The Da Vinci Code: Christianity fights back

Amid the growing hype over the imminent movie release of The Da Vinci Code, churches around the world are braced for renewed scepticism. But, discovers Stephen Phelan, not all clergy think it’s the work of the Devil.

Every Good Friday, the highest and holiest ranks of the Catholic Church congregate at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for a service they call The Passion Of The Lord. This year, their commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ included vocal and ominous references to “a certain film”. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who used those exact words while delivering a special homily in his official capacity as Preacher Of The Papal Household, did not mention the name of that film, but everyone present – chief among them Pope Benedict XVI, and presumably God himself – would surely have known what he was talking about. “Christ is still sold,” said Cantalamessa. “Not any more for 30 coins, but to publishers and Hollywood studios for billions of coins.” At the same time on the other side of town, and as if to prove his point, a gigantic poster was being erected on the scaffolding around the church of San Pantaleo. Soon the half-restored 16th century facade was obscured by a monumental advert for the new Da Vinci Code movie, even as the Vatican’s most eminent public speaker was going on to say that this film would cause “a sharp increase in the wave of speculation” first triggered by the book it is based on.

“Nobody will be able to stop it,” warned Cantalamessa, perhaps unconsciously adopting the portentous, italicised tone of the dialogue in Dan Brown’s megaselling heretical novel. He was right, though. Since it was published in 2003, The Da Vinci Code has become a growth industry. Last year the author appeared, alongside the new pontiff, on Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. This movie adaptation, after a premiere at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, will be released on May 19 to a primed and eager market across the planet.

Over 40 million people have already read the book; many more will see the picture. If even a fraction of them believe even part of this story – particularly the part that says Jesus did not die on the original Good Friday, but lived on to have children with Mary Magdalene as a retired mortal prophet rather than the son of God – then The Da Vinci Code will become something more potent than a semi-literate, pseudo-historical affront to the tenets of Christian faith, and may do some actual damage. And if the various global churches and denominations are generally resigned to the fact that they can’t stop pop culture, there is a gathering awareness that they should at least be ready with a suitably robust theological response. Some will still try to ignore it, others will welcome this film as a platform, many are prepared to put up a spirited fight.

“The Da Vinci Code might be a bad thing or a good thing for Christianity,” says Reverend Robin Griffith-Jones, who also goes by the ancient honorific title Master Of The Temple. “It all depends on how able churches are to stand up and hear the questions it raises, and answer them not angrily or defensively, but gladly and warm-heartedly.” The first of those questions will invariably be, “What is fact and what is fiction?”, and Griffith-Jones could stand as living proof that Dan Brown’s characters bear no resemblance to actual persons. In The Da Vinci Code, his Temple Church is imagined as a hidden crypt in central London where entombed crusader knights have been keeping the secret of the Holy Grail since the 12th century, and the master is presented as its “scowling and foul-tempered” modern guardian.

In reality, the place is a very old but highly accessible Anglican institution near Fleet Street, which has become, like Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, a busy highlight of the international Da Vinci Code tourist trail. And while he “rejoices” in his dramatic title, the true master is an erudite and positively jolly local rector. He can’t remember but can’t rule out the possibility that Dan Brown came to the church while researching his book. “Perhaps he asked me a silly question,” says Griffith-Jones, “and I was slightly brisk in my reply. So there I have my come-uppance in fiction.” He first heard of the novel three years ago, when visitors started turning up waving copies around. “They were mostly Americans,” he says, “and they were quite frantic in asking me if I had read the book. For a moment I thought they meant the Bible.”

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

As an art historian who used to work for Christie’s auction house, and a theologian specialising in the Gnostics, Griffith-Jones found that Dan Brown’s conspiracy plot turned on subjects “very close to my heart”.

