In the fall of 2003, our program staff at the Center for Christian Study decided it would be a good idea to read and discuss The Da Vinci Code, a novel by a then unknown author named Dan Brown, which a number of our students had asked us about. We were told it raised questions about the church’s history and mission and about the Bible’s truthfulness, and that some students were having a hard time answering those questions. Our staff has limited time for this sort of thing, but we think it important to keep up with what the students are reading and discussing, and the book had been on The New York Times bestseller list for some weeks, so we decided to give it a go.
I still remember how we felt about the endeavor when we got together to discuss the book. We were glad we had done it because we each knew students who were troubled by the book’s allegations, but we wondered whether it was really worth the time and effort. Surely a book that was so brazenly and thoroughly wrong in its facts would not last long. It was a great potboiler, yes, but who could believe the foundational claims of the book’s plot if they knew anything about the Church, the history of the New Testament, or the life of Jesus? We dismissed its run on the bestseller lists as short-lived, and sure to fail soon. Much of our discussion was spent howling at the book’s ridiculous assertions.
Well, no one ever called us prophets, and they certainly will not do so now. Brown’s book is, at the time of this writing, still number three on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list, and has now been on that list for 152 weeks, most of that time as number one. One would have to have spent the last three years on Mars not to have heard Dan Brown on a television talk show, or seen a report on the book’s charges, or heard of the firestorm touched off by the movie being released on May 19 , or at least discussed with a confused neighbor the controversial claims made about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the New Testament and its record of Jesus’ life, and the history of the Church’s supposed cover-up of the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind.
Why did the book become such a phenomenon, and how should Christians respond to its success, especially in light of what will be an even greater expansion of its message, when the film comes out?
To answer these questions, it is essential to understand the basic outline of the story. A gruesome murder at Paris’s famous Louvre museum results in an American “symbologist” named Robert Langdon and a French cryptologist named Sophie Neveu journeying into a bizarre world of secret societies, Church conspiracies, and convoluted codes that leads to the uncovering of a complicated scheme to keep secret a “fact” that the Church has concealed for 2,000 years: that Jesus, far from being the resurrected and ascended Son of God, was only a man, who married, fathered children, and died a normal death in first-century Palestine. The story asserts that one of the Church’s chief concerns was the leadership role Jesus’ wife, Mary Magdalene, played in the early church. To protect its power, the male-dominated Church engineered a complete cover-up, successfully keeping secret the true origins of Christianity until now.
Two Keys to the Code’s Popularity
Action stories accusing the Roman Catholic Church of conspiring to keep secret some vital piece of information which debunks the foundations of the Christian faith are nothing new. I think, for instance, of Robert Ludlum’s The Gemini Contenders, and there are a host of others. But all these had their nice run of sales and faded onto the shelves of second-hand bookstores. The Da Vinci Code continues to be red-hot three years after its publication. Why?
There are at least two reasons. First is the claim Dan Brown makes to historical accuracy in the book. In an unusual move, he has a one-page preface to the book simply entitled “Fact” before he begins the novel proper. Here he relates three things: 1) the historicity of “the Priory of Sion,” a supposedly ancient secret society, which features prominently in the novel; 2) a biased statement about an acknowledged prelature of the Vatican called “Opus Dei;” and 3) the following remarkable statement: “All depictions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” The statement is remarkable because it is such a bald-faced lie.
If we had time and space, we could go into Brown’s insinuations about the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei and show how fantastic in the one case, and insidious in the other, they are, but there are plenty of Web sites and books that debunk each of Brown’s fantasies in detail. One of the best Web sites is Dr. James Denison’s “God Issues” found at www.wordinlife.org. His extensive research into virtually all the issues are simply stated and clearly supported. A superb lecture by my colleague Dr. William Wilder, giving an overview of all the problems with Brown’s claims, can be downloaded from our Web site at www.studycenter.net. Two excellent books have been written on the phenomenon: Breaking the Da Vinci Code, by Darrel Bock, New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, and The Da Vinci Hoax, by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, two Catholic writers.
