The DaVinci Code: What We Know and DON’T Know About Religion

Today, the DaVinci Code madness starts all over again.

Actually, the madness has been building for several months now, ahead of the release of the DaVinci Code movie today. (In theaters around the planet, to read the press release)

As many of you know, I have the theological training (seminary degree) and literary training (journalism degree) to be more than a little dangerous. And since this is a book/movie/cultural phenomenon that is both literary and theological event, you might expect me to have a few thoughts.
Happy

This is an interesting book precisely because it blends mystery, suspense, theology, sex, history, into a potent and captivating brew. But I hear many people asking questions that we don’t often ask about works of fiction. Folks are asking: “Is it true?”
(click “Read More” below…

That’s an interesting question, to my mind, because, as I said, we don’t usually ask it about works of fiction. When Tom Wolfe writes about college students in modern America, we don’t say, “Hmnn…is THIS character actually a real person? Did what they do in the book actually happen?

Usually, Wolfe’s writing is close enough to real-life people that we can accept the general idea that such things ARE possible, without having to debate whether or not they are literally true.

But, for some reason, we treat the DaVinci Code differently. We ask ourselves:
“IS it true?”
“What if it IS true?”
“How can I know whether or not it is true?”

First off, let me say that, as a work of fiction, I personally loved the book. Dan Brown knows how to write a good thriller. He knows how to keep the attention of his readers. I found myself –as the cliche goes– unable to put it down. It’s a good book.

But let me say early in this essay that, as a work of a theology, as a primer on Christian history, as a source of any kind of “factual data,” the book is horrible. Just lousy. It really is.

To some people (Christian people, mostly), that makes the book evil, or misguided, or points to some kind of anti-Christian “agenda.” I don’t really get that, but I see how other folks might. It’s just a work of fiction that glosses the historical record, and flat out makes up other stuff.

But there is a deeper point I want to make in this essay. The deeper point is not that the book is pro-Christian or anti-Christian.

The deeper point is this: Most of us don’t know enough about Christianity to be able to judge one way or the other!!!

To me, this is the sad part. Most folks in our society don’t know enough about one of the great religions of our world to know whether or not this book is “telling the truth.” They’ve got hunches. Perhaps they’ve got guesses. Perhaps they’ve even got what they hope is the answer to this question. But they don’t really KNOW.

They don’t know enough to know whether they know or not!!

So, to the dear reader of this blog, I hope you will take this as a challenge to your own life. I hope you will ask yourself: Do YOU know enough about Christianity to know whether or not this book is telling the truth? Do YOU know enough about Christian history? Theology? World history?

You don’t have to go to seminary to get this kind of education. All you have to do is to choose to make religion something you study-up on. You have to decide that –whether or not religious faith is important to you as an individual– it’s still important enough to the culture that you ought to know something about it.

I first heard this argument when I was in college at UT, and taking American History. My professor –whose name escapes me at the moment– decided that he would teach American history from the perspective of America’s religious history. His thesis was that unless you fully understood what was happening in the religious community at any given point in the past, you could not fully understand what was happening in American history. I think he’s absolutely right.

How can we understand the Abolitionist Movement, without understanding the impact of the faith community?
How can we understand child labor laws, the temperance movement, union organizing, women’s right to vote, without understanding what religion was saying at the time?
How can we understand what Martin Luther King believed, without remembering that he was a preacher first and foremost?
How can we understand the question of gay marriage, without understanding what various religious faiths are saying about gay people today?

So, if you have questions about this book, ask yourself this question: Do you know enough to know what you know? And if you don’t, what are you going to do about it? Is there some reading you can do? Are there some sources you can consult?

Because, unless you do your own thinking, you’re left to take my word for it. (Or, the word of some other so-called expert…)

And you CAN do that. But isn’t that a little dangerous? Isn’t it dangerous to leave your theological-thinking to the so-called experts? Ironically, isn’t one of the allegations of the book that somebody somewhere has a secret knowledge that you DON’T have? Isn’t the point of the protagonist’s quest that the search for the truth is important?

I hope you’ll consider the question: Do I know enough to know what I know?

And if you don’t, I hope you’ll get yourself educated!

And, if you’re still interested in knowing what I know, I’d be happy to tell you now.
(If not, you can stop reading now, and go off and enjoy your day…)
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The DaVinci Code mixes real, factual and historical people, places, and things; with fanciful and hypothetical allegations that can never (at least not now) be proven or disproven.

There is a good “FAQ” about the DaVinci Code in the Dallas Morning News, and you might just start here.

Here is another story, written by Morning News religious writer, Jeffery Weiss, that talks about the DaVinci Code backlash. You can read it here.

In one section of this second story, Weiss says this:

The book’s plot revolves around a centuries-old conspiracy to hide the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene – and their descendants. The conspirators included Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci, who cleverly hid clues to the secret in his paintings. (Hence the title.)
The very first sentence in the book implies this is more than a mere tale. “Fact: The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization.” This arcane society, according to Mr. Brown’s telling, has been the keeper of the secret about Jesus and Magdalene.

(snip)

The book reeks of truthiness and smartiness – the appearance of being truthful and smart without necessarily being either. The protagonist is a Harvard professor (in a department that doesn’t exist). The fast-moving plot is propelled by a series of clever puzzles based on famous works of art.

So, what about the “facts” in the book? Lot’s of folks are talking about them. (In another place, Weiss points out that over 44 authors have written books, debunking the DaVinci Code!!!)

Among the “facts” that are clearly not factual is the story of the “Priory of Sion;” which is referred to repeatedly as an actual, historical group that counted Isaac Newton and Leonardo DaVinci as members. In truth, the “Priory” was likely invented by a Frenchmen as a hoax in the 1950s. Yes, there are documents in French libraries that point to its origins. But that same French guy from the 1950s put them there.

We can thank good-old 60 Minutes for uncovering this story for us all, and you can read their report here.

That’s really the heart of the whole book right there. And once you accept that the “Priory” is a made-up, fictional organization (and I hope you will) it becomes much easier to accept the rest of the book as fun fiction (which I hope you will).

But, here is other truthiness from the book:

— The glass pyramid at the Louvre has 673 glass panes, not 666.
— The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by Jews and say nothing about Jesus.
— They were discovered in 1947, not the 1950s.
— The irrational number Phi is not precisely equal to 1.618.
— If the figure to the left of Jesus in The Last Supper is really Mary Magdalene, as the book claims, then Leonardo left out an apostle.
— If it’s really John, as most art historians claim, Leonardo was neither the first nor the only artist to paint him as a beardless, long-haired young man.
— Mr. Brown’s best “proof” of a romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene comes from the Gospel of Philip, one of the Gnostic gospels.

Again, from a literary point of view, none of this a big deal. Books play hard and fast with the truth all the time.

W.P. Kinsella’s great book “Shoeless Joe” became the basis for the movie “Field of Dreams.” In the book, the lead character –who happens to be named Ray Kinsella– encounters the ghost of an old country doctor named Archie “Doc” Graham….or, “Moonlight” to his fans. The claim is that he was a major leaguer at one point. And, if you break out your “Encyclopedia of Baseball” you will be pleased to find that there actually WAS a real Archie Graham, who really was a pitcher.

Did he retire to become a country doctor?
Beats me. Don’t care, really. But it makes a great story.

Let me take this line of thought further (since this is one of my all time favorite books/moves, and the line of thinking fits…). In the movie version, the character played by James Earl Jones is named Terrance Mann. He is portrayed as an aging and broken 60s radical. But, in the original book, the character is J. D. Salinger…meant to be the reclusive writer of “Catcher in the Rye!!”

So, did W.P Kinsella, or Ray Kinsella, or anybody for that matter, kidnap J.D. Salinger and take him on a cross-county adventure?
No. Of course not. (In fact, the grumpy Salinger was so upset by the book that this is probably why they changed the character…ie, in real life, the real-life Salinger stayed a reclusive, old grump)

When reading this book, do we stop to ask “Is it true?!”
No. We accept that’s it’s fiction.

But for some reason, there are readers of DaVinic Code who seem ready to believe that the same kind of fanciful story –told about religion, instead of baseball– IS true.

By the way, in some deeply spiritual way, I think Field of Dreams IS true. It’s just not LITERALLY TRUE. There is a difference between what is true, and what is literally true. We have a hard time understanding this in our time, because we put such trust in “facts.” (And assume they never change, and that they are somehow “truer” than other kind of more, metaphorical truth…)

And this gets me to my final points:

What IS true about the DaVinci Code, then? At what level can we say that it points to things that ARE “true?”

Here, I’ll do my own quick Q and A:

Is there a grand conspiracy to hide the fact that Jesus and Mary were married?
Doubtful. Like the idea that there is some broader conspiracy around the Kennedy assassination, it defies credulity to imagine that such a fantastic secret could be kept for 2,000 years. Some person who was keeping the secret a secret would have spilled the beans, somewhere back in time. Or, somebody tasked with keeping the secret-keepers quiet (in the book, “Opus Dei”) would have been unable to keep it to themselves. People talk. Somebody would have talked!!! Heck, we can’t even keep secret government programs secret in our time…what makes us think that a HUGE secret like this could remain secret for 2,000 years?!

But nobody has talked. And so this is perhaps the best, most common-sense, argument you can make against the idea that Jesus and Mary were married and had children.

Does the Church Keep Too Many Secrets?
Absolutely. And that’s where some of the attraction of this book comes from. Whether it’s what we now know of the clergy abuse scandals, or the very real existence of Vatican archives that almost no one ever sees, the Catholic Church keeps too many secrets. Nature abhors this kind of vacuum. And, into this vacuum, steps the DaVinci Code….full of all sorts of truthiness.

Did the Church Suppress the Gnostics?
Yes. Or, better said, what became the Catholic Church and what became the Gnostic movement battled with each other over several centuries. The Gnostics should not be thought of as a poor, abused small people without opinions to aire, or axes of their own to grind. They were, in fact, quite opinionated about Jesus, the nature of God, the history of the church, etc…

These two groups fought as virtual equals for some time. The Christian Church eventually became far more powerful. And as they say, the telling of history usually belong to the victor. That is to say that many Gnostic writings probably were destroyed. However, a surprising number of them also do still exist.

Who were the Gnostics and why don’t I know more about them?
Well, when you learn American history, why don’t you learn more about King George? When you learn about Alexander the Great, why don’t you learn more about all the folks he conquered?

We just don’t usually learn our history that way. The telling of history, as they sometimes say, belongs to the victors. Over time, over history, we drop the references to the groups that fall off the historical screen..and we continue to tell, retell, and expand on the history/story of those who “win.”

Most scholars agree that most of the Gnostic writings we have today were written after the original Gospels and letters of Paul. And this is one of the reasons that scholars aren’t more interested in them. (Some are!) Scholars assume that they either embellished those original stories, or intentionally told the stories in a different way to make their own point.

In other words, the Gnostic writings are different, and in part because they were written to be responses to the the early Church and what they believed. They were written to set themselves apart from the early church, with whom they saw themselves in conflict and competition.

In those days, nobody on any side of any debate wrote anything down right away, by the way. There are no eyewitness accounts. There is no front page “Jerusalem Herald” story. There is no digital video tape. The stories –both from Gnostic side and the early Christian side– were told orally and then, over time, were written down in the forms we have today.

Many modern people are attracted to the early writings of the Gnostics, because they claim that the Gnostics were more egalitarian in their beliefs and included a role for women not present in the early church. That’s true if you read some of the Gnostic writings. But there are others where it is said that a woman cannot get to heaven, unless she becomes like a man. And that’s not real egalitarian, is it!!?

Other are attracted to Gnostics because the Gnostics claimed to have “secret knowledge” (much like Dan Brown’s book!!!), and so folks fancy that, if there IS secret knowledge out there somewhere, they’d like to have it, thank you very much.

We don’t know all there is know about Gnostics, because much of the record has been destroyed. We can surmise their beliefs, and if folks want to try to become card-carrying Gnostics, have at it. But, they’ll be recreating something that we have no firm record of, and any rituals or beliefs they claim to follow will be, in part, made up from modern assumptions.

Bottom line: There is nothing in the Gnostic tradition that can seriously debunk the Christian story completely. OR! vice versa.

Has the Catholic Church/Christian Church Suppressed the Role of Women?
Absolutely. No question. Women served as priests in the early church. There is even historical record of women serving as bishops. But, over time, women’s roles became minimized in these areas, and there was suppression of women. Many scholars today are rediscovering that history, and you can read more about it here.

That is one of the attractions of the book for a lot of folks, it seems to me. In that it re-discovers a role for women in the history of the church has has, in truth, been suppressed. In my opinion, and the opinion of many scholars, the DaVinci Code gets the story of women’s real role wrong…but there’s that “nature abhors a vacuum” thing again.

Because so much of the church is unwilling to really talk about the appropriate historical place of women –in either the ancient church, or today– the Da Vinci Code comes along to fill the vacuum and give people an interesting story.
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Well, that’s more than enough opinion on this subject…and not that you even asked!

One closing thought, from the Jeffery Weiss story.

Weiss says that we certainly do not try to get all our knowledge about science from the TV series “Star Trek.” For some reason (perhaps its campy production values?) we tend to assume it’s really fiction.

But with the DaVinci Code, folks from all walks of life –from faith and no faith– seem ready to believe it’s fanciful claims.

— Perhaps it’s because of the “truthy” way the book presents its “facts?”
— Perhaps because we like a good scandal?
— Perhaps because the real-life Church (Catholic and otherwise) is often so secretive about its own past and history?
— Perhaps because folks like to imagine that some “new” religion (like the Gnostics) might really have some “secret” knowledge?
— Perhaps because we’ve got a broad hunch that the Church did suppress women?

Perhaps for all these reasons and more, many many folks seem to want to believe this book is factually true.

But the sad part is that most of us are just guessing.

And we don’t know enough to know what we know about it, and what we don’t.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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