“It would have been almost absurd of me not to respond,” he says. So he wrote his own book, The Da Vinci Code And The Secrets Of The Temple, debunking the “rubbish” contained in the novel, and now gives public talks to this effect every Friday afternoon in the church. At the same time, the temple also took money from Sony Pictures for allowing director Ron Howard to film scenes for The Da Vinci Code movie inside. “We made that decision carefully,” he says, “and mainly for administrative reasons. The fees from the film have allowed us to stay open seven days a week, which we’ve always wanted to do.”

The Master Of The Temple is not, then, a sworn enemy of The Da Vinci Code. He thought the book was “a rip-roaring page-turner”, and watched the cast and crew turn his “light and airy” church into a foreboding film set while waving at lead actress Audrey Tautou and “hoping for a cameo role”. (Griffith-Jones’s fictionalised counterpart was ultimately written out of the script.) He admits, though, that the finished movie will represent a challenge.

“Films are extraordinarily captivating. They have a much more immediate impact than books, and leave an unforgettable image printed on your mind. To my mind, of course, the real story of the gospels is infinitely more poignant, strange and inspiring, but the fact that this fantasy will appeal to so many people means that we really need to get out there and tell them why we find those gospels so plausible and so important.”

Griffith-Jones can only really speak for himself. The Church of England has no official line on The Da Vinci Code. Neither does the Church of Scotland, beyond restating for the record that the story is “fiction” and therefore inherently unworthy of further discussion. (Sony Pictures refuse to comment for much the same reason.) Indeed, ask around religious circles for a reaction, and you discover just how divided, decentralised and ambivalent these organisations can be.

When the governors of Westminster Abbey refused to let the film production team in to shoot scenes around the grave of Sir Isaac Newton, on the grounds that it would be “inappropriate” (Dan Brown contends that Newton was a member of a secret intellectual society known as the Priory Of Sion, dedicated to the preservation of arcane mysteries), both Winchester and Lincoln cathedrals agreed to serve as stand-ins. Again, the reasons seem to have been pragmatic, even worldly – Sony Pictures were offering to pay ?20,000 for access.

“The fact is,” says Archdeacon John Guille of Winchester, “our annual budget is only ?2.1 million and we get no government support. So we thought, if we take this money, we can use it to balance our books, and put it towards educational purposes.” While groups such as the Lord’s Day Observance Society have taken this as “further proof that the Church of England is in disarray [and will] do anything for extra money”, the chapter who run Winchester Cathedral have spent their small windfall on an exhibition and lecture series titled Beyond The Da Vinci Code, which is now reorienting visitors toward orthodox interpretations of scriptural history.

“It’s all about meeting people where they’re at,” says Archdeacon Guille. “Many people have taken this book very seriously. They believe it to be a new gospel truth, as it were, even though what Dan Brown says is actually a travesty of the truth. So before the film comes out, we say come and reflect on the symbols he has misused – the star of David, the image of John the Evangelist – which have been in this church for 900 years, and in the Christian tradition for 2000.”

Anglicans, and Protestants in general, might conceivably be insulted or even given cause to doubt their faith by The Da Vinci Code, given that the film will vividly suggest that the most common articles of dogma were fabricated by historical power-players with shadowy agendas. Catholics may be more directly offended, as the Holy Roman Church is identified as a criminal enterprise expressly designed to perpetuate this deception. But the Vatican itself has been, it seems, characteristically slow to voice concern.

“They are always afraid that if they speak out about something, they will sound defensive,” says John Thavis, veteran bureau chief of the Catholic News Service in Rome. “Or that they will only help the sales of whatever they’re objecting to. So they tend to ignore popular fiction or films. To some extent they’re still ignoring this one. They’re hoping it will all blow over.”

Father Cantalamessa’s Easter sermon represents the only condemnation to emerge from the Holy City so far, although the now-notorious Da Vinci Code billboard of San Pantaleo proved so unpopular that a black shroud has since been thrown over it. (The Italian Interior Ministry, which owns the church and rented the front out as advertising space, has promised to have it taken down.)

“If the heads of the Vatican were to go down to St Peter’s Square and look in the backpacks of every pilgrim,” says Thavis, “they would find copies of The Da Vinci Code in most of them. But I think perhaps they are still underestimating the potential influence of this book, and certainly of the film. In the United States, and in the globalised market, the impact of pop culture can be extremely strong, and I think many church leaders out there are more aware of that.”

