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Interpreting the Da Vinci Code: Perspectives from a Church Historian

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Anyone read Dan Brown's best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code? I reckon this is one of the most controversial novel todate. Anyways for argument purposes, here's a different perspective of the novel.

Interpreting the Da Vinci Code: Perspectives from a Church Historian
By Amanda D. Quantz, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, History of World Christianity, Catholic Theological Union

My historical research deals with interdisciplinary studies in a significant way. I felt obligated to read The Da Vinci Code because I had heard bits and pieces about the discoveries in art, architecture, symbols, theology and church history that the novelist Dan Brown had supposedly made. I was especially curious about the book because it has been on the New York Times' Best Seller List for forty-five weeks. Since the task of historians is to chronicle the past in a creative and sound way, I was anxious to see how this novelist unfolded so much "historical" data that was previously unknown to scholars. I had read that Brown is not an academic in this field. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I brought no prejudgments to what I had heard were some clever theories about subjects I have studied my entire adult life. I read his novel bearing in mind that exciting discoveries have been made by pure accident. That is what happened in 1928, when Sir Alexander Flemming noticed an odd-looking substance in one of his studies of a deadly bacterium. What he was looking at turned out to be penicillin. With that in mind, I was optimistic that a creative and intelligent novelist might very well have produced a groundbreaking study in art history and perhaps even, in church history. But it soon became obvious that Brown had simply converted much historical data into a literary distortion.

Perhaps you have read the book and are puzzled about whether to accept the conspiracy theory about the life and nature of Christ that the author attributes to the Catholic Church. If you haven't yet read it, like many, you have probably heard enough intriguing details about the book that you can no longer put it off. If you are about to read it, you might be unclear about how to evaluate The Da Vinci Code in terms of its truth claims. I would like to offer you what I hope you will experience as a bit of relief. As a historian, I can assure you that you are not missing any truth about Christian history or doctrine, art or architecture, for which you will be indebted to The Da Vinci Code. It is a work of fiction that should be read as such. It does not document any historical discoveries, either artistic or theological, and it is not a piece of controversial scholarship with which the academic community is struggling. It is a novel, much like the romances and mysteries that one finds in supermarkets. Here are a few simple facts to help you sort things out as you turn the pages of Brown's awkward but tantalizing conspiracy theories. I hope that they will help you whether you read it in order to be part of the in-crowd or simply just to see what the fuss is all about.

The fourth century Vatican cover-up that Brown discusses at some length (see, for example, pages 37, 159 and 234) is impossible for some very simple reasons. I say this not because I am concerned about safeguarding the good reputation of the Vatican but because there was no Vatican in the fourth century. The papal residence from about 311-1305 was indeed in Rome. It was the Lateran palace, which was a gift from Emperor Constantine to the bishop of Rome. Constantine's wife Fausta had received it as part of her dowry. The Lateran palace's first resident was Pope Melchiades. There was not another pope in Rome, living at the same time, occupying a place called the Vatican. From 1305-1376, the popes lived in Avignon (France), where they could keep an eye on the activities of the independent-minded French rulers. A change in the political climate in France led to the papacy's return to Rome in 1377. Gregory XI was the first pope to live and work in a place known in ancient Rome as Vatican Hill, where a new residence was built. This is the building, many renovations later, that is part of what we know today as Vatican City. Thus, the eleventh century knights to whom Brown refers on p.158, could not possibly have been blackmailed by the Vatican. In this very basic example, getting a simple set of dates right tells the reader that what follows might be fun to think about, but is also flatly untrue. The confusion, I think, lies in the fact that Brown never notes that he is using historical names and places in order to create a work of fiction. On the contrary, he wants you to believe that he has his facts straight.

Another reason to read with caution is that Brown alludes throughout the book to a conspiracy by the Roman Catholic Church. Again, timing is everything: until the sixteenth century Protestant Reformations (there was more than one), the Roman Catholic Church did not exist. The most obvious question here is Roman Catholic as opposed to what? The Catholic Church (not Roman) certainly existed in various places such as Greece, Armenia, Italy, Ethiopia and North Africa. Today some of these Catholic churches (which are still Catholic) call themselves Orthodox. Brown is correct in noting that, in the first few centuries, there were groups that consciously separated from mainline (Catholic but not Roman) Christianity. This usually happened when a group wanted to express its moral offense over sinful or embarrassing events in the Catholic Church. For numerous, complex and, most Christian theologians agree, legitimate reasons, they are what their Catholic contemporaries considered to be heretics. They include several distinct groups such as the Gnostics (more on them in a moment), the Donatists (3rd century) and the Cathars (13th century). The Catholic Church was simply the mainline church until the Reformations, and includes such well-known members as St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, Sts. Francis and Clare, and St. Anthony. Catholic simply means universal and it was certainly that from the days of the earliest church. All of the mainline churches were Catholic and the Pope in Rome (not the Vatican) was just one of several bishops called pope. Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople also had popes. The early Roman popes had nothing resembling the powerful position that Brown describes. Rather, Christians recognized Rome as an important city because it was the site of Peter's martyrdom. They invested the bishop of Rome with special spiritual status because he was Peter's successor, but it was many centuries before this translated into the form of power that Brown describes. Of course, people also had great love for Jerusalem, because of its association with Jesus. However, you won't find that in The Da Vinci Code because the book emphasizes the factoids that sell.

