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Filming The Da Vinci Code in the Cathedrals of Europe

The Chronicles of Narnia

How Christian is Narnia?


February 14, 2006

Courting Religious Controversy

by Jon M. Sweeney

Hollywood executives have learned something about how religion sells. Long gone are the days of Cecil B. DeMille, when people would flock to see an epic film about the life of Jesus or Moses. The grand story of the Bible has been overexposed and de-mythologized too much to still appeal to the world-weary film-goer seeking entertainment today.

But controversy sells religion, just as controversy sells movies, and most everything else.

Hollywood learned this lesson by Mel Gibson’s example. Gibson was a master at manipulating the media—and even Christian and Jewish religious leaders—in making The Passion of the Christ the largest grossing religious movie of all time. That was two years ago.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was released last year before Christmas, failed to meet its enormous box office expectations largely because the marketers tried to reach Gibson’s largely conservative Christian audience, but without the help of controversy. The film earned $281 million at the domestic box office, but that pales in comparison to The Passion of the Christ and its $370 million. One wonders if a campaign suggesting that Lewis’s story foretold specifics of the end-times or that his intentions were somehow anti-Semitic would have brought more people to the theater seats.

I remember going to see Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, back in 1988 at a theater in Chicago and walking by hoards of devout protestors who were cordoned off with police tape. People were kneeling on the sidewalk praying for my soul as I stood in line waiting to enter the theater. The movie was actually quite awful; I wouldn’t have seen it without the curiosity of what all the hubbub was about.

Now, soon to come from Hollywood—starring the great Tom Hanks—is the movie version of the most controversial book of our time. The Da Vinci Code has riled up Christian clergy of all denominations who have claimed that, even though the book may be written as a novel, it debases the Christian faith, the Catholic Church, the holiness of Jesus, and is being taken as fact by millions of readers.

Anyone who worships in a church today knows that these Christian complainers have a point. People who once read the Bible without questioning it, have indeed taken Dan Brown’s word for fact—or, at least, for reasonable proof that there might be plenty of things that the experts have kept hidden all of these centuries.

Sony Pictures worldwide release date for The Da Vinci Code movie is May 19. But as Laurie Goodstein reported in the New York Times last week (Feb. 9), “Sony has decided to hand a big bullhorn to the detractors.” Starting last week, the studio went live with a website of its own creation: thedavincicodechallenge.com intended to stir up the conversation and controversy about the movie three months before its release. Dozens of articles are there for those who want to explore everything that is doctrinally and historically “wrong” about the novel, and the subsequent screenplay.

On the site, there are links to newspaper articles explaining how various Christian groups have debunked the novel, and others that chronicle what an effect the book has had on worldwide tourism to the sites featured prominently in it (such as The Louvre, in Paris).

Most of the articles are written by evangelical Protestant Christians, including Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. His essay “Should Christians Read The Da Vinci Code?” argues that Christians should read the novel in order to be able to speak eloquently about it with their friends at the water-cooler.

As Mouw makes his point, his explanation of what effect the novel and the film may have on Christians cannot help but build the audience for both:

As a Christian, questions about who Jesus is are not for me matters of mere curiosity. They have to do with the most basic issues of life. I believe that he is exactly who the Gospel writers say he is: the heaven-sent Savior, the eternal Son of God who appeared in the flesh to do for us what we could never do for ourselves; it is only because of Jesus that sinners can get right with God and receive the gift of eternal life. If Dan Brown’s story is accurate—even only a few key details of his plot are true—my faith is fundamentally misguided.

Wow, does Sony Pictures know what they’re doing!

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN: SURPRISING GIFTS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD, named the best book of 2005 in the autobiography category by “Spirituality & Health” magazine.

More by Jon M. Sweeney.

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