And nobody is more prepared for Cantalamessa’s dreaded “wave of speculation” than the United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops or their evangelising association, the Catholic Communication Campaign. Understanding that the internet will be the engine for irreligious rumour surrounding the film, they have used it as their instrument of rebuttal, commissioning a new website and information resource called Jesus Decoded, on which every element of the plot is systematically pulled apart by contributing scholars who seem considerably better informed than Dan Brown or the film’s scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman, if inevitably biased by their own Catholicism.

Art historian Elizabeth Lev, for example, corrects the basic errors and egregious assertions in Brown’s portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci as a “flamboyant homosexual” who “received hundreds of Vatican commissions” and painted Mary Magdalene into The Last Supper, disguised as the apostle John, in an attempt to expose the conspiracy (Brown mislabels that painting as a “fresco” twice in one paragraph). Father John Wauck, a priest and Renaissance historian with a Harvard degree, argues that The Da Vinci Code combines nominally factual reference points – Emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicea, the Gnostic gospels, the Knights Templar – with “deliberate and tendentious mistakes, to transmit a false and ugly picture to the whole world”.

And Amy Welborn, author of various recent books with such titles as De-Coding Da Vinci: The Facts Behind The Fiction and The Da Vinci Code Mysteries: What The Movie Doesn’t Tell You, ends a trenchant defence of the scriptures with a dismissal of credulous Dan Brown fans that suggests a blissful ignorance of the irony that her own religious beliefs are based on ancient testimonies which remain no more verifiable than Brown’s goofy conjectures. “To be honest,” she writes, “there is not much that an intellectual discussion is going to do to change these people’s minds. They are truly True Believers and largely immune to reason.”

Da Vinci Outreach is an even more pro-active initiative formed by a coalition of American Christian groups (including Catholic Exchange, Human Life International and Children Of The Father) to provide an “antidote” to the “spiritual poison” which apparently “erodes faith”. It is administered online, in the form of a mail-order instruction manual titled The Da Vinci Deception, and through information disseminated by academics such as Dr Pia de Solenni, who was personally awarded a Vatican prize by Pope John Paul II for her thesis on the implications for women of the philosophy of Sir Thomas Aquinas, and is now a religious policy consultant in Washington DC.

Does de Solenni really believe this movie will literally harm the souls of some viewers? “Yes,” she says, “unfortunately I do. Simply because a lot of people don’t have the tools at hand to make an independent judgement.” Does she not, then, think it reasonable to ask how we are supposed to objectively judge the difference between the truth according to the gospels and the alleged “mockery of truth” contained in Dan Brown’s fiction?

“I can sympathise with the question,” says de Solenni. “But look how many Christian denominations share the same truths, which have lasted despite all wars, all divisions, even within the Church itself. Different documents from different areas at different times all tell the same story, and the testament to their veracity is their staying power.”

De Solenni’s slight air of exasperation may be understandable. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, has survived attacks on stronger social and ideological fronts over the centuries, and the faithful interpret this as proof of righteousness in itself. It must seem galling to insiders that a work of pulp fiction might now constitute a genuine threat.

Professor Patrick Reilly said as much in a public lecture he gave last week at Glasgow University, titled Reflections On The Da Vinci Code. Reilly is now retired but still notable as the first Catholic professor of English Literature appointed at that institution since the Reformation, and still vigorous in an argument. Deconstructing the novel’s “execrable style”, describing the content as “a farrago of nonsense”, he asked aloud if we “are demeaning ourselves by taking it with any degree of seriousness at all”, and concluded by attributing the impending success of the movie to “the uninformed, ignorant hatred of Christianity that disfigures Western society today”.

