Monday, May 08, 2006

The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

Although I try my best to talk to you only about books that I consider to be really good ones, occasionally a book will come along that raises such a furor and gets so much hype that the noise alone seems reason for comment. Such is the case with the incredibly popular book, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. So many of my good reader friends, including my partner, loved the book and urged me to read it, and since it is now about to appear as a motion picture, it seems appropriate to say a few words about it and to comment at least briefly on its popularity. Although the novel hardly fits into the great category, it is bound to have much more content than the movie, and I think readers owe it to themselves to read through the book before (or in place of) seeing the movie.

Having been raised a Mormon, I am not surprised when I hear about vast cover-ups by churches, attempts to distort history in order not to have facts come to light that cast doubt on grand claims or betray shadowy and shabby origins. Not too many years ago a book called The Mormon Murders meticulously laid out some incredible attempts by the Mormon Church to buy allegedly authentic historical documents simply in order to bury them in their vaults and protect the reputation of its original leader, Joseph Smith. Although in the form of a novel, Dan Brown is attempting to do much the same thing with regards to mainstream Christianity.

In fairness to the book, I really should begin by saying that this is a pretty good little mystery, and for readers, it reads as quickly and smoothly as running water. Although I would say that in place of deep and genuine character development, the book creates cardboard cutouts to do work for Brown as he manipulates them from behind the scenes, there is a certain degree of charm to the heroes and heroines, and a chilling nastiness to the villains. And there is plenty of suspense and mystery.

The premise of the book is that there exists secret documentation, hidden and protected for centuries, that will demonstrate a conspiracy by Christianity (and especially the Catholic Church) to suppress some gospels and to elevate others—in short, to present the New Testament as historical fact while hiding and/or denying historical documents that conflict with and even contradict the story as told. Da Vinci is but one of many intellectuals chosen by a secret society, the Priory, to pass along the hidden secrets.

….the Priory’s tradition of perpetuating goddess worship is based on a belief that powerful men in the early Christian church ‘conned’ the world by propagating lies that devalued the female and tipped the scales in favor of the masculine…..The Priory believes that Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever.

The Church relentlessly pursued those whom they thought were in possession of such dangerous documents, murdering some, paying out vast sums of money to others, and burning five million women as witches in the relentless attempt to keep the secrets buried and the patriarchy alive.

I certainly agree with the overall thesis of the book that what gets presented as the one and only truth about Christ and the history of Christianity is, in fact, a particular set of so-called ‘gospels’ that were selected out by men at some particular point in history, and that what got ignored in the process is at least as important as what got selected. Anyone who has done much research into early Christianity knows that a council of men decided on just what would be counted as divine scripture. Certainly the recent hubbub over the Judas gospels and the not so long ago stirring of historical controversy by The Dead Sea Scrolls should convince any even moderately fair researcher that some political agenda has steered Christianity. I think Brown is correct in assuming that most people who call themselves Christians are profoundly na├»ve about the origins of their own religion and consider it sacrilegious even to consider historical data that might call into question the literal truth of biblical accounts. Mormons could suppress dissent by forbidding their members to read accounts that called into question the truth of Mormonism or the saintly characteristics of its founders, and while moderate Christians laugh at the gullibility and lockstep mentality of Mormonism (which they see as a cult), they seem simply to suppose that the Bible (divinely inspired and all) must capture the truth. If Brown’s book can help shake this hopeless naivete, its popularity must be at least forgiven.

And Brown manages not only to involve his reader in this vast patriarchal cover-up, but also to recall for us the romantic searches for the Holy Grail, and to suggest that Jesus may have married and had offspring (also, of course, relentlessly pursued by the Church and killed if found in order to forestall claims of divine bloodlines). In fact, perhaps the Holy Grail is not a document at all, but a person who constitutes a double threat to Catholicism by showing its divine book to be false and by giving the world even more than a latter-day-saint, namely, a living bloodline-authentic goddess!

Holy grails, Mary Magdalene as Christ’s wife, a living goddess among us—this is heady stuff, no wonder it has caught the eye of Hollywood. And certainly as a reminder that religion is really a matter of metaphor, both our own favorite religion and the religions of others, this book is worth reading. Sally McFague (and other feminists who wish to retain some parts of religion) has argued that what is required by religious apologists is new metaphors—not god-the-father, god the punisher, god the wrathful, god as commander-and-chief. Instead, she suggests, why not consider the earth as god’s body, revert to a more naturalistic and pantheistic metaphor that may help us to treat both the earth and each other in kinder and more loving ways. Although I don’t have the same sort of investment in trying to save religion, I respect McFague’s efforts.

Perhaps Brown puts his own views into the mouths of one of his characters when he says, “Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical.” There need not be literal virgin births, literal resurrections, literal incarnations of gods or goddesses. Instead, open up to all possibilities, and insist primarily on the morality and tolerance of religious views. To do otherwise, is simply to endorse mass psychosis as literal truth.

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