on what religious stories ran over the weekend. But I couldn’t miss one story as I received almost a dozen emails about it. The headline sort of says it all:

Is Jesus Risen? Literal View Gains Ground

Yeah, the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein penned a piece about how some (some?) Christians believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. They even have a whole day set aside to celebrate this bizarre belief in a literal, science-defying resurrection. Who knew? It’s a bizarre story and headline for Christians because the physical resurrection of Christ is a central tenet of the church, to understate wildly. Here are her nut graphs:

The Easter story is the centerpiece of Christians’ faith. For most, the miracle of Jesus overcoming death three days after the Crucifixion — whether in body or spirit — is not open to debate. Others do not view the Resurrection in a literal way but as a powerful, transformative metaphor about his message living on.

In the past two decades, there has been a heightened scrutiny of Scripture, with basic Christian tenets such as the Resurrection challenged by biblical scholars and others in their search for historical facts about Jesus. But in recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity and stature of books that embrace [the] traditional view of Easter, experts say.

We could talk about the problems with using descriptors like “most” and “others.” We could talk about the problem of not better describing the theology of people who renounce key Christian doctrines. We could discuss the odd use of the phrase “past two decades” to describe historical revisionism, which is a century old and has wreaked havoc on church bodies that used to be so important they were called mainline.

But I’m still stuck on the headline! To say that the key doctrine of Christianity is something on the rise within Christianity shows a lack of historical perspective and an odd starting point for a story. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass said it best:

Obviously, I work in the secular media, and we’re usually skittish about spiritual matters. But we’re quite dogmatic when it comes to some other things. For example, we’re almost severe in our collective belief in scientific progress, in the ability of government officials and technology and reason to solve the problems of the modern world. . . .

Just think about that. All across the world on Sunday, and again next Sunday, millions of folks will confirm their belief in something that can’t be proven by scientific means. That yearning is news, isn’t it? Even though it takes place year after year, it’s still news.

So we have the annual rite of questioning in the weeks heading up to Easter. This year we got the stories about how Jesus didn’t walk on water, but an ice floe; that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think; and that his father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. And on Easter weekend we get stories that focus on controversies — that sell books — rather than the stories taking place in Christians’ lives throughout the week. It will happen against next year. On that note, one controversy story this Easter that was fairly informative was the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling piece on beliefs about whether Jesus rose from the dead. But for Christians, the Easter story is not about controversy! It’s about salvation, peace and forgiveness of sins. Stories can be interesting and focused on what Easter means for Christians as opposed to what Easter means for non-Christians who love to cast aspersions on believers. It is possible. Just look at how well controversy stories go over with readers, judging from today’s letters to the editor section at the Dallas Morning News:

Great article, guys. Can’t wait for your coverage of how the Quran isn’t the last word for Muslims. You can run that during Ramadan. Or how about a story on the plutocrats and dictators who have resulted from various Mexican revolutions? Page One for Cinco de Mayo? Millions dead because of the DDT fad? Run it on Earth Day.

resurrectionThe other letters weren’t much more kind.

Anyway, I think this is my favorite passage from Boorstein’s piece:

The Rev. Steve Huber of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in the District said he sees a “deep spiritual hunger afloat in our culture” but isn’t sure whether that translates into more people believing in the physical Resurrection — or whether it matters. . . .

“If Easter is about proving the veracity of some historical event that happened 2,000 years ago, that misses the point,” Huber said.

She doesn’t just leave the comment hanging, exactly, but a point-counterpoint approach to reporting on an issue like this just doesn’t suffice. She doesn’t reference it in any way, but the issue of whether Christ literally rose from the dead was addressed by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 15, he wrote:

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up — if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the apostle Paul says, then you are the most pitiful loser to have faith in him. And Steve Huber says you’re not. Pick your sides. But if you are a reporter covering this issue, you have to understand who has more sway in Christianity. And you have to mention how central to Christianity a belief in the physical resurrection is and how it is the basis for Christian beliefs about life, death and forgiveness of sins.

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The gospel of ignorance

judas3My newsroom was all abuzz this week with the revelation of the Gospel of Judas. The media have been going nonstop with the news that a Gnostic tract has been translated that says Judas was helping Jesus rather than betraying him.

Well, where to begin? Before I criticize the ridiculous ignorance of the media in covering this very old story, let me offer a critique of the church. If Christians knew anything about their history, if they knew anything about how the New Testament canon came to be formed, I doubt these stories would be met with more than a yawn.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Christians — and others — think the Bible was delivered to the church in present form upon Christ’s death and resurrection. In fact, the Gospels, which were written soon after Jesus’ time on earth, were fixed into the canon by the last quarter of the second century. Other books were included by A.D. 220. But there were many, many other books that were considered. And then there were some extremely heretical books that were never really considered. Various principles for inclusion were debated, but as a rule the books were tested against each other. So if the Apostles themselves said, for instance, that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, you would be hard-pressed to include a book written by a sect centuries later that said Judas was all good.

