Monthly Archives: April 2006

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.

To respond, click below on "Post a Comment." To reach me directly, send an email to 

Getting out of the ditch

Thursday night in a basement room at Atlanta Unity Church: Nine men sitting in a rectilinear U formed by couches and chairs, some with their feet on the long, scarred coffee table in the center.

We have, left to right, a graphic artist for a federal agency, a retired engineer, the retired head of IT for a Fortune 500 company, a realtor, a small businessman, a retired small businessman, a physician’s assistant, a contractor and myself.

As often happens at these gatherings – they’ve been taking place once a week for eight years – a topic has presented itself during the check-ins that follow the opening meditation.

P is self-employed, and has not one or two, but four different jobs. Changing hats all the times is getting difficult, he said, "And I’m wondering what’s the point. Today was a beautiful day, and I didn’t take the time to stop and enjoy it."

D is living what seems to be a self-improvement nightmare. He and his wife listen to self-improvement tapes while getting ready for work in the morning. They listen to more in their cars to and from work, and again when they get home, where two long shelves are filled with self-improvement books.

D’s wife has begun a purification diet, and D has been listening to biofeedback tapes and reading a book which posits that mystical experiences are tricks played by the brain’s hemispheres.

D was frustrated, and a little angry. "I’d just like to relax, have a party and listen to some rock ‘n’ roll," he said.

Like the other two, C admitted to a serious case of "busyness." He’s been studying "universal law" for nearly three years while taking on jobs and volunteer positions one after the other in a futile attempt to feel better about himself.

"Now," he said, "I’m working on changing my belief system."

It is a common dilemma, this mistaking busyness for progress, perhaps the pre-eminent dilemma of our time.

When I was at, it was commonplace for my co-workers to eat lunch at their computers, unwitting drones of the technological revolution. My editor commented once that I wasn’t much of a multi-tasker, as if doing one thing well was the professional equivalent of chewing with your mouth open.

But in his wise and eminently practical book, "The Seven Stages of Money Maturity," George Kinder  makes a distinction between busyness and vigor: "Crazy busyness, the fully booked, not-a-moment-to-lose air of always doing something or heading someplace fast lacks true Vigor’s inner calm and deeper sense of purpose, the peaceful confidence of the self-definition and self-knowledge that spring from understanding and form vigor’s core."

One of the men suggested that we take on a service project which would help us see how fortunate we were. P said he was looking forward to a four-day meditation retreat that he and his wife would attend in a few weeks.

Volunteering and vacations have merit, but there was an element of "I’ll be happy when…" in this context. The issue was not activities in the future, no matter how beneficial they might be. The issue was how do you get back on track now, when you’ve got two wheels in the ditch?

The answer lies in that word "now."

C said the key to re-tooling his belief system comes from Jesus, who said "As a man thinketh, so is he." C said he’d begun monitoring his thoughts, and countering every negative with a positive.

Another solution comes from Eckhart Tolle. In "Practicing the Power of Now," Tolle asks, "Is there joy, ease and lightness in what I am doing? If there isn’t, then time is covering up the present moment, and life is perceived as a burden or struggle.

By time, he means we are either thinking about the past or the future. And this inability to stop thinking, he says, is "a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal."

Tolle and Kinder recommend ignoring thoughts and acknowledging feelings, something few of us do with any regularity. All those stuffed feelings we ignored comprise the subconscious rubbish we lug around with us every day that runs our lives and encourages that "dreadful affliction."

To observe feelings, says Tolle, is to heal the past "through the power of your presence." The result is that "all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease."

And that, to paraphrase Will Smith, is what we’re talking about.   

To respond, click below on "Post a Comment." To contact me directly, send an email to


‘My turn to have a life’

You’ve probably seen Mike Pniewski a half-dozen times, but can never put a name with the face. You’re not alone. He is regularly approached by people who say things like, "Didn’t I go to school with you?" or "Do you go to such-and-such church?"

In fact, he’s an actor whose credits range from Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and Law and Order to Remember the Titans and Ray. He was a bus driver in Ray, a cop in Remember the Titans, a judge in Law and Order, a flight surgeon in Tom Hanks’ HBO series, From the Earth to the Moon, and a sheriff in the Oscar-winning short, Two Soldiers.

He recently taped five episodes of the soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful in Hollywood, and a pilot called Hollis and Rae with Steven Bochco in Savannah. In the next few months, he’ll appear in Thief on FX and The Sopranos on HBO, in an indie film called The Ultimate Gift and the big-budget film Miami Vice.

I drove to a suburb north of Atlanta a few weeks ago to visit with Pniewski. I was drawn not so much by the fact that he is successful yet virtually unknown, although it does have a certain fascination. Rather, it was that he left Hollywood 10 years ago to take control of his life.

"It had been 10 years and I was doing pretty well," he said. We were sitting at the kitchen table. Pniewski wore jeans, a long-sleeved, burgundy waffle weave shirt and running shoes. "I’d just read for a pilot, a terrific role, and I could have done it in my sleep."

But the producer decided that Pniewski was "too right" for the role, and chose someone else.

"That’s when I realized that the question was not whether I’m good enough," he said. "I’m there. I’m good enough. Now it’s whether they’re gonna pick me for the team, and it could be next week, next year or maybe 20 years from now.

"In the meantime, I’ve got a family and kids. I didn’t want to raise my children in L.A., and I wanted it to be my turn to have a life. Not just a career, but everything."

He did well in Atlanta until tax incentives elsewhere all but killed the film and TV industry in the south. Now he commutes to Hollywood and New York for auditions and work, and is in such demand that he no longer works union scale unless a project appeals to him.

