The Da Vinci Code book and film



May 2006 Review



The conspiracy theories and the adventure in search of the Grail are great fun in both the book and the film. Their fictional character is widely accepted.

However quite apart from this core aspect there are some fascinating and important questions raised in The Da Vinci Code and also as a result of the different responses to it.
Here are some of them followed by my reflections on them:


Does life contain the inexpressible (as Daniel Barenboim recently argued in the Reith lectures about both life and music)? The Da Vinci Code speaks of the 'unprocessible' (p.451).

Is it fair to disturb people's understanding of their faith?

Is life out of balance and will progress towards gender equality resolve this imbalance?

What if the world's most famous man is also its most misunderstood man? What are the consequences of agreeing that this is so?

Is Christianity redeemable? It came out of a patriarchal culture and has a male deity and a male saviour. Can the feminine (what the novel calls the 'sacred feminine') be introduced to make it a more inclusive religion?

Websites and DVDs have been created to correct the misunderstandings that churches and organisations consider Dan Brown has created. Do those websites and DVDs just contain what is held to be the official teaching or do they also include the dissident voices that challenge what is currently official teaching? The novel stresses the importance of thinking for oneself. How can members of churches make informed choices if the differing voices are not included in these presentations?

Reflecting on the questions raised in the novel

Does life contain the inexpressible (as Daniel Barenboim recently argued in the Reith lectures about both life and music)? The novel speaks of the 'unprocessible' (p.451).

Many religions speak of God or Ultimate Reality as beyond description and beyond knowing (that's if God exists - isn't this life's central uncertainty?). God is ineffable, impossible for a human mind to grasp and comprehend. All we can do is construct our images, our symbols and our metaphors to convey what we guess God might be like. Over the centuries many ideas have been generated - some are good, others are repulsive. God's existence or non-existence cannot be proved nor can we prove that some ideas reflect God's character better than others. God remains mysterious. What The Da Vinci Code calls 'unprocessible'.

Key quotation: 'Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to process the unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.' (p.451)



Is it fair to disturb people's understanding of their faith?

The twentieth century saw an explosion in all branches of human inquiry, and theology has been no exception, though as with other subjects there are conflicting opinions in response to new discoveries. Most members of the world's religions do not have a sophisticated understanding and tend to take their scriptures and other beliefs literally. Is it fair to disturb them? On the one hand if we are not challenged we will not grow. On the other hand suppose someone derives great comfort from a belief or practice (e.g. devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary) and they come to see that such devotion is misplaced and are deeply upset is this right?

Many human rights abuses flow from literal understandings of scriptures. I think it is important to try to share as much new thinking as possible so that many of these abuses may be avoided. I find it is liberating to have an understanding of the scriptures of the major world faith traditions which allows me to say: "that is what people claimed thousands of years ago to be right or to be the will of their god, but what they believed then does not constrain how I think today ". To my mind, it is part of the dignity and responsibility of being human that we have to work out our moral conclusions and (if we wish to do so) our theological convictions, however provisional, for ourselves. One of the implications of accepting the hiddenness of God (if God exists) is that no moral or theological guidance is revealed from heaven (as was once believed). We are on our own, the responsibility lies with us for making decisions.

Key quotation: "The Bible represents a fundamental guidepost for millions of people on the planet, in much the same way the Koran, Torah and Pali Canon offer guidance to people of other religions. If you and I could dig up documentation that contradicted the holy stories of Islamic belief, Judaic belief, Buddhist belief, pagan belief, should we do that? Should we wave a flag and tell the Buddhists that we have proof the Buddha did not come from a lotus blossom? Or that Jesus was not born of a literal virgin birth? Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical. Sophie looked sceptical. 'My friends who are devout Christians definitely believe that Christ literally walked on water, literally turned water into wine and was born of a literal virgin birth.' 'My point exactly,' Langdon said. 'Religious allegory has become a part of the fabric of reality. And living in that reality helps millions of people cope and be better people.' 'But it appears their reality is false.' " (p. 452)



Is life out of balance and will progress towards gender equality resolve this imbalance?

