Capitalizing on the ‘Code’

Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty used to shrug off all the unwelcome attention:

The gaggles of teenagers who peered into Opus Dei’s U.S. headquarters at 34th Street and Lexington Avenue inquiring after Silas, the albino monk assassin of “The Da Vinci Code” fame.

The letters addressed to Bishop Aringarosa, the fictional head of Opus Dei in Dan Brown’s best-selling novel.

The tourists who wandered around the building clutching dog-eared copies of the book, trying to retrace the characters’ steps.

How, Finnerty wondered, could readers of a cartoonish whodunit confuse its fictional plot – and such an outlandish one at that – with real life? “There are no monks in Opus Dei, albino or otherwise,” he repeats almost like a mantra. “Nobody here dresses in robes – not even on Halloween. This is fiction.”


But the days of mild-mannered refutation are over. With Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the novel set to debut this spring and 40 million copies of the novel in print, Finnerty and his organization, who are the “Code’s” arch-villains, fear a tsunami is headed their way.

And so, they are adopting a new strategy: There will be no calls for boycotts. No angry denunciations. Instead of fighting against popular culture, Opus Dei – along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many leading Protestant evangelicals – will attempt to ride the giant wave created by Sony Pictures Entertainment, exploiting it as a “teachable moment” with their own films, books, Web sites and discussion groups.

The Da Vinci Code

So error-laden is The Da Vinci Code that the educated reader actually applauds those rare occasions where Brown stumbles (despite himself) into the truth. […] In the end, Dan Brown has penned a poorly written, atrociously researched mess.
Source: Dismantling The Da Vinci Code By Sandra Miesel, Crisis, Sep. 1, 2003

“For a long time we’ve been trying to get out there and explain who we are,” Finnerty said. “Now with ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ we have a much bigger platform than we had before. At least people return my calls.”


And so chatty emissaries from Opus Dei have begun to appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” CBS News and NBC’s “Today” show, talking about Opus Dei’s mission to pursue holiness in everyday life, while the U.S. Catholic bishops put up a Web site on Friday, www.Jesusdecoded.com.

But that’s just the start: The bishops plan to release an hour-long TV documentary in May, timed to coincide with the box office release of the “Code,” refuting some of its more sensational assertions, such as the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a line of progeny.

Opus Dei is touting a new edition of St. Josemaria Escriva’s “The Way,” a collection of points of prayer by its founder, which will be published 10 days prior to the movie’s May 19 release. A new sign posted above their front door urges “Fans of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ ” to take a free pamphlet about “the real Opus Dei.” And the group has even found a real-life “Silas,” in this case a Nigerian member who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, whom they are offering as a counterpoint to Brown’s killing machine of the same name.

“You have to have a sense of humor,” Finnerty says. “Countering a novel and a movie is a little bit like fighting against smoke. If you swing at it with boxing gloves, you wind up looking a little silly.”

Even battle-scarred fighters in the culture wars such as William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, are pragmatic about what they can accomplish against such a juggernaut.


“I haven’t called for a boycott for one simple reason,” Donohue says. “Thirty million people have read this bloody book. They’re just not going to go for a boycott.”

Instead, his group took out an ad in The New York Times two weeks ago demanding that Howard have a disclaimer that the film is fiction. Opus Dei also has appealed to Sony to alter “numerous factual misrepresentations” – among them, that Opus Dei has monks. Neither group has heard back.

“‘The Da Vinci Code’ is a work of fiction not meant to harm any organization,” said Jim Kennedy, senior vice president of corporate communications for Sony. “And at its heart, it’s a thriller, not a religious tract. We believe the filmmakers are going to deliver an exciting movie that will delight audiences, not offend them.”

Yet, the movie, starring Tom Hanks, is expected to track the novel’s premise that Jesus Christ’s divinity was a fraud perpetrated by the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine, that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife who gave birth to their child a few months after he was crucified – and that all this was covered up by the Catholic church.

For some, that premise is thrilling, delivered as a fast-paced murder mystery with dollops of historical assertions about art, the gnostic gospels and early Christian history thrown in for verisimilitude. But others assail Brown for blaspheming Christian beliefs in a way that intentionally blurs the lines between fact and fiction.

“It is not only historically false, but blasphemous – as much or more so than a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad was considered blasphemous,” says evangelical Biblical scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

Yet, despite his indignation, Witherington has agreed to participate in a Sony-sponsored Web site, www.thedavincichallenge.com, to counter the movie’s ideas.

“I decided, ‘Why not use the free space Sony is providing to continue the dialogue of what’s wrong with ‘The Da Vinci Code’ at their own expense?’ “

He has been joined by several dozen leading evangelicals, including Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.; Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship in Lansdowne, Va. and former chief counsel to President Richard Nixon; and Gordon Robertson, the co-host of “The 700 Club.” A few Catholics are also taking part.

Most are telling Christians to go see the movie so they are in a position to debate it. “A good offense is always better than defense,” says Witherington. “This isn’t going to be a backwater conversation that five people have around the water cooler.”

A few are even counting that debate as the silver lining.

“The fact is, in a couple of months, Larry King will be talking about what happened at the Council of Nicaea in [A.D.] 325,” said Bishop Savas of Troas, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, referring to the landmark meeting in the early church that is part of the “Code’s” plot. “And that’s good, in my estimation.”

Still, there are a few holdouts who refuse to get on the bandwagon, especially as far as Sony’s publicity machine is concerned.

“Folks, there is no dialogue here,” Christian screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi asserts on her popular blog (http://churchofthemasses.blogspot.com).

“What there is is a few PR folks in Hollywood taking mondo big bucks from Sony Pictures to deliver legions of well-meaning Christians into subsidizing a movie that makes their own Savior out to be a sham.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Newsday.com, USA
Mar. 19, 2006
Carol Eisenberg, Newsday Staff Writer
www.newsday.com

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