The thing is that for those who know their church history, Gnosticism is not news. It is a syncretistic movement with roots in pre-Christian times. It reached its zenith around the time the Judas Gospel was written. And it was based on the very non-Christian idea that its adherents possessed a secret message, bequeathed to a select few, that held the key to higher life.

For crying out loud, Irenaeus condemned the Judas writing in A.D. 180 in his book Against Heresies. He summed up the Judas tract as follows:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas claims to be a secret discussion between Judas and Jesus. Compare that with the four Gospels of the New Testament where Christ’s preaching is extremely public. The Gospel of Judas claims secret knowledge for a limited few. Compare that with Christ’s teaching that he came for all. The Gnostics tried to rehabilitate every bad guy in the Bible from Cain on down. They thought Yahweh was evil. I mean, is it really that shocking that Irenaeus, and the larger church, condemned these guys?

This story is sort of akin to folks in A.D. 3800 translating a Weekly World News story from this year that says Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman dressing as a man. I mean, sure, it’s true that Gnostics existed, accessed Christianity and wrote several tracts. But why do the media treat this as some sort of breaking news story that casts doubt on the veracity of the Gospels? And why has their coverage provided no context and no understanding of the relative credibility of the Gospel of Judas? Perhaps it is because, as Harold Bloom notes, Gnosticism is America’s cultural religion?

Let’s go to the Associated Press story, which reached news outlets far and wide:

A “Gospel of Judas” was first mentioned around 180 A.D. by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in what is now France. The bishop denounced the manuscript as heresy because it differed from mainstream Christianity. The actual text had been thought lost until this discovery.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, “The people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.”

Gnostic Sea SaltI love the way AP characterizes Irenaeus’ theological whipping of the Judas-adoring Cainites. “Sorry, guys, but you differ from mainstream Christianity.” That’s like saying the Flat Earth Society was denounced for differing from mainstream cartography. I also love the Pagels quote. Really? The Gnostics didn’t think they were heretics? Well, I guess the battle between orthodox Christians and Elaine “Gnostic Gospels” Pagels is settled, then. And that’s precisely what the AP story makes it out to be. The next quotes are just odd, really. I kept waiting for a Christian who thinks the Judas Gospel is bunk (and lived after A.D. 180) to appear. Instead we got this:

Added [the] Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: “Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin.”

Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but he allowed that opinions are likely to vary.

Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, said New Testament explanations for Judas’ betrayal range from money to the influence of Satan.

“Perhaps more now can be said,” he commented. The document “implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do.”

Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

Could they not find one modern-day scholar or observer, even, who is less impressed by this supposed blockbuster? In fact almost all of the stories I read used the same few people to provide context. The Washington Post reporters who wrote about the Judas Gospel also managed to quote the same people as the AP story, but in a way that made them seem to be saying much different and more sensible things. It’s actually worth comparing. Here, though, they quote Pagels again:

Some scholars suggested that view — if it had been accepted — might have lessened anti-Semitism over the centuries. “The story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas gave a moral and religious rationale to anti-Jewish sentiment, and that’s what made it persistent and vicious,” said Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels.

Lord, have mercy. I mean, I’m beyond glad that Christians don’t riot at the slightest offense. But this public relations stunt (coincidentally timed to prep for the fictional Da Vinci Code?) released just before Palm Sunday heading into Holy Week? Christians have every right to be offended. There were some other media outlets that handled this news with a bit more cynicism and analysis, but for the most part, I give the media a failing grade.

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An issue of faith

jesus papersThe aspect I appreciate most about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is how it has raised the public profile of the concept of faith. The controversy behind the factual basis of the book has led the curious down a twisted and confusing historical path that forces one to raise one’s hands and surrender to the crushing blackness that is those things in the past that we just cannot know absolutely.

But history matters, and the truths that can be wrought out of it are critical for understanding the things around us, and in this case those things deal with religion. But often coming to those truths in one’s own life requires a measure of faith, and unfortunately journalists often forget this when reporting on these controversies.

USA Today brings us the news of a book titled The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History. The book is written by Brown’s nemesis Michael Baigent, who is suing Brown in a British court for allegedly ripping Baigent’s research for massive portions of The Da Vinci Code. All the while, Baigent has been planning a way to get a dollar or two in the wake of the massive Da Vinci code publicity:

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a coincidence in publishing anymore,” says Russell Perreault of Anchor, publisher of the Da Vinci paperback.

But Baigent, by phone from London, says it “absolutely” was not planned.

“There have been a lot of coincidences this year, at least I assume they are coincidences,” he says. “It’s funny, with just being on trial, and now we’re head-to-head with books.”

