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

Fact or Fiction?

A Review of The Da Vinci Code

NO QUESTION 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 Brown’s novel.

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.



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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