The UN Human Development report for 1995 stated "One of the defining movements of the 20th century has been the relentless struggle for gender equality, led mostly by women, but supported by growing numbers of men. When this struggle finally succeeds - as it must - it will mark a great milestone in human progress. And along the way it will change most of today's premises for social, economic and political life."(UNHD report 1995, p.1)

Key quotation: "The days of the goddess were over. The pendulum had swung. Mother Earth had become a man's world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll. The male ego had spent two millennium running unchecked by its female counterpart. The Priory of Sion believed that it was this obliteration of the sacred feminine in modern life that had caused what the Hopi Native Americans called koyanisquatsi - 'life out of balance' - an unstable situation marked by testosterone-fuelled wars, a plethora of misogynistic societies and a growing disrespect for Mother Earth." (p.174)



What if the world's most famous man is also its most misunderstood man? What are the consequences of agreeing that this is so?

Traditional beliefs about Jesus as divine and human are challenged in The Da Vinci Code. Are we moving to an age when human beings will no longer think of themselves as Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhist, Hindus etc.? Perhaps people (whether they have a religious or a non-religious interpretation of life) will simply think of themselves as human beings and citizens of one global village who search for meaning and in doing so draw from a global resource of wisdom and spirituality to which religious and humanist traditions have contributed.

Key quotation: " 'In terms of prophecy,' Teabing said, 'we are currently in an epoch of enormous change. The millennium has recently passed, and with it has ended the two-thousand-year-long astrological Age of Pisces - the fish, which is also the sign of Jesus. As any astrological symbologist will tell you, the Piscean ideal believes that man must be told what to do by higher powers because man is incapable of thinking for himself. Hence it has been a time of fervent religion."



Is Christianity redeemable? It came out of a patriarchal culture and has a male deity and a male saviour. Can the feminine (which the novel calls the 'sacred feminine') be introduced to make it a more inclusive religion?

I think that Christianity could be reappraised and reformed so that it moves beyond both fundamentalism and beyond its patriarchal framework to be a religion that is inclusive of both the feminine and the masculine, although this would mean giving up traditional beliefs that Jesus was literally human and divine and literally a male saviour figure. The days of a male father god and a male saviour (in a literal sense) need to be left behind. However perhaps the future will be more like that described above - an age where people will have moved beyond the old religions which have come out of a pre-scientific world.

Key quotation: "The pendulum is swinging. We are starting to sense the dangers of our history ... and of our destructive paths. We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine"(p581).



Websites and DVDs have been created to correct the misunderstandings that churches and organisations consider Dan Brown has created. Do those websites and DVDs just contain what is held to be the official teaching or do they also include the dissident voices that challenge what is currently official teaching? The novel stresses the importance of thinking for oneself. How can members of churches make informed choices if the differing voices are not included in these presentations?

I respect the right of anyone to seek to clarify misunderstandings. While some groups see The Da Vinci Code as an opportunity to discuss and debate issues of faith, there is still a tendency to be defensive and to present the official line and not include the dissident voices - yet every religion has many voices.

Key quotation: "we are entering the Age of Aquarius - the water bearer - whose ideals claim that man will learn the truth and be able to think for himself. The ideological shift is enormous, and it is occurring right now.' " (p. 357)

Page numbers for quotations in this article are taken from the Corgi edition, published in 2004. ISBN 0 552 14951 9





August 2005 Review



To my mind, this book is much more than an exciting and gripping thriller. It concerns much more than the highly speculative idea that the Roman Catholic church has for centuries suppressed secrets stories both about the purported marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and that he wanted her to be the leader of the church, for which most scholars think there is no solid historical evidence.

