Tell Moyers There's Hope:
The Secret Meaning of The Da Vinci Code

When The Da Vinci Code phenomenon was well under way, I picked up a cheap paperback of Dan Brown's earlier novel, Angels and Demons, then of Digital Fortress. Based on two factors, I decided not to bother with The Da Vinci Code until it came out in paperback, even though the topic–Mary Magdalene–was a personal interest. The two factors were how poorly the books were written, and the fact that they represented essentially the same story told in different idioms. This was more than a year ago. Last week, I had a chance to "borrow" a secondhand copy of Brown's best-seller

What "same story"? Well, it goes like this....

(now available in two editions: regular and illustrated!), and sure enough, same story.

The "same story" problem is to miss the point, though. This time, Brown "gets it right." That is to say, The Da Vinci Code tells the story better than the other books. It is, still, not a book anyone will nominate for the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, but it is a good read, only slightly marred by Brown's literary weaknesses. The unveiling of the villian is, as usual, utterly unpersuasive. Accepting the identity of "The Teacher" entails a nearly fatal stretch on our credulity. And the novel's love story is, typically, couched in the sanatized "family" terms of a fifties' movie. (Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes boy, boy and girl exchange slightly risqué repartee that suggests they will be naughty after the book ends.) But as I said, this is not great literature, nor meant to be.

There is a whole cottage industry surrounding The Da Vinci Code that also misses the point. There must be a dozen books that claim to "expose" Brown's failures of "accuracy." Never mind that Brown explains in a foreword that the only "facts" he claims to represent are 1)

"Blasphemy or New Age Twaddle?"
How About "Neither"?

What exactly are the "blasphemies" in the book? As near as I can tell, "they" are the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. That's it. Looking at that realization, I am reminded of the neocon ranting in a local paper recently that medical doctors are notoriously pacifists. Are we listening while our lips move? The book is evil because it examines Jesus' family values and sanctifies marriage?

As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has pointed out in his The Gospel Code, there is nothing compelling in the Bible that suggests Jesus' message would be lessened if he had married. The misogynists who emerged as leaders after Jesus' death –Peter and Paul– set that savagery in motion. It's ironic, given the uniformity of fundamentalist reaction, that The Last Temptation of Christ, as conceived by Nikos Kazantzakis, hinges on this idea, a variant of the hatred of women that one discovers, reading not as a wide-eyed adolescent but as an adult, throughout Kazantzakis' work. Personally, I've always thought the real reason fundamentalists hated the film was that it showed Christ's pee-pee.

This idea, the marriage of Jesus, which Brown neither endorses nor dramatizes, is what has the fundamentalists up in noisy arms. It is such a bizarre reaction that one has to look at it more closely, as one must the notion that same-sex marriage threatens the "sanctity" of marriage. In fact, the real reason for fundamentalist upset is that the book suggests thinking, choosing, weighing, rather than absolute obedience to accepted wisdom. In this respect, the Church and the barefoot charismatics are as one. Like Kazantzakis' novel, The Da Vinci Code poses questions we are not supposed to think about, rather than offering answers we are to accept without, yes, thinking.

Well, then, the New Age stuff. In a word, there isn't any, any more than in Margaret George's historical novel, Mary, Called Magdalene (less, in fact, if you take a closer look at George's authorial voice). Brown does not dramatize the healing power of crystals, the compelling force of planetary conjunctions, or the merits of channelling George III, he merely writes about people who believe in these things. Again, a wonderful irony, in that Umberto Eco's bit of public onanism, Foucault's Pendulum, does in fact create a universe of New Age twaddle, but heh-heh, we know he's kidding. Unless we take "New Age" to mean "not the accepted thing" –in which case, plate tectonics would have been "New Age" a half century ago, evolution a century ago, and what else can we call "global warming"?– the "accusation" is just the intellectual equivalent of crying "Blasphemy!"

Note: For a sympathetic and even-handed representative of the New Age view of Mary Magdalene, read Margaret Starbird's excellent The Woman with the Albaster Jar.

the existence of the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei and 2) the accuracy of the descriptions of "artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals."

Admittedly, the first claim is a bit ambiguous, since he fails to mention that the Priory has been exposed as a hoax, in spite of the "parchments" (actually typescripts) "discovered" at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. And the second claim leaves him open to volumes of dissent, since "descriptions" and interpretations are easily confused. His descriptions are, in fact, rife with howlers (like depicting the Louvre's Madonna of the Rocks as an oil painting Sophie hefts around, rather than the wooden panel that it is).