The Roman Catholic Church grew out of the sixteenth century Catholic Counter-Reformation, which was a response to the Protestant Reformations. It was led by the Roman pope but was not limited to his participation. Catholics in Germany, England and elsewhere also supported the Counter-Reformation. In the modern sense of the term "Roman Catholic", the church "emerged" at a particularly painful moment in history. However, it was more of a metamorphosis, as are most historical events. Dan Brown collapses the modern structure of the Roman Catholic Church into the early church in Rome. The former has a political, theological, social and spiritual history that is related to the early church, especially through the continuous chain of bishops and some core beliefs about Christ. However, they are as different in structure, worldview and process as any two institutions could be.

These are just two examples of why The Da Vinci Code cannot be read as a theory that "fits" within the real history of the Catholic Church, Roman or otherwise. From the questions I have been asked, I realize that many readers are unclear about what to take seriously since the publication information is at odds with Brown's claims. That is, on the fly leaf, where the publication information is printed, the publisher acknowledges that "All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." Publishers print these disclaimers in order to protect themselves from lawsuits. If Dan Brown had let that statement stand alone, as do most fiction writers, there would probably be little confusion about the historical truthfulness of the book. But a statement he makes on the page prior to the prologue is misleading. He writes: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Long before Brown's book hit the market, I spent many hours studying the Last Supper. I have only one noteworthy observation about the author's conclusion that John the Evangelist is actually Mary Magdalen: Brown does a stylistic reading of the picture. If you follow his logic, you will notice something that would seem important, especially to Brown, which he does not mention. According to his criteria for what constitutes a female figure, Jesus must be a woman, as well. Given some of the book's other pointless descriptions and embarrassing clichés, I am somewhat surprised that he did not suggest this. I wonder whether the sequel will depict Jesus and Mary as a lesbian couple.

Perhaps the most disappointing perspective that Brown portrays as accurate is his view of the Church as a violent, characteristically exclusive, power-hungry institution that was practically dreamed up by a few patriarchs in order to sustain their own privileged positions. Such a view is divorced from the historical evidence on many, many levels. For one, it ignores the fact that the earliest church was comprised of what biblical scholars call the am-haretz (people of the land), who were the poor, forgotten and outcast. This is true of the apostles as well as the majority of Jesus' followers. This matter is not a biblical problem that scholars debate. As I was reading one of Brown's accounts of the allegedly power hungry early church leaders, I suddenly remembered a story told by a priest about his missionary days in China. He had just arrived in a small farming village and was introduced to several members of the parish. The leader of the community was named Peter and he said to my friend: "I am Peter and these are my brothers James and John and we are fishermen." They all burst out laughing because of the obvious parallel between their names and occupations and those of the Gospel characters. Yet with the stroke of a pen Brown carelessly recasts simple farmers and fishermen as CEOs.

There is plenty of historical evidence that reveals that the early church leaders sometimes had to give their lives while proclaiming the Gospel. This was especially true in the third century when the worst persecutions occurred under the emperor Decius. Brown's view of early church power structures does not and cannot account for the martyrs' willingness to die for the one in whom God's very self was revealed. Nor does it recognize what was really happening: that it took several centuries for the church to develop a vocabulary to describe Jesus as fully God and fully human. This is to be expected when trying to express something for the first time. God had never become human before and yet the earliest followers of Jesus suddenly had to some to terms with their experience of the risen Lord. Brown's account also ignores the evidence that suggests that decisions about the nature of Christ did not come primarily from the top down, but rather, grew up out of the soil of the church, where the experience of the risen Jesus was tried, tested, and lived. Here is the basic situation: the bishops were educated to greater or lesser degrees, and spoke and wrote any number of different languages. The church as a whole went from being a renewal movement within Judaism in the first century to a community of gentiles from all walks of life by the fourth century. With all of these changes and variables, communication was difficult. Is it any wonder that it took several hundred years for the church to develop a theological statement that could make some linguistic sense of the miraculous manifestation of God in Christ?