Despite the fact that it is difficult to discern whether in the words of a fictional character we are also finding the author's own ideas, I believe that here is an author concerned to address a world beset by chaos and violent conflict. Though I may be mistaken, I think that Dan Brown is acutely aware of the aggressive and destructive aspects of a masculine/patriarchal culture that desperately needs to be balanced and healed by the inclusion of feminine perspectives and values. Perhaps in another book he will discuss what he means by masculine and feminine - both the postive and the negative aspects.
I think this is a key quotation,

"The pendulum is swinging. We are starting to sense the dangers of our history ... and of our destructive paths. We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine"(p581).

Earlier in the book is a similar quotation:

"The days of the goddess were over. The pendulum had swung. Mother Earth had become a man's world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll. The male ego had spent two millennium running unchecked by its female counterpart. The Priory of Sion believed that it was this obliteration of the sacred feminine in modern life that had caused what the Hopi Native Americans called koyanisquatsi - 'life out of balance' - an unstable situation marked by testosterone-fuelled wars, a plethora of misogynistic societies and a growing disrespect for Mother Earth." (p174)

Whether or not these sentences really reflect Dan Brown's own thinking, they are very interesting in their own right, though I would not use the word restore, as the feminine has been so dominated by the masculine, to such a huge extent, in male-oriented Western societies,in Christianity, and in pre-Christian societies. I would use the word include. I long to see societies and religions that celebrate and affirm human life in all its diversity. Given our past, I believe there is a pressing need to include femininist perspectives and values, as well as emphasising what as men and women we share through our common humanity. I agree with him in thinking that such change is needed in both political ideologies as well as in religion. I suspect he would agree with the search for gender justice and gender equality. I imagine he would resonate with these words from this UN Human Development report "One of the defining movements of the 20th century has been the relentless struggle for gender equality, led mostly by women, but supported by growing numbers of men. When this struggle finally succeeds - as it must - it will mark a great milestone in human progress. And along the way it will change most of today's premises for social, economic and political life."(UNHD report 1995, p.1)

Brown's understanding of religion:

He is not a fundamentalist. For example, he would not, to my mind, count himself among those who "definitely believe that Christ literally walked on water, literally turned water into wine and was born of a literal virgin birth."(p452) His understanding of religion is expressed, I believe, in this quotation - "Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical."(p452)

My conclusion from reading this book is that Dan Brown longs to see the re-shaping of Christianity. I concur with him that Christians need to give up many of their traditional ideas about God and about Jesus. Christianity needs to evolve. There needs to be a significant place for the sacred feminine as Brown argues. God (or Ultimate Reality) cannot be simply described by masculine metaphors. Historically, the church has influenced society's thinking, but society has also influenced the church's thinking. As society becomes more gender equal, so we will see, in my view, the influence of society on the church's theology with a greater emphasis on the feminine.

The account of suppressed secret stories in relation to Jesus and Mary Magdalene makes for interesting reading. However, in my opinion, the real stories that need to be revealed openly by the churches, for what they are, concern Jesus' birth and resurrection. Many Christians accept today that the Genesis creation stories of Adam and Eve are not historical stories, but rather religious/theological stories. There never were any human beings called Adam and Eve. But despite, accepting change over how to understand the Genesis creation stories, there has not been a similar change yet in relation to the stories concerning the birth and resurrection of Jesus.

To my mind and in the view of many, though it has to be said not in the view of all theologians, the stories of Jesus' birth and resurrection are not historical ones, but rather are theological stories. So, for example, it is not a historical fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, most probably he was born in Nazareth. Bethlehem is mentioned in this theological or faith story because by doing so the author can express his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, for the Messiah as a descendant of king David, it was thought by some, would come from David's home town of Bethlehem. Nor is it historical fact that there were Wise Men coming with gifts, nor were there angels who appeared to shepherds. These stories have a theological purpose. Likewise the resurrection stories are not factual accounts, but are theological narratives in which a faith claim is made that Jesus is alive again and will return again soon to the world as Lord and Saviour. They are beautifully crafted stories, but actually are mistakenly read if considered to be factual accounts of something his followers witnessed.

