How the Church is deciphering The Code

by
02 November 2006

'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 very different."

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 cover-up".

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.'"

7471-percy

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 pictures

7471-silas

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 control."

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 theology."

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 spiritual fulfilment.

"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 them otherwise."

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 invented."

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."

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)