In an era when large numbers of people take seriously the propaganda promoted by filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, I guess it’s inevitable that spurious works of fiction, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, c. 2003) could be pawned off as a source for historical information about Christianity. For over a year the book has remained at the top of best-seller lists, selling some 7 million copies in a year. Rave reviews in the New York Times and Library Journal provided a cover of credibility for it, and many critics applauded its “impeccable” research and historical accuracy. It’s been translated into dozens of languages, and it’s increasingly evident that its popularity resides in its appeal to people’s religious hungers as well as their thirst for an entertaining mystery.
As a story, The Da Vinci Code includes murder, mystery, romance, and action–necessary ingredients for a best-selling novel. The book begins with the murder of a curator at the Louvre in Paris, Jacques Sauniere, who leaves clues regarding his killer for his granddaughter (Sophie Neveu, a police cryptologist) and a friend (Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbology) to pursue. In time they discover revelations in Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” and hidden “truths” in the legend of the Holy Grail and traditions preserved by the Priory of Sion. They learn that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and their offspring have preserved and transmitted the great truths that will infuse the new wisdom (Sophie means wisdom; Neveu means new) proclaimed by the Mother Earth paganism Brown promotes.
Were it merely a mystery story, it would not deserve careful scrutiny. Indeed, many works of fiction begin with a disclaimer, indicating that all characters and incidents are sheer fictions. But the first page of The Da Vinci Code asserts: “Fact: The Priory of Sion–a European secret society founded in 1099–is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci. The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.’ Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City. All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Dan Brown obviously invites readers to take his novel as a depository of historical truth. He reinforced this in several interviews, such as the one he gave on NBC’s Today Show, where he asserted that “absolutely all” of the book’s historical data are true. “Obviously,” he said, “Robert Langdon is fictional, but all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies–all of that is historical fact.” On ABC’s 20/20 Brown explained his breakthrough to a new understanding about Christianity and acknowledged his sense of mission to share it with the world. He’s a propagandist for a new faith–one that replaces “patriarchal Christianity” with an ancient “matriarchal paganism.” Enamored with “The Age of Aquarius,” he speaks for ’60s generation, which has promoted anti-traditional views of sex and marriage, education, ethics, religion, and Reality.
Inasmuch as it is a work of propaganda, one should preface any reading of Brown’s work with a warning: Reader Beware! The book is riddled with inaccuracies, fraudulent claims, subtle misrepresentations, and blatant lies. We should heed Paxton Hood’s ancient warning: “Be as careful of the books you read as of the company you keep, for your habits and character will be as much influenced by the former as the latter.” So beware: The Da Vinci Code is a propaganda piece, written by a man seeking to destroy Christianity and replace it with a religion more attuned to the feminist fantasies and postmodern prejudices he favors. It’s a popularization of esoteric notions found in books such as Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels, Lynn Picknettt and Clive Prince’s The Templar Revelation, and Margaret StarBird’s The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine. Brown longs for the reestablishment of a pagan cult devoted to Mother Earth, a sexually libertine and morally permissive autonomous individualism.
Taking seriously the claims set forth in The Da Vinci Code, several critiques have been published by first-rate Christian scholars. Of those I’ve read, perhaps the most thoroughly-researched and blow-by-blow factual refutation is The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, by two Catholic scholars, Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2004). Brown virtually equates Christianity with Roman Catholicism and errs egregiously in many of his denigrations of that body. For example, he often refers to the Early Church as “the Vatican,” long before that administrative center even existed! As committed Catholics, Olson and Miesel are particularly adept at providing accurate and appropriate responses to his “central concerns, which are ideological” (p. 33).
