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Carl E. Olson on the Cure for the Common Code
Readers with advanced degrees in comparative religion, European history, symbology, art, and cryptology will have a grand old time” reading The Da Vinci Code, gushed the Louisville Voice Tribune. Never mind that symbology is a fictitious academic discipline and no advanced degrees are currently available. The Chicago Tribune earnestly remarked that the book “transmits several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation.” ABC television featured the novel in a primetime special, National Geographic also plumbed its depths on the tube, and a sea of ink has been spilled examining, critiquing, and mulling over the fiction of a reclusive novelist from New Hampshire.
Why? What is the appeal? Some of it seems obvious. The novel has an intellectual appeal: Fans come away believing they now know things of value. It benefits from the historical illiteracy of many readers, an illiteracy often combined with a measure of gullibility and literary deafness. Unsuspecting readers are exposed for the first time to an attractively revisionist take on church history, a crude but effective feminism, and bracing anti-Catholic lectures. It entertains, surprises, and shocks, to the tune of 18 million copies sold worldwide.
But something deeper than intellectual games and shock value explains the Code’s success: the novel’s insistence that the author and readers not only know better—they are better. It is the confident claim that both history and truth, once tightly controlled by the Church, have finally broken their bonds and are free to serve each individual as he chooses. History is artificial, truth is relative, and religion—Christianity, to be exact—is finished.
Put simply, it doesn’t matter what you believe as much as that you choose to believe it. You, after all, are not only the center of reality, you can create it.
It is a form of gnosticism, that resilient heresy that preys on vanity, promises a painless salvation, and puts down the simple, mindless Christian. Which is one reason I’ve been fascinated by the Coded Craziness—I’ve been bumping into various types of gnosticism throughout my life. As a teenage Christian attending art school, I was verbally accosted by a professor who railed about the “hidden Gospels” and the “murderous work