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'The Da Vinci Code': Faith in fiction?

A scene from "The Da Vinci Code" -- or, possibly, one of the "Hellraiser" movies, it's kinda hard to tell.

My favorite headline of the week (so far) comes from Reuters: "Reading 'Da Vinci Code' does alter beliefs: survey." According to a poll of Britons, Dan Brown's phenomenally popular novel has effectively re-written the bible for many Christians and non-Christians alike -- so much so that some Catholics are saying the book and the movie should carry "a health warning":

LONDON (Reuters) - "The Da Vinci Code" has undermined faith in the Roman Catholic Church and badly damaged its credibility, a survey of British readers of Dan Brown's bestseller showed on Tuesday.

People are now twice as likely to believe Jesus Christ fathered children after reading the Dan Brown blockbuster and four times as likely to think the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei is a murderous sect.

"An alarming number of people take its spurious claims very seriously indeed," said Austin Ivereigh, press secretary to Britain's top Catholic prelate Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. "Our poll shows that for many, many people the Da Vinci Code is not just entertainment," Ivereigh added....

ORB interviewed more than 1,000 adults last weekend, finding that 60 percent believed Jesus had children by Mary Magdalene -- a possibility raised by the book -- compared with just 30 percent of those who had not read the book...

Hold on a minute: They're saying a whopping percentage of (at least technically literate) Brits now believe the pseudo-biblical "revelations" in "The Da Vinci Code" are true? I suppose it's no wonder millions of people in the modern world claim they believe in the bible, "Intelligent Design" and astrology -- even when they admit they know virtually nothing about them. In so many ways, we still live in the Dark Ages. 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.


A "prominent group of English Roman Catholic monks, theologians, nuns and members of Opus Dei" commissioned their poll from Opinion Research Business (ORB) and, according to the Reuters article, has "sought to promote Catholic beliefs at a time when the film's release has provoked a storm of controversy." (If they hire a publicist, I do not recommend Tom Cruise's sister for the job.)

Ron Howard's ultra-super-secret movie of "The Da Vinci Code" kicks off the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday. And the Catholic establishment is... madder than heck:

The English group... which stopped short of following the Vatican line of calling on Catholics to boycott the film, accused Brown of dishonest marketing based on peddling fiction as fact.

Imagine that -- presenting a book of preposterous events as if it were historical fact! The nerve of some people...

But, again I ask: How could a 2003 pulp-thriller novel (it wasn't even a phony memoir, like "A Million Little Pieces of Jesus") so radically alter so many people's views of the fundamental tenets of Christian lore? I suggest it's because most people, including those who identify themselves as Christians, have only a vague, piecemeal concept of what Christianity is (and what it has been over the centuries), and have never actually read, studied or understood the bible, relying instead on the easily swallowed, decontexualized tidbits served up in pop culture ("A Charlie Brown Christmas"), church sermons and evangelical TV talk shows. And ya gotta give Pat Robertson some credit here: His apocalyptic vision of the bible as an instrument for smiting the wicked (non-Christians, assorted sinners of his choice) often hews pretty closely to the actual text.

(BULLETIN: My favorite line from Todd McCarthy's pan of "The Da Vinci Code" in Daily Variety: "It's esoteric, heady stuff, made compelling only by the fact that what it's proposing undermines the fundamental tenants [sic] of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, and, by extension, Western Civilization for the past 2,000 years." Well, at least there's that.)

OK, not to worry. The bible has still outsold "The Da Vinci Code," plus it's been around a couple millennia longer. (And to my knowledge, nobody has been giving away free copies of "The Da Vinci Code" door-to-door, on the street corner, or in hotel rooms....) But I'd be willing to wager that there are more unread copies of the bible scattered about, hither and yon, in nightstand drawers and under wobbly furniture, than uncracked copies of "A Brief History of Time" on all the world's undusted shelves and coffee tables. That might be one way of accounting for the 30 percent of Brits who thought Jesus married Mary Magdalene, even though they hadn't read "The Da Vinci Code." Seems they hadn't quite grasped the basics of the Jesus story, either.

People find comfort not so much in what the bible says (much of which is not comforting at all, which they'd know if they'd read it), as in what it is: a venerable object used as lucky charm -- and one that might even stop a bullet and save your life if you kept it in your breast pocket. (Please note: I neither endorse nor advocate this view the bible; I'm just saying it's my experience that many persons of my acquaintance over the years who call themselves "Christians" espouse it. They know nothing about the bible or how it came to be the way it is. But that's not unusual. Religious hypocrisy is far easier than scholarship, and far older than what we now call "fundamentalism.")

