May 19, 2006

Decoding The Da Vinci Code?

As a result of more than three years on various bestseller lists, Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code has touched a match to the end of a fuse that has led to countless editorials, articles, books, interviews, blogs, podcasts, television specials, and now the inevitable “major motion picture.” What Newsweek has dubbed “the most popular—and controversial—novel of our time,”1 by latest count read by 36 million people worldwide in 44 languages, has led to a cultural subset all its own.

For anyone with even a casual knowledge of Christian history and theology, it is impossible to read the book without questions to arise. For others, who take up the book merely because it’s on the bestseller list or because someone has recommended it to them or because they’ve seen it in the hands of a number of commuters on the subway, The Code seems to have appealed to other strands in the tapestry of our popular culture.

davinci link 1

At the most superficial level the book is a compelling story, albeit fictional. In a nutshell: A Harvard professor of “religious symbology” is summoned to Paris to solve a series of cryptic clues related to the murder of the renowned curator of the Louvre, which in turn leads to settings all over Europe and to a thoroughgoing exposition of the age-old conspiracy theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were secretly married and produced a line of descendants that exists to this day. And that the Christian Church, in an effort to protect its domination of Western culture, has systematically, deviously, and, often ruthlessly, sought to blot out the idea. The Holy Grail is not the cup of Christ at all; it is the secret bloodline of Jesus.

One Christian historian has characterized The Code as “a good read” but a “historical sieve.”2 Even the most casual exploration of its historical assumptions and assertions makes it clear that they don’t hold water. There is broad consensus in historical scholarship—even among those who don’t call themselves Christian—that there is simply no evidence for the purported bloodline of Mary. But this hasn’t diminished the appeal of the book. Something else more subtle seems to have brought about its popularity.

The principle reason that it resonates so convincingly in our current culture is that, frankly, it affirms some false assumptions that our society wants so desperately to embrace.

One of these is its postmodern suspicion of organized religion. This viewpoint places it among a whole Barnes and Noble bookshelf of so-called nonfiction books that purport to expose secrets and conspiracies of the Christian Church that through the centuries have sought to suppress the vile and deceitful nature of its very roots.

In the case of The Da Vinci Code, there is a secret society called the “Priory of Sion” that, through the ages, has protected the genealogical line of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, though the Christian Church has all but snuffed out any trace of it. The reason for this kind of persecution, of course, would be that if there were such a bloodline, its power would rival that of organized Christianity.

It’s a delicious recipe for postmodernists, but it contains only empty calories. Historical scholarship has found no credible trace of such a society.

Another false assumption that entices readers of The Code is the concept of what is called the “feminine divine.” According to Maclean’s magazine, because of the Church’s exclusion or marginalization of certain groups, “there has always been a hunger for other versions of Christ’s story.”3

In this case the marginalized group is women. At this unique point in our culture, there’s something attractive and politically correct about a woman as a central and integral part in Western religion. A large segment of our culture today would like very much to see us embrace a clearly feminine form of deity. And who better than a former harlot? In the world’s twisted way of thinking these days, what could be more feminine than a prostitute?

davinciBut even from a less jaded viewpoint, let’s face it: Wouldn’t most of us—given our human nature—prefer to open our prayers, “Dear Mother . . .” than “Dear Father . . .”? Doesn’t that sound so much more as if we’re invoking someone more kind and compassionate and responsive? So . . . motherly?

One answer to this line of thinking, of course, is that when we try to ascribe gender to the godhead, we’re attempting to represent God in our image. This is a bit like your pet schnauzer’s imagining (if he had any imagination) that you are just some advanced canine form that has somehow become a biped. OK, maybe that analogy doesn’t stand on all legs, but it does suggest what we’re talking about here.

Furthermore, uplifting the status of Mary Magdalene as the carrier of the bloodline of Christ suggests her own promotion to divinity. This brings us back to the suppression of such an idea by organized religion, but it also resonates with the worldview of our current pluralistic society. To the postmodern mind, tolerance of all religion—no matter how off-the-wall—is sacrosanct. Tolerance is the one absolute truth, and it deifies the individual.

This universal tolerance allows for a current acceptance of Jesus Christ as an admirable spiritual leader. He is thus categorized (again, an undertaking to make Him fit into a human scheme of things) as deserving a place alongside such great moral teachers as Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, the Dalai Lama, and the like. This is more of the world’s wishful thinking. Our culture wants Jesus to be merely a prophet—one of many.

In fact a narrow segment of scholarship contends that years after Jesus’ death on the cross, the Church officially bestowed a divinity on Him that He never claimed for Himself. From a cursory knowledge of human nature, it could be expected that Jesus’ followers could wish to expand His authority. There are a host of selfish reasons for them to do so.

But the concept of Jesus’ divinity didn’t originate with His followers. Scripture makes it very clear that He Himself repeatedly asserted to friends and enemies that He was divine—to His own disciples, to the disciples of John the Baptist, to the Sanhedrin, to Pilate.

“ ‘Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “I did not come to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom in place of the many.” This is either the highest form of megalomania or it’s the example of somebody who really believes, as he said, “I and the Father are one.” ’ ”4

davinciHow could we consider someone a great moral leader if he claimed to be something that he was not? We either must accept his claims or reject him. There is no middle ground.

And if we accept Jesus Christ, we can rest in full assurance that He is infinitely so much more than can be contained in a motion picture—no matter how “major” it is claimed to be.

1. December 26, 2005, p. 94.
2. DTS Dialogue—Issues of God in Culture (podcast), “The Da Vinci Code,” part 2, June 16, 2004.
3. April 3, 2006, p. 33.
4. Ben Witherington III, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), p. 141.

Gary Swanson is the Associate Director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.