One would think that the publishing of Baigent’s book should be welcome by all who appreciate an honest debate over the historical issues. Let the facts in Brown’s book be laid out for all to examine without the cloud of historical fiction. But like The Da Vinci Code, The Jesus Papers is misleading in its title, as aptly pointed out by the Lost Angeles Times‘ Nick Owchar:

Much light is also shed on Baigent. “The Jesus Papers” is a very personal book. He’s outraged by the early Catholic Church’s consolidation of power, its crushing of dissent, its exclusion of women from leadership; he laments that vibrant texts like the Gnostic gospels were buried in the desert to protect them. He includes photos of himself at excavation sites and crouching in tunnels as if to suggest that understanding the faraway past requires some kind of physical contact.

“I love to travel to sacred sites and to feel them, to seek to understand them,” he writes. “Are such places intrinsically sacred, or do we make them so? Perhaps both. Sacred sites demand participation from the visitor, an entering into a relationship with them, an experience. And there lies the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist.”

Pretty soon, the reader realizes that there probably won’t be any “Jesus documents” — that this book is really a private credo, an intimate declaration of belief dressed up to be the religious bombshell of the millennium. But then the long-anticipated appearance of the documents comes (or does it?) near the end. Baigent meets with an unidentified antiquities dealer who shows him two pieces of parchment:

“Each was about eighteen inches long and nine inches high. … These were … the letters from Jesus to the Sanhedrin. They existed. I was silent as I fully enjoyed the moment.”

. . . Experts will debate such details for a long time, but the disappointing thing about “The Jesus Papers” is that Baigent’s personal search for the figure of Jesus is obscured by the hype of the book’s packaging — as if to say such personal quests don’t mean much anymore.

Brown’s theories — er, Baigent’s theories — are repackaged and removed from the ambiguity of a novel and what we have is a “private credo” that is based on faith? Ironically, Baigent’s recent book is based more on a personal faith than the work of Brown, who seems to merely have had faith in Baigent’s research.

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God wants you to be a millionaire

osteenI have a friend, and former editor, who used to watch televangelists with a drinking buddy. They would come home from a night on the town and keep drinking while watching CBN or some other preacher network. It was all fun and games until one night they accidentally donated $50 to Pat Robertson. The good news is that they realized they needed to cut back on their drinking.

I confess that I also like to watch televangelists while imbibing. And one of my favorites is Joel Osteen. I have been watching the ubiquitous preacher for years now, waiting for him to say anything uniquely Christian. If you watch him, you’ll know he has GREAT NEWS where other preachers just have Good News. Did you know God wants you to be wealthy and get a great-looking spouse? It’s true. Did you know God wants you to get a killer job and a fast car and the respect of your peers? True again.

Osteen is everywhere. His book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, sold more than 3 million copies. He packs the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play, with 40,000 devoted fans every week. The New York Times‘ Ralph Blumenthal wrote a fascinating profile of Osteen, who just signed a huge contract for a new book, possibly as much as $13 million.

“You know what, I’ve never done it for the money,” he said in an interview after Sunday’s service, which he led with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. “I’ve never asked for money on television.” But opening oneself to God’s favors was a blessing, he said. “I believe it’s God rewarding you.” . . .

Or, as he also puts it: “God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner.”

He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. “Better yet,” he writes, “it was the premier spot in that parking lot.”

The article is all about Osteen’s teaching of the prosperity gospel, so it includes a lot of details about money. He shows how much money Osteen brings in at each week’s services ($1 million), how much money via mail ($20 million), the size of his staff (300), how much it cost to turn the Compaq Center into a church ($95 million) and the state of the church’s financial statements (notable for their accountability). The most interesting detail by far is that the church put a globe instead of a cross in what would be the apse.

What’s nice is that Blumenthal treats Osteen respectfully while giving a voice to Osteen’s critics:

In “Your Best Life,” Mr. Osteen counsels patience, compassion, kindness, generosity and an overall positive attitude familiar to any reader of self-help books. But he skirts the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial, leading some critics to deride the Osteen message as “Christianity lite.”

“He’s not in the soul business, he’s in the self business,” said James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of a forthcoming Simon & Schuster book on megachurches: “Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to in Your Face.”

“There’s breadth but not too much depth, but the breadth is quite spangly, exciting to look at — that’s his power,” said Dr. Twitchell who called Lakewood “the steroid extreme” of megachurches. He said church critics fault Mr. Osteen for “diluting and dumbing down” the Christian message, “but in truth,” he said, “what he’s producing is a wild and alluring community.”

The article is really interesting and informative, and I’m sure Osteen’s fans and critics would both agree. I would have liked a bit more comparison between Osteen’s theology of glory and the theology of the cross, but that it was alluded to at all is a great start.

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