At 6-1, 235 pounds and balding, Pniewski has the beefy, don’t-mess-with-me look of a cop, something he’s played 28 times in his career. But there is a sparkle in his blue eyes, a vitality and an intelligence. You get the feeloing that this is a man in touch with his gift.

But he’s no Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, and that’s fine with him, too. "There’s a look with being a leading man, and being overweight, middle-aged and bald is not the look," he says. "And that’s cool with me. I don’t want that kind of pressure. I’m a character guy. All I ever wanted was to do good work, and work all the time."

Succeeding for 20 years in an industry where 98 percent fail has taught him a thing or two about performing, and a few years ago he decided to take advantage of it by becoming a motivational speaker.

"One of the frustrating things about being an actor," he said, "is that you’re only as good as your next job. When I go to an audition, I don’t go to the head of the line because I’ve got 20 years’ experience. When it’s down to the last few people, it’s ‘Who’s best for the role?’

"But in the speaking industry, there’s a cumulative benefit from being a success in an industry where most people fail. People think acting is about being fake, but what we’re actually trying to do is create reality. You can take those acting techniques and use them in your life to improve your reality."

Pniewki also publishes a monthly e-newsletter called "Act to Win" with topics like, "You never get it right the first time," "Thank your unhappy customers" and "No idea is ever too absurd."

And while he took up motivational work as a hedge against the uncertainties of acting, he says he’s not just in it for the money.

"This a hard business," he says, "…and I think it’s absolutely important for those of us who have the good fortune of making a living to give back. You’ve got to continue the cycle, to keep it all going. I like putting what I know back into the system so the path for other people maybe gets a little shorter and a little simpler. I’d like to think that through my success I can contribute to the pile of ideas that people can draw from to perpetuate their own success."

If you know someone who is living a life of passion and purpose and would make a good story, or to reach me directly, please send an email to To comment,  click below on "Post a Comment." 

It’s just a movie

Having made a list of recent calamities which establish me as the odds-on favorite for Job of the Year (Job, as in the Bible) – auto accident, computer and printer failure, plumbing and electrical mishaps, credit card company deceit, work shortage, etc. – I turned in distress to "Screenwriting for Dummies."

Granted, it is a strange choice for moral support, but the impulse that lead me there was spot-on.

"At the beginning of Act III," I read on page 222, "your protagonist either faces the upward hike or the downward sprint to the most gripping moment in the script."

This was compelling stuff for a couple of reasons, and I didn’t need Harold Bloom to point out that my own situation is exactly that of the theoretical protagonist in "Dummies."

Before opening "Dummies," I read a passage in "God Calling" (see Tools on Home page) which says, in part, that as a man climbs a steep hill, he tends to focus on "the weakness of his stumbling feet" rather than "the view, the grandeur or even his upward progress." 

That, of course, is exactly what I’ve been doing, and to find an allusion to a steep hike in two successive books is too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence, if you follow me.

Indeed, backtracking, I found that my situation fit neatly into the screenwriter’s paradigm. In Act I, I’m working at, but know I should leave, that I have some other purpose. Plot Point One occurs when I am laid off. In Act II, I begin reinventing myself, taking up acting, modeling and producing. But it’s not enough; I’m not paying the bills.

Plot Point Two occurs when the events I’ve listed above put me on the ropes, financially. As Act III begins, I discover, one of several things happens to the sprinting protagonist. He/she:

• Loses hope and must be inspired to pick up the cause again

• Makes a breakthrough discovery

• Acquires a final, necessary skill

• Must face the villain in combat

• Overcomes an internal obstacle that enables him/her to fight an antagonist

Four days ago, I identified an internal obstacle that has been holding me back. I was having another of those days when my mind races endlessly, and yet physically I am a sailboat with sails hanging limply from the mast. I am getting nowhere, accomplishing nothing.

The devil of it is there is every reason for urgency. This experiment in passion and purpose is in danger of washing up on a rocky coastline, and the failure — the inability, really — to act is baffling and damnable. Worse, it seems to affirm my father’s contention when I was a kid that I was lazy.

I can’t say what made this day different than all the others, but something changed. Sorting through my memories, things began connecting, and at last I understood.

For reasons which go back to infancy, being passive was my ultimate survival mode. It lay at the very root of my being.  Being absolutely still, willing myself to be invisible, was my only protection, and there were times when it wasn’t enough. Of course, it never was true security, but it set a pattern, a way of being in the world that has affected me ever since.

I did some release work that day, but I can’t say things have gotten better. I found out yesterday that my car needs a $300 repair and a high-paying job fell through on the eve of the shoot.

I’d have thought that releasing that old energy would have given me the strength to rip the doors off a Hummer. And while my energy level has improved some, I’m stilll more Clark Kent than Superman.

But it’s OK. If I’d gotten that job, I wouldn’t have discovered the internal obstacle, and instead of sprinting downward into Act III, I might still be laboring on the hike upward.

All in all, there’s some comfort in knowing that my situation fits into the screenwriting paradigm. It helps to know that this situation I’ve obsessed about for years can be reduced to 120 pages of impediments and obstacles, midpoints and plot points, and that the script still has 30 pages to go.

I wish I felt more certain of the outcome, but "Dummies" says: "It may be a reluctant choice, but it nevertheless pushes [the protagonist] to pursue one last chance for success."

So that’s where it stands: I’ve got one last chance. It’s up to me to make the best of it. But whatever the outcome, the good news is it’s not life-threatening. It’s just a movie.