By Rubel Shelly
Have you read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? If not, you’re one of the few who hasn’t since its publication in March 2003.
It has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and is scheduled to become a movie directed by Ron Howard, set for release in May 2006. Tom Hanks is to play the lead role of Robert Langdon, the professor who unravels the mystery of the Holy Grail. “We probably don’t need his status from a box office standpoint,” says Howard, “but he gives Langdon instant legitimacy.”
Ah, legitimacy! That’s the word. This fictional story of a murder in the Louvre claims “legitimacy” for its accounts of artwork, architecture, documents, and rituals. And it has had a significant negative impact on the opinions many hold about the Christian faith. Because so many people had asked me about The Da Vinci Code, I broke down and read it while traveling to Kenya in the spring of 2004—and could hardly put it down.
It is a fascinating and well-written novel, so I understand why it has been so popular. The reaction to the book also underscores how biblically illiterate and uninformed so many Christians are, how susceptible the general public is to negative and iconoclastic presentations of issues related to Christian orthodoxy, and how easy it is to pass off pseudoscholarship when it is being used to assault—for I do not think its anti-Catholic, anti-Christian views are either accidental or naïve—the Christian faith.
A Wonderful Opportunity
Having already tipped my hand to my negative opinion of The Da Vinci Code, I should address the book’s wonderful opportunity for teaching. If I were teaching a beginning class in either Christian apologetics or historical backgrounds to the New Testament anytime soon, I would seriously consider using it as a required text. In spite of a claim to convey factual information about the “documents” and “rituals” of Christianity, it contains very little reliable data. Yet it is a good stimulus to study, and most Christians need a good “shaking up” to study Scripture seriously.
Furthermore, The Da Vinci Code’s bad information is so skillfully woven into the text that tracking down the spurious and misrepresented facts could be an engaging way to keep students digging deeper. The danger arises when there is nobody in the room who has done that research. Then nobody knows what to believe. The better told story is likely the more believable story to the typical reader.
The novel relates how a conspiracy is uncovered through clues encoded in paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci. The conspiracy hides the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary of Magdala. The Holy Grail (of medieval and Indiana Jones fame) is not the cup from which wine was drunk at the last supper, but Mary Magdalene herself—in whose chalice-womb the royal bloodline of Jesus was carried. Jesus wanted the future of his movement to rest with Mary Magdalene, but his crucifixion forced her to flee to France where their child, Sarah, was born—and from whom issued the Merovingian royalty of that country. As the book tells it, Magdalene’s diaries of her life with Jesus, the family tree of the Merovingians, and many other significant facts about the “Sacred Feminine” are hidden in her tomb.
According to the story line of The Da Vinci Code, these facts have been viciously suppressed by a female-denigrating religion that replaced the original vision of Christianity. Such a coup was pulled off only because Emperor Constantine dictated the canon of the New Testament and managed to suppress Gospels older and more reliable than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Some of these Gospels, it asserts, were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scholarly community, according to Brown, knows that Q and the Gospel of Thomas may well be more important for reconstructing the original shape of Christian thought than the familiar Gospels of the New Testament. (Note: Brown seems to be unaware of the contradiction between his desire to put Mary Magdalene and “the Sacred Feminine” in a position of primacy in early Christianity and the Gospel of Thomas to which he is attracted.1 But this is not the only internal inconsistency in his novel.) And, the book claims that Constantine’s Council of Nicea in ad 325 not only fixed our 27-book New Testament canon but also moved the day of Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday, initiated the worship of Jesus as divine, and set the church on a path of patriarchal bigotry.
What a fascinating—and complex—plot for a fictional novel. And what a reception it has received. But since it is sold in the “fiction” section of bookstores, it would be silly to get perturbed over these ideas. Right? Maybe not!
