May 19, 2006

My Da Vinci Code Apathy and Our Ignorance of History

I've been laboring for a while over whether or not to write a response to The Da Vinci Code. I read the book last year and took quite a few notes in preparation to answer some of the more outrageous and slanderous claims that Dan Brown makes in it. But in light of the avalanche of books, articles, websites, and blog posts increasingly in play it seemed pointless to repeat what had already been said so well and so many times elsewhere. It also seemed hardly worth dignifying with a response given how laughable its assertions and historical research turn out to be.

The Da Vinci Code is filled with so much low hanging fruit and so many howlers that it's hard to resist picking on it, especially given that Brown and many of his fans take it so seriously. Of course, many respond, "Relax, it's just fiction." But I'll let Brown speak for himself on that matter.

In his NBC Today Show interview, Matt Lauer asks him, "How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred?" to which Brown responds, "Absolutely all of it." And on his own website's FAQ section he says, "[I]t is my belief that some of the theories discussed by these characters may have merit" and "The secret described in the novel has been chronicled for centuries, so there are thousands of sources to draw from."

As to whether or not his readers are taking him seriously, let me just offer this one Amazon review as an example of the atmosphere surrounding the book:
The Da Vinci Code is so much more than a gripping suspense thriller. Dan Brown takes us beyond the main plot and leads us on a quest for the Holy Grail - a Grail totally unlike anything we have been taught to believe. With his impeccable research, Mr. Brown introduces us to aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity that I, for one, had never known existed...or even thought about. I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown's research - only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me.
The sad thing is that the general public is so historically illiterate that they have no immunity to the kind of provocative conspiracy that Brown's book weaves. For this reason he can make claims like, Jesus' deity (vs. His being merely human) was first proposed and voted upon at the Council of Nicea, and the average Christian, much less non-Christian, would be lucky if they had ever even heard of this or any other council.

For these reasons, some response to the claims of Brown's novel is important. But it is hard for me to feel the urgency to do so in light of the fact that even the usual critics of classical Christianity find the historical content of his novel to be sloppy and eccentric. It would be a different matter if he had some liberal scholars in his camp, but so far as I know, the count stands at zero. And when secular sources like CNN and US News & World Reports are publishing critical reviews of the book that sound as though they are authored by Christian apologists, then I have to wonder what work is left for someone like me.

As for Christians who ask me if they should read this novel, I would say go ahead, knock yourself out. While not edifying (but perhaps entertaining), it's at least a good conversation starter with non-Christian friends who have most likely already read it. But if reading this novel leads to distress over the veracity of one's faith, I would say that now's as good a time as any to grow up and take what you claim to believe seriously enough to think that its origin and history are actually important and interesting areas of study. God is to be found just as much in the contents of your Bible as He was in the process of publishing it and bringing it down the corridors of history into your hands.


At 5/22/2006 7:32 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I didn't read the book (There is so much Christian writing, and so little time to read it, that I didn't want to throw countless hours of my life away on something that is a blatant silly fabrication) but I did "sell out" and go see the movie. It was just too tempting not to. That way I could see summed up in one nice little 2 hour entertaining package (I LOVE movies) what the hubbub was about.

It was even worse than I ever imagined. The lies more proposterous and outright SILLY, while at the same time so incredibly convincing if you have no historical framework to reference them against. This is one reason why I am so very glad to be Orthodox, and know the story of Nicea and have a historical background woven into my church services every sunday. Not to say that I think that other Christian practices are less valid, or anything, but simply because of the rich history lesson that going to church every sunday is.

Da Vinci painted a few frescos, and as the chick in the movie said "Just because he painted it, doesn't make it true". But NONE of the iconography (unchanged for over a thousand years) in the orthodox church suggests this secret debacle in any way. Da Vincis art has no bearing on true religious dogma, while Icons are literally the word of God in picture form for those who cannot read. They tell pretty much the whole story, and a picture is worth a thousand words.

Also something that my wife, and co-worker both latched onto immediately. Even IF there were a descendant of Mary that you could PROVE was a descendant of Mary, it means absolutely NOTHING without a bit of Jesus' DNA to test it against. I don't even think my co-worker is christian and he picked up on that. So what if someone who was only mentioned a mere 14 times in the entire bible happened to have an ancestory alive today that believed they are the descendants of Jesus? It doesn't mean a darn thing. Not unless you can extract DNA from the shroud of Turin or something like that... Who is to say Mary wasn't married to someone else? She's just some chick who hung around with Christ and funded his ministry.

Oh, and the other gospels where thrown out partly because they made Christ seem MORE divine, not more human...

But yeah, kind of a 'fun' movie if you are able to seperate it from your faith. Pretend they are talking about one of Mohammads harlots or something. I couldn't enjoy it as much because the whole thing made me mad the whole time. Angry because I knew that other people in the theatre around me where sitting there having a keanu reeves moment, going "wow....... That is soooo crazy... I can't believe this... Mary is the grail... awesome..." and they will walk out of there believing it and going off and having crazy ideas about it for the rest of their lives.

