'Dan Brown has deliberately muddied the water between fact and fiction'
CHARACTERS in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code are given to the most
grandiose of pronouncements. If the secrets at the heart of the novel are
revealed, says one of its main protagonists, then "The Vatican faces a crisis
of faith unprecedented in its two millennium history."
The trailer for the film follows in the same vein. It asks: "What if the
world's greatest works of art held secrets that could change the course of
mankind for ever?"
In a speech earlier this month, Mgr Angelo Amato, secretary of the Vatican's
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the book was "stridently
anti-Christian . . full of calumnies, offences and historical and
theological errors regarding Jesus, the Gospels, and the Church". He called on
Roman Catholics to "speak out and reject these lies about the Church".
Dan Brown's own claims for the book can sound modest in contrast. "My hope
in writing this novel", he says on his website, "was that the story would serve
as a catalyst and a springboard for people to discuss the important topics of
faith, religion, and history."
Who is right? The public debate caused by The Da Vinci Code, first
published in 2003, has far exceeded Dan Brown's slightly disingenuous
ambitions. Despite its laboured prose, cod scholarship, and stereotypical
characterisation, the high-octane page-turner has won legions of fans who find
the proposition on which the plot is based both plausible and appealing.
Simultaneously, it has spawned a Christian Da Vinci Code industry
anxious to refute what it sees as the novel's anti-Christian agenda.
If you don't want to know the plot, skip these two paragraphs: after an Opus
Dei-inspired murder, whose victim left behind a series of coded messages, an
American academic and a French cryptologist attempt to uncover a secret that
threatens to reveal the Church's conspiracy to suppress the divine feminine and
cover up the fact that Jesus was not the Son of God.
Not only that: Jesus had married St Mary Magdalene (in whose hands, not St
Peter's, he left the future of the Church), and through their French-born
daughter, their aristocratic bloodline is still extant. With a murderous monk
on their tail, the two set off on a whirlwind tour of Britain's sacred spaces
with secrets and Leonardo da Vinci very much on their mind.
It would be easy to ignore, had not Mr Brown introduced the novel with
a page entitled "Fact", which claims accuracy for the description of certain
organisations, artwork, architecture, and rituals. While these "facts" have
been hotly disputed, they have lent a credibility to statements made by
characters in the novel who sometimes quote real books and real people in
support of allegations about what took place in the history of the Church.
The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones, Master of the Temple Church, which features
in the novel, says: "Dan Brown is much cleverer than he pretends to be. It
is an airport novel, but he has deliberately muddied the water between
fact and fiction, and that creates a frisson where people think,
'There might be something in this.'"
Mr Griffith-Jones compares it to recent films such as Syriana and
The Constant Gardener, in which "you leave the cinema thinking you now
how the oil industry and pharmaceutical giants work. . . it's very hard to
escape that impression."
This blurred line between fact and fiction has led readers (including church
leaders) to assume that Dan Brown's novel is making a case against the Church.
The high-profile launch of the film, starring Tom Hanks, has prompted
churches and Christian groups to think carefully about how to respond. It all
seems to turn on precisely how suspicious groups are about the motives of the
author and the film-makers, and how much damage they think the film is going to
wreak on the cause of Christianity.
Bloody trail: the scene of the murder in the Louvre in Paris, which
kicks off the novel, The Da Vinci Code
. Audrey Tatou plays a cryptologist, Sophie Neveu sony pictures
For some, like Mgr Amato in Rome, the film is dangerous, subversive, and
threatening. But such placard-waving seems to be rare. Even the protest-happy
Christian Voice will not be mobilising against The Da Vinci Code.
"We're rather preoccupied with Jerry Springer - the Opera," said
Stephen Green ruefully.
"We ought to be protesting, I suppose, and I hope people will - but we don't
have any plans at the moment."
Most - including Lincoln and Winchester Cathedrals, where filming took place
- are going for a light touch, cheerfully dismissive of the scholarship, but
attempting to develop a debate about the issues. Opus Dei, for example, which
the novel (and the film, by all accounts) portrays as a secret and
conspiratorial organisation prepared to sanction all kinds of skulduggery,
including murder, is adopting a hearty levity.
Since Sony bought the film rights, Opus Dei has tried but failed, first, to
extract an undertaking hat its name would not be used; then, to get changes
made to the film; and, finally, to obtain the promise of a disclaimer in the
film, stating that it is fictional.
In the run-up to the film's general release, an Opus Dei spokesman, Jack
Valero, told the Church Times: "We're not going to boycott the film or
do anything negative. We are saying, Go and enjoy the film, but don't believe
any of it. Come and talk to us and get the image of the real Opus Dei, which is
An "unofficial" group of RCs (including the media-friendly Abbot of Worth,
Dom Christopher Jamison, as well as Opus Dei) under the co-ordination of Austen
Ivereigh, the Archbishop of Westminster's director for public affairs, has been
formed to respond to the film.
"The Da Vinci Code Response Group" remains suspicious of Dan Brown'
s motives, accusing him of "deception", but it nevertheless believes that
"prickliness on the part of Christians" would be to fall into "the trap laid by
Dan Brown: that the Church is on the defensive because it is engaged in a
Mr Ivereigh's group has highlighted the difficulty the Church faces in
combating the Da Vinci Code themes, because simple rebuttal of
statements made in the novel won't work. The idea of an institution conspiring
to keep secret facts it finds unpalatable resonates with a public suspicious of
authority and corporate spin.
