DIVINITY Online Edition
The Art of Controversy, The Da Vinci Code
by Jonathan Goldstein

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.

“[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.

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.”

Duke Divinity professors and alumni help clarify the facts from the fictions in The Da Vinci Code. (Stop here if you want to read the book and be surprised).

  • Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

    Duke Divinity Professor Teresa Berger points out that no evidence of this union is found in the Bible or other ancient documents, and statements attributed to Jesus point to the contrary.

  • The two had a child who went on to found the Merovingian line of royalty in France.

    The very idea makes many theologians roll their eyes, says James Howell D’79, senior minister of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Scholars say no evidence of any kind supports this.

  • Emperor Constantine decided on the four Gospels to be included in the New Testament in a political deal struck after the year 300 A.D. The same emperor fabricated the idea of Jesus’ divinity for political purposes.

    The early church believed in the divine aspect of Jesus well before the political deals supposedly struck at the Council of Nicaea, says Craig Kocher D ’01, assistant dean of Duke Chapel and director of religious life for Duke University. Documents reveal that the Council did discuss His divinity and humanity, but not in the simplistic way portrayed in the novel.

  • An ancient order called the Priory of Scion, whose members included Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo, has been battling the church for nearly a millennia to keep the above “truths” alive.

There is no evidence of any of this, says Professor Berger. According to scholars, the group initially was no more than a hoax and actually was founded as a simple social club in the 1950s.

  • The person seated next to Jesus in Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is really Mary Magdalene, not the disciple John. Evidence cited is that the person in the painting has no beard and has long hair. Since she is carrying His baby, the book claims, Mary is the Holy Grail – the vessel carrying the blood of Christ.

    John, often portrayed as young and beardless, certainly would have been at this meal, says Howell. Scripture clearly states that he was beloved to Jesus, and he would not be absent from this depiction of The Last Supper. If that figure is Mary Magdalene, it would have to mean that John was absent. Again, the idea the Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children is unsupported. Art experts also strongly dispute that the figure next to Jesus in the painting is anyone other than John.

More about Mary Magdalene

Dan Brown writes extensively about Mary Magdalene and her importance to early Christianity. Truth be told, little is written about her in the Bible despite her central role in the early church. Here are some books recommended by Duke Divinity Professor Teresa Berger about her:

  • Mary of Magdala, Apostle and Leader, by Mary R. Thompson, 1995.

  • Mary Magdalene, Beyond the Myth, by Esther de Boer, 1996.

  • Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle. The Struggle for Authority, by Ann Graham Brock, 2003.



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