Howlers? How about putting a chick at the Last Supper?

Frankly, It's no more troubling than Tom Clancy getting the gauges wrong on an F-16 or putting too many guns on a Huey. Some folks care; most don't.

Nevertheless, debunkers abound, from the relatively sane and certainly level-headed Dan Burstein (Secrets of the Code) to the ravings of the Rapture crowd, whose screams of "Blasphemy" are as ironic as listening to Xaviera Hollander call Britney Spears "a slut." Interspersed in the chaos are a few serious books by competent theologians and experts like Bart D. Ehrman of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Burstein's is the best single book on the "fact or fiction!!!?" issue. He includes in his anthology a fascinating compendium of legitimate biblical scholars, such as Karen L. King (The Gospel of Mary of Magdala), Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels, Beyond Belief) and Susan Haskins (Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor), Esther de Boer and Bart Ehrman (who has a competing book, from Oxford University Press, no less). He musters a handful of Renaissance historians and art historians knowledgeable about Da Vinci, one of whom sniffs imperiously over Brown's referring to his artist subject as "da Vinci," because all serious artist historians refer to the learned gentleman from Vinci more precisely as "Leonardo"–but not, I observe, library and bookstore alphabetizers, who place him between Caravaggio (real name: Michelangelo Merisi, philistines) and Donatello. He throws in cryptographers, a cognitive scientist, an essay on "Latin Epistomology," and experts in Grailiolatry and Templaritude.

The latter, by the way, describe Brown's debt to the grandfather of the Templar Conspiracy books for my generation, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (and, they point out, to their own books), and then take Brown to task for not mentioning that Holy Blood, Holy Grail's primary thesis, the secret marriage of Jesus and Mary, was repudiated by the con man who appears to have created the Priory of Sion (Pierre Plantard) and the "secret documents," because his interest was in establishing his claim to the French throne. In 1956. Whatever.

As a measure of the silliness, consider that Burstein also includes a classic bit of muckraking, an essay that lists a pile of "factual errors" in the book, including driving down the wrong street to get from the Louvre to the Ritz. Oh my. (And even more depressing, when Burstein gathered the materials for his second Brown book, Secrets of Angels and Demons, he had the same "muckraker" (rumored to be his teenaged son) do the same combination of Trivial Pursuit

For an excellent list of books that can help with The Da Vinci Code, try this link at Amazon.

and Treasure Hunt again, "because it was such a hit" in the first book. Sigh.

As I said, all beside the point, however interesting. It's only a novel, it's only a novel.... The Da Vinci Code is not an attempt to undermine Christianity (one Rapturous critique allows as how the Anti-Christ will no doubt claim to be a biological descendant of Jesus), nor is it a New Age tract. It's fiction, adventure fiction, like James Bond and the Hardy Boys. As a novel it has the potential to mislead because of a problem Bart Ehrman identifies in his Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (the most respectable of the "Code" books; Ehrman is an expert on early Christianity, particularly the guys who lost, and head of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill). Ehrman bemoans the way contemporary Americans get their "history" from the popular media, without distinguishing fact from fiction. He uses as his example, tellingly, the ludicrous success of the Rapture franchise.

But the controversy around The Da Vinci Code has its center in the same place as that surrounding Martin Scorsese's film, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the Kazantzakis' novel before it (both of them fundamentally antithetical to Brown's story and his values). The Da Vinci Code threatens fundamentalist Christians and organized churches (he must be doing something right...) and is virtually ignored by thoughtful intellectuals. It is this last that bothers me, but before explaining, let me elaborate a bit on the first.

Organized churches "organize" around the canonization of felicitous beliefs. Felicitous, that is, for them. One doubts if there will ever be a temple revelation or infallible papal realization (or celestial phonecall to Jimmy Swaggert) disbanding the church addressed. It never seems to work that way. If one wishes to be permanently employed, how better than to convince a community that one has exclusive access to God's ear?

Goddess worship has been, since Christianity's beginnings, the biggest threat to the power and authority of the church, partially because the competition was, like it or not, better looking than Jehovah and nowhere near as nuts, partially because the patriarchal, misogynist obsessions of the early Christians came to dominate the self-established and (appropriately) self-propagated church. To normal people, goddess worship made sense; gonad worship didn't. In the classic manner of the psychic type, the church "fathers" chose to attack the opposition rather than clean up their act. A basic rule of competitive sports: If the opposition has a better team, injure them.

