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What Would Jesus Talk About: Conspiracy Theories and Gossip

HUNTINGDON, Pa. - Social scientists who study the full range of communication among people attending churches have routinely documented that between 50 and 70 percent of all information exchanged is gossip.

Religious communities are a type of Petri dish for gossip and even outlandish conspiracy theories. After all, social relations are the core focus of attention, intimacy is encouraged, and there is a lot of emotional energy invested in relationships within the community. Drop something like James Cameron’s recent film The Lost Tomb of Christ – which purports to reveal that Jesus really didn’t rise from the dead – into the mix, and we can’t help but get hooked on watching the repercussions, and, of course talking about whether we believe them or not.

It’s no surprise that churches and other religious communities – despite our familiarity with Paul’s famous exhortations to the Corinthians (“Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins, but delights in the truth”) – are ripe environments for salacious exchanges of information. After all, you may not recall the message of Sunday’s sermon, but you’ll remember that juicy rumor about the mayor or the sheriff.

Note, however, that like idle gossip, the conspiracy theories at the core of these works are not meant to be harmless; they all advance an agenda.

The same principle applies to each Easter season’s obligatory “explosive” revelation about traditional religious beliefs. Cameron’s film about the Jesus ossuary is this year’s model; last year, National Geographic released the Gospel of Judas, which purported to reveal that Judas Iscariot was a reluctant traitor, egged on by his own messiah. Never mind that most biblical scholars dismiss both theories as ahistorical. They make for good coffee-klatch gossip, especially after Sunday services.

Religious communities are natural vehicles for advancing, debating, or debunking conspiracy theories, perhaps because of their authoritarian nature. So films like The Lost Tomb of Jesus and even outright fiction like Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code (and its mediocre film version) spread through church communities like an email virus. Even the film that brought the pious to the multiplex in droves three years ago, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ , used gossip and conspiracy theory to break box-office records.

Note, however, that like idle gossip, the conspiracy theories at the core of these works are not meant to be harmless; they all advance an agenda. Cameron and Brown want us to suspect the already beleaguered Catholic church of hiding a “secret life of Jesus” from us. In Gibson’s case, we began to suspect he has a serious martyrdom complex himself and that anti-Semitism is more widespread among American Christians than we thought (or hoped).

The biggest difference between the religion of my childhood and religion of my mature years is just how media-saturated it has become. As a youth, the gossip was far more local and contained. It had to do with sadness in the Jameson’s family, the pastor’s daughter going to college, or an unexpected teenage pregnancy.

Likewise, our conspiracies were far smaller in scale: theories about how the pastor affords that big new car; speculations about anonymous gifts to the organ fund; stories about excessive alcohol consumption. Now the conspiracies are as big as the World Wide Web: Scientology’s secret beliefs; hidden lifestyles of mullahs; or secret sex lives of evangelical preachers.

Whether we are outraged or indifferent, I suspect we’re wasting our time if we try to wish away gossip in our religious communities and elsewhere. As long as we have a sweet tooth for it, it’s not going anywhere soon.

- Donald Braxton, J. Omar Good Chair and Professor of Religion.