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“[Church leaders] have failed to remember that Christianity is an exciting mystery thriller,” says Craig Kocher D’01. “Christianity is not some kind of dull, boring antiquated lifestyle that divides us from the modern world. Living the Christian life is a challenging, passionate adventure story.”

Da Vinci's

 Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa figures prominently in Dan Brown's Thriller The DaVinci Code.

Kocher, assistant dean of Duke Chapel and director of religious life for Duke University, helped organize a lecture on the book at Duke Divinity School on Jan. 28. Despite snowfall earlier in the day, more than 100 people packed into the Alumni Memorial Common Room to discuss the book—evidence to Kocher that The Da Vinci Code evoked powerful sentiments.

Kocher adds that Brown has capitalized on compelling notions of seeking and rediscovering truth, whereas some churches have settled for mediocrity or repetition in programming and teaching. “At the worst, we’ve reduced the Gospel to a narcissistic mirror of American society,” says Kocher. He knows of a sermon in which the congregation was urged to reinvest in the stock market to ensure the economic strength to carry the Christian message to the rest of the world.

The challenge for churches, Kocher says, is to counter compelling fiction with the wonder of a real Christian life. For example, mission work can provide excitement, cultural exploration and an opportunity to live the Gospel. Surely, he says, accounts of such work should offer an appealing view of real Christianity.

Teresa Berger, associate professor of ecumenical theology at Duke Divinity, points out that Brown’s depiction of Mary Magdalene as a representative of the “sacred feminine” certainly has contributed to the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. Brown, to great effect, explores the centuries- long misconception, first evidenced in church literature in a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in 591, that Magdalene was a repentant prostitute. The Catholic Church in 1969 said that characterization was incorrect and that Mary Magdalene had not been a prostitute, but the idea of a conspiracy against her—and by extension suppression of the role of women in the church – persists. The Da Vinci Code trades heavily on that supposed conspiracy.

“Part of the appeal of the book is that it gestures toward a way of seeing divine presence and women’s lives closely linked,” says Berger. “One of the ways Brown does this is by according semi-divine status to Mary Magdalene.”

Berger also notes that media, retail and other secular institutions emphasize spirituality and some of the language associated with the church, yet de-emphasize specific church teachings. Perfumes carry names such as Paradise, Eternity and Miracle. Magazines point out the “sins” of improperly applying makeup. Businesses advocate spirituality, but not necessarily the church, as a tool for executive success. A book that questions the very divinity of Jesus fits comfortably into the lives of people who want to embrace the spiritual without putting in the work of living a Christian life through a church community.

“It’s the kind of spirituality en vogue,” Berger says. “The language has seeped into culture from faith tradition.”

Suspicion Fuels Conspiracy Theories

Berger believes that many people are especially susceptible to church-related conspiracy theories—which are plentiful in The Da Vinci Code. “Despite the cultural trend of interest in transcendence and the supernatural, people are highly suspicious of institutional religion—the traditional church institutions and practices,” she says.

Without a full and theologically sound discussion, says Howell, the minister from Myers Park U.M.C., oversimplifications and half-truths can be misunderstood as history that was hidden by a powerful institution. For example, the novel suggests that the church has suppressed evidence of Jesus’ humanity. The church doesn’t view Jesus’ humanity and divinity as an “either/or” issue, says Howell. And His human aspect is well documented. “That’s all in the Bible,” Howell says. “He gets hungry. He cries. He gets angry. That’s pretty human to me.”

The more he hears about The Da Vinci Code, the more Howell is persuaded that many people have only a passing familiarity with the Bible. “They see a book like this that’s easy to read and is full of romance … presented in a very tantalizing way. I’ve had people walk up and ask me why I haven’t told them this stuff.”

Despite the frustrations brought about by the book, many ministers are thankful for those readers willing to take the time to separate fact from fiction.

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