|Traffic | Weather | Your account||Movies | Restaurants | Today's events|
Debunking "The Code"
Special to The Times
The great, gritty early-20th-century journalist H.L. Mencken famously said that a Puritan is one who lies awake at night with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun. I would like to mount a challenge to some of the misguided assumptions of "The Da Vinci Code" and reflect briefly on the astounding cultural phenomenon stirred up by this book and movie. But I find myself muttering, "Oh come on now, the whole thing is nothing more than a good read, a thriller. Don't be so sensitive, so defensive."
Ron Howard, the director of the movie version of "The Da Vinci Code," chastens with a similar sentiment: "It's not history, and it's not theology; instead, it's just a rollicking good bit of entertainment." I have no desire whatsoever to try to rain on such a parade of good fun. Lord protect us from Mencken's kind of Puritan.
But in an interview with Matt Lauer on the "Today" show, Dan Brown, the author of "The Da Vinci Code," says quite nonchalantly that "all of it is based on historic fact." Brown is consistently portrayed by the media and by his own self-promotion as a thorough and meticulous researcher. "The only thing fictional in the book are the characters," Brown says to Linda Wertheimer on NPR. "Everything else is factual."
Rather than "just a rollicking good bit of entertainment," apparently the author of the novel wants to strike a different posture, the pose that we are about to encounter the truthful retelling of the Christian story. Watch out, there may be some shocking new angles that will liberate us all from 2,000 years of illusion. You will now have the facts, long kept secret, with which to decide whether Jesus is who he said he was and whether the Christian Scriptures have any validity at all.
The novel, for example, presents as fact that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that as Jesus hung on the cross, Mary was carrying their child. We discover along the way that their progeny still live in France, and we are told that all of this information has been kept secret for these 2,000 years, suppressed in fact by a male-dominated church so as not to give women their rightful power in the movement.
Jesus is just another teacher, so the story goes, a Jesus now finally squared with our postmodern concerns that we should not claim too much to be true. Claims that he might be something special, that in fact he was the long-awaited Messiah, emerging out of the grand Jewish promise to be a liberator, the fact that he died and rose from the grave to launch a totally new way of seeing things, were nothing more than fiction, our novel suggests, cooked up by a bunch of guys who wanted power. In fact, Jesus was a fraud, the Christian Scriptures all distortions, and, indeed, the cover-up continues to this day. Those are the "facts," we are led to believe. May the truth set us free.
Well, what is true? And how do we know? Which story is fiction, and how do we get at the facts that might help us with discernment? While not wanting to spoil the fun, accusations such as those in the novel drive Christians back to the books, back to the biblical text itself and to a massive amount of outstanding scholarship through which we might examine the historic facts. We want to know the answers to Brown's questions. With some 40 million copies of the novel sold, apparently a lot of people would like to know.
But can we get historical accuracy from this novel? It might be helpful to start with some of the simpler "facts" found on the very first page of the book. The first word in the book is the word "fact," implying that what we are about to experience is based on fact. Brown claims on this page, for example, that descriptions about a mysterious secret society called the Priory of Sion are fact. In addition, at an even simpler level, Brown proudly touts sophisticated accuracy in his descriptions of architecture, detail that does indeed provide some of the delight and texture of the novel. But can we go along with the author that we are entering the realm of fact and accuracy?
N.T. Wright, the great British New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, says the stories about the Priory of Sion are "really forgeries cooked up by three zany Frenchmen in the 1950s. They cheerfully confessed to this in a devastating television program shown on British television in February this year."
Wright goes on to note quite playfully that the "accurate" descriptions of Westminster Abbey, for example, are blatantly distorted and could have been corrected with a 10-minute walk through this glorious structure. Wright should know — he occupied an office as canon theologian at Westminster for a number of years.
"If Brown is so careless," Wright asks, "and carelessly inventive, in details as easy to check as those, why should we trust him in anything else?" N.T. Wright is among the finest Christian scholars of our day and says quite clearly that "the deepest irony" about the book "is that it portrays itself as historically rooted, when it is a tissue of fantasy."
"Any picture of Jesus," he adds, must "be produced by serious and sober historical scholarship." The claims to fact in "The Da Vinci Code" are quite simply "all pure imagination."
Here's the problem. We have trouble in our time distinguishing between fact and fiction. Christians, informed by good scholarship, consider the "facts" of the novel to be ludicrous, dangerous if taken seriously, and pure fiction. On the other hand, Brown and those outside the Christian tradition may consider our whole story nothing but fiction. And so how do we have meaningful discussion between fiction and fiction? If that is really what we are talking about, who would care?
But surely, people do care. We can't declare this 2,000-year-old story, embraced by 2 billion believers all over the world, fiction on the basis of a novel that fabricates a new story out of misunderstood and distorted facts. This matters. Brown has cobbled together some bits and pieces from the Gnostic texts, unearthed in 1945 in the desert of upper Egypt, an extraordinary discovery called Nag Hammadi. He believes, contrary to a significant body of scholarship, that these texts totally destroy the creditability of the New Testament canon and the date of its formation.
He also presents as fact a total misunderstanding of what happened at the Council of Nicea in 325, where he supposes that Constantine suppressed the real truth in order to solidify power.
While all of this is too complicated for this short space, the historical sequence presented by Brown is totally out of whack, the texts he honors come centuries after Christ, and the record is entirely silent on some of Brown's key assumptions. The real story, by the way, is as intriguing and intellectually exciting as anything presented in the novel, but it isn't what Brown portrays it to be.
As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington says, Brown's argument, like so many others in this vein, is based on a record of silence, and "in the end, we still have to make arguments based on history, not on silence." The argument of Brown and others to "attempt to show that the process of forming the New Testament was somehow arbitrary and manipulative, is a failure, and it seems to be driven by something other than historical scholarship."
The mid-20th-century intellectual Hannah Arendt, supported now by any number of postmodern philosophers, suggests that we are suffering from a "crisis of authority" in our time. Who's to say what is fact and what is fiction? Truth according to whom? And isn't history all a matter of how you read it and who is doing the reading? In such a time as this, we do indeed begin to select our "teachers to suit our own likings," as the Apostle Paul cautions Timothy about the first-century church. How we answer just these questions about authority is as important as anything we can do for our time.
So, where do we turn? The Christians I know are delighted to have a grand discussion about all of this. Our tradition, the history of our church, some core assumptions of our faith have been challenged, and we take that very seriously. Rather than defensive overreaction, as Mencken might suggest, Christian scholars and pastors and priests welcome the debate.
Though history is always an interpretation, let's get as close as we can through credible scholarship and study. And let's require of ourselves real honesty about what is blatantly fabricated and what is not. Such a discussion may be seen as raining on the parade, but who knows how much fun it might be to talk about something this real and this exciting.
Philip W. Eaton is president of Seattle Pacific University, a comprehensive Christian university whose mission is to equip people to engage the culture and change the world.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company