The text of that lecture has been made available to the Scottish Catholic Media Office (CMO), which is now integrating it into the content of a DVD which will shortly be sent to parishes and schools around the country. Its purpose, as CMO director Peter Kearney explains it, is to provide “what we call a pastoral response, for the sake of those individual Christians who have reported that The Da Vinci Code has caused them to question their faith”.

“There is also,” says Kearney, “an awareness that most people who watch the new film will not be Christian, and they may be interested and curious about what the gospels really say. We would like to see this as an opportunity rather than a threat.”

Logically, though, The Da Vinci Code would be neither of those things – and it certainly wouldn’t have been made into a movie – if it wasn’t so popular. And it wouldn’t be so popular if there wasn’t something inside the story, some intangible core of fascination, that exists even after each sentence has been unpacked, analysed and thoroughly dismissed by the experts. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested in his own Easter sermon that the book has capitalised on the prevailing strands of sensationalism, fragmentation and paranoia in our culture, pretending to expose the narrative that underlies history, to prove that it really was all a conspiracy, and assure us that everything is connected and meaningful.

Jack Valero, one of the UK directors of the conservative Catholic organisation Opus Dei, thinks the appeal of The Da Vinci Code is even easier to explain. “People feel that they need a story like this to fill in the gaps,” he says, “because the Catholic Church has been teaching its own insights very badly, half-heartedly and incompletely for many years. If The Da Vinci Code helps people realise this, it would be fantastic.”

In Dan Brown’s novel and Ron Howard’s movie, Opus Dei is presented as a wealthy, secret and vicious cult who mutilate themselves and murder others out of devotion to the memory of Jesus’ suffering. One of its members is the most sinister character in the whole story, an albino monk assassin played in the film by Paul Bettany. “We were fairly unknown,” admits Valero, “and now we have been thrust into the limelight, just because Dan Brown imagined a cult and used our name for it. We don’t really mind, but we wish it hadn’t happened like this.”

Describing The Da Vinci Code as “inaccurate in every way”, he goes on to count its errors. There are no monks in Opus Dei, and they abide by the Ten Commandments. The self-mutilation has been exaggerated – while some members do whip and chafe their skin as an act of “bodily mortification”, Valero insists that most of their daily sacrifices are “much smaller but more significant, such as smiling even when you are tired”. He says they make money because the whole ethos of Opus Dei is to bring God into normal, professional working lives, but all of it is paid back into the organisation. And while Opus Dei has published an official rebuttal of The Da Vinci Code in the United States, they are too small a group in Britain (with only around 500 members) to even bother.

“Dan Brown and Sony Pictures and [Brown’s publishers] Doubleday are like King Kong,” says Valero. “And Opus Dei is like the girl in the monkey’s fist. We could scream, but nobody would hear us.” Whether this analogy is accurate or not, Opus Dei’s response to The Da Vinci Code, like that of most other Christian groups, will be to take whatever advantage it can. “May 19,” says Valero, “will be a teaching day, not a fighting day.”

The suspicion remains that there is more to it than all this. What is The Da Vinci Code if not an overstuffed index of counter-myths that have persisted since the times of Jesus himself? They’re so old and so well documented that Dan Brown was recently cleared in court of plagiarising from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a book which itself attempted to transmit centuries of gossip into solid history. And as fanciful, tedious and drawn-out as this paper chase may be, the cumulative effect is a lasting and growing impression that the suspension of disbelief has perhaps gone on too long, and maybe that most famous character never walked on water or rose from the dead after all.

In his church off a main street in London, the Master Of The Temple is prepared to reflect on this for the rest of his life and beyond. “Oh good heavens, yes,” says Reverend Robin Griffith-Jones. “Within 40 years of Jesus’ death, his followers realised that they were making unbelievable claims about this man. Thinkers of the church worked for whole lifetimes on that problem, trying to get their hearts, heads, minds and pens around the mysteries we proclaim. That true mystery is singularly lacking from The Da Vinci Code, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to wait until the next life to get more than a glimpse of it.”

The Da Vinci Code is released on May 19

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Sunday Herald, UK
Apr. 30, 2006
Stephen Phelan

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