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The Da Vinci Code: Religious Relativism as Pulp Fiction

by Rassaphore-monk Serge (Nedelsky)

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is popular literature of the very worst sort: atrociously written, intolerably pedantic, intellectually dishonest, derivative nearly to the point of plagiarism, wholly blasphemous, and, alas!, immensely popular. At the time of writing (July 2006) over sixty million copies of the book are in print, in forty-four languages. The movie based on the film, despite receiving uniformly negative critical reviews, has had a worldwide gross of nearly $730,000,000.00.[1] The book’s thesis, such that it is, has become all too well known: Jesus Christ was a simple mortal Who entrusted the leadership of His Church to His wife, Mary Magdalene, and their progeny. The early Church was a freethinking, proto-feminist Gnostic sect that celebrated the sacred feminine and practiced sacred sex; in fact, Jesus Himself was “the original feminist.” [2] The pagan Emperor Constantine, in an attempt to unify his empire under one religion, suppressed this original form of Christianity by creating the New Testament and calling the Council of Nicaea, which in turn decided by a vote, and a close one at that, that Christ was in fact God. Nonetheless, the true nature of Christianity was preserved within the myth of the Holy Grail (which refers both to Mary Magdalene herself and the bloodline established by her progeny with Jesus). The Priory of Sion, a secret society that originated as part of the Knights Templar, has guarded this secret over the centuries. Leonardo da Vinci, one of its Grand Masters, encoded this secret in many of his works of art, most famously in his mural of the Last Supper (hence the novel’s title). The Vatican, aware of the existence of documents demonstrating the bloodline of Christ and Mary Magdalene, has exerted great effort over the centuries to repress this knowledge in order to maintain its power, most recently through Opus Dei, a militant Catholic sect. The gist of the novel could be summed up in the words of Sir Leigh Teabing, the novel’s main ideologist (and, oddly enough, simultaneously its villain): “Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” [3]

All of this, it goes without saying, is nonsense both historically and theologically. Nonetheless, what makes these fantastical claims pernicious and intellectually dishonest is the novel’s opening page that, under the blunt heading “Fact,” informs the reader, first, that the “Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization” and, second, that Opus Dei is a “Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brain-washing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.’ ” (In fact, the Priory of Sion as we know it was founded by Pierre Plantard in 1956; Opus Dei is neither a sect nor does it have monks, let alone albino nun-murdering monk assassins.) The “Fact” page concludes with these momentous words: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” As such, the book claims to be much more than simply a novel; the reader is prepared to accept as fact the novel’s historical underpinnings. Dan Brown, in his public statements since the book’s publication, has continued to claim simultaneously that the book is a novel, and hence fiction, and that it is entirely historically accurate. Brown, asked in an interview with the ABC television network on November 3, 2003, how the book would be different were it non-fiction, replied as follows: “I don’t think it would have. I began the research for The Da Vinci Code as a skeptic. I entirely expected as I researched the book to disprove this theory [about Jesus and Mary Magdalene being married and together producing a child]. And after numerous trips to Europe and about two years of research I really became a believer. I decided this theory makes more sense to me than what I learned as a child.” [4]

It is not the purpose of this brief essay to attempt to refute Brown’s claims as contained within The Da Vinci Code, as it is this author’s belief that they are entirely beneath contempt. Anyone tempted by them, to speak quite frankly, is neither a Christian nor historically literate. In any case, an entire sub-genre of books refuting Brown’s claim may be found in any library or bookstore or by a simple search online.[5] It is rather the purpose of this essay to consider several aspects of the novel which have gone largely untouched in the polemical literature: first, the book’s utter failure as literature and, second and much more important, the spiritual culture of religious relativism that both lies at the ideological heart of the novel and goes a long way in explaining its popularity.