"Come on, what do you think?"" I think Mary Mag–.

Hence a female beloved disciple (the evidence is as compelling as any orthodox view of the disciples) is transformed by slanders of popes and divines into a reformed, bipolar prostitute. Hence the witch hunts that resulted in the slaughter of women, sometimes entire village populations, across Europe and into that refuge of "religious freedom," Puritan New England. But the threat of "goddess worship" is not the core problem, oddly enough.

By calling into question the Church's role as "sole owner of The Truth," The Da Vinci Code threatens every organized Christian religion. In his way, Brown has dropped a bomb into the tidy world of bingo cards, Papal limousines, and sweaty con men in satin suits. It's as potentially devastating as the Salamander Letter the LDS Church bought from forger Mark Hofmann because they believed that it proved Joe Smith was a con man. Buy it, burn it. "The Lord loves a good liar"–Brigham Young. Except unlike Hofmmann's forgery, The Da VInci Code gets the whole Christian industry in one sweep. Is the New Testament an example of the winners writing the history? Did the church caluminate Jesus' dearest friend, possibly his wife, to keep the cash register dinging? Is the Nicean Creed another hypocritical cant of "compassionate conservatives", covering up the hijacking of Jesus' mission? These are, particularly, not questions the current church "fathers" want us troubling our poor heads over.

The immediate threat to fundamentalism is equally obvious, I think. The Da Vinci Code invites us to think about our religous beliefs and how they express our cultural values. Fundamentalists don't want to; they would express it as not "needing" to. When the supreme culture value is obedience to authority, that bane of the Founding Fathers, then asking questions is, de facto, immoral. And the door is opened to opportunists like Rome and the Mormons and TV con men to offer predigested, unquestioned truth....

Uh, About Bill Moyers?

Moyers recently gave a speech in which is analyzed the political impact, especially on environmentalism, of the Rapture phenomenon and apocalyptic Christianity. He was responding to an excellent article by Glenn Scherer on the environmental frames of religious neocons ("The Godly Must Be Crazy," in Grist). The implications of Scherer's report are not to be ignored or belittled, but I see in "the Da Vinci Code phenomenon" great reasons for hope. Brown has touched a string in the American soul that hummed with sympathy for something in this book. That mysterious chord is, I think, a longing for and affirmation of the feminine impulse that runs counter to the chest-thumping phallus waving of neocon chickenhawk patriots and family values philanderers.

Jesus has been kidnapped by the religious neocons, and he is sitting somewhere with burlap over his head, while they claim he has endorsed Bradley vehicles, the gimme economy, SUVs, and hatred of mud people. They think he is their prisoner. They are wrong. God is alive; magic is afoot.

and take your tithes for the favor. A manifestation of Orwell's loop: Left right back where we started.

Thoughtful progressives should be reading this book and engaging their adversaries in dialogue about it. Not to defend its "facts," but to raise questions that fundamentalists should hear often enough that they are sick of them. The story in the novel challenges the historical church, not Christianity. And Protestant fundamentalism has splintered, over the centuries, through its own challenges to the church, its own heresies. Let it be said, the Rapture books are heresy. Why are they Ok?

Read this book, and think about it. Think about it as a way to introduce another model into the one-sided "debate" about Christian values. Think about why the idea that Jesus married his beloved disciple is offensive to a nation obsessed with the sanctity of marriage. Think about the fact that, in spite of silly claims that one of Brown's weaknesses is seeing the world in black and white, the book does not have any villians, just people committed to dangerous causes. Even Silas, the murderous hand of Opus Dei (a real institution as ominous to good society as the Aryan Nation and Karl Rove), commits his crimes in service of what he thinks is a higher cause and dies piteously penitent. This is not a book about good and evil, but one in which warring goods collide.

That is the shaded, nuanced world progressives believe in, and Brown is currently our most popular voice. Think about how to use his popularity. And, if you are the praying kind, pray for Dan Brown, because it looks like his next book is going to offend the Masons and the Mormons. I'm not scared of the Masons, but the Mormon Church doesn't attack its enemies with encyclicals; ask the ghosts at Mountain Meadows. (To prepare for The Solomon Key, you might want to read The Temple and the Lodge, by the Holy Blood, Holy Grail guys that got Brown started on The Da Vinci Code.

Buy The Da Vinci Code at

Top Dancing Badger Home Buy Books Book Reviews [mainly]
In Association with


Go to Powell's Books