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'Da Vinci Code': O, the theology!

dv2.jpg

Is this scene from "The Da Vinci Code" historically accurate?

OK, this is what I was talking about: Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and founder of Movieguide.org, has a piece in USA Today (and a slightly different version on Movieguide itself) in which he says:

It would be wonderful to believe Christians can argue the facts to Dan Brown's hate-filled, fictitious attack on Jesus Christ, Christianity, the Bible, Christians and history. The truth is, however, that many people have not read a Bible or understood their faith sufficiently to counter the story's intricacies.

As they say in church: Bingo!

Baehr continues:

Does the average person know what Gnostic Gospels are? Are people familiar with the Catholic group Opus Dei? What is the answer when Christians are asked whether Jesus married Mary Magdalene? Did they have children? Has the church hidden important facts from the faithful? These are just some of the complex issues discussed in "The Da Vinci Code." Although it is fiction, it contains enough references to history to make Christians question their beliefs.

The slanderous distortions and falsehoods are as dangerous as they are numerous. The movie threatens to strike another massive blow to people's understanding and knowledge of God, Christianity and history.

Let me repeat that: "What is the answer when Christians are asked whether Jesus married Mary Magdalene? Did they have children?" OK, where do I begin? When I think about this, I quote myself: "Just let me say that if you are so credulous that a novel (fiction!) or Hollywood movie can upend your comprehension of one of the most dominant religious traditions in the world, then you are possessed of all the faith (and reason) you deserve."
 

So, "The Da Vinci Code" (book and movie) has the temerity to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth was a man and a prophet, but not the Divine Son of God. Good heavens! What a novel idea! It sounds like... Judaism! Or, for that matter, Islam. This particular question about the divinity of Jesus has been out there for a little while. If 21st Century Christians still aren't aware of what, exactly, makes them Christians to begin with -- what beliefs differentiate them from other Abrahamic religions -- then, I'm sorry, you can hardly blame 2003's or 2006's "The Da Vinci Code" for that.

If Christians honestly believe that their religion determines the fate of their immortal souls for all eternity and they don't bother to read a bible (so they might know, at the very least, whether the stuff about Jesus and Mary's Big Fat Jewish Wedding is in there or not) or learn about, say, the Gnostic Gospels or how the texts in the bible came to be in there, then what kind of shallow, hypocritical "believers in Jesus" can they be? They don't know diddly about Jesus or Christianity, so by what right do they claim to believe in them?

Dan Brown absolutely, intentionally fudged the line between fact and fiction in his book -- and that should be pointed out. But what are these "facts" and "history" that Baer says most Christians are too lazy and ignorant to argue in opposition to the mishmash of "The Da Vinci Code"? Richard N. Ostling, an "AP Religion Writer," says the movie has softened "some of the religiously disputed aspects" of the book, and notes:

Indeed, there's no historical evidence Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a couple, and the Mrs. Jesus idea upsets many — it's a particular sticking point with Roman Catholics, due to the celibacy rule.

True-ish. What Ostling does not say is that there is no reliable "historical evidence" of Jesus, period. There are only copies of copies of religious manuscripts, riddled with gaps and inconsistencies, dating from decades to centuries after the time the Jesus of legend was said to have lived. There is no "fossil record," you might say, of Jesus's existence -- and even if there were, what are we to make of that puzzling "gospel gap" in the New Testament between the time he arrives on Earth with great fanfare and when the story picks up again, decades later in the canonical gospels, shortly before he is crucified? If you like Jesus, this is actually a good thing: After all, Jesus is the central figure in what eventually became a rather powerful force known as Christianity. Do you think any of these Jesus stories would have survived into the present day if people had not repeated them and re-written them and re-translated them over the centuries in their efforts to form a new religion and spread the word?

I have never understood why some (certainly not all) Christians insist they need "historical evidence" for their religion. Aren't the philosophical teachings of Jesus good enough on their own? Whatever happened to faith? And if conclusive historical evidence of the Messiah existed, wouldn't that be incontrovertible "proof" that Christianity is the One True Religion? That would sure settle a lot of ancient, worldwide religious disputes once and for all (and make "The Da Vinci Code" far less controversial), but if you want that kind of proof you're not going to get it in this life. You'll just have to wait until the Second Coming (which you may or may not believe is coming, depending on how much you believe what's in the books of the bible). If it happens, though, it should pretty much resolve everything for everybody.

When it comes to Christianity, Baehr says he does not think we should "teach the controversy." I do not know if he feels this way about teaching "Intelligent Design" in science class, but he writes:

A few pundits are arguing that Christians should read the bestselling book The Da Vinci Code and see the movie to "engage the culture" and as a tool for evangelism.

By that argument, we should encourage people to read other popular, but infamous, works: Chinese dictator Mao Zedong's Little Red Book, or The Communist Manifesto. Or, why not Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic diatribe popular in Muslim circles?