This article has three main sections, as follows -

INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK

ASSESSMENT OF THE BOOK

SOME THOUGHT-PROVOKING QUOTATIONS

INTRODUCTION

In this section I am not summarising the whole book. I will simply describe the basic plot of the story and will write about how it begins. Dan Brown's best selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, is a fascinating and gripping thriller that begins with the murder of four people. In the whole world, it was just these four people who had been carrying the secret details about the Holy Grail. They had inherited the knowledge of these secrets from others, and were meant to pass them on to the next generation. But now, it looked as if the secrets had died with them. The mysterious Holy Grail, that figures prominently in the book, has been the subject for centuries of much legend and many conspiracy theories. However, as I will want to stress, there is something of greater importance in this book than the Holy Grail which Dan Brown refers to as the sacred feminine. He clearly thinks that the sacred feminine is very important, both for political as well as religious reasons. Not every reviewer has highlighted these features as I intend to do in my assessment of the book.

Holy Grail:
The plot concerns the purported existence of the Holy Grail and whether its secrets will soon be revealed. It is alleged that the Catholic church is most anxious to see that these secrets are never disclosed. Various fictional characters in this book have differing ideas and theories about what the Holy Grail consists of. It may just be a legend. It may consist of the cup or chalice used for the wine shared at the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples. On the other hand, the chalice as a feminine symbol may be a metaphor for a woman. That woman might be Mary Magdalene, a close follower of Jesus. The Grail may contain her bones. Furthermore it could also consist of precious documents, which the Church has long wanted to destroy, which make the claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene; that she, and not Peter, was meant by him to be the leader of the church; and that after Jesus' death, Mary Magdalene escaped to France where she gave birth to their daughter, called Sarah.

The book speaks of a secret society, called the Priory of Sion, set up about one thousand years ago to guard the hiding place of the Holy Grail. Shortly after the founding of the Priory, its members enlisted some men known as the Knights Templar whose task was to find the Holy Grail that had been stored somewhere under the Temple in Jerusalem. After it was found, it was brought to Europe and kept in various hiding places in France and UK. This secret society, in addition to keeping the secret about the Holy Grail and its astonishing reversal of traditional beliefs, also has had the responsibility of safe-guarding today's living descendants of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

How the book begins:
Dan Brown's thriller begins in Paris, with a murder in the Louvre of this famous art museum's curator, Jacques Sauniere. As we later discover, he is the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion and knew the secrets about the Holy Grail. As well as his murder, there has also been the murder of the three other guardians of the Priory's secret knowledge about the Holy Grail and its hiding place.As noted above, it looks as if the information passed from one generation to another for a thousand years has been lost forever with the murder of these four key leaders of the Priory by a member of the conservative Opus Dei order.

However, it is does not turn out to be quite as simple or hopeless as that. For Jacques Sauniere has left some ingenious clues for his grand-daughter, Sophie, and a Harvard professor, Robert Langdon, who happens to be in Paris to give a lecture on religious symbology. Clearly, as would be expected, the French police arrive at the Louvre, and start their investigations. The murdered curator's grand-daughter works in the cryptology department of the French police and makes her way to the Louvre as well, and starts to try to work out the clues that her grand-father has left as he lay dying. She and Robert Langdon now follow an astonishing trail as they work out these clues that seems to take them closer to finding out the secrets of the Holy Grail. They make their way to the chateau of a British historian, now living in Paris, who is obsessed with the Holy Grail and its legends and lore. These three people, together with a few others working for the British historian, set the pace with the police always only a few paces behind.

ASSESSMENT

Millions of copies of this book have been sold and people have asked how much history does this book contain, how much is factual, how much is fictional?

So far as I can ascertain, there was a Priory of Sion founded about one thousand years ago, but it subsequently was incorporated into the Jesuit order in 17th century. The legend of the Holy Grail seems to have been promulagated from about the same time as the founding of this Priory. Whether the members of this Priory of Sion ever took any interest in the Holy Grail is disputed. In 20th century, a devious character, Pierre Plantard, founded another Priory of Sion and created a mass of fake documents which included false information about former Grand Masters of the Priory through the centuries such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton.

