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“P.T. Barnum, Balloon Boy, and The DaVinci Code” from Fr. George W. Rutler

October 7, 2012

by Fr. George W. Rutler


Monsignor Ronald Knox, probably the most inspired preacher and apologist of the twentieth century, wrote an essay satirizing some skeptical Biblical literary critics, in which he used their methods to “prove” that the real author of Tennyson’s In Memoriam was Queen Victoria.

   Many who doubt the plausibility of the Scriptures are gullible about hoaxes. I don’t just mean the rabbit with antelope horns called a “jackalope.” There was the Cardiff Giant of 1869 promoted by P.T. Barnum, and John Payne Collier’s forgery of Shakespeare’s letters. Some pretended to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and far earlier was the hoax of a lady pontiff named Pope Joan. The New York Zoo hoax of 1874 convinced many that animals had escaped. In 1912 there was the Piltdown Man. Henry Ford promoted the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” There were the aliens landing in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, and the Balloon Boy hoax in 2009. The Da Vinci Code claimed an albino monk hid corpses nearby on 34th Street. I confess that I keep a warm spot in my heart for the Loch Ness Monster, which also intrigued Pope Pius XII who discussed it with the above-mentioned Monsignor Ronald Knox. Unfortunately, Nessie’s primary witness was an English vicar, and such testimony is not potent in courts of law.

   Hoaxes gain credibility when they use respected sources. In 1938, Orson Welles’ adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds convinced thousands because it was broadcast on radio. Monsignor Knox did something similar on the BBC. People today are inclined to believe hoaxes because they are mentioned witlessly in the mainstream media.

   Five years ago The New York Times spent a lot of printer’s ink on a bogus ossuary reputed to be that of a “brother” of Christ. Recently the same journal announced on its front page the discovery of a parchment claiming that there was a Mrs. Jesus. Shortly thereafter the parchment was adjudged a forgery. If a correction ever appears, it will be in fine print back in the shipping news section.

   Since journalists often invoke pretentious scholarship to question the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin and the Tilma of Guadalupe, the question begged is: “Why do these people suddenly become naive about phenomena that contradict Christian inspiration?” The answer speaks for itself. The New York Times would be delighted to find that Christ did not radically contradict the norms of His age by forsaking all else and calling others to do the same as a proclamation of the Mystical Union between Christ as Bridegroom and the Church as Bride.

   The media should take the counsel of St. Paul, who probably would be fired after his first day at work as an editor of The New York Times: “I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any gospel other than that which ye received, let him be anathema” (Galatians 1:9).



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