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Deciphering the Da Vinci Code

What if
The Da Vinci Code makes me uncertain about what I really believe?

A review of Ron Howard's film of the book


Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code site

Between Two Worlds Theological Blog Spot
How to Respond to the Da Vinci Code Movie

Rosslyn Chapel Website

Scottish Christian
A Web resource and news log with up-to-date
stories on the Da Vinci Code

A comprehensive, graphically intriguing section
debunking claims in the Da Vinci Code, point by point

The Da Vinci Opportunity
How the Popularity of The Da Vinci Code Book
and Movie Can Be Helpful to Christians and Others

by Mark D. Roberts


Dan Brown's Gift to the Church

How The Da Vinci Code's claims about fallacies in
Orthodox Christianity have caused a publishing sensation,
and what we can learn from the debunkers and the debunked

by Marcia Ford


Late last fall I sat in a movie theater and watched the Black Mamba hack away at every last one of the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Not once was I tempted to close my eyes to avoid seeing the blood and gore that accompanied the gratuitous dismemberments, because I never had a chance to be tempted. The swift slice-and-dice of Japanese steel kept my eyes riveted through the whole horrific scene. Only later, much later, did it occur to me that I had enjoyed the movie way too much.

I can say pretty much the same thing about reading The Da Vinci Code, which I did for the first time early last summer before the Da Vinci debunkers surfaced in print. I read it in one sitting, partly because I had to meet a deadline for an article on the book but mainly because I really, really liked it

As I read, I casually dismissed Leigh Teabing’s laughable take on Christian history, figuring that surely before the end of the book someone would come along and set him straight. No one did, but by the last page I had forgotten all about Teabing and his hacking away at verifiable history. Only later, much later, did it occur to me that I had enjoyed the book way too much.

Reading Dan Brown’s bestseller is a lot like watching Kill Bill. You know you should look away; you know you shouldn’t have to suspend your disbelief quite so much; you know there are better things you could be doing with your time. Still, you don’t look away, because the fast-paced, cliffhanger action doesn’t give you much of a chance to look away. Unlike the Quentin Tarantino movie, however, The Da Vinci Code has managed to create an all-too-convincing alternate reality, one in which the truly disturbing action is taking place apart from the story and in the minds of readers-turned-believers.

The response to the book is disturbing not so much because DVC threatens our personal faith but because it exposes our cultural illiteracy. When the first DVC debunkers began writing and speaking out against Dan Brown’s shoddy research and flawed conclusions, I wondered if their outcry wasn’t an overreaction. I reasoned that anyone with even a superficial knowledge of early church history or secular Western history would immediately spot many of his factual errors. And the whole Knights Templar, Mary-Magdalene-as-Holy-Grail story line had been written off 20 years ago, when Holy Blood, Holy Grail provided a fascinating read—and a fanciful theory lacking any historical merit.

As it turned out, of course, the debunkers were and are needed, because an unknown percentage of DVC readers believe they have been deceived about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the authenticity of Scripture for their entire lives. I’ve discussed the book with a small percentage of that unknown percentage, including a fellow Episcopalian who gave me that universal “It-doesn’t-matter-what-you-say” look when I merely mentioned Brown’s disregard for getting basic historical facts right.

And therein lies much of the problem: To many readers, it really doesn’t matter what we say. Brown the Gnostic evangelist has completed the conversion process that for some readers began when they first became disenchanted with traditional Christianity.

Many traditional Christians are understandably upset about the confusion Brown has caused. One result has been a publishing phenomenon: the release of 15 books, at last count, responding to DVC, nearly all pointing out the numerous errors in the novel, which clearly claims to be based on fact. As one author noted, Brown made so many mistakes that you practically find yourself cheering him on when he manages to get something right.

And yet, some people who know their history—like my Episcopal friend—dismiss the errors as insignificant. What really matters, they say, is the obviously true story that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, which the lying, murderous church has somehow managed to keep secret all this time. It’s as if they’ve suddenly taken leave of their senses, as if they cannot see that faulty research leads to faulty conclusions.

To date, I’ve read 11 Da Vinci-related books, and with maybe one or two exceptions, the authors—who had to feel like jumping out of their skin at times—were remarkably restrained. They managed to stick to the historical facts when every fiber of their being most likely was compelling them to grab Dan Brown by the lapels and shake some theological sense into him.

Of course, sticking to the facts often meant referring to the Bible, the very book Brown, through the character of Leigh Teabing, pretty much calls a sham. For that reason alone, there’s little hope that diehard DVC devotees will pay much attention to the debunkers, even though the debunkers offer significant evidence of the trustworthiness of the New Testament writings.

So what does all this mean for Christians who still adhere to an orthodox understanding of Christianity? If DVC has done nothing else, it has exposed an undercurrent of suspicion and cynicism directed toward the church by a segment of the American public, and we need to acknowledge the validity of their antagonism toward an imperfect and sometimes abusive church.

The zeal with which some have embraced Brown’s overarching premise—that the church, which in his world means the Roman Catholic Church, has been lying and covering up the truth for 2,000 years—betrays their willingness to discard orthodoxy in favor of an alternative spirituality that allows them to be Christian, or Christian-ish, apart from the traditional, organized church.

DVC has done something else as well, something orthodox Christians need to be thankful for. It has, as David Kinghoffer wrote late last year in the National Review, “set off a pretty loud pealing of the electric chimes at the front door of the culture.”

I cannot recall a popular title that has set off such a loud pealing at the front door of the church as well. In that sense, Dan Brown has done us a service by leaving at our doorstep an invitation to indulge in some fairly heady talk with the culture around us. To miss that opportunity would be, well, a sin—though we wouldn’t want to use that word in our discussions.

Our challenge is in part to learn to communicate with that culture. I was recently involved in a group in which DVC was mentioned in passing. One man somewhat proudly announced that he hadn’t read the book because he refused to read anything that wasn’t worthwhile, by which he meant anything that wasn’t of a biblical, religious nature. I understand his point and respect his resolve. But that kind of thinking makes it highly unlikely that he will be able to significantly impact the culture.

Reading DVC, along with Internet discussion boards about the book and reader reviews on Amazon and other sites, offers an invaluable glimpse into the postmodern mind. Our ability to interact with the culture on a deep theological level requires us to take advantage of as many of those glimpses as we can.

As for the debunkers, I’ll leave you with a few recommendations. Dan Burstein’s Secrets of the Code (CDS Books) does a masterful job of bringing together diverse perspectives on DVC by offering a compilation of interviews, essays, and reprints of articles from writers all along the Da Vinci spectrum. Writing from a Catholic perspective, Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel provide a wealth of theological insight and historical information in The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius Press), while Ben Witherington III does the same but from an evangelical Christian perspective in The Gospel Code (InterVarsity Press). Finally, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code by Richard Abanes (Harvest House) manages to provide a thorough, objective overview of DVC problems in a mere 96 pages.

We truly do have an amazing opportunity at our doorstep. Dan Brown has given us a way to talk about spiritual realities that allows us to use the images and the history and even some of the words—the name of Jesus, no less!—that we cherish as part of our spiritual heritage. With so many readers-turned-believers placing their faith in Brown’s alternate reality, maybe we shouldn’t look away after all.

Copyright© 2004 Marcia Ford

Da Vinci Code Book Cover
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