Lest, however, anyone be tempted by Brown’s claims to meticulous research and historically accuracy, let us look at just a few of the novel’s most basic mistakes of fact. Let us begin with the title. Contrary to the novel’s consistent usage, “Da Vinci” was not Leonardo’s surname; it refers simply to his place of origin. If Brown can not get Leonardo’s name right, how is one to believe his esoteric interpretations of the artist’s paintings and the intimate details he relates of Leonardo’s personal life? Let us look at the professions of the two main protagonists. Robert Langdon is said to be a Harvard “symbologist,” a word for which one would look in the dictionary in vain. (It is also rather touchingly naive of the author to think that the reader would immediately be overawed by mention of a Harvard professorship.) Langdon’s love interest—and, perversely, one of the last blood descendents of Christ and Mary Magdalene—is said to be a “cryptographer,” which in fact is someone who creates codes, not one who cracks them; she should properly be called a “cryptanalyst.” Or consider this rather typical statement from Teabing, after declaring that the Council of Nicaea decided Christ’s divinity by a close vote:

Nonetheless, establishing Christ’s divinity was critical to the further unification of the Roman empire and to the new Vatican power base. By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable. This not only precluded further pagan challenges to Christianity, but now the followers of Christ were able to redeem themselves only via the established sacred channel—the Roman Catholic Church.[6]

This passage has it all: pure historical ignorance (there was no Vatican as such in the fourth century), terrible theology (Christ’s divinity was not voted on at Nicaea; St. Constantine certainly did not turn Jesus into a divine entity; redemption is not a question of submission to the proper channel), and a seeming ignorance of the existence of any Christian body apart from the Roman Catholic Church (which, as an entity apart from the Orthodox Church, did not of course exist in the fourth century). A page later the same Teabing tells us that “Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death”—not seeming to realize that the “fourth century” and “four centuries” are one hundred years apart. This is Brown’s level of discourse; so much for facts.

It has become almost de rigueur for critics of The Da Vinci Code, perhaps as a statement of good faith, to state that the novel is a thumping good read and a first-class piece of airport literature, all inane ideas aside. In fact the book is just as bad a piece of literature as it is of theology or history. Dan Brown favors very short (and frequently italicized) sentences, in very short paragraphs, in very short chapters. The hardcover edition of the novel runs to 454 pages, which are divided into 105 chapters, with nearly every chapter ending in a cliffhanger, resulting in a style so anticlimactic that it exhausts the reader’s capacity for suspense. Then there is the quality of the prose itself. The French detective Bezu Fache is introduced with these words: “Fache’s zeal for technology had hurt him both professionally and personally. Fache was rumored to have invested his entire savings in the technology craze a few years back and lost his shirt. And Fache is a man who wears only the finest shirts.” [7] Brown’s attention to dramatic detail comes out richly in this passage: “While Teabing again dug into the verse, Langdon popped a Coke and turned to the window, his thoughts awash with images of secret rituals and unbroken codes. A headstone praised by Templars is the key. He took a long sip from the can. A headstone praised by Templars. The cola was warm.”[8] Or consider Brown’s masterful use of the metaphor: “Aringarosa had entered Gandolfo’s Astronomy Library with his head held high, fully expecting to be lauded by throngs of welcoming hands, all eager to pat him on the back for his superior work representing Catholicism in America.” [9] Or take this immortal passage from Brown’s first Robert Langdon novel, Angels and Demons: “Vittoria Vetra stumbled forward, almost falling into the retina scan. She sensed the American rushing to help her, holding her, supporting her weight. On the floor at her feet, her father’s eyeball stared up. She felt the air crushed from her lungs. They cut out his eye! Her world twisted. Kohler pressed close behind, speaking. Langdon guided her. As if in a dream, she found herself gazing into the retina scan. The mechanism beeped.” [10]

Although conveniently not mentioned on the book jackets of his bestselling books, Dan Brown is also the author of the 1995 book on one-liners entitled 187 Men to Avoid (published under the name “Danielle Brown”), followed up in 1998 with the equally silly The Bald Book (published under the name “Blythe Brown”), intended to cheer up men with receding hairlines. Some years earlier, in 1993, Brown released an eponymous album containing songs entitled “976-Love” and “Sweet Pleasure in Pain” (the reader is advised not too think too deeply about the content suggested by these titles). It is sadly indicative of the perversity of contemporary popular culture that the creator of such schlock should be hailed as something of a religious prophet; it is almost as damning an indication of the state of American literacy that such an exceptionally bad writer should become one of its best-selling authors of all time.

