A Review of The Da Vinci Code
ABOUT IT, Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code is
a page-turner. This adeptly woven yarn, like his previous one,
Angels & Demons,
was ideally composed for commuters who please note open
and close their books often. More about that later.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s
painting “The Last Supper” has a hidden meaning in
But The Da Vinci Code, unlike Angels & Demons, is also 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. But some
have expressed concern, even outrage, about the perilous effect The
Da Vinci Code may have on immature readers and even on the future of the church.
Whatever one thinks
about Brown’s literary craftsmanship, he clearly succeeds in creating a captivating
work of suspense. On the other hand, a crescendo of supposed “facts” about
the history of the primitive church, long-lived Western myths as well as real
and bogus esoteric movements are matter-of-factly inserted and provide repeated
opportunities in which to confuse reality with fiction.
On the cover, The Da Vinci Code is called a novel, but what should
readers make of Brown’s introductory page titled “Fact” and the lengthy acknowledgements
that precede his tale and thus set a tone of academic plausibility? Given
that Brown places these “facts” outside the tale, he is intellectually accountable
for them, and they deserve more scrutiny and concern than the declaredly
fictional portion of the book.
Brown’s character Teabing reveals the source material for The Da
Vinci Code at the beginning of Chapter 60. One of these, Holy Blood, Holy Grail,
relies on a huge hoax, well-known to students of esoterica: the Priory of Sion.
Some critics have exaggerated, in my view, when accusing Brown of plagiarizing
this work, but it is clear to me that this was his most immediate source of “facts.”
The biggest half-truth on the “Fact” page is the claim that the Priory of
Sion, centrally featured in the book, exists. There was a Priory of Sion
order, but it was absorbed into the Jesuits in 1617. It no longer exists, and
when it did, it was an order of the Roman Catholic Church.
The “Priory” that Brown is
concerned with in The Da Vinci Code 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 tale is a convoluted one, but in brief, the
most reliable story is as follows: In 1956, Plantard and a group of friends
organized his Priory of Sion. Plantard et al forged documents, Les Dossier
Secrets, in which claims were made about, among other things, a succession
of “masters” of
the invented order such as Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci, in a line extending
back to 1099. A real crackpot, Plantard planted the forgeries in the Biblioteque
Nationale in the 1960s to support the myth of his Priory. French journalist
Jean-Luc Chaumeil exposed the hoax in the 1980s.
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 or fictional 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 tips off alert and concerned readers that they should seek
out more balanced views of Opus Dei.
Brown’s last stated “Fact” that “all descriptions
of the artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in the novel are
accurate” should also arouse suspicion. Accurate according
to which source? The meaning of artwork or architecture 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.
After establishing the “factual” foundation for his tale, Brown through
his omniscient narrator and his protagonist Robert Langdon goes
on to weave a fictional story that includes a stream of fictional claims about
Jesus and early Christianity. Like a true conspiracy theorist, Brown arranges
myths 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.
What has probably most disturbed sensitive
readers of The Da Vinci Code is the
assertion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. 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 Louvre. 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 Magdalene.
Furthermore, it is clear that Brown invents his own context and interpretation
for the single verse he lifts from the gnostic Gospel of Philip to assert that
Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. In this case, as in so many other cases,
the novel’s plot depends on irresponsible interpretations of the source it cites.
Upon my initial perusal of The Da Vinci Code, I chanced upon Langdon’s interpretation
of Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper.” Langdon accurately observes that it
is not a depiction of the moment 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. He
says that the figure of John the Beloved is really Mary Magdalene and that Jesus
is announcing her apostleship. Then he points out that the letter “M” is discernible
around the silhouettes of the figures. Having read that absurdity, I put down
the book, and it wasn’t until the controversy about The Da Vinci Code
became too hard to ignore that I finally bought it and read it cover to cover.
In the process of reading and, I’ll admit, enjoying the novel,
the secret of Brown’s ability to churn out page-turners was obvious. As any
reader of his books knows, 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 and to find out what will happen next. As the books’
targeted audience, commuters have short spans of time in which to read and,
regardless of their critical skills, are less disposed to challenge what is
presented as fact. And so it is that Brown’s plots skip like a stone across the
surface of the deep waters of history and issues of faith.
Despite its undeniable appeal to readers, The Da Vinci
Code does not hold up well in an evaluation of the book as literature.
Factual errors aside, questions about the novel’s artistry will probably determine
whether it will be a classic or a flash in the pan. Unfortunately, undeveloped
characters and Nancy Drewlike dialogue are the defining characteristics of the
book. Rather than creating a main character with depth and complexity, Brown
endows Langdon with heroic stamina more akin to a comic-book superhero than a
middle-aged professor. Of course, the slower pace needed for true character development
might have brought the book’s claims about religious history under closer scrutiny.
So how ought intellectually engaged Christians to approach this book and books
like it? First, these works should 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, faith,
reason and tradition help us make informed judgments.
The Da Vinci Code and books like it challenge
intellectual and spiritual complacency, forcing us to get the facts. They are
only dangerous if we remain self-satisfied about the truth. Quite frankly,
any book is open to the charge that it is in some way perilous to some readers.
There is danger here, but only if we fail to read critically.
— BY ERIC VOGT, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR
OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES
— PHOTO BY SCALA ART RESOURCE
Editor's Note: The above review was in the printed issue of the Spring 2004 issue of
Response. To read a more extensive version of this review by Eric
Vogt, click here.
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