Just one example of Brown’s treatment of the New Testament should suffice to show his shoddy research. At a crucial point in the story, when an English gadfly named Sir Leigh Teabing is explaining what Brown admits is his view of the development of the New Testament canon, Brown writes: ‘“Fortunately for historians,” Teabing said, “some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert.”’
These two statements could not be further from the truth. Not only did Constantine not participate in the canonical process by destroying gospels he simply didn’t like, but also the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the mid 1940s, and, even more importantly, were exclusively Jewish documents without a single Gospel among them. Most scholars believe that the majority of scrolls found there date from before the time of Christ, and all scholars, to my knowledge, believe the community sealed up the scrolls at the time of the Jewish war with Rome, AD 66-70, well before any heretical gospels were written. To have been so sloppy about simple New Testament facts and then to claim that “All depictions of … documents … in this novel are accurate” demonstrates slipshod work in the extreme.
The Church is Ill-Equipped to Respond
This brings us, however, to the second reason The Da Vinci Code has been such a phenomenon, and that is this—the pestilential lack of biblical literacy in this country today. If more people knew even the basic history of their faith, they would have dismissed The Da Vinci Code for what it is. Unfortunately, it has troubled them deeply because, built on what they take to be historically arguable facts, the story actually seems plausible to them. The Church has done a poor job of equipping its people for the work of debunking silly stories like this one, but all the blame cannot be laid at the feet of the Church. I know many churches where Sunday school classes in church history or the background of the Bible are readily available, and yet people stay away in droves. Our penchant for self-help classes, counseling seminars, and books on anything but the stuff of Scripture has left us thoroughly unable to respond when arguments contradictory to the faith and claiming to be based on history are put forward as truth.
The Da Vinci Code is coming to the forefront of pop culture again because the movie will be coming out shortly, and Dan Brown is being tried for plagiarism in a London court. Once again Christians are being confronted with a re-interpretation of the Jesus story; once again the historical veracity of the documents that define our faith is being called into question. The film script has been heavily guarded, so we do not know what of the original story will be retained, but Hollywood’s general pattern is to stay fairly close to the plot of a blockbuster book. Too many of the book’s fans will also see the movie, and there is nothing to gain from changing the plot of a much-loved book.
So we can assume that the challenges answered in the materials mentioned above will be the same and require the same answers. But movies, by the very nature of the medium, present different challenges from those of a novel, and the discerning Christian should be ready to handle those as well. The first is that, whatever you thought of Robert Langdon in the novel, he is being played by one of America’s most beloved actors—Tom Hanks—in the film. What’s more, America’s most emotionally beguiling director, Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), is at the helm, so the recipe for a strongly attractive movie with trusted characters and believable situations is complete.
It will be important for Christians to know how to distance themselves from this plot and its characters, and think clearly and well about what the film actually claims. Of course, one could decide not to see the film at all. Out of sight, out of mind, problem solved. But with a film of this importance, I’m not sure that’s a viable option. Such isolationism signals fear, and fear isn’t what Jesus prescribes. He sends us into the world to meet its challenges, to understand its hopes and fears, and to combat its ignorance of the King Who loves it enough to die for it. We cannot fulfill this great commission by disengaging ourselves from its most important cultural markers, and The Da Vinci Code promises to be important, at least at the popular level.
So what are we to do? The Da Vinci Code employs persuasive and powerful manipulators; how are we to withstand its wiles? The key to resisting the power of movies lies in learning how to objectify the experience of film watching. This is best done by asking questions of the film after you’ve seen it, discussing it with a group of friends, analyzing it, and demystifying it. This sort of exercise increases the enjoyment of the film and adds to that enjoyment an element of discipleship that brings the movie and its messages under the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ. It helps you sort out your own feelings toward the film and to compare them with biblical mandates about truth, goodness, and beauty.
