Novelist spins history of art and church
Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” came out in March and slowly gathered steam that will keep winter readers tucked in bed, late at night, unable to lay it aside.
Discussions are not likely to soon stop about the modern-day tale of ancient secret societies, women’s roles in the early church, and, yes, the possibility that Jesus and Mary Magdalen were married. Eight months after “Code” hit the bookstores, the buzz at parties, churches, homes, offices, friend-gatherings and classrooms is still about the book’s premise.
Even those who haven’t read “Code” enter the discussions.
“It’s a fabulous novel that provokes thoughts about ‘what if,’” said H. Bragg Moore III, a 12th-grade teacher at Resurrection High School in Pascagoula. “I’m a person who really enjoys learning and education, and I’m not afraid of new ideas. This book certainly invites new thoughts.
“It sounds so plausible because Brown is a masterful writer and because of the mystery of it. When I first picked it up, I didn’t know anything about him, and I thought he must be a historian. Now, I understand he is a writer-researcher, intriguing in the thoughts he weaves… his own fiction. Everyone who picks it up asks, do you think this is true?”
Even the New York Times -”Code” is No. 1 this week – calls him a masterful storyteller. Brown takes real history of art and church and adds his own imaginary spins that are difficult for non-scholars to recognize as his own musings in the book about a Harvard symbology professor.
If Brown is doing nothing else, he’s making readers like Moore want to do independent research, perhaps to see what their own denominations say on the subject. But that’s not the case for everyone.
“So much of what I see written about the book and the discussions seems to talk about the book as if it were true,” said Biloxian Debbie Mowrey, office manager at Gulf Pines Catholic. “I enjoyed the book but read it as a fiction novel.
“Personally I don’t feel that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalen, and the book didn’t change my mind.
“I do think, instead of the possible marriage, the premise is the significant role that Mary Magdalen played, as a woman, in the church. In society at the time of the church’s early development, women were not seen as leaders, so it would be a natural thing for histories of that time to downplay or bury that role.”
And so the discussions go. Ministers in particular are being asked if they’ve read the book.
“I haven’t, so I won’t comment on it, but I do get asked about it,” said the Rev. Roe Callaway Jr. of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport.
“Just getting people to talk about religion can be a good thing, but we need to be ‘doing.’ I don’t know how this can promote a whole lot of activity or commitment. I think there are a whole lot more things that need our attention right now, like being more concerned about spreading the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Christians would not openly argue such a salient point, but that doesn’t stem the fascination with “Code.”
The Rev. Michael Tracey, pastor of Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church in Bay St. Louis, said he believes it is people’s hunger for religious answers that leads to the popularity of Brown’s book, an earlier book “The Bible Code” by Michael Drosnin and the “Left Behind” series.
“People are hungry for answers, and we don’t have time to research and to dig deeper,” Tracey said. “We want quick fixes and someone to tell us without our having to analyze on a deeper level.”
Tracey gives the analogy of making bread. Today, home bread machines make it simple: put in a mix, add liquid and press a button. Then there is the old-fashioned hands-on method of measuring the ingredients, stirring and kneading and putting it in the oven.
“We live in a society where we don’t have time to sit back and reflect,” Tracey said. “We want to push a button and have the warm bread, or the answers. If you don’t do critical thinking beyond the book, it’s the same. Push the button.
‘The Da Vinci Code’ gets people’s curiosity, like a rumor, ‘Did you hear about… ‘ and your ears perk up. In the grand scheme of things, books like this give people a satisfied curiosity in a simplistic way, because we do want the easy answers, like those books ‘For Dummies.’
“The danger is that people take it literally without analyzing it on a deeper level, without critically looking at this in the way we understand scripture.”
Tracey believes many who read it are still in the fascination stage, and he tries to get them to think on a different level: Why were you drawn to it? What does it mean to you? What does it say to you?
“The book is certainly not reliable in any scholarly way; If you’re going to read about the life of Jesus and the gospels, don’t depend on ‘The Da Vinci Code,’” said the Rev. Chris Viscardi, theology/philosophy chairman at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit institution in Mobile.
“It would be like taking the play, ‘Julius Caesar,’ and using it as a biography to study the life of Caesar. It’s a Shakespeare play. This book is a novel. The kinds of evidence we have of biographical knowledge of Jesus is very limited. We have testimony and narratives from people who saw Jesus as the Messiah, and the gospels are not biographical narratives in any modern sense.”
Viscardi sees “Code” as a spin-off of the scholarly research in search of the historical Jesus. He says we live in a world where a person can go on the Internet and find any opinion on anything, some reliable, some confusing, some deceiving. Education and critical thought is the key.
“What the novel talks about is fascinating, but it is a novel, not to be taken seriously as a scholarly statement. Jesus’ love affair with Mary Magdalen goes back to the more fictional kind of literature of the third and fourth centuries, but mainstream biblical scholars don’t take it seriously. They’re not even arguing about this.”