For one thing, The Da Vinci Code offers itself as a reliable source of information about the history of “true Christianity.” Immediately after its title page and before the narrative begins is a page headed Fact that sonorously declares: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”2 Then, whenever one of the more farfetched ideas about the alleged fourth-century reconfiguration of Christianity is mentioned, one of the scholarly figures in the story says something like, “The marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historical record”3 or “The royal bloodline of Jesus Christ has been chronicled in exhaustive detail by scores of historians.”4
The central assertion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that a series of sinister churchmen suppressed critical documents that would totally recast Christianity is hardly new with Brown. He gets it straight from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a 1982 book that is cited by the pivotal scholarly figure of the book’s narrative. The book is described as overblown but important, whose “fundamental premise is sound” in tracing the bloodline of Jesus.5 There really was a 1980s book by the title Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Yet it was hardly hailed as a piece of scholarship whose “fundamental premise is sound.” To the contrary, it is what a reviewer in The New York Times called a “notorious hoax.”6
In the name of research, contemporary scholarship, and theological acumen, The Da Vinci Code puts conjecture on the level with fact, constructs pseudohistory for its text as historical narrative, and pulls assumptions out of the air as needed to make fiction convincing as written. Little tidbits of how this or that flight of fancy is “chronicled in detail by scores of historians” or “has been known by scholars for decades” appear throughout the text to authenticate the fictitious.
This can lead otherwise intelligent people who are not experts in church history, biblical text, or Christian theology to become confused. And there is real danger that they might recast their view of the origin and integrity of Scripture, of the person and activity of Jesus of Nazareth, or of the nature and legitimacy of all things Christian.
1Neither the Gospel of Thomas nor any of the other Gnostic Gospels claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. The Gospel of Thomas even presents what could be called a “sexist” view of females generally and Magdalene in particular. For example, “Simon Peter says to them: ‘Let Mary go out from our midst, for women are not worthy of life!’ Jesus says: ‘See, I will draw her so as to make her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who has become male will enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Saying 114).
2Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 1.
3Brown, Code, 245.
4Brown, Code, 253.
5Brown, Code, 253, 254.
6“Holy Blood, Holy Grail is a masterpiece of insinuation and supposition, employing all the techniques of pseudohistory to symphonic effect, justifying this sleight of hand as an innovative scholarly technique called ‘synthesis,’ previously considered too ‘speculative’ by those whose thinking has been unduly shaped by the ‘so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century.’ . . .
“[It concocts] an argument that is not so much factual as fact-ish. Dozens of credible details are heaped up in order to provide a legitimizing cushion for rank nonsense. Unremarkable legends . . . are characterized as suggestive clues or puzzles demanding solution. Highly contested interpretations . . . are presented as established truth. Sources–such as the New Testament–are qualified as ‘questionable’ and derivative when they contradict the conspiracy theory, then microscopically scrutinized for inconsistencies that might support it. The authors spin one gossamer strand of conjecture over another, forming a web dense enough to create the illusion of solidity. Though bogus, it’s an impressive piece of work.” Laura Miller, “The Da Vinci Con,” The New York Times (February 22, 2004), Sec. 7, p. 23; available online at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B07E0DD103AF931A15751C0A9629C8B63.
Note: The same review gives a summary history of the Priory of Sion, a society identified on The Da Vinci Code’s Fact page in this ominous paragraph: “The Priory of Sion–a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli Victor Hugo, and Leonarda da Vinci.” The actual Priory of Sion was founded in 1956. The documents found in the Bibliothèque Nationale are known to have been fabricated and planted by a man named Pierre Plantard in the 1970s. Miller writes: “Plantard’s hoax was debunked by a series of (as yet untranslated) French books and a 1996 BBC documentary, but curiously enough, this set of shocking revelations hasn’t proved as popular as the fantasia of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, or, for that matter, as The Da Vinci Code. The only thing more powerful than a worldwide conspiracy, it seems, is our desire to believe in one.”
NEXT WEEK: How The Da Vinci Code reflects contemporary “scholarship.”
Rubel Shelly ministers with the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee.