The ‘Da Vinci’ conundrum

A Catholic friend forwarded an email to me the other day. In what had the makings of a pre-emptive strike, a priest at her church was going to discuss "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown’s hugely successful book which is due to re-appear May 19 as a motion picture.

The intent, clearly, was to fortify the church and its congregation against an epidemic of doubt and distrust which could exceed that generated by the book.

The Catholic Church has a special interest in the matter because the book pivots on an alleged conspiracy by the church to conceal certain facts about Jesus Christ. Among them, that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute but of royal Jewish blood, that she was pregnant with Jesus’ daughter when he was crucified, and that the Merovingian dynasty in France were their descendants.

In some regards, the book is reminiscent of James Redfield’s best-seller, "The Celestine Prophecy." It has a similar narrative style, although "Da Vinci Code’s" 36-hour timeline borders on the absurd. And the writing and character development are lackluster, although not nearly as lame as "The Celestine Prophecy," one of the worst-written best-sellers of all time.

But "The Da Vince Code" is undeniably clever. Beginning with the conspiracy, it adds Christian elements – the Holy Grail, the Last Supper – and includes murder, a manhunt, mythological and historical allusions, cryptography, anagrams, brain teasers and clandestine cults to create a world that is byzantine and suspenseful.

Central to it is esoteric information that Brown claims is accurate, and it is conveyed so convincingly that the reader can be forgiven for supposing it’s true. Numerous scholars have taken issue with Brown’s "facts," but the idea that Jesus might have taken up with Mary Magdalene and fathered a child has a certain superficial plausibility.

After all, it’s what people do, and it may be comforting to think that this man about whom we  know so little might have been more like us than we supposed.

And yet the very magnitude of his influence dwarfs that of any other figure and underscores how unlike us he was. Jesus came to change the world, not through military might, nor intellectual prowess, nor commercial acumen, but through love. He came not to experience romantic love, but to demonstrate divine love. He came not to raise a family, but to proclaim that we are all God’s family. 

This was not a career choice with retirement at it’s end, it was a lifelong commitment, a mission of unparalleled audacity. It was infused with unquenchable passion, and it was unspeakably dangerous.

In a context where Jews chafed at Roman rule and religious and civil authorities bristled at challenges to their grip on the status quo, not only would having a family have been an impediment to his work, it would have hung a death sentence over their heads. 

However charming it may be to think that Jesus wanted a family ("Honey, you won’t believe what Peter said today…"), it is also naïve. His enemies wanted to destroy him, and he knew they would succeed.  His followers were also tortured and killed. He had no home of his own, and often no idea where he would sleep that night. It would take someone far more foolish and short-sighted than Jesus to impose that kind of life on his loved ones. It demeans Jesus and trivializes his sacrifices to suggest otherwise.

The popularity of "The Da Vinci Code" may be, in part, an expression of our native distrust of authority, especially heavy-handed authority. There are plenty of walking wounded around who are the casualties of an oppressive religious past.

Author Karen Armstrong writes in her recent book "The Great Transformation" that Jesus’ teachings are notable for their lack of doctrine. Perhaps there is an intuition among readedrs that no one has gotten it quite right, that the rant and cant, the ritual and dogma of traditional religion have obscured truths yet to be revealed.

If Brown errs as to what those truths are, never mind. If the book and movie stir others to seek their own answers, then they have performed a real service, indeed.

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