The story of the murders of the four leaders of the Grand Priory is fictional as is the involvement of Opus Dei.

Holy Grail:
What about the Holy Grail and the alleged four huge chests of documents, each of which would take six men to carry, and the stories that they contain of Mary Magdalene and Jesus? Brown's argument is as follows - at first the followers of Jesus looked on him as an entirely human figure. He was married to Mary Magdalene with whom he had a daughter. It was Mary and not Peter that Jesus had intended to be the leader of the church after his death. All this evidence is, he claims, in gospels and other writings that were excluded from the New Testament because the church had come to look on Jesus as a deity and a divine saviour.

He claims that it was in 4th Century that the Roman emperor Constantine put pressure on the bishops to suppress any documents that might show Jesus to have had an ordinary married family life. It was Constantine together with these bishops who shaped Christianity as a patriarchal religion with a male father god and a male saviour deity. It had an all-male leadership and women were subordinated and suppressed. Brown further argues that Constantine wanted to make Christianity, which at the time was expanding in the empire, the sole religion and in particular he wanted to suppress those religions in which there were both gods and goddesses.

By suppressing the writings of the early church about the special role of Mary Magdalene, Brown claims that the sacred feminine was also further surpressed, for Mary Magdalene had come to represent the feminine side of life. She was not a prostitute or a bad person as the church tried to make out, he states.

It is true that in the first hundred and fifty years or so after Jesus' death there were many Christian writings, not just those found in the New Testament. However, there are no certain facts that allow us to say with confidence that Jesus definitely married and that he had children. The likelihood is that he probably did marry as was expected of young men in the Jewish culture of his day. Whether there are any living descendants today is not something anyone knows.

Brown's claim about Jesus and Mary Magdalene's daughter, Sarah, is fictional, as is his claim that some of the characters in his book are direct descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. There is no statement in any Christian writing so far discovered that proves that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married to each other.

Did Jesus want Mary Magdalene, and not Peter, to be the leader of the church? Many scholars today regard all references to Jesus' thinking about a church and its leadership as unhistorical. He simply thought in terms of his own Jewish faith and his own nation and its future under God. He never thought of a separate religion or church. So any such statements came from the church's various writers. Whether Jesus was entirely or only human and not in some sense also divine is a matter on which his early followers were divided and today there are conflicting views over this matter. Brown seems to think that he was an ordinary human being and not in any literal sense divine as well. I would agree with him as I explain in my book, 'Tried for heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith' newbook, and in my articles on my website, My writings.

Leonardo Da Vinci:
There has been much discussion whether Brown's various claims about Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings are fictional or factual. For example, in his picture The Last Supper he claims that the disciple on the right hand side of Jesus is Mary Magdalene. I am not an art historian, but I understand that most art historians dispute this, saying that while the figure looks younger than the others and is beardless, this is how artists at that time portrayed younger men, the figure it is held is the beloved disciple, often thought to be John.

Brown and the Grail:
I think that Brown regards the Grail as a hoax, at best as an inspiration. The characters in his novel hold differing views about the Holy Grail. I consider that the views about the Grail of Jacques Sauniere's wife, Marie, probably reflect Brown's thinking."For some, the Grail is a chalice that will bring them everlasting life. For others, it is the quest for lost documents and secret history. And for most, I suspect the Holy Grail is simply a grand idea - a glorious unattainable treasure that somehow, even in today's world of chaos, inspires us." (p581)

He does have a serious concern for what he refers to as the sacred feminine. He writes about pre-Christian religions in which there were gods and goddesses. "The ancients envisioned their world in two halves - masculine and feminine. Their gods and goddesses worked to keep a balance of power. Yin and Yang. When male and female were balanced, there was harmony in the world. When they were unbalanced, there was chaos."(p60)

As I have stated already, I regard the following as the key quotation in the book - "The pendulum is swinging. We are starting to sense the dangers of our history… and of our destructive paths. We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine."(p581)

What I think Dan Brown is saying is that the history of the world has been dominated by men and by male aggression, there has been more chaos than harmony. Today we need to realise this and seek to elevate the role and significance of women as much as we can. I think that he is further saying that a religion worth paying attention to will promote the idea that the deity has both a male and a female side in some metaphorical sense.

