Portrait of the Vatican as a Young Church
THE DEFENDANT: The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
THE VERDICT: The Da Vinci Code sparked a worldwide controversy, including book burnings and numerous protests of the subsequent film. The book is outright banned in Iran and Lebanon out of fear that it may spark sectarian violence.
THE CHARGES: The issues surrounding the book include its portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church, a number of assertions about early Christian beliefs and various Christian sects/orders, and the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children. Many have decried it as inaccurate, unflattering to Christianity, or downright heretical.
THE REVIEW: The Da Vinci Code is exactly what it claims to be: a suspenseful, interesting murder mystery novel. It is neither an expose nor a great feat of literature, but then it was never intended to be either. However, it was wildly popular, becoming one of the best-selling books of all time. This is likely due in part to the gripping narrative and in part the controversy itself. Controversy sells. It’s free publicity and it makes people curious as to what all the hubbub is about.
I first read this book in high school simply because everyone was talking about it, either because they stayed up all night to finish it or they were offended by it. I found that it did not live up to all of the hype. It’s by no means the most amazing book ever written. However, all high expectations aside, it was certainly a good read. Given the conspiracy nature of the plot, the wheels within wheels of mystery, the short sections, and the annoying habit of ending each section with a cliff-hanger, it’s a page-turner. Secret societies, ancient conspiracies, Swiss bank vaults, a murder in a museum, this book has everything.
It also manages to make a rather exposition-heavy narrative seem a lot more fast-paced and action-packed than it should. In between the gun shots and the running and the murder are a lot of info-dumps to get the information necessary to the rather historically involved conspiracy at the heart of the book across to the reader, not to mention whatever random factoids Robert Langdon spouts Sheldon Cooper-style. To be honest, these little trivia tidbits were my favorite part. Given the popularity of The Big Bang Theory, Bones, and Snapple caps, I think I’m not alone in this, even if none of these sources are known for their factual reliability.
All in all, Dan Brown has written a solid and entertaining book sure to keep you up far past your bedtime. The scholar turned action hero may not be the most original archetype, but it’s an enduring and popular one for a reason. Same goes for conspiracies, murder, and intrigue. Because at the end of the day, we like mystery. We like conspiracy. We like intrigue. And we likely always will.
THE DEFENSE: Where to begin? The popularity of The Da Vinci Code sparked interest in lesser known and non-canonical early Christian texts. A renewed interest in early Christian texts/teaching and in the history of Christianity itself should seem like a good thing for the religion. However, many of these non-canonical texts (and in fact much of the Church’s mainstream history and beliefs) are unfamiliar to many Catholics and Christians in general, causing them to feel confused, conflicted, or outright scandalized. This is not unique to Christianity, as anyone who has taken a religion class with a member of that religion can attest. Like the Hindu shocked by less orthodox and mainstream Hindu practices, Christians who find themselves upset by differing or previously unknown Christian accounts, beliefs, or practices simply have to accept that a two millennia old religion with over two billion members is going to have some diversity and variation, even with controversial ideas and integral teachings.
The book has also made popular the notion of a married Jesus, previously posited by non-fiction books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail (the author of which sued Dan Brown for appropriating his ideas). These hypotheses, as well as a Church cover-up, may indeed be heretical to many. However, let us not confuse the issues. Holy Blood, Holy Grail is an academic work suggesting that this may, in fact, be true. The Da Vinci Code is a fictional work designed to entertain. Many a mystery novel has spun a conspiracy about existing organizations, be it governments, intelligence agencies, political movements, or religious orders. This is hardly even the first book to feature a conspiracy within the Catholic Church. Given the Church’s somewhat questionable history, it’s a believable premise.
And perhaps that’s the issue. The idea that the Church would keep knowledge from people or systematically discriminate against women is completely believable. Because they have. This is an organization that has had a historical tendency to burn books (and people) that contradicted it. So, it’s not a stretch to imagine that a nefarious cover-up might exist.
However, while The Men Who Stare At Goats may be an indictment of American intelligence operations, the Jason Bourne movies are not; they’re entertainment. The entertainment may rely on a preexisting mistrust of said intelligence operations that would make them a believable villain, but often times this is to craft an intriguing plot, not to make a political message (though certainly that is done).
So what responsibility does fiction have to fact? Most popular movies and books are riddled with historical and factual inaccuracies. Some are bothered by this, especially when dealing with other cultures, some are not. But find me one period piece that does not play fast and loose with historical events. They all do. It’s just a matter of how much creative license one is allowed to take before it becomes offensive, and that’s certainly something many disagree on. For better or for worse, mystery novels are no stranger to using religious groups, often misunderstood ones, as villains or backdrops, be it Sherlock Holmes and the Mormons or any number of books dealing with the Shakers or the Amish. The popular series CSI, as well as numerous others, relies almost exclusively on subcultures for show premises. This can be problematic, especially if it is a negative or inaccurate depiction. It’s a particular issue for lesser known or historically discriminated against groups, as this may be people’s only reference for said people or their practices. However, I don’t feel that’s something the Catholic Church, and Christianity at large, has to worry about. It’s a fairly well-known and well-represented group. And if anyone is depicting Christians as villainous caricatures, it’s certain Tea Party politicians, not Dan Brown.
I think the most important thing to remember is that The Da Vinci Code is fictional. Many seem to forget this and I find it deeply concerning, just as I do those who decry Harry Potter for teaching kids magic. I was once angrily confronted by a teacher in high school after she found out I had seen the movie. She asked if I knew it wasn’t real. I responded that it was a work of fiction, something she seemed less sure of. Several years later, a friend of mine expressed distaste for the book, as she thought it claimed to be factually correct. I corrected her, telling her that the book asserts that it contains accurate descriptions of all artwork and monuments, nothing more. She then responded that the kind of people who would read The Da Vinci Code would believe it. I found this to be incredibly elitist and insulting.
I think this is the essence of book banning, particularly when it comes to politically loaded texts. We don’t trust people with information. We don’t trust them to make up their own minds and come to their own conclusions. We don’t trust them to know the difference between a factual scholarly work and a dime store novel.
As for the scholarly hypothesis itself, book burnings and screaming that it’s not true are not great ways of disproving an idea that you would like to discredit. This reaction tends to have the opposite effect. As for the novel, when Egyptologists watch The Mummy or Stargate, they don’t scream for the director’s blood or demand copies be pulled from the shelves. They instead point out, however condescendingly, the inaccuracies therein, or merely learn to check their archaeology hat at the door, take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy it as the entertainment it is. If nothing else, the sudden interest may actually encourage someone to learn more.
“This is censorship, people should be allowed to read what they want … This book is fiction, everyone knows it’s fiction. It is not political or propaganda or history.”
– Roger Haddad, Beirut, qtd in BBC News
“As a historian, I’m delighted that people are actually interested in finding out more about the history… I don’t think they’re going to find any conspiracies or things that have been kept away from them purposely. But we have a larger repertoire of early Christian literature than we once had. Much of this is taking people by surprise simply because they didn’t know there was other literature.”
– Karen King, history professor at Harvard Divinity School, qtd in National Geographic