| The Art of Controversy, The Da Vinci Code
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.
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:
“[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.”
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.
Ann Smith of Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C., was looking forward to a discussion at her church led by Bruce Stanley, director of field education at the divinity school. A French teacher, Smith says she enjoyed the book’s historic settings, focus on art and exciting plot twists. She also welcomes the questions the novel raised for her.
“Faith is a journey of constantly questioning and trying to get the answers,” Smith says. “I loved comparing the book to what I thought I knew, and then asking questions. But we have to remember that this is literature. It is a work of fiction.”
As long as readers take that point of view, clergy have little to worry about. The problem arises when readers fail to pause and question.
“The Church should never be afraid of the truth and should pursue it with reckless abandon,” says Kocher. “I’m glad Dan Brown’s book is challenging us to try to discover what is true about Christianity and about our lives. That’s always the challenge: to ask questions and look for the truth.”
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