A key moment in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code occurs when Langdon, a Harvard Symbologist, and Teabing, an eccentric British peer, explain to Sophie, a young code breaker working for the Paris Police force, the true nature of the Holy Grail. To counter Sophie’s shocked incredulity of the “secretive” church history that the Grail entails, Teabing pulls out what must be one of his favorite quotes, one he claims is from Napoleon:
The quote is extremely crucial. It encapsulates a very common, though little examined cultural assumption of early 21st Century America. Increasingly, over the past century, as academic theories about the study of history have trickled down into the common culture, we as a people have become more and more skeptical about historical claims.
Everywhere you go you meet people who say, for example, “I don’t believe the Bible—there have been so many translations and interpretations over the years, how can it be accurate?” These are the same people (over two million and counting) who are picking up The Da Vinci Code in droves and passing it along to their friends. Yes, all this popularity for a book that is riddled with historical errors and half truths. [Editor's Note: 50 million copies have been sold since THE DA VINCI CODE's publication in 2003; it has been translated into 44 languages.]
I suspect that so problematic a book could only have reached such popularity in a culture which has completed the shift from adoring respect for authority to full-fledged, though largely unconscious, skepticism toward the seat of power.
Those who have read the novel know that the plot follows the above mentioned Sophie and Langdon, who are implicated in the murder of a prominent curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris. Before the curator expires (his death scene occurs in the Grand Gallery in the Louvre, near The Mona Lisa), he pens a coded message on the parquet floor with an invisible ink marker, strips off his clothing, and configures his body in the position of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The plot moves quickly as Sophie and Langdon outwit the police, an Opus Dei hit-man, and a mysterious character known as “The Teacher,” in a race to unravel the code left behind by the dying curator.
The curator’s secrets are revealed in discursive passages that intersperse the action of the plot. Sophie, standing in for the reader, is taught by Langdon and Teabing that a central feature of Christian history—the marriage and bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdelene—was stamped out by the patriarchs of the church. Most of the national media surrounding The Da Vinci Code has centered around the legitimacy of this claim.
There’s also been interest in the book’s assertions regarding the artistic intentions of Leonardo Da Vinci, whom the character Teabing believes may have been a descendent of Christ. Langdon and Teabing teach Sophie that Leonardo’s key paintings, including The Last Supper, The Mona Lisa, and The Virgin of the Rocks, are veiled tributes to the Sacred Feminine, a deity whose cult is celebrated through ritualistic sex.
Peering into the deep well of church history, one finds any number of odd assertions that have been made about Christ and his followers. We’ve been called cannibals, atheists, subversives, and hypocrites. A book like The Da Vinci Code, however, represents a new kind of challenge.
When Dan Brown offers his alternative view of Christian history, he’s not really addressing Christians—his readers and Christian believers might as well be in two separate universes. This freedom gives life to an attitude of certainty underlying all of the weird claims made in the book. What’s troubling is that Christian beliefs have almost no authority in our culture which otherwise might balance out Brown’s attacks—if such a blasé retelling of our history could even be called an attack.
In the book, the character Sophie, whose name ironically means wisdom in Greek, is a kind of blank slate when it comes to church history. She eats up everything that Langdon and Teabing feed her about Christianity and the Grail, as I gather many readers have as well. In addition to claiming that Christ fathered a family with Mary Magdelene, Sophie learns that the church conspired to portray Mary as a whore to cover up the relationship.
While it’s true that there’s no Biblical evidence that she was a prostitute, it’s not at all settled that her usual portrayal is part of a long-standing smear campaign, and not simply a misreading of the text (i.e. Christ clearly did associate with prostitutes). Even more disturbing are the dubious claims made about the authenticity of Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the Council of Nicea. I’m positive that the subtleties of these events are not known to the typical reader who is uneducated in church history, and Dan Brown certainly doesn’t delve into them.
Despite its being somewhat simplistic, if not outright false, I think the religious content of The Da Vinci Code offers a timely wake up call to the Christian church. In doing so, it invites Christians to take a fresh look at our origins and our history, both the good and the bad, which is something we don’t do often enough. It also highlights how the combination of free speech, the information boom, and our belief in relativism have created a situation whereby a writer can easily brew a concoction of conspiracy theories, legends, and historical half-truths into a best-selling novel.
What could the Christian community do with the awesome strangeness of the Gospel in a culture like this? It’s simply false that our truth isn’t as compelling as such fabrications. I’m not saying that our goal needs to be the return to a theocratic form of government (God forbid!), I just wouldn’t mind seeing a few more great Theocentric books written and published, like Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, Walter Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or the stories of Flannery O’Connor.
the Christian community has not condemned The Da Vinci Code,
as it did a film that also addresses Jesus’ relationship with Mary
Magdelene, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
In our times, the right reaction to any provocative literature is neither
horror or disgust, but engagement. Jesus taught his disciples that the
proper way to evangelize a strange city is to enter it with their eyes
open, carrying very little, and to exchange blessing for blessing. As
we enter the 21st Century, we Christians need to pay attention to what’s
going on around us and among us, on the hunt for the good our culture
has to offer, and not afraid to call out its lies and dark secrets—especially
when they’re our own.
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