Well, it depends on how and why you encourage people to read them, doesn't it? There's this gift called "critical thinking" (or "reason" or "skepticism") that human beings have, and it's one of the very best things about being human. In fact, it's inseparable from this other great thing called "free will." What it does is it allows you to test, challenge and sort out the principles and information that you use to form your own beliefs! I've read parts of all these infamous works (they're tough slogs for me) for the same reason that I sometimes watch Fox News: I think it's important to understand what they're saying and figure out for myself why their professions do or do not hold up to moral or factual scrutiny. So, in response to Baehr: I think Mao and Hitler and the Soviets (who were not "communists" at all, but totalitarians who perverted Marxist theory for their own ends) and Henry Ford, the great US proponent of "The Protocols," had some pretty rotten ideas about politics and religion and humankind. But you will find some familiar echoes of Jesus's philosophy in The Communist Manifesto -- especially when it comes to the inequitable gap between the rich and the poor, a major moral priority for Jesus. And Ford's assembly-line idea for efficiently manufacturing large quantities of automobiles was actually pretty savvy, although his anti-Semitism was appalling.

Baehr himself won't even go so far as to encourage people to read the bible in response to "The Da Vinci Code." Might be too threatening, raise too many disturbing or unanswerable questions.... (This is where the methodologies of science ["critical thinking'] and certain dogmatic religions fundamentally diverge: In science, it's always preferable to know more, even if it leads you down a false path or proves to be a dead end. Then, at least, you know that. This is not always the case in religions that do not recognize the wisdom inherent in doubt.)

Meanwhile, "The Da Vinci Code" is right about one thing: Various kinds of church-building politics were definitely involved in determining what went into the bible and what was left out, and how Christian dogma was shaped and pruned over the centuries. What it gets wrong is... well, what happened and why. USA Today offers this in an article headlined "Theologians debunk 'Da Vinci Code' dogma:

Q: One character, a historian, says Jesus' divinity was not part of church doctrine until he was "voted" into godly status at a fourth-century council. Proof of Jesus' mortality, the historian claims, "will drive the church to its knees." Is any of this true?

A: Bishops settled numerous theological disputes at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, but they always considered Jesus to be divine. "No human being can upgrade someone to God. Jesus claims his divinity in the earliest gospels, hymns and creeds of the church. He is described as 'the image of the invisible God and the very nature of God,' " says Southern Baptist theologian and author the Rev. Lee Strobel....

The Rev. Thomas Lynch, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches church history, says that only a handful of Roman church patriarchs were with the 220 or so Eastern bishops who attended the council. It would be another century before the Rome-based church developed real clout.

The critical theological accomplishment at Nicea, says Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, was the council's overwhelming vote to distinguish Christianity from the many gods of pagan belief. One way they did this was branding as heresy a teaching that Jesus was not the exact same substance as God.

(The key concept here, I think, is "branding." They were trying to make their product stand out in the religious marketplace.) As for Mary Magdalene as Mrs. Jesus:

"[T]here is no historical evidence, archaeology or letters — and no evidence is sin No. 1 for historians — that Jesus married Mary Magdalene or had a child with her, or that she went to France," says Kate Jansen, associate professor of history at Catholic University and author of The Making of the Magdalene: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Jansen says it's "The Da Vinci Code," not the church, that demeans Mary Magdalene, treating her "only as a vessel to pass on a holy bloodline. Her ideas, thoughts and actions don't matter. She's merely a holy uterus, a container. The actual history is so much richer."

Here, Jansen commits a typical sin of omission, failing to note (once again) that there is no historical evidence, archaeology or letters to the effect that such a person as Mary Magdalene ever existed. There are only religious texts, telling various versions of stories that later either wound up in the New Testament or didn't. These stories were written by people who were founding new churches, recruiting new adherents and thus addressing particular concerns of particular contemporary audiences; they are not, and were never intended to be, history or journalism by today's standards.

A "White Paper" attacking "The Da Vinci Code" at Movieguide begins with a quote from book critic Peter Millar in the June 12, 2003, edition of the London Sunday Times:

"This is without doubt, the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype-driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cutout-populated piece of pulp fiction that I have read. And that’s saying something. It would be bad enough that Brown has gone into New Age overdrive by trying to draw together the Grail, Mary Magdalene, the Knights Templar, the [bogus] Priory of Sion, Rosicrucianism, Fibonacci numbers, the Isis cult, and the Age of Aquarius. But he’s done it so sloppily."

That pretty much makes everything else Baehr & Co. have to say about "The Da Vinci Code" superfluous.

(Note: Movieguide.org describes itself as "a ministry dedicated to redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles, by influencing entertainment industry executives and helping families make wise media choices.")

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