Oh, and, even if you entertain for just a minute the possibility of Jesus and Mary having had a thing together, Mary wasn't the Daughter of God, she wasn't born of a virgin, and she didn't rise from the Dead, and ascend into heaven......... So wha???? She's just a shmoe like you and I. Oh, and even if you think the whole virgin birth/son of God thing is bogus, he STILL rose from the dead, and she STILL is sittin in a tomb somewhere...

Yeah, my arguments are probably pretty crappy, so if you really care, go read a book... A really good one is "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code".

At 5/22/2006 10:33 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Yeah, you've really got to be able to suspend disbelief to enjoy the story. I've equated it to knowing your science and watching a bad sci-fi movie. Even so, it is hard to enjoy something that takes pot-shots at the thing that is of central importance to your life and worldview. It would be like someone writing a book that claims your own wife is really a prostitute in her spare time, and then giving various bits of flaccid circumstantial evidence to prove the case.

I would agree that one of the advantages of Orthodoxy [big "O", as in Greek or Russian Orthodoxy] is the strong identity and knowledge of early church history, not that it is unique to that denomination or that it outweighs any shortcomings it may have. It frustrates me that in many denominations, including the Southern Baptist (which is the largest non-Catholic one, and which is very conservative), something like reciting the Nicene Creed is an alien concept for their average membership, even if they can agree with its content once they take the time to look at it.

I wouldn't downplay Mary M. appearing in the Bible a "mere 14 times." There are doctrines that you hold dear that are mentioned only once in Scripture. However, of all these times she is mentioned, not once is it in a suggestive relationship to Jesus. In fact, if there were a conspiracy against her, then I would have expected her name to appear far less often, if at all. This Jesus-Mary relationship is one of the weakest claims (if anything can be said to be "weaker" than another) in Brown's book.

In spite of him stating that there is tons of support for this, what Brown includes in the book is all that is available, and he has overplayed even that. His strongest case is from The Gospel of Phillip, and even if it could somehow be said to be a credible early document, it doesn't even say, as Brown claims, that Jesus often "kissed Mary on the mouth." There are gaps in the document we do have which are missing things like the word "mouth." But even so, why would the apostles be so upset about Jesus preferring Mary and kissing her if He was actually married to her?! And in that same document when it states that Mary was a "companion" of Jesus, Brown claims that "companion" equals "spouse" in Aramaic. But the oldest copy of The Gospel of Phillip is written in Coptic, and the original was presumed to be in Greek! Neither language supports the companion=spouse assertion.

Also, if there was such a conspiracy to suppress women by the church, then I have to wonder how Mary, the mother of Jesus, managed to slip past that filter, since she is revered so highly in Roman Catholic circles that Protestants complain that she often eclipses Christ in practice.

And one other thing: the strongest case for a Gnostic Gospel to be deserving of an early date has been made for The Gospel of Thomas. However, Brown doesn't even exploit this more plausible route in his story. If you wonder why, it is probably because of this inclusion at the end of it:

Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

Not very feminist friendly I'm afraid.

Here's a reasonable article for more on the Mary Magdalene issue.

Oh, by the way Chris, the book you've recommended is probably a good one for a non-Christian, since it is written by Bart Ehrman, who is, himself, as skeptic of Christianity. However, I wasn't sure you knew that he was a non-Christian author. I wonder if the owner of the EOBooks site knows that, since I'm sure it is his intention to strongly represent classical Christianity in his product offerings ;-)

At 5/22/2006 7:14 PM, Blogger sacred vapor said...

I actually welcome the DaVinci Code because anything that gets people talking about the origins of Christianity is a good thing. There was a lecture on The Nicean Council in NYC recently and it apparently had a huge turnout. People would just not have been interested in this kind of stuff before the DVC.


At 5/23/2006 11:43 AM, Blogger Paul said...


You are right that it is an opportunity for dialog. It's been an icebreaker for me on several occasions, and for that reason I was grateful that I had read the book. However, we can still say that it is an intrinsically bad thing, i.e., false, sloppy scholarship, and insulting to Christianity.

Interestingly though, so many good things in the church have actually been spawned in reaction to challenges from the outside. And it might even be the case that this challenge (if not others) is an indictment on the sad state of the church and, subsequently, the culture at large in that Brown is able to make sport with our credulity by virtue of our ignorance.

At 5/28/2006 7:31 PM, Blogger Vman said...

All it takes is for the confused individuals who actually believe Brown's rhetoric is to watch a half decent documentary, there's volumes out there. Still, I don't discourage people from talking about the DaVinci Code as true, I feel it's good that they're actually examining their faith even if they are being misled. The DaVinci Code is leading to actual theological discussion, isn't that what's most important?

At 5/28/2006 9:59 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sure, talking about theology and the truth of Christianity is fine, but it seems like there's more straight-forward and credible ways to do it. Brown's way is equivalent to flat-earthers spawning an interest in astronomy. I'd prefer Carl Sagan's way. I think he got some important assumptions about cosmology wrong, but he at least wasn't working completely out of his anus, like Brown.

At 6/13/2006 8:53 PM, Blogger Roger Yang said...

I enjoyed the book, DaVinchi Code. But that's probably because I am not familiar with Christianity.

Likewise, I hated the book Digital Fortress, because Dan Brown was so mal-read in computers that it was sickining to finish.


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