The final theological and historical difficulty with Brown's book that I would like to mention (although there are countless others that I could discuss) is its overarching Gnostic bent. Very briefly, Gnosticism is a bastardized version of Christianity that has been around since almost the very beginning of the church. Its fundamental principle is that the mainstream (again, Catholic) church misinterpreted the message of Jesus and that there is, at any given time, only a select few who have the secret knowledge (gnosis = knowledge in Greek) about Jesus' "true" message. Basically, each of the Gnostic attacks against the mainline church was met by the majority of Christians with arguments from logic as well as from scripture and the Tradition. By the time Constantine arrived on the scene (c.313), Gnosticism had been stamped out and condemned as a paranoid, puritanical sect and one that was ultimately unrecognizable as Christian teaching. This is simply a historical fact, which is one of the reasons that the Catholic church, as well as the Anglican, Orthodox and mainline Protestant churches have been able to say with confidence throughout history, which teachings are true to the ministry and message of Christ, and which are not. Basically, it boils down to love, expressed through compassion, service and authenticity. The Da Vinci Code takes these principles and banishes them, presenting an overly simplistic, conspiratorial version of mainline (Catholic) Christianity that is foreign to the shape of the actual early church. It depicts a stale, masculine, uninspired corporation with a business plan that, in the end, was about as successful as Enron's. Brown portrays authentic Christianity as that which Langdon, Sophie, Sauniére and Teabing are seeking. Ironically, the version he presents is Gnostic through and through.

Along with countless other scholars, as well as pastors and discerning readers, in the end I am left with a lingering question: Why is The Da Vinci Code so popular? There are other novels of the same genre that are much more appealing, especially in terms of imagery and the quality of writing. Robert Hellenga's The Sixteen Pleasures is a prime example. It is about a forbidden text called the Aretino that reveals the secrets of sexual pleasure. Hellenga writes convincingly in the voice of a young woman and the story is set in the breathtaking city of Florence, Italy. The narrative is intriguing, the characters have depth and the plot is clever. And yet The Sixteen Pleasures did not achieve anything remotely comparable to Brown's success in terms of the sheer number of readers. My sense is that people are reading The Da Vinci Code because of the title and its agenda, which is to misrepresent both church history and art history in the name of pop fiction.

The internet has put information at our fingertips which, on the one hand, is wonderful, and yet, it also breeds ignorance. Cautious teachers of all levels warn their students about taking information for research from the internet at face value. There is, quite simply, a great deal of garbage posted on countless websites and my sense is that the availability of knowledge has created an appetite for it. The problem is that, left to their own devices, many people do not know how to discern between fact and fiction on topics foreign to them, especially when the two are carelessly interwoven. Brown has provided his readers with a great deal of "information" about Leonardo and his works and it doesn't seem to matter to many whether or not it is true, which leaves me wondering why his readers want the information at all. My sense is that the book's success has to do with something very simple: it reduces a set of very complex questions to very simple, pat answers that also stir up very strong emotions about the church. Catholics are not pleased with the book because it misrepresents Christianity and paints the church in a very negative light. What is even more disturbing is the fact that it intentionally trivializes the mystery of Christ while misrepresenting church history. On page 233 Brown writes: "Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea." By taking the Council of Nicaea out of context Brown makes the divinity of Christ seem like the random claim of a few bishops rather than the result of the whole church's effort to articulate the ineffable experience of God in human history.

In the end Brown paints a historically and theologically inaccurate and simplistic explanation of Christianity. Those who accept his fictional rendition of Christianity do not have to grapple with the mystery of faith in Jesus. The book provides one-dimensional answers to difficult questions. Perhaps that is what some people want. But as believers will confirm, no novel ever reaches the bottom of the Jesus mystery. The church itself has never attempted to do so and it would never succeed if it did. That is part of what makes Christianity so fascinating. The other part is that Christians believe that their story they claim for their own is true. Sometimes that requires wrestling with mystery and non-literal truths. My sense is that those who accept Brown's version of things are not engaged in an authentic search for Christ. If that is the case, it probably doesn't matter to them that Brown has created an inauthentic representation of Christian faith. While that is a topic for another article and a different moment, I hope this piece has increased your awareness of some of the historical reasons that Brown's fictional story should not be read as if it were factual.

© Amanda D. Quantz, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, History of World Christianity

posted by Ivan Choe, 12:44 pm

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