In general, I'd say, a whole lot of modern "Christians" (particularly in Western Europe and America) aren't terribly devout; they're Sunday-morning supplicants. Despite what they may claim about their belief in the bible, they don't really base their religious faith on first-hand reading of sacred texts (unlike certain rigorous orthodox Jews, who are taught to examine and question the meaning of every line of the Torah for themselves, and to consult volumes of criticism and interpretation). They prefer to do what feels comfortable for them, usually in a social or family context, and not examine their fuzzily held notions of religion too closely. It's a philosophy otherwise known as, "Let sleeping dogmas lie." And that's all religion is to many (most?) people: Whatever works; whatever makes you feel good.

And yet, if asked, these good folks would say their faith is grounded in the bible as the (inspired) word of God. They just aren't quite aware of what those words are that they believe God said, and that the Almighty deemed important enough to set down in holy scriptures. But they probably are reasonably certain it has something to do with an eye for an eye and turning the other cheek and not killing other people and not coveting thy neighbor's wife and being fishers of men and water into wine and lying down in green pastures. And angels and shepherds and mangers and swaddling clothes and frankincense and myrrh and celebrating Christmas on December 25th because there's a war on, dammit! (Unfortunately for these Christians, many of them American politicians and Fox News personalities, the very God in whom they claim to believe is not likely to be fooled by superficial proclamations of faith. How can true faith arise from the ashes of doubt if there's never been enough serious and dedicated consideration of the faith to allow for any doubt in the first place? Or is that yet another religious Catch-22?) No wonder it's so easy for a silly entertainment like "The Da Vinci Code" to get them to change their perceptions of Christianity. They never knew all that much about Christianity to begin with.

On the other hand, as my Irish Catholic-raised friend Julia Sweeney says in her monologue "Letting Go of God," the Catholics have always tended to treat their big old sacred anthologies as something best left to the professionals. After all, these volumes are a mess of transcribed and re-transcribed fragments, all of them fallible copies and translations of dubious authenticity; none of them originals; many of their stories pre-dating not only Judaism and Christianity but written language itself. So perhaps it's best to understand them in that light, and to see them as, well, "poetic" meditations on metaphysical themes.

As a priest told Julia, the Old Testament, especially, might best be seen as a collection of ancient tales of wonder and mystery that were once told around campfires by wizards and shamans. And like the mystical pros of old, priests, cardinals and popes have long specialized in picking and choosing and interpreting these tortuously mangled texts for public consumption -- and putting their own personal spins on the stories and their lessons in the process, too. So, maybe the bible never was meant for laymen -- unless the early priests and church officers somehow anticipated the invention of the Gutenberg printing press (first printed bible: 1452) by many centuries. Maybe that's why the bible is such a poor vehicle for conveying coherent messages from God. Even Jesus's disciples couldn't figure out his parables half the time. Talk about a failure to communicate! Besides, when it comes down to it, there's just too much in there you don't want to know about if you're going to believe in it.

Indeed, as Julia concludes, the quickest way to get a Christian of any stripe to abandon his faith is not to give him "The Da Vinci Code" (or the Koran or the Book of Mormon), but to to simply get him to actually read the bible. There are moral horrors and immoral teachings (regarding murder, rape, incest, slavery, sadism, bestiality and other anti-family values) in the Old and New Testament that dwarf anything Dan Brown could ever have dreamed up. Sensational stuff, but hardly a reliable or infallible guide to living a moral life, by any definition of the word "moral."

I've often wondered how many "biblical literalists" have read the appalling biblical accounts of Lot and his daughters, or Abraham and Isaac, or Job, or Noah after the flood, or just about anything from Leviticus. You'd have to be insane not to find these stories reprehensible, if you take them literally. And that's just the Old Testament. (According to religious scholar Karen Armstrong, literalism/fundamentalism is a uniquely 20th Century Protestant way of interpreting biblical texts as a reactionary response to the predominant secularism of the modern world. And while it flies in the face of thousands of years of Christian tradition, it is mislabelled as "fundamentalism" because it is an entirely new phenomenon, not a return to the roots of faith but a complete distortion of them. Nevertheless, fundamentalism is on the rise in nearly all major religions -- and doomed to failure, Armstrong says, because it attempts to "return" to some mythical pre-modern ideal that never existed in the first place.)

"The Da Vinci Code" concerns the "family values" of the New Testament figure of Jesus -- the guy who allegedly said: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26, in the King James English translation, which some latter-day English-speaking literalists insist is the inerrant word of God, except for when they say it isn't and there must've been some kind of translation or transcription error). According to Brown's novel (I guess you'd call it "speculative fiction," a term I'd suggest applies just as well to the exant books of the bible themselves, as we've come to know them), Jesus didn't give up the ghost and ascend to heaven after crucifixion, but instead married Mary Magdalene, settled down and had some kids. Then there's a whole murder-mystery cover-up plot about Opus Dei and Leonardo Da Vinci and how the institution of the Catholic Church tried to cover up The Truth about Jesus and his offspring.