Many readers may be unaware that The Da Vinci Code is the second volume of a proposed trilogy. Those who have had the misfortune to read the first book in the series, Angels and Demons, will be in a position to judge just how formulaic The Da Vinci Code really is. Consider this plot line: a famed scholar is found brutally murdered with a mysterious code left on his body; Robert Langdon is called in, and soon he teams up with a beautiful European love interest; a chase through a major museum guided by codes hidden in the work of an Italian artist ensues; a secret society manifests itself as religion and science go head-to-head; and, finally, Langdon saves the day and wins the girl. Sound like the plot to The Da Vinci Code? Wrong. That is the plot outline of Angels and Demons, only in this case the secret society is the Illuminati, the European city is Rome, the museum is in the Vatican, and the Italian artist is Bernini. Dan Brown’s next opus is provisionally entitled The Solomon Key (to be released in 2007), and this time the same plot line will feature Freemasons and Mormons and take place in Washington, DC. Rest assured, it is only a matter of time until Dan Brown loses whatever remaining credibility he might now have.

It is also no secret that none of the major ideas in The Da Vinci Code are Dan Brown’s. The idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that their bloodline is the true “Holy Grail” (along with all the accompanying fantastical details) is lifted directly from the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) by “independent researchers” Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Those with some historical memory will recall that nearly all the major tenets of The Da Vinci Code were debated nearly a quarter century ago with the publication of this book.[11] Brown’s ideas concerning the codes in Leonardo’s paintings were lifted in toto from The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince (1997). Brown also pillaged a series of other quasi-historical books, many of them equally dubious, in the creation of The Da Vinci Code. It seems that bad ideas never truly go away; they simply create more and worse bestsellers.

I have attempted to demonstrate just how ultimately silly a book The Da Vinci Code is. Many critics of Dan Brown insist that he has a radical feminist, neo-Gnostic, anti-Christian agenda. To some extent, of course, this is true. However, something deeper, subtler, and ultimately more pernicious is at work here. Brown identifies himself as a Christian and claims that the novel is in no way intended as anti-Christian. I would suggest that we take these claims seriously. On his website, Dan Brown responds to the question if he is a Christian with these words:

Yes. Interestingly, if you ask three people what it means to be Christian, you will get three different answers. Some feel being baptized is sufficient. Others feel you must accept the Bible as absolute historical fact. Still others require a belief that all those who do not accept Christ as their personal savior are doomed to hell. Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may. By attempting to rigidly classify ethereal concepts like faith, we end up debating semantics to the point where we entirely miss the obvious—that is, that we are all trying to decipher life’s big mysteries, and we’re each following our own paths of enlightenment. I consider myself a student of many religions. The more I learn, the more questions I have. For me, the spiritual quest will be a life-long work in progress.[12]

Or consider these words spoken by Langdon, which likely reflect Brown’s own views:

Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith—acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to help our minds process the unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.[13]

Langdon continues:

The Bible represents a fundamental guidepost for millions of people on the planet, in much the same way the Koran, Torah, and Pali Canon offer guidance to people of other religions. If you and I could dig up documentation that contradicted the holy stories of Islamic belief, Judaic belief, pagan belief, should we do that? Should we wave a flag and tell the Buddhists that we have proof the Buddha did not come from a lotus blossom? Or that Jesus was not born of a literal virgin birth? Those who truly understand their faiths understand their stories are metaphorical... Religious allegory has become a part of the fabric of reality. And living in that reality helps millions of people cope and be better people.

We find the same idea expressed by Langdon’s love interest in Angels and Demons, who asks him if he believes in God: “Mr. Langdon, I did not ask if you believe what man says about God. I asked if you believe in God. There is a difference. Holy scripture is stories... legends and history of man’s quest to understand his own needs for meaning. I am not asking you to pass judgment on literature. I am asking if you believe in God.”[14] Brown himself, in response to the question of whether The Da Vinci Code is anti-Christian, replied:

This book is not anti-anything. It’s a novel. I wrote this story in an effort to explore certain aspects of Christian history that interest me. The vast majority of devout Christians understand this fact and consider The Da Vinci Code an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate. Even so, a small but vocal group of individuals has proclaimed the story dangerous, heretical, and anti-Christian. While I regret having offended those individuals, I should mention that priests, nuns, and clergy contact me all the time to thank me for writing the novel. Many church officials are celebrating The Da Vinci Code because it has sparked renewed interest in important topics of faith and Christian history. It is important to remember that a reader does not have to agree with every word in the novel to use the book as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith.[15]

Faith, for Dan Brown and his novelistic mouthpieces is not, as it is for St. Paul, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), but rather a set of metaphors and allegories—with these terms understood quite crudely, and inaccurately, as meaning “imaginary” or “make-believe”—that stand in opposition to established, scientific fact. [16] The actual object of faith is made entirely subservient to the subjective content of faith; fact and faith are made entirely separate categories. It does not really matter what one believes—because this is all non-historical allegory, anyway—only that one believes. Once this opposition between fact and faith is established, then one can play fast and loose with the facts by positing, say, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and that their bloodline is the great hidden fact of history. Seen in this way, even such a wildly fantastical proposition can be seen by Brown—and, shamefully, by many who consider themselves Christians—as a “positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith.” We are, after all, “each following our own paths of enlightenment.”

But even if we were to grant Brown the premise that faith and fact are irreconcilable epistemological modes, Brown still fails his own test. Teabing asks hypothetically what would happen “if persuasive scientific evidence comes out that the Church’s version of the Christ story is inaccurate, and that the greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold.”[17] What is this “persuasive scientific evidence”? Let us listen to Teabing’s inventory:

The Sangreal documents [i.e., the repressed documents demonstrating the bloodline of Christ and Mary Magdalene as preserved by the Priory of Sion] simply tell the other side of the Christ story. In the end, which side of the story you believe becomes a matter of faith and personal exploration, but at least the information has survived. The Sangreal documents include tens of thousands of pages of information. Eyewitness accounts of the Sangreal treasures describe it as being carried in four enormous trunks. In those trunks are reputed to be the Purist Documents—thousands of pages of unaltered, pre-Constantinian documents, written by the early followers of Jesus, revering Him as a wholly human teacher and prophet. Also rumored to be part of the treasure is the legendary “Q” Document—a manuscript that even the Vatican admits they believe exists. Allegedly, it is a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in His own hand. [18]

Oh really? Recall these words for the “Fact” page: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” One hardly knows how or where to begin to analyze this bit of silliness. Objective history is an illusion; nonetheless, as Teabing states elsewhere, there exist “thousands of ancient documents” that serve as “scientific evidence that the New Testament is false testimony.” [19] One chooses to believe is a question of “faith and personal exploration.” But what of these documents? The “Purist Documents” are a product of Brown’s imagination. The simple fact, uncontested by any serious historian, is that the canonical Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are the earliest written accounts of Christ’s life; the vast majority of so-called Gnostic Gospels were written at least a century later. These canonical Gospels depict Christ as both divine and human; the Gnostic Gospels, contrary to Brown’s assertion, consistently downplay Christ’s humanity. And “Q” is simply a hypothetical source (“Q” stands for the German word “quelle,” which is the German word for “source”) posited by scholars to explain the so-called “synoptic problem” (i.e., the relationship between the synoptic Gospels, namely, Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It is a hypothetical source posited by some to have been used (along with Mark) by Matthew and Luke, and nothing more; it is not a document, and certainly not one written by Christ Himself. “Conspiracy theory,” as the late Richard Grenier sagely remarked, “is the sophistication of the ignorant.”

Where did Brown pick up his religious relativism? David A. Shugarts, in his biographical essay on Dan Brown, [20] writes of the possible influence of the religious practices at Brown’s alma mater, Exeter Academy. Beginning in the early 1960s Exeter transformed the school’s chapel services that were “crafted to be relevant to the student congregation,” creating a structure that, in Brown’s time “was the place of worship for Quakers, Jews, and Buddhists as well as Congregationalists and other Christian denominations.” This process, Shugarts notes, has continued to the present day. In 2003, following a renovation, the Academy’s church was “reopened with an evening of prayer and celebration led by the peace activist Rev. William Sloan Coffin, to the sounds of chamber music and African drums. The evening’s readings included a traditional Zulu prayer, a Shanti mantra read in Sanskrit, a meditation on world peace by a Buddhist monk, the Lord’s Prayer read in Aramaic by an Exeter Academy senior, and selections from the Quaran and the Old Testament read by Academy students in Arabic, English, and Hebrew.” The “inevitable conclusion to be drawn here,” according to Shugarts, “is that Dan Brown was steeped in principles of religious tolerance.” The contrast between Brown’s “early experience of diversity and tolerance at Exeter Academy and the world beginning to swing toward all sorts of religious fundamentalism right around the time he graduated may have prompted his selection of religious themes to include in Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, and may explain how deeply he was shocked by the religious furor these novels sparked.” Mr. Shugarts is certainly on to something here.

What is perhaps most scandalous about The Da Vinci Code and its positive public reception is precisely that it was not intended to be an attack on Christianity. The reason for this, I would suggest, is that the culture of religious relativism which Brown represents is so deeply entrenched that any debate about the “facts” of Christianity—no matter how wildly misrepresented—is seen as entirely irrelevant to the actual content of faith. But does The Da Vinci Code pose a threat to the Gospel? Absolutely not. There is reason for sorrow, but none for panic. The Gospel will live and continue to be interpreted correctly and passed down in the Church’s Holy Tradition, long after Brown’s book has been relegated to the dustbin of history. It is simply the nature of our popular culture that every couple of years a new “threat” to Christianity will arise, spark the powder keg of the culture wars, be debated furiously—and then disappear, only to be replaced with another impotent attack a year or two later. Dan Brown’s fifteen minutes of fame are about one minute short of running out—and then he will be forgotten, while the Gospel and the crucified and exalted Lord it proclaims will continue to live.

Endnotes

[1] The film’s lead actor, Tom Hanks, who plays Robert Langdon, is in fact an Orthodox Christian, having joined the Greek Archdiocese when he married his current wife, Rita Wilson.

[2] The Da Vinci Code: A Novel (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003), chapter 58. Due to the number of editions of Brown’s books simultaneously in print, chapters rather than page numbers will be given.

[3] Ibid., chapter 55.

[4] Cited in Michael Haag and Veronica Haag, The Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code, Revised Edition (London: Rough Guides, 2006), 16.

[5] If one were to read only one book refuting the claims of The Da Vinci Code, it should be Darrell L. Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2004. For a study of the books historical claims, see Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). A more comprehensive treatment is Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in the Da Vinci Code (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004). A collection of links to responses by Orthodox commentators can be found at the Orthodox Christian Information Center website: http://www.orthodoxinfo.comdavincicode.html. Those interested in reading an accurate treatment of the pre-Nicene Church are invited to read John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001).

[6] Brown, chapter 55.

[7] Ibid., chapter 14.

[8] Ibid., chapter 76.

[9] Ibid., chapter 100.

[10] (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000), chapter 25.

[11] Authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in fact sued Dan Brown’s publishers in 2004, claiming that “the whole jigsaw puzzle” in The Da Vinci Code had been lifted from their book. Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum is in large part a parody of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

[12] http://www.danbrown.com/novels/davinci_code/faqs.html

[13] Brown, The Da Vinci Code, chapter 82.

[14] Brown, Angels and Demons, chapter 31.

[15]http://www.danbrown.com/novels/davinci_code/faqs.html

[16] For a profound discussion of the true nature of religious allegory see Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), especially chapter 5, “A Return to Allegory.”

[17] Brown, The Da Vinci Code, chapter 62.

[18] Ibid., chapter 60.

[19] Ibid., chapter 62.

[20] “In Search of Dan Brown” in Dan Burnstein, ed., Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code (New York, NY: CDS Books, 2006), 340-385.

From Orthodox Life, No. 4 (2006), pp. 6-15. Posted with permission on 1/2/2007.