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Despite playing fast and loose with the facts, this thriller puts the early church in the spotlight.

The Da Vinci Code, novelist Dan Brown’s thriller about a symbology expert who exposes shocking “truths” about the early Christian church, has moved well beyond the realm of commercial success. Since its release in early 2003, the fast-paced novel has become a cultural phenomenon.

Da Vinci's

 Who is that sitting on Jesus' right in this rendition of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci? The figure is generally understood to be the disciple John, but this and other long-held truths about the church and related art are questioned in The Da Vinci Code.

Consider the numbers: The Da Vinci Code debuted at Number One on The New York Times’ Hardcover Fiction Best-Seller List and has hovered at or near the top for more than a year. Its success pulled Brown’s previous church related novel, Angels & Demons (2000), to the Number One spot on the Times’ Paperback Fiction Best-Seller List this winter. By Easter, the 454-page hardcover edition of The Da Vinci Code, which in formula is similar to Angels & Demons, had sold more than 6.5 million copies, making it one of the fastest selling books ever published.

Despite hundreds of articles debunking the book in publications ranging from The New York Times to Christianity Today, The Da Vinci Code continues to sell briskly, a movie is in the works, and Brown already has begun a new book.

To the surprise of many ministers, theologians and church historians, The Da Vinci Code quickly became, and remains, a favorite among congregations and churchrelated book clubs.

“I’m just stunned by people’s reaction to it,” says James Howell D’79, senior minister of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. “At some point . . . the advertising momentum gets going and some sufficient number of people read it. Pretty soon, if you haven’t read it, you’re not cool.”

Howell estimates he’s heard more than 100 comments about the book from his 4,000-member congregation. If he could make just a single point about The Da Vinci Code, it likely would be this: It’s fiction. Despite the serious debates the book has engendered—or the resulting interest in art, history and the church—Howell and others say, the content is simply made up.

“It’s unfortunate that this guy used a lot of intriguing stuff as his scaffold,” Howell says. “But he abuses the trust of his readers by not getting his facts straight.”

Who is Dan Brown?

Brown’s web site (http://www.danbrown.com) reports that he came up with the ideas for The Da Vinci Code while researching great works of art (he studied art history at the University of Seville in Spain) and through questions or legends he came across while looking into secret societies, Christian history, and other aspects of the church for Angels & Demons.

When the novel first caught the public eye, scholars and local church leaders were left wondering whether to dismiss it and simply wait for Brown’s star to fade. After a few months, though, many realized that neither the book nor the questions it raised were going away. Interest was so great at Duke University that students and administrators organized several discussions about The Da Vinci Code, including two this winter at Duke Divinity School.

Theologians and clergy continue to debate whether the book and its ideas are useful, harmful or inconsequential for the church. But as they discuss the surprising response to The Da Vinci Code, they agree that several factors left people particularly receptive to this work of fiction. Among the reasons they cite for its allure:

  • Some clergy have done too little to generate excitement about the genuine practice and history of Christianity, priming people for acceptance of a more sensational if unrealistic view of the church;

  • Historically, the church’s treatment of women has opened the door for conjecture about their suppression (a major theme in the book). The Da Vinci Code also taps into a pop culture trend toward linking the feminine with the divine;

  • Among many regular churchgoers, knowledge of early Christianity is spotty. Fans of the book often have trouble distinguishing truth from literary invention. This is exacerbated by Brown’s frequent use of gray areas in church and historical scholarship, as well as a claim at the front of the book that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate”;

  • Brown has written one heck of a page-turner, drawing on his experience from three previous novels. The book is full of action, cliffhangers and romance. He also had the marketing acumen or sheer luck to publish the book at a time when Americans are particularly interested in conspiracy theories. Recent scandals and shakeups in the church, government and business have left Americans speculating about scandal in just about every major institution.

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Spring 2004 Volume 3 Number 3 Duke Divinity School