The Questions We Should Be Asking
When we go for coffee to discuss the film, what questions should my friends and I be asking? They fall into two categories—formal and theological. These categories are really only separate for discussion purposes; combining them makes the discussion more fun and more true to life as well. Formally, I like to ask which scene or scenes particularly stick in your memory and why. There is no right or wrong answer to this question, and it is often the only question needed to prompt a long discussion. A second, more difficult question is: For the filmmaker which scene forms the heart of the movie, and why? When did the movie “come clean” with what it really proclaims about the issues it raises? A third formal question to ask is, “What character did you most identify with, and why?” Answers to this question begin to articulate our hopes and fears, and they allow the questioner to probe other areas that might not easily surface otherwise.
As for the theological questions one could ask, there are a host. The Da Vinci Code, unless it takes the extraordinary step of departing significantly from the book, will certainly have much to say about God, about the supernatural, and about sources of moral authority. It will have some notion, both in the form of assumptions and direct statements, about where evil is to be found in the world, and it will promote some idea of how that evil can be defeated. The way the characters are presented will say something about the filmmaker’s view of human beings and their relationships. Christian should have a clear, biblical understanding of all these topics; they are theological issues that form the core of one’s belief system.
As you talk about The Da Vinci Code with your friends, meet them where they are with the power of the good news found in Christ. Be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within you, doing so gently and reverently, but doing so unafraid of the power of the book’s childish understanding of Christ and His Church. He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
SOME OF THE CHINKS IN CODE‘S ARMOR
1. Novel or historically accurate? Author Brown wants it both ways. Where his accuracy is found wanting, it’s a novel. But he leads off the book with the claim that it is all based on historical fact. Which, whatever his purposes, it is not.
2. His confused view of Jesus. Brown’s historian, a character named Teabing, begins with this kind, albeit inaccurate, praise: “Jesus Christ was a historical figure of staggering influence, perhaps the most enigmatic and inspirational leader the world has ever seen. As the prophesied Messiah, Jesus toppled kings, inspired millions, and founded new philosophies. As a descendant … of Solomon and .. David, Jesus possessed a rightful claim to the throne of the King of the Jews” (p. 231). Which kings did he topple, again? And Jesus was only one of thousands who could claim similar lineage to David and Solomon. He never tried to seize such an earthly throne. (“My kingdom is not of this world”–John 18:36).
3. A “that’s cool!” approach to pop theories. “Teabing” claims “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.” There is no evidence for this but plenty of evidence for a long, painstaking process by which the Spirit led the church to recognize the canonical books of the Bible.
4. His explanation of historical events. Brown writes that the Dead Sea Scrolls, (Jewish documents that were actually discovered in Israel in the 1940s) were found in the 1950s and contained Gospels, though there were no Gospels—no Christian documents of any kind—found among them. Sloppy research abounds.
5. His disregard of a number of early non-Christian records of Christ’s life and death. Pagan and Jewish historians like Tacitus and Josephus relate an almost-universal recognition of Christ as being revered by his followers as much more than a great teacher, in fact as deity.
6. Inaccuracies about the origins of Christian practices–for instance, the Christian Sabbath. Again Brown calls on Constantine, who “shifted [the Sabbath] to coincide with the pagans’ veneration day of the sun.” There is no evidence for this. Christian celebration of the Sabbath on Sunday is well documented back to the early second century, two hundred years before Constantine.
7. His confident speculation about the nature and character of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. He insists that the two were married and had a daughter. In this speculation, he diverges even from the heretical Gnostic gospels, which made no such claims.
8. The Priory of Sion, a secret society key to his novel. Teabing says matter-of-factly that the Priory was founded in 1099 by a French king. There is no hard evidence of the existence of the Priory of Sion prior to 1956, and even Brown admitted to ABC News, “Realistically, I doubt we will ever have absolute proof one way or another regarding the Priory’s existence.”
Adapted from The Da Vinci Code Decoded. Used by permission. www.godissues.com
Dr. Drew Trotter is the President of the Center for Christian Study, adjacent to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He is the author of numerous articles and reviews, as well as the book Show and Tell: How to Watch a Movie (Baker Academic, 2007). He has lectured widely on film and culture, and regularly writes movie reviews and articles for the newsletter Critique. He is a PCA teaching elder and leads worship at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville.