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Spring 2004 | Volume 26, Number 6 | Books & Film

Fact or Fiction?

A Review of The Da Vinci Code
by Eric W. Vogt, Associate Professor of Spanish

No question about it, no matter what one’s religious orientation, and almost without regard to one’s taste in literature, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a page turner. This adeptly woven yarn, like his previous one, Angels & Demons, was ideally composed for commuters who open and close their books often. More about that later.

More importantly, The Da Vinci Code , unlike Angels & Demons, is a tale many Christians find disturbing. In Angels & Demons, the Roman Catholic Church is in danger of physical destruction for a few hundred pages, but is saved at the end, restoring to readers their cherished worldview. However, many have expressed concern, some even outrage, about the effect The Da Vinci Code may have on youth or on those of any age whose faith is immature. Some worry that it might damage the faith, even the future of the church by stunting or strangling the growth of the seed of faith.

In light of the real concerns people feel, it was fitting that the editors of Response posed these questions in asking me to review this book: Is there real danger that readers of The Da Vinci Code will take it for truth or is it a harmless piece of fiction? Is it something in between? Quite frankly, any book is open to the charge that it is in some way dangerous to some readers. So there is danger, but for those who only read less critically, and who therefore may be disposed to accept the crescendo of claims the novel makes regarding Jesus and primitive Christianity. What most disturbs those who are bothered by this work of fiction are the assertions about Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalen. Let us examine this novel’s source material, content and form in the broadest terms.

Whatever one thinks about Brown’s craftsmanship, he clearly succeeds in creating suspense (we shall examine how he does this when we consider the book as literature). Readers tend to be sympathetic with characters and trusting of narrators and suspend their disbelief in the expectation that they will be entertained and possibly informed as well. To draw on an analogy with another fictional work that has remained a classic among believers and non-religious social activists, readers must be willing to accept that “Jacob Marley was dead” or A Christmas Carol will have no meaning. Unlike Brown, Dickens made no claims to possessing facts about the afterlife. However, Brown, before beginning his tale, and after acknowledging his numerous archival sources (as if their contents were fountains that gushed forth only truth), makes misleading assertions on a page entitled “Fact.” Since he places these “facts” outside the tale, he (as Brown, and not as narrator), is intellectually accountable for them. As such, they deserve more scrutiny and concern than any other aspect of the declaredly fictional part.

Into the warp and woof of his plot, Brown deftly inserts a crescendo of “facts” about the history of the primitive church and other aspects of Western myths and little-known histories of real, and bogus, esoteric movements. These “facts,” dropped into dialogue or into narrative interstices, allow the narrator and the characters to editorialize the plot from within as it develops. Since these tidbits are injected in the midst of the predominant emotional interest in plot as explanations of the action, they are almost inconspicuous and are thus less likely to be questioned. The matter-of-fact assumptions woven into pseudoacademic arguments by Brown’s omniscient, editorializing narrator, the fallacious art criticism and sudden revelations Langdon gently confides to the incredulous, but easily convinced Sophie, provide repeated opportunities in which less seasoned readers may confuse reality with fiction. In the process of reading, the literary sleights of hand muddle the boundaries between fiction and the received historical and religious realities many cherish, causing anguish for some and possibly a crisis of faith in a few.

On the cover, The Da Vinci Code is called a novel, but what shall readers make of Brown’s list of “facts” and his lengthy acknowledgements that precede it and thus set a tone of academic plausibility? At the beginning of chapter 60, Teabing reveals the source material for The Da Vinci Code. One of the books on his table is Holy Blood, Holy Grail. This book relies on a huge hoax, well-known to students of esoterica: the Priory of Sion. Some critics have exaggerated in accusing Brown of plagiarizing this work, but it was clear that this work was his most immediate source of “facts.”

The biggest half-truth on the “fact” page is the claim that the Priory of Sion exists. There was a Priory of Sion order, but it was absorbed into the Jesuits in 1617. It exists no longer, and when it did, it was an order of the Roman Catholic Church. Brown joins many conspiracy theorists who conveniently ignore that their worldview depends on stringing together myriad hoaxes. The “Priory” that Brown is concerned with is not of ancient origin, but was the invention of one Pierre Plantard, a French charlatan who had been sympathetic to Adolf Hitler’s Vichy government. The story is a convoluted one, as are most in esoteric studies, but in brief, the most reliable story seems to be as follows: In 1956, Plantard and others he had been involved with since the 1930s, organized his Priory of Sion. Plantard et al forged documents, Les Dossier Secrets, in which claims were made about, among other things, the antiquity of their invented Priory. These forgeries consisted of faked genealogies and lists of supposed “Grand Masters” of the Priory. A real crackpot, among his claims, Plantard named himself pretender to the Merovingian line of kings. He planted these forgeries in the Bibliotéque Nationale in the 1960s to support the myth of his Priory. In the 1980s, French journalist Jean-Luc Chaumeil exposed the hoax. One tactic of the far right is to lay claim to time-honored names associated with the same esoteric movements they oppose (typically, Masonic ones). The Dossiers accomplish this by “naming” a succession of masters of the order, simply by dubbing them as such, naming such famous people as Sir Isaac Newton and Da Vinci, in a line extending to 1099. In so doing, they created the myth of their power, grafting the Priory onto the centuries-long extant myths that emerged from the dissolution of the Templars, who were disbanded by Pope Clement V at the Council of Vienne in France in 1312 (the surviving Templars went into hiding or joined other orders).

Brown takes full advantage of the myths about the not-so-complete destruction of the Templars and their unprovable, yet tantalizing, connections with the (doubtfully) real Rosicrucians of the early 17th century and the very real Freemasons whom he indirectly, but briefly vilifies in Angels & Demons by equating them with the Illuminati of Bavaria (who, historically, did infiltrate some central European Masonic lodges for about six years in the late 1780s). The hermetic existence of Freemasonry in the real world and the fact that the sources of its transcultural myths and rituals are so lost in the mists of time make it nigh unfathomable to outsiders. At the same time, its hermetic nature renders it vulnerable to malicious mining and even occasional unscrupulous opportunism by some of their own. More puzzling to the newcomer to the world of occult history is that the lists of Priory members conveniently intersects with some who were Freemasons, such as Victor Hugo, and some who are often believed to have been, such as Sir Isaac Newton. In this parasitic way, Plantard and friends were able to create a credible pedigree. Brown’s literary legerdemain consists in his hanging his plot on these pegs of Western esoteric traditions little known to most readers. He arranges these myths and hoaxes like pegs in a line that he pulls taut, beginning with his particularly bad art criticism, quickly followed up by fallacious or academically irresponsible interpretations and juxtapositions of biblical and gnostic texts.

Brown’s next comment on the “Fact” page of The Da Vinci Code is a blurb about Opus Dei, the organization vilified more than any other – real of fiction – in the book. As many readers know, this organization does exist, and Brown’s depiction of the group is certainly cause for genuine distress. Opus Dei is a very young organization, founded in Spain in 1928 by a Catholic priest, José María Escrivá. Its membership was and is chiefly drawn from professionals in all walks of life who seek to live by the virtues of the primitive Jesuits, and to convert others by example. Due to Opus Dei’s pro-Franco stance in the 1960s, the organization is often viewed as having an ultraconservative and reactionary social, political and religious agenda. But Brown’s sloppiness with other facts, such as the albino hit man-monk who has good vision, tips off alert and concerned readers that they should seek out more balanced views of Opus Dei.

The claims about “artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals” being “accurate” should arouse suspicion. Accurate according to which source? How can artwork or architecture, per se, be described as accurate? They simply exist. Their meaning depends on interpretation — and even then, meaning is not synonymous with truth. To paraphrase Umberto Eco, the real master of fiction dealing with esoteric realms, anything that can be used to tell the truth can also be used to tell a lie.

In order to satisfy my own intellectual disquiet regarding Brown’s biggest challenge to orthodox thinking, I read a scholarly edition of four gnostic gospels and a treatise on Egyptian gnostic writings by Jean Doresse, who worked with the original texts in the Egyptian division of the Louvre. Most of these gospels are disjointed collections of proverbs and vignettes. Doresse’s enumeration of the narrative and doctrinal content of the Gospel of Philip nowhere includes any allusion to a literal relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalen, and readers may be sure that Doresse would not have hesitated to reveal it if it were there. While scholars debate whether gnosticism arose in the midst of Christianity or tangential to it, the gnostic writings are not part of the biblical canon because they were considered heretical or, at best, unreliable by the Christian church. Even if one were to take the gnostic writings as historically authoritative, however, I found no evidence of any allusions in them to a literal relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalen. From my own reading and Doresse’s descriptions and summaries of the contents of the ones I did not have access to, it was increasingly clear that Brown had provided his own context and interpretation for the verse he lifts from the Gospel of Philip to assert that Jesus and Mary Magdalen were married. Brown misuses his sources in that he ignores misogynistic statements attributed to Jesus, he provides contexts that do not exist in the gnostic texts he cites and, ironically, he interprets the texts literally. Ironically, because gnostic writings often employed sensual language to refer to mystic union, similar to that found in the Song of Songs or, in hermetic circles, in alchemical writings. Literal interpretation of mystic texts from any tradition is simply absurd. But then, the novel’s plot depends on irresponsible and fraudulent interpretation.

It is unreasonable to hope that myths, good and bad, will not grow up alongside the truth about any famous person or group, whatever that truth may be. As to anyone’s claims about the credibility of evidence: questions are not settled by the mere antiquity of the source or sources. Each bit of textual or other evidence must be weighed in the context of the whole mosaic of the times in which they were produced and who produced them. Motivations must also be considered. Scholars who labor in the fields of biblical archaeology and the interpretive disciplines of theology, wielding the tools of philology, extract the meaning from textual artifacts and, God willing, prove their truth – or their falsehood.

Finally, relying on my professional judgments as a professor of literature, I have serious objections to The Da Vinci Code as literature, which are quite distinct from the factual problems I and others see. The factual errors, misrepresentations and so on, can be resolved by study. Ironically, the questions about its artistry will probably determine whether this work will be a classic or whether it is a flash in the pan that has made Dan Brown immensely popular.

Months before the questions about this book were raised among members of SPU’s extended family, I had been urged by many friends to read it. “It will blow you away,” they would say, refusing to give away the plot. Last summer, having two hours to kill one afternoon, I walked into a bookstore and picked up a copy. The price put me off, but I opened it to get a feel for Brown’s style.

The first thing that particularly attracted my attention was what I can only describe as the Nancy Drewlike dialogue between Langdon and Sophie. Sometimes Langdon waxes into a playboylike smugness redolent of Pierce Brosnan’s rendition of James Bond. If Brown had written his plots as more complex narratives and had been more adept at writing adult dialogues (either from the point of view of one or various characters instead of his omniscient, third-person narrator), he would not have been able to hold our interest. More importantly, with the slower pace needed for the character development characteristic of real novels, his claims about religious history would likely have been more foregrounded and hence come under more immediate and intense scrutiny, resulting in fewer sales.

Next, I randomly opened to the code writing of Da Vinci and said under my breath, “Here we go, again…” as I suspected sources of the ilk of the Priory conspiracy buffs. Noticing that this was supposed to be a clue, I thought of my own discovery of Da Vinci’s backward writing when I was in fifth grade and had to wonder why Brown could not have come up with something else. I felt like I had stumbled onto the literary version of a decoder ring.

At this initial perusal, I also happened upon Brown’s interpretation of Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper.” Brown accurately observed that it is not a depiction of the institution of the Eucharist. But instead of using what art historians know and teach, specifically, that the painting represents the moment after Jesus reveals that one disciple is about to betray him, Langdon makes one of the most outrageous, and ultimately silly, claims of the book: that the figure of John the Beloved is really Mary, and not just any Mary, but Mary Magdalen, and that Jesus is announcing her apostleship. Then he points out that the letter “M” is discernible around the silhouettes of the figures, as it would be in any group photo. Having read that absurdity, I put down the book and browsed other sections of the bookstore.

One requirement for a work of fiction to be called a novel is that a main character evolve, facing conflicts that require examination of some of life’s big questions. By a long stretch, Brown’s stock, two-dimensional character, Langdon, is a latter-day Sherlock Holmes; but because Brown endows him with heroic stamina more akin to a comic-book superhero than a middle-aged professor, I am unable to regard Brown as a latter-day Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Once the controversy about the The Da Vinci Code became too hard to ignore, I bought it, at discount, and read it (I confess, I bought, read and enjoyed Angels & Demons, too). In reading both of these books, I discovered the secret of Brown’s ability to churn out page-turners. His chapters alternate scenes between groups of characters, are very brief and always end with some unresolved question or tense situation. Readers feel compelled to turn the page just to keep the facts together, even if not driven by some curiosity about what will happen next. Commuters have short spans of time in which to read. Readers in such a situation, regardless of their critical skills in others, are less disposed to challenge facts when to do so would come at the expense of the enjoyment of the fast-paced action or the need to keep plot details straight. And so it is that Brown’s plots skip like a stone across the surface of the deep waters of history, the abyss of esoterica, and issues of faith.

How ought believing, intellectually engaged Christians approach this book and others like it? First, these works ought to be recognized as escapist literature and if read, enjoyed for what they are. On a more positive level, they can facilitate conversations in which the familiar Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture (canonicity), faith, reason and tradition help us make more informed decisions about such matters. The Da Vinci Code and books like it challenge intellectual and spiritual complacency, encouraging us to get the facts and know them. They are dangerous only if we remain complacent about the truth. As a professor of Spanish medieval, Renaissance and baroque literature (and often of the art of this period), such popular books offer me negative examples of art criticism and misinterpretations of Western intellectual history. Much of my field of study is legitimately illuminated by a profound understanding of real esoterica, as opposed to the pulp of recent mintage. Discussions of these subjects, in the context of art, literature and history often bring to light the conspiracy theories that can appeal to young people in search of quick, definitive answers. Since the most frequent danger of conspiracy theories is that they project evil and blame onto others and exonerate one for his or her own failings, discussing them may help students develop a sense of responsibility in these times so bereft of accountability.

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