Cracking the Da Vinci Code

What is it about this record-breaking work of fiction that has touched our society’s spiritual nerve?

At a dinner party last weekend conversation turned, as it does when librarians gather, to books. Three of six at the table had read The Da Vinci Code, the high-speed thriller that weaves the legend of the Holy Grail, the secret life of Christ, the cult of the sacred feminine, Vatican conspiracy and cryptology into a bold police chase across Europe. It has led bestseller lists since it was published a year ago and everyone who has bought a hardcover copy has a list of friends waiting to read it.

The dinner party host, Margaret Henry, stayed up until the early hours of the morning reading her advance copy last year. She found one part — on the divine proportion that’s found in the human body and in bee hives and in musical compositions — intriguing enough to read aloud to her family. The writing is what you might call the he-turned-and-snarled style — not very good, she says — but it’s a page-turner with gripping allusions to mysteries in art and religious symbolism.

“It’s one of those books you hate to love,” says Henry, collections co-ordinator at the Toronto Public Library. “I was surprised at its success and that it’s continued to grow and grow in demand.” Mostly, she says, passed by word of mouth.

It’s also driven theologians mad and peeved art historians, because of the air of fact that’s implied, though the book, by Dan Brown, is clearly fiction. Not to mention the claim, made by one of The Da Vinci Code’s learned characters, “that almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.”

The distorted theology, and what some claim is Catholic-bashing, has so alarmed some academic and religious writers that at least four more or less scholarly books refuting this work of fiction will be published in the next few weeks. “His ideas are as wild as you can get in religion these days,” says James Beverley, professor at Toronto’s Tyndale Seminary.

They’re making themselves hoarse explaining: No, Jesus didn’t marry. No, Christ’s divinity wasn’t established in a 4th century power grab. No, the gospels presenting a more human Christ and a more powerful role for women were not suppressed by conspiratorial church fathers. And Mary Magdalene, while first at the tomb of Christ on Easter morning, was not the first among Christ’s disciples.

“More than 6 million people are reading this, thinking it is fact,” says Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary, explaining why he wrote Breaking the Da Vinci Code, which will be out in two weeks. “The actual story is as good as the history is bad.”

The Catholic lay organization Opus Dei was so incensed that Brown portrayed the movement not only as shadowy, but murderous — a key villain is a tragic albino monk who flagellates himself when things go awry — it issued an eight-page rebuttal. Furthermore, theologians such as Ward Gasque, of Seattle, have been crossing North America giving lectures on The Da Vinci Code, including two last month in the Toronto area. One, called “The Gospel, the Gnostic Gospels and The Da Vinci Code” was offered at Knox Presbyterian Church on Spadina Ave. and drew a crowd of 400. Art historians have become cross about Brown’s sketchy knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci. He wasn’t called da Vinci, scolds Bruce Boucher, of the Art Institute of Chicago. That was where the painter was from — Vinci. And it’s not correct to call Leonardo a “flamboyant homosexual.” Though charged with sodomy, Leonardo’s sexual orientation is unclear, Boucher wrote in the New York Times.

In Leonardo’s mural of the Last Supper, Brown identifies the beautiful figure to the right of Jesus as Mary Magdalene, while art historians say it is the figure of St. John, the young apostle beloved by Christ.

Some say the book’s popularity is part of a current trend in society that spirituality is good, while institutional religion, with its secrets, its power, its misogyny, is bad.

“It’s a revival of the old gnosticism,” says Rev. David Reed, professor of theology at U of T’s Wycliffe College. “We’ve turned inward to ourselves to find the god within. It’s preferring individual spiritual truth to any kind of commitment to a God who speaks to us through texts, such as the Bible or the Qu’ran.” In gnosticism, seekers yearn for a special truth that comes through secret knowledge that few have access to — in contrast with truths revealed through the Christian gospels, which are available to everyone.

Doubleday publishers say with 7.2 million copies in print, 190,000 of those in Canada, The Da Vinci Code has broken records for sales in one year. There are no plans yet for a paperback edition, though a deluxe illustrated edition is slated for the fall and a film, directed by Ron Howard, is in the works.

People who don’t usually buy books are buying The Da Vinci Code, says Brad Martin, Doubleday’s chief operating officer. “It’s become a piece of popular culture, part of a resurgence in interest in alternative views of Christ’s life.”

At the Toronto Public Library, there are 3,637 holds on the book and 314 copies in the system. The waiting list is about seven months long.

Susan Caron’s name is on that list. Though she works for the library, she’s never actually seen a copy of The Da Vinci Code, because the books are scooped up so quickly.

They’ve seen demand like this in the past — Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix topped the list of holds. But what makes The Da Vinci Code unusual for Caron, who manages the collection development department, is that requests for the book haven’t tapered off as they generally do after six months or so. The reverse is true. There are more holds on the book now than in November and December and librarians are wondering how many more copies they’ll need to buy.

Though The Da Vinci Code is fiction, Brown begins the book with a list of facts and adds that all of its descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals are accurate.

Wrong! say a chorus of scholars. “That gives it a claim beyond most historical novels,” says Gasque, president of the Pacific Association for Theological Studies and a New Testament scholar, who has led theological colleges in Toronto and Vancouver.

One of Brown’s “facts” includes existence of a secret society, known as the Priory of Sion, founded in 1099 with a membership roll that includes Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo.

“It was created in the 1970s and used forged documents that were slipped into the national library in Paris. No historian believes there’s any historical basis to it,” says Gasque.

And on top of that, says Dorothy McDougall of the Toronto School of Theology, the keepers of the great secret of the sacred feminine were a brotherhood. “So the author himself falls prey to a patriarchal framework.”

“There are real gender and institutional issues that need to be considered,” she says. “The church is the last male bastion and needs to be critiqued. But I don’t see it as a conscious conspiracy. It’s unconscious and The Da Vinci Code raises it to a conscious conspiracy in a way that isn’t altogether fair to history.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Toronto Star, Canada
Apr. 10, 2004
Leslie Scrivener

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)