Monday, May 15, 2006

The Da Vinci Code 2

Well it’s about to happen: ‘the movie event of all time’ - if the publicity is to be believed. The Da Vinci Code will soon be on general release, and it is one movie that is guaranteed to be a hit. It stars the well-known actors Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf), and is directed by award winning director, Ron Howard. Just wait until the DVD comes out! All this is on top of the continuing sales of the book, which, in 2004, outsold the Bible in the USA, and which will get a new lease of life with the film.

I preached on a theme in the book not long after it came out and one or two in my congregation wondered why. Now they are urging me to preach on it more. Whatever you think of the Da Vinci Code it is an incredible modern phenomenon. What’s all the fuss about? After all, it’s a crime novel and not a particularly well-written one at that. Why get so worked up over fiction? The fuss is that it combines a sensational story with a message about Jesus, Christianity, and the Church that writer Dan Brown claims to be based on FACT. And despite the fact that he gets elementary facts wrong, people are reading it and believing it. It has touched a worldwide nerve. The question is: can Christians keep theirs?

Essentially, the claim made in the novel is that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a child by her. This bloodline was preserved in France where it still continues. It is Mary Magdalene who is the Holy Grail and not, as used to be believed, the Chalice from the Last Supper. The story involves a conspiracy to keep the secret quiet, hidden codes, secret societies that have included Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton as their members amongst others, and a radical reinterpretation of Christian history that has orthodox Christians cast very much as the villains of the peace. Oh, and Opus Dei, a Catholic organisation, is portrayed as a bunch of murderers.

The story of the Da Vinci Code combines a fast moving plot with historical lectures given by characters in the story. These characters claim that the Church has suppressed documents; that it has hidden alternative Gospels that tell the truth about Jesus; that Christianity is a amalgam of older religions, and not a very good one at that; that older religions were more in tune with the sacred feminine; that people have had to risk their lives to protect the bloodline; and that you have clues for all this in Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper! If you haven’t read it, you should, and you should see the Movie. Members of our congregations certainly will.

There are, I think, two questions, in particular, for us as priests:

1. Why has such a novel had so much more impact on people than we have?

2. What is going to be our response?

In answer to the first question, I think we should say, firstly, that on a positive note, it shows that people remain deeply interested in Jesus, so interested that they are prepared to listen to theories about him. As a Christian of the orthodox type, I believe that the real Jesus is far more interesting than the one who comes across in this book. But it is an indictment of those of us who think like I do that we have not been able to convey our view of Jesus in a way that interests and attracts people. We have to accept that Dan Brown has been more successful in interesting people about Jesus than we have been, no matter how much we may disagree with or disapprove of his understanding of Jesus.

I believe that part of the problem is that for many years now the Church has not only tolerated, but has encouraged a very sceptical brand of scholarship. It is a scholarship that has been more about questioning the historical reliability of the Gospels than understanding them. Look at any standard commentary and you will find a lot of space devoted to so-called critical issues. Fair enough, but it has paved the way for the sort of views expressed in the Da Vinci Code by undermining confidence in the Church’s traditional view of its founder and history. Having called in to question whether the Biblical version is right after all, we should not be surprised that others try to present an alternative version even if, ironically, it is one even less based on historical sources than the one it seeks to replace.

Sadly, while clergy have proclaimed their doubts from the pulpits, people have continued to long to know more about Jesus and now they are hearing about him not from us clergy, but from writers like Dan Brown.

Secondly, and following on from this, the Da Vinci Code illustrates that there is a real spiritual hunger in our world. Obviously, many are reading the novel because they find it to be a good read and many more are now reading it out of curiosity because of all the publicity. This alone, however, cannot account for the huge interest in it. The Da Vinci Code raises spiritual questions and answers them in a way that appeals to where people increasingly are at. It is a singularly post modern view of the truth where questions are more important than answers, and the journey is more important than the destination. By calling into question more absolute views of the truth, it allows people to be spiritual without that spirituality making any demands on them.

Thirdly, from all this Jesus emerges as a Jesus for our time. He is person that people can identify with and relate to: a Jesus who has real relationships, who falls in love, gets married, has sex, and fathers children. It is a Jesus who affirms people in their search and in their lives, and encourages them on their journey. The Church’s Jesus has seemed remote either because he has appeared too divine, and so unlike us, or too intellectual, and, therefore, capable of being known only if you take a university course in theology. Dan Brown’s Jesus seems much more real and relevant. This is a Jesus who connects. The problem is he is no different to us and the good news he offers is that there is no good news just good questions.

The second question, then, is: what, as clergy, is going to be our response?

I must confess that I was, at first, a little worried that in talking about the Da Vinci Code, I might give it more publicity and encourage people to take it more seriously than they should. I think we are past that stage now! People are not only reading it, they are taking it very seriously indeed. Young people are getting their only knowledge of Jesus and Christian history from it. We have to see the Da Vinci Code as both a challenge and an opportunity.

Firstly, a challenge. What do we personally think about Jesus? What is our understanding of Him? Does it matter if Jesus was married, had sex, or fathered children? I recently heard one Christian leader say that Jesus could not have had children and, if he had, it would create serious theological problems. If that is true, in what sense can Jesus be said to be ‘precisely like us?’

We need to get our facts straight and then communicate them. There is a new myth of Christian origins that is doing the rounds and which Dan Brown has tapped into. It is that the orthodox were the bad guys and heretics, like the gnostics, were the good guys. On this understanding the orthodox suppressed the truth, which we now only have access to through the gnostic gospels: gospels such as the recently published Gospel of Judas, for example. I sometimes wonder whether people who argue like this have ever read the gnostic gospels. But it plays well on television!

However, such a myth has only been able to gain credence because of our intellectual and spiritual laziness. We need the courage and energy to combat such falsehood in the way the early Christians did when the gnostics were first around.

Finally, though, and on this I close, more than anything else we should see the Da Vinci Code as a wonderful opportunity. Dan Brown has himself argued just this. People are at least talking about spiritual issues and asking questions. This is the time to talk to people about Jesus and introduce them to the real Jesus. I shall certainly be preaching on the issues raised by the Da Vinci Code in Christ Church and taking part in whatever discussions I can in the hope that I can present an alternative to the Da Vinci Code. More than anything, however, I hope that in some way I can help people find the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, for themselves.

Christians claim that in Jesus of Nazareth God became human and that we see God in the face of the Jesus of history. It is because the Da Vinci Code raises historical questions that we must engage with it. There can be no hiding behind our faith. Dan Brown, rightly in my opinion, has said that the real enemy of religion is apathy and that the antidote to apathy is passionate debate. Let the debate begin!

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