Brown clearly promotes the revival of Gnosticism, a perennial ideology that promises an individualistic, generally antinomian autonomy in discerning religious truth and following one’s inner light. Gnostics, ancient and modern, often envision God as androgynous–an amorphous blend of masculine and feminine traits, who is frequently addressed as “Mother.” Modern Gnostics, like Elaine Pagels, celebrate some “hidden gospels,” such as the Gospel of Thomas, which they insist was embraced by significant sectors of the Early Church. They further argue (with virtually no documentary evidence) that the Early Church was fully egalitarian, led by female as well as male bishops, until patriarchal “orthodoxy” imposed its fetters upon all claiming the name Christian. In accord with Pagels and her cadre of disciples, Dan Brown denounces the Christian Church for suppressing the “sacred feminine” and hopes for its recovery.
This is most evident, Brown says, in the Catholic Church’s “smear campaign” against Mary Magdalene, who, according to his novel, is the Holy Grail. According to Brown, Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ first and most important apostle. They married and had children. Following Jesus’ death, she went to France, and her descendents clandestinely transmitted the message of the real Jesus. But as Olson and Miesel make clear, all Brown’s “facts” about Mary Magdalene are sheer fabrications, largely dreamed up by a small group of feminists chatting with each other at the Harvard Divinity School. Throughout Church history, Mary Magdalene has in fact enjoyed high standing as a loyal disciple of Jesus, but Brown’s portrayal of her derives from a few references in apocryphal works and spurious speculations that have emerged only in recent centuries.
Brown misrepresents Jesus as well as Mary. He asserts, for instance, that Christ was never considered divine until the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) declared Him such by a “relatively close vote.” In fact, New Testament documents amply indicate a confidence that Jesus, the Incarnate Christ, was God’s Son. The earliest Christian records we have, subsequent to the NT, shared the view of Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 50-117 A.D.), who wrote: “There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 10). The bishops at the Council of Nicaea, by an overwhelming majority (only two of more than 200 bishops dissented, which is hardly the “relatively close” vote Brown claims) simply affirmed the deeply embedded faith of the Church. Still more: just as Brown misleads readers regarding the Council of Nicaea, so he maligns Constantine, the emperor who called for it. According to the novel’s “historian,” Teabing, Constantine was a lifelong pagan who manipulated the Church to attain his own ends. In the process he made Sunday the Christian holy day, established the NT canon to exclude rival “gospels,” and imposed the new notion that Jesus was fully divine. Few of Brown’s assertions regarding Christ have historical merit, though many naïve readers apparently take them as true.
Olson and Miesel carefully investigate one of the book’s main themes, the secret messages of the Priory of Sion, obviously based upon a 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, “co-authored by Michael Baignent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. So fundamental is this book to The Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown borrowed two of the author’s names for his character Leigh Teabing” (p. 223). Two of the authors are Masonic historians, and they promote the story of Mary Magdalene, whose alleged descendents became part of France’s Merovingian dynasty and then the Knights Templar, whose secretive operations have continued over the centuries. Much of this material depends upon Les Dossiers Secrets, a collection of documents in the Bibliotheque Nationale purporting to establish the existence of the Priory of Sion. In fact, Olson and Miesel show, the Priory of Sion is “a modern hoax conjured up by a Frenchman named Pierre Plantard and his associates” (p. 234). Plantard wrote some books and appeared on major TV networks as an alleged Templar expert. Holy Blood, Holy Grail relies extensively upon his works. In time, however, Plantard was exposed and forced to admit that his “history” was a bundle of lies. Dan Brown, of course, knows this. But he perpetuates the lies because they serve his cause.
Olson and Miesel carefully, persuasively document their refutations of The Da Vinci Code. Footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and an index make this a most useful critique of Dan Brown’s hoax.
A more engaging and philosophically astute critique of Brown is provided by James L. Garlow and Peter Jones in Cracking Da Vinci’s Code (Colorado Springs: Victor, c. 2004). Garlow earned a Ph.D. in historical theology from Drew University, and Jones has a Th.M. from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. They are fully qualified to dissect the historical and theological claims set forth in Brown’s novel. (By way of full disclosure, I know the authors and was part of a team that helped them prepare to write the book). They understand that The Da Vinci Code, on a deeply spiritual level, is a cunning attack upon Christianity. It’s designed to destroy the very foundations–Scripture, Tradition, Christ’s historical Incarnation and Resurrection–that have supported the Faith for two millennia. Responding to fiction with some fiction of their own, Garlow and Jones skillfully involve the reader by beginning each chapter with an episode involving a modern university student struggling with some of Brown’s allegations, taught as fact in her women’s studies classes.
