Friday, May 19, 2006

The Da Vinci Code – a Post-Secular/Post-Christian Phenomenon[1]

I decided to read The Da Vinci Code because a number of my wife’s friends, who know that I have a background as a theologian, asked her what I thought about it.
They had read the book and found its premise at least intriguing. Some of them thought it might represent the “real story” of Christianity. So it was with a great deal of interest that I picked up the book. Of course, Dan Brown has a way of writing a suspense story that keeps you on the edge of your seat waiting for what’s going to happen next. But more than that, I was intensely curious to find out just what this great secret was that had fascinated so many people.

When I got to the point where I found out that the “great secret” that served as the premise of this book was the notion of Mary Magdalene as Jesus of Nazareth’s wife and the mother of his child, I felt cheated! I had stayed up 2 to 3 hours past my normal bedtime for two nights in a row for the Holy Grail legend! After cooling off for a couple of weeks, I picked the book up again and finished it. It is a well-written story, very entertaining. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What bothers me is that the premise of The Da Vinci Code includes some pretty astonishing claims about the origins of the Bible and Christian Theology. Now, what you have to understand is that my training and background are primarily in biblical history. If there’s one thing I know, it’s the history of how the Christian Bible was put together. And if there’s another thing I know, it’s the historical background of the Bible. If we were talking about the premise of a novel, that wouldn’t be all that upsetting. But Mr. Brown introduces his novel with the following: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Is that supposed to mean that he’s claiming the premise of his novel is factual?

For example, when one of the main characters says that “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” are we supposed to assume that this description of a document is accurate? The fact is that it is true that Constantine presided over the council of Nicea—which by the way published the creed known as the Nicene Creed, it did not close the Christian canon. And it is true that Constantine influenced the outcome of the Christological debate against the Arians, motivated no doubt by a concern to unify his empire. But is patently false to say the Constantine collated the Bible as we know it today!

[NB: Spoilers in this paragraph!] After reading the whole book and finding out that it was the “bad guy”—the one who had it in for the church—who made the statements that represented the most egregious historical errors, I wasn’t as upset about the whole thing. I could view the obvious historical misrepresentations as the rantings of an obsessed villain. It even contributed to the story for me, since he also went to great lengths to deceive the head of a monastic order into finding the Grail for him so he could “expose” the Church!

I think what still bugs me about the book is the fact that Mr. Brown’s “imprimatur” on the prefatory page puts people who don’t have my historical training at a disadvantage. How are they supposed to know which “descriptions” of documents are accurate and which are part of the story? Especially when you’ve got a Harvard professor apparently giving his assent!

For example: “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament.” While it is true that many more than four gospels originated from the early days of Christianity, it is definitely not true that eighty of them were considered for inclusion in the canon! In fact, no other gospels were seriously considered for the New Testament. [Later, he says, “thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man”; thousands?]

He makes similar claims about the development of Christian theology. For example, “Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death” and “until that moment of history [the council of Nicea in A. D. 325], Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” A trained historian would know to ask how Constantine could have accomplished such a feat: one day Jesus was honored as a prophet—albeit completely human, wife and all—then the Emperor proclaims him divine and everybody changes their minds! How is the average reader supposed to know whether this falls under the claim that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate”!

Let me hasten to acknowledge that Mr. Brown might very well dismiss my historical training based on his opinion that history was written by the “winners.” While I would say that is true, it is true only on a superficial level. The “official histories” may have been written by the “winners,” but the evidences of historical events, movements, and realities remain embedded in the “stuff” of history—archaeological remains, inscriptions, records, epitaphs, and historical records of those who are not on the side of the “winners.” Any historian worth his or her salt knows that one cannot simply take at face value any “official history.” That holds true for both traditional and non-traditional histories—the “losers” have their official histories too.

And let me hasten to add that there are statements in Da Vinci Code that are accurate. “The vestiges of pagan religion in Christian symbology are undeniable.” This is easy to demonstrate and document as a true statement. It is undeniable that early Catholicism took over practices of the pagan religions it sought to replace, like turning December 25 into the feast of Christ’s birth. And it is undeniable that the Catholic church was a patriarchal system that suppressed nature-based religions that which tended to emphasize the “divine feminine” [yet, in all fairness Catholicism is notable among Christian denominations in that it has a prominent feminine figure: Mary the Mother of Jesus!].

Let me also hasten to add that I’m not a great fan of Constantine! I completely agree that Constantine probably did more harm to the cause of religion than good—Christianity included. Constantine took a counter-cultural movement stressing radical obedience to God and faith in the crucified Lord Jesus and turned it not only into the status quo but also a major player in the power brokering of the day. The harmful effects of this on the character of the church continue to this day. But to make him responsible for the Bible (and Christology) as well is over the top.

And let me hasten to add further that I’m not so stuck in a modernist mindset as to think that what is factual is true and what is fiction is false. I love good fiction. I think the best fiction conveys profound truth. I also don’t have any objection to a novel that criticizes the institutional church. I thoroughly enjoyed Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which exposes abhorrent faults in the medieval church. Ditto with Foucault’s Pendulum, by the way.

I think what really bugs me about The Da Vinci Code is that prefatory sanction that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction for the average reader. Maybe that’s Mr. Brown’s whole point, but it confuses people about the Christian faith. Even those who have spent their whole lives in Christian churches are apparently reading this novel—a work of fiction—as if it were literally true! The literal truth is that the Grail legend has been around for ages. Historians of Christianity have known of its existence all along. But it’s one thing for the Grail Legend to exist and have a history of its own. It’s another thing altogether for the Grail Legend to have any historical evidence to back it up as a factual account of events in the life of Jesus.

Perhaps Mr. Brown intends the discriminating reader to understand these things. Perhaps he intends for us to distinguish his statements describing ancient documents from the value judgments his characters attach to them. I doubt that he will find too many readers with enough technical training to make such fine distinctions. I think that’s my main beef with The Da Vinci Code.

At a deeper level, I think the “Da Vinci Code phenomenon” points to the growing reality that we indeed live in a society that is both Post-Secular and Post-Christian. The very fact that The Da Vinci code has stayed on the best-seller list for so long demonstrates the strong interest in “spiritual” things that characterizes “post-secularity.” Angels, Witches, Vampires, visions, and supernatural insight are the stuff of popular television series. There is a rising fascination with spirituality outside traditional western Christianity, from Eastern religions to neo-pagan religions. It really comes as no surprise that religions honoring the sacred feminine are becoming more popular these days [though I find it somewhat strange for those who promote these religions to claim the “real truth” about Christianity for support!]. All of this points to a post-secular culture.

On the other hand, the fact that so many “Christians” think the premise of the novel may be true demonstrates the “Post-Christianity” of our society. More and more, those who call themselves “Christians” seem fundamentally ignorant of their faith, their history, and even their Bible. It would appear that the “Da Vinci Phenomenon” is just one of many ways in which “Christians” are all too ready to jettison Christian faith! We live in a culture that has crossed over from “Christian” to “Post-Christian.”

I don’t think entering a post-Christian era in our society is all bad. Many speak of the sweeping upheaval that is called postmodernism as potentially destroying the Church. I personally think discipleship becomes much more of a commitment to being life apprentices of Jesus Christ where the church is in the minority.

Maybe the only real lesson we can glean from all this is a warning: any time the word “code” shows up in a book purporting to be about religion we should think caveat lector!

[1] A review of the book written in January of 2004.

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