The plot of The Da Vinci Code turns on the revelation of a “sacred feminine” core to Christianity — a secret supposedly so shocking that it might overturn the Catholic Church.
The story line is well known: Jesus married Mary Magdalene and intended for her to succeed him as leader of his church; she was pregnant when he was crucified; their child, Sarah, was first in a bloodline that continues to this day. Powerful churchmen connive and kill to deny women their rightful place in the church.
And after a thriller-killer cross-continental chase, the heroine is declared “the last living descendant of Jesus Christ.”
But how much punch does the Code’s woman-power premise have? Is there really a feminine aspect to God? A theology that’s been sub rosa, hidden for centuries beneath the feminine symbol of the rose, the flower reminiscent of a blossoming womb?
Author Dan Brown says one reason his book is popular with women is because it confirms their sense that Christianity has kept women in secondary roles to downplay or disguise the feminine aspect of God, maintain male religious authority and stamp out rival beliefs, such as goddess cults.
Our world today is based on “outdated male philosophy,” Brown said recently on New Hampshire Public Radio. So he countered with a heroine whose very name, Sophie, means wisdom.
It’s a salute to Gnosticism (gnosis is Greek for knowledge), a first-century sect some claim was more feminine-friendly. That makes some critics and scholars sputtering mad.
Source: Dismantling The Da Vinci Code By Sandra Miesel, Crisis, Sep. 1, 2003
“God does not have a feminine aspect. He doesn’t have a masculine aspect. He doesn’t have a body,” says Barbara Nicolosi, a former nun who founded and directs Act One, which trains Christian screenwriters to work in Hollywood.
“I’ll give it a hearing that the church has discounted or devalued the contributions of women in the past,” she says, “but the church is always of its time. Looking back through a 21st-century lens is wrong.”
And yet, says the Rev. James Martin, he is constantly asked why the church “is hiding proof that Christ had sex.”
Martin waxes sarcastic at celebrating Mary Magdalene “just because she’s Ms. Jesus, known by her womb, not by her brains, as the mother of Sarah Magdalene-Christ. It’s disparaging her all over again because her only power comes through a man.”
But, more seriously, Martin, author of My Life with the Saints, frets when people swallow Brown’s version of early church history because “they think it is purer, less complicated, with no rules or doctrines, just because it was an earlier time. In fact, it was a much more contentious scene.”
However contentious, scholars say, there was no conscious, long-term strategic effort to suppress the feminine in early and later Christianity.
“The patriarchal coloring that the church later acquired has little to do with Christian theology and much to do with the brutal military nature of society in the late Roman Empire,” says Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver and author Engendering God: Male and Female Faces of God.
Still, the “sacred feminine” has drawn attention for decades.
Brown draws some of his imagery from Riane Eisler’s 1987 book, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Eisler presents the inverted triangle as a woman’s womb or chalice, and the pyramid as the blade or phallus — an image alluded to in Code. Eisler calls for balance between the two to create a cooperative, non-patriarchal society.
Other scholars say Brown’s presentation of the sacred feminine is a form of nouveau Gnosticism.
The ancient Gnostic gospels were excluded from the Christian canon because they argued salvation through spiritual knowledge rather than the teaching authority of any church. And they often gave this a feminine cast, says Katherine Jansen, an associate professor of history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
But for some spiritual seekers, this philosophy, free of gender, is appealing. Jehanne McQuillan travels the USA as a teacher and priestess in a “tiny, little-known women’s Gnostic tradition” called Laconneau.
Laconneau is an oral tradition, stressing inner spiritual growth and devotion to the “divine feminine” that has been passed from teacher to students in small, first-name-only groups since the 13th century, when they hid to escape persecution in France, McQuillan says.
“The Da Vinci Code is certainly a fiction. We do think Mary Magdalene fled to France,” she says, citing clues in Revelation, the Bible’s final book. “But we believe there was no child. The child of their union was actually their teachings. Mary Magdalene had a role in the foundation of the Gnostic church from the first century on.”
Laconneau, she says, draws people from every denomination “because nearly everyone has a growing undercurrent of feminist spirituality, a concept that humanity is in God’s image, an image that doesn’t leave out 50% of the human race.”
May 23, 2006
Cathy Lynn Grossman