The authors particularly address “the sacred feminine,” embedded in the worship of Mother Nature, one of The Da Vinci Code‘s central themes, in a chapter entitled “God’s Second Best Idea.” Brown’s novel is, in fact, deeply sexual in its message, for it “is ultimately–when pressed to its not-so-logical conclusion–an appeal for free sex, separate from the parameters established by God” (p. 35). The novel’s popularity, one suspects, relates to its rationalization of sex under the guise of “spirituality.” Indeed, one of Brown’s main criticisms of the Christian Church involves her historic opposition to sexual sins. Shamelessly misrepresenting the Church, he says she equates sex with “original sin” and thereby renders all sexual behavior shameful. On the contrary, Garlow and Jones argue that sex is “God’s Second Best Idea” and defend the view that the very best sex is monogamous and heterosexual, gloriously in accord with the ways of creation.
They further argue that it is the very pagan religions celebrated by The Da Vinci Code, not biblical Christianity, that have devalued women. The matriarchal pagan cultures Brown celebrates never existed. They’re sheer figments of feminist fantasies. And pagan religions, for all their goddesses and priestesses, were marked by temple prostitution, sex-selection infanticide, foot binding in China, and suttee (burning widows in India). The alleged authorities cited by Brown when, for example, he makes wild assertions concerning the number of witches burned by the Inquisition, have been totally disproved by careful research. Brown parrots the radical feminist claim that the Catholic Church killed five million female witches–a monstrous “gendercide.” In fact, perhaps 50,000 witches (one-fourth of them male) were executed in 300 years. Christianity, Garlow and Jones insist, has done more for women’s rights and dignity than any other religion, and both Scripture and Church history reveal how women have flourished in Christian cultures.
Years ago Peter Jones attended a graduate seminar at Harvard that included Elaine Pagels, and he understands her real agenda: to reconfigure Christianity in accord with Gnostic thought. What Harvard professors were saying 30 years ago now informs a novel read by millions! They, as well as Pagels and Dan Brown, consider the Bible a purely human construct, not the inspired Word of God. Thus Cracking Da Vinci’s Code contains some careful apologetics in defense of the traditional canon. Jones and Garlow point out the remarkable similarities between the ancient heretic, Marcion, and modern thinkers like Robert Langdon in Brown’s novel. Marcion discarded the Old Testament as well as “legalistic” sections of the New Testament and promoted a lawless spirituality that permitted the sexual license he personally relished. In response, Tertullian denounced him as “the Pontic mouse who nibbled away the Gospels . . . abolished marriage . . . and tore God almighty to bits with [his] blasphemies” (Against Marcion).
Whether or not Marcion was a Gnostic we’ll never know for sure, but he certainly shared many Gnostic views. Peter Jones has written a fine monograph on Gnosticism, The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back, and this book’s chapter comparing the Gnostic and New Testament Gospels is quite illuminating. Jones remembers how Elaine Pagels at Harvard immersed herself in the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, whose most common message “is the rejection of the Genesis creation account” (p. 166). She then published The Gnostic Gospels and vaulted into an academic super-star status as a professor at Princeton University. She considers Gnostic Christianity a viable alternative to orthodoxy, and she portrays the Gnostics as victims of a power play by the patriarchal bigots who established the Catholic Church and insisted on doctrinal conformity.
Though once an evangelical, Pagels has recently “found a spiritual home in the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York, led by a ‘woman priest,’ where she was able to reject the notion that being Christian was ‘synonymous with accepting a set of beliefs’ such as the Apostles’ Creed. Pagels is also interested in the blending of Christianity and Buddhism” (p. 169). Sharing her stance, influential feminists have celebrated the “sacred feminine” and find solace in occult texts, women’s diaries and communal experiences. They–and Dan Brown–celebrate the ecstatic pagan mysticism featured in various Goddess cults. Many radical feminists hunger for “‘the Neolithic, pagan, matriarchal perception of the sacred universe itself'” (p. 203). Ancient goddesses such as Isis, Asherah, and Cybele illustrate the perennial allure of the “Great Mother.”