From a recent background piece on Opus Dei and "The Da Vinci Code" in "">The New Yorker":

The premise of Brown’s story is that Jesus of Nazareth was, in the words of a “Da Vinci" character, “a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal." The Brown theology—asserted, lecture style, in speeches by two of his main characters, both scholars—holds that Jesus was a proto-feminist married to Mary of Magdala, his favorite disciple and the mother of his offspring. This Jesus preached a message that was in harmony with goddess worship, and the early Christians practiced a life-affirming faith devoted to the “sacred feminine" until, in the fourth century, a Catholic power play replaced this true Christianity with the patriarchal, sin-and-atonement version. According to Brown, the softer Christianity’s books were burned by the Church, as were five million of its more assertive women—“female scholars, priestesses, gypsies, mystics, nature lovers," and the like. Even so, this original Christian Church could not be wiped out, and left clues everywhere telling of the sacred feminine—not only in Leonardo’s work (the artist was in on the secret) but even in church architecture. (The entrance of a Gothic cathedral, one of Brown’s characters observes, is like a vagina, “complete with receding labial ridges and a nice little cinquefoil clitoris above the doorway.")

OK, no wonder it was a best-seller. What kills me is not that people might put some credence in this stuff about re-shaping biblical texts for contemporary political and church-building reasons (which indisputably did happen, though not quite as outlined in the fiction of "The Da Vinci Code"), or that they would consider the age-old legitimate theological debate over the extent of Jesus's humanity or divinity, but that they would choose to accept the totally unfounded, extra-biblical idea of Jesus and Mary Magdalene getting hitched and raising a family. (We have no actual first-hand, historical evidence of Jesus at all, but that's another story.) For more reliable nonfiction accounts of the early Christian church and how the bible was developed, I suggest "Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages" by Jaroslav Pelikan; "Misquoting Jesus : The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why" by Bart Ehrman; "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard E. Friedman; and "The Secret Origins of the Bible" by Tim Callahan. They may not have as much sexy self-mutilation as "The Da Vinci Code," but they're pretty good at illuminating biblical mysteries.

All this got me to thinking about other Jesus movies of recent years and why they were, or were not, "controversial." Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was a "best of" anthology of the gospels concerning the last hours of Jesus's life and crucifixion, with an enthusiastically pagan emphasis on grotesque blood rituals and spooky demonic imagery that appeared to have been drawn less from the New Testament than from music videos by satanic death-metal bands of the 1980s. It was a smash it -- with Protestants even more than Catholics (who traditionally don't shy away from blood and flesh in their transubstantiation ceremonies), although some condemned its voodoo-rendition of the Passion Play, and others accused it of anti-Semitism.

Although much less radical and more philosophically traditional than "The Passion of the Christ," Martin Scorsese's 1988 film of Nikos Kazantzakis's 1951 novel, "The Last Temptation of Christ," was considered enormously provocative because it dared to suggest... well, not even a wee glimmer of what is suggested in "The Da Vinci Code." Kazantzakis's and Scorsese's concept was to present the possiblity of an ordinary family life for Jesus -- marriage, kids, etc. -- as the "last temptation" with which Satan tantalizes him while he's on the cross. The Jesus of the bible (and, let's not forget, "Jesus Christ Superstar") expresses his own momentary doubts and misgivings about completing his mission; if he didn't have them, his sacrifice would be a purely physical one (like Gibson's), rather than a spiritually meaningful one. That's why, for me, Jesus's cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" is so moving and shattering.

It's fascinating that the Judas of "Last Temptation" is closer to the recently discovered, so-called "Judas Gospel" than he is in any of the gospels eventually included in what we now call the New Testament. In the end, it's he who makes Jesus's sacrifice possible; he's the one who guides Jesus along the path he must take to fulfill his destiny.

I thought Scorsese's film was reverent and inspired, but it caused protests from Christians of many stripes. Today, however, even some conservative Christian groups such as the Promise Keepers have defended this interpretation of the life and death of Jesus.

Will they ever accept the alternative-universe dogma of "The Da Vinci Code"? Check back in a few decades. Or centuries. Heck, if Christianity is still around a few hundred years hence, Kazantzakis's and Brown's versions could even be incorporated into some future, further re-edited edition of the bible itself that takes out a lot of the bad and dubious stuff, displays the results of the best biblical scholarship, and offers a variety of interpretations of the core stories! Might even be a best-seller.

(Sure to be my second-favorite headline of the week: "Elephant Not Interested in Using Treadmill.")

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