In his Easter Day sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury alluded to
The Da Vinci Code and this tendency to suspect ancient texts such as
the Gospels: "The first assumption we make is that we're faced with spin of
some kind, with an agenda being forced on us," he said. "Because the Church has
historically been part of one or another sort of establishment and has often
stood very close to political power, perhaps we can hardly expect to be exempt
from this general suspicion."
'Debate is a good thing for religion'
Some of those who find themselves closer to the Da Vinci Code
narrative agree. Canon Professor Martyn Percy, Principal of Ripon College,
Cuddesdon, was surprised to find himself actually quoted in the book. One of
the central characters (played by Sir Ian McKellen in the film) says:
"Everything you need to know about the Bible can be summed up by the great
canon doctor Martyn Percy. . . 'The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven.'"
Matter of fact: above: Canon Professor Martyn Percy, who is
quoted in Dan Brown's novel; below: Silas, Hollywood's version of the
albino monk, played by Paul Bettany, with sacred secrets to protect sony
Professor Percy is happy to acknowledge the quote, if not the spin given to
it in the context of the novel - which is that the Bible is a construct
put together by powerful people in pursuit of an agenda.
Professor Percy has spoken to Dan Brown on occasion, and does not think the
novelist has an agenda. "He's an occasional attender at his local Episcopalian
church. He knows precisely what he's done in the book. He's absolutely clear
that it's a novel. He wouldn't say that he himself has been up to any mischief.
"Maybe I've been hoodwinked, but he seemed to me to be a fairly genuine,
straightforward guy, who's interested in writing slightly subversive books
about codes and the breaking of them."
Professor Percy has a "relatively relaxed attitude" towards the book, which
contains no new material and comes out of "the same soil" as
The Holy Blood and Holy Grail and Chariots of the Gods. But
he is concerned by readers' reaction to it. "What is it about contemporary
society that gets hooked on or seduced by conspiracy theories?" he asks. "Why
is it that in so many areas of public life we prefer to believe the underground
tube map rather than the map that reveals the territory on the ground?"
He concludes: "Conspiracy theories, first, present an alternative view of
reality, but, second, present a simpler, more beguiling version of reality,
which is more appealing to people who don't want to face up to the complexities
- in this case - of religious or Christian tradition."
He points to the theories surrounding events such as the assassination of
JFK and the death of Diana. "You're faced by the awful randomness of life, and
the fact you can be unlucky. They want a life where there are no accidents,
where everything is deliberate. It's giving an alternative narrative of
What the novel's popularity points to, he says, "is a kind of public
fascination with simplistic alternative versions of reality which actually
subvert the complexity and nuances of what we're engaged in. That can
fatally undermine the credibility of the public sphere. That's true for
politics and just about everything, not exclusively religion."
Underground maps such as the one in The Da Vinci Code, he argues,
privilege the author. "With a tube map you can connect anything up to anything.
It's like the game of 'Mornington Crescent'."
But he says: "I don't think the book holds any fears for orthodox
Christians," and urges Christians to engage positively with the film. Debate is
a good thing for religion, he says. If Christians respond positively "and, dare
I say, jovially" to what this story prompts, "that's a good thing for public
The Revd Steve Hollinghurst, author of
Coded Messages: Evangelism and "The Da Vinci Code", and researcher in
evangelism to post-Christian culture at the Church Army's Sheffield centre,
also calls for a positive engagement with The Da Vinci Code. He
believes it has valuable lessons for Christians. He argues that, despite the
narrative's scholarly shortcomings, it chimes with many people who are seeking
"Dan Brown portrays a more human Jesus, promotes the idea of the divine
feminine and the image of an inclusive religion which doesn't have hard edges,"
he says. "And people want it to be true, often in the face of experts who tell
While recognising that the book stereotypes Christianity, Mr Hollinghurst
believes that the Church has to take this on the chin. "The Church can't say
we've never oppressed anyone in the past, or that women have been treated as
equals." In engaging with readers and viewers of The Da Vinci Code,
the Church must, for example, "re-emphasise the feminine imagery for God in the
Bible and Christian tradition", he says.
Copies of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail are readily available
in car-boot sales for 50p, and The Da Vinci Code will probably not be
long in joining them. But dealing with public perceptions is a longer game,
agree Mr Griffith-Jones, Canon Percy, and Mr Hollinghurst.
'We should try to re-fire people's imagination with the gospel story'
"There is a longing for a connection with and experience of the spiritual",
says Mr Hollinghurst. "I see this at festivals like Glastonbury, and at Mind,
Body, Spirit events." He finds that people are open to Christianity when
offered in this "neutral" territory. For example, "Ignation meditations go down
very well - during which people seem to have powerful encounters with Jesus,
even though they have no Christian background whatsoever. . .
"Our culture is largely stripped of any religious language, and people need
help in finding a way to frame their experiences. They are looking for personal
transformation, but also for social justice and social transformation, too. But
we need to be where people are in order to offer these things."
Mr Griffith-Jones, who for 18 months has been giving weekly talks about
The Da Vinci Code to a stream of Dan Brown pilgrims at the Temple
Church, says: "We should try to re-fire people's imagination with the beauty
and mystery and poetry of the gospel story. The Gospels have at their heart a
love story, just as humane and poignant and moving as anything Dan Brown has
But he also says with regret: "We don't encourage people to be captivated
and enthralled by these wonderful stories. That's the way we counter Dan Brown,
because that's the way he has captured people's imagination. We need to appeal
to that imagination."