I think that he sees that Christianity can be reappraised and reformed so that it moves beyond both fundamentalism and beyond its patriarchal framework to be one that is inclusive of both the feminine and the masculine, although this would mean giving up traditional beliefs that Jesus was literally human and divine and literally a male saviour figure. The days of a male father god and a male saviour (in a literal sense) need to be left behind. You might like to read my article How can Christianity evolve and contribute to world peace? Reappraising religion for the sake of peace

I think that he wants to affirm that men and women need each other in order to become whole human beings and that in their sexual relationships, properly understood, they can reach sublime spiritual heights. He does not discuss gay relationships.

SOME THOUGHT-PROVOKING QUOTATIONS:

In the Acknowledgements, Brown states "First and foremost, to my friend and editor, Jason Kaufam, for working so hard on this project and for truly understanding what this book is all about."

In Dan Brown's life women are important, some particularly so. Perhaps this is why he senses the need to give the 'feminine' its proper place in the totality of life. In the Acknowledgements , he wrote

"in a novel drawing so heavily on the sacred feminine, I would be remiss if I did not mention the two extraordinary women who have touched my life. First, my mother, Connie Brown - fellow scribe, nurturer, musician and role model. And my wife, Blythe - art historian, painter, front-line editor and without doubt the most astonishingly talented woman I have ever known."

"The days of the goddess were over. The pendulum had swung. Mother Earth had become a man's world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll. The male ego had spent two millennium running unchecked by its female counterpart. The Priory of Sion believed that it was this obliteration of the sacred feminine in modern life that had caused what the Hopi Native Americans called koyanisquatsi - 'life out of balance' - an unstable situation marked by testosterone-fuelled wars, a plethora of misogynistic societies and a growing disrespect for Mother Earth." (p174)

From a gospel not found in the New Testament -

"The Gospel of Philip - 'And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth.' " (p331)

"history is always written by the winners - the Sangreal documents simply tell the other side of the Christ story" (p343)

"The quest for the Holy Grail is literally the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene. A journey to pray at the feet of the outcast one, the lost sacred feminine." (p344)

" 'In terms of prophecy,' Teabing said, 'we are currently in an epoch of enormous change. The millennium has recently passed, and with it has ended the two-thousand-year-long astrological Age of Pisces - the fish, which is also the sign of Jesus. As any astrological symbologist will tell you, the Piscean ideal believes that man must be told what to do by higher powers because man is incapable of thinking for himself. Hence it has been a time of fervent religion. Now, however, we are entering the Age of Aquarius - the water bearer - whose ideals claim that man will learn the truth and be able to think for himself. The ideological shift is enormous, and it is occurring right now.' " (p357)

"Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to process the unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors...The Bible represents a fundamental guidepost for millions of people on the planet, in much the same way the Koran, Torah and Pali Canon offer guidance to people of other religions. If you and I could dig up documentation that contradicted the holy stories of Islamic belief, Judaic belief, Buddhist belief, pagan belief, should we do that? Should we wave a flag and tell the Buddhists that we have proof the Buddha did not come from a lotus blossom? Or that Jesus was not born of a literal virgin birth? Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical. Sophie looked sceptical. 'My friends who are devout Christians definitely believe that Christ literally walked on water, literally turned water into wine and was born of a literal virgin birth.' 'My point exactly,' Langdon said. 'Religious allegory has become a part of the fabric of reality. And living in that reality helps millions of people cope and be better people.' 'But it appears their reality is false.' " (pp451-452)

Page numbers for quotations in this article are taken from the Corgi edition, published in 2004. ISBN 0 552 14951 9

Andrew Furlong, http://myhome.iolfree.ie/~andrewfurlong/ author of Tried for Heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith, O Books, 2003. tiripo@gofree.indigo

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