The hype machine for James Cameron's documentary The Lost Tomb of Christ has hit Anna Nicole Smith levels of ridiculousness. An allegation that Jesus Christ's body has been found is an interesting story. The fact that some big-name moviemaker is behind it adds to the spice and makes it a very legitimate story. But the silliness of the headlines, the hypothetical evidence, poor background information (likely fed by Cameron's PR machine) and the hype factor all add up to give people who take religious issues seriously just another reason to ignore the media. And that's too bad.
The story at this point is an embarrassment to reporters. It's why they have a bad name in religious circles. As Amy Welborn said, "It's nonsense, but you know what ... Easter is coming!!!"
When did a filmmaker turned amateur historian become a reliable source for questions related to archeology? Well, since his facts were based on "sound statistics," as he put it. We all know what they teach journalists in training about statistics ("He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts -- for support rather than illumination" -- Andrew Lang).
The documentary is running on The Discovery Channel on March 4. Yes, this is the same channel that airs documentaries that make you want to believe we are visited frequently by UFOs.
One of my favorite quotes comes from an Associated Press piece by Marshall Thompson that draws on interviews the filmmakers did with various television stations:
Cameron told NBC'S "Today" show that statisticians found "in the range of a couple of million to one in favor of it being them." Simcha Jacobovici, the Toronto filmmaker who directed the documentary, said the implications "are huge."
"But they're not necessarily the implications people think they are. For example, some believers are going to say, well this challenges the resurrection. I don't know why, if Jesus rose from one tomb, he couldn't have risen from the other tomb," Jacobovici told "Today."
The range of a million to one? What kind of statistical basis is that for any serious discussion, and what is Jacobovici trying to tell us with that cryptic statement about the implications? It confuses me. Things like that should be explained.
Another problem with the AP piece is including this comment by Cameron:
Cameron said his critics should withhold comment until they see his film.
"I'm not a theologist [sic]. I'm not an archaeologist. I'm a documentary film maker," he said.
So let's all follow Cameron's advice and not write about the film until it comes out? Um, no. He's not a theologian or an archaeologist, but just a documentary filmmaker. Then why are news organizations reporting his words as gospel truth (pardon the pun)? This is a highly scripted media campaign that is relying on all the free publicity provided by eager reporters looking for a story to write. The final paragraph of the AP report, relating to the experts who heavily criticized the documentary, is especially ironic:
None of the experts interviewed by The Associated Press had seen the whole documentary.
Did Thompson see the film?
press release news article comes from our friends at Newsweek, who were tipped off to the news much earlier than the rest of us, giving them time to put together a 2,100-word piece documenting the controversy.
Reporters Lisa Miller and Joanna Chen cite all the usual naysayers but frame their words as equal to that of the moviemakers, whose credibility in these matters is self-admittedly lower.
Time magazine's Middle East blog post on the matter is lame:
Brace yourself. James Cameron, the man who brought you 'The Titanic[,]' is back with another blockbuster. This time, the ship he's sinking is Christianity.
The New York Times is no better:
Raising the Titanic, Sinking Christianity?
The media pack will likely follow this story to its airing in March. We will have gained little from it other than the knowledge that the media can be conned by clever PR tactics into writing a set of dubious stories that do little to sort out established facts from amateurish speculation.