“The religious worldview of The Da Vinci Code celebrates the soft, inclusive womb of the Goddess, from which everything emerges and to which it all returns” (p. 224). The Goddess cults have recently proliferated in America, making incursions into allegedly Christian circles. One of Hillary Clinton’s advisors in the 1990s, Jean Houston, “believes our society needs to be rebuilt through the myth of the goddess Isis and her consort Osiris” (pp. 204-205). The Pilgrim Press, the publishing arm of the United Church of Christ, published (in 1999) a book by a “theologian/pagan priestess, Wendy Hunter Roberts, Celebrating Her: Feminist Ritualizing Comes of Age, which says: “‘Deep within the womb of the earth lies a memory of sacredness nearly buried under the weight of patriarchy. More and more women–especially those with Christian backgrounds–are being drawn to this empowering, goddess-centered worship'” (p. 208). Mary Daly, longtime professor of theology at Boston College and one of the founders of “Christian feminism,” has lately abandoned Christianity, but as early as 1973 she revealed her true faith by declaring, in Beyond God the Father: “‘The antichrist and the Second Coming are synonymous. This Second Coming is not the return of Christ but a new arrival of female presence. The Second Coming, then, means that the prophetic dimension in the symbol of the Great Goddess . . . is the key to salvation from servitude'” (p. 209).
The choice we must make is simple and profound: either pagan monism or biblical theism. “Is God just Nature or is He the Creator of Nature? Your answer to that question changes everything you think and do” (p. 230). To monists, everything is ultimately the same thing. To theists, as C.S. Lewis so wisely declared, “God is a particular Thing.” There is an otherness to God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He cannot be reduced to a “cosmic womb” forever spawning small segments of itself.
Cracking Da Vinci’s Code is a most engaging and analytically successful of the critique.
Ben Witherington III, an incredibly prolific professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has published The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 2004). He acknowledges: “We are facing a serious revolution regarding some of the long-held truths about Jesus, early Christianity and the Bible” (p. 11). He also demonstrates the affinity between Brown’s novel and two previously published works–Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), and Margaret Starbird’s The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail (1993)–reminding readers “we’ve been down this road before–twice! (p. 17).
He then selects some errors in Brown’s novel–aspersions on the N.T. canon, claims regarding Constantine’s role in the Early Church, celebrations of Mary Magdalene, denials of Jesus’ deity–and provides scholarly refutations. For Brown to suggest that Constantine played a role in establishing the New Testament Canon ignores the fact that the New Testament’s four Gospels “were recognized as sacred and authoritative tradition by A.D. 130” (p. 23), fully two centuries before the emperor ruled! Brown’s allegation that the Council of Nicaea “proclaimed” the divinity of Jesus “is patently false” (p. 22). To allege, as does The Da Vinci Code, that the earliest Christian records are contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi documents “is so false it’s what the British would call a howler,” says Witherington (p. 24).
What Brown “fails to grasp,” Witherington notes, is “that early Christianity, like early Judaism, is not primarily about symbols and metaphors but is deeply rooted in history, including events like the exodus, the reign of King David and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus” (p. 25). Careful reading of ancient history reveals that the four Gospels are written in the historical and biographical style of that era. Comparing the Gospel of Thomas (a favorite source for contemporary Gnostics) with the biblical Gospels reveals a world of difference! It’s the difference between a collage of speculative notions and an integrated, factual position.
Though Witherignton’s treatise has value, it appears as if he simply plugged in some previously written essays dealing with the topics, since it seems curiously detached from The Da Vinci Code itself. If one’s interested in Witherington’s position on issues such as The Jesus Seminar (a highly publicized Gnostic enterprise) this book is quite good. But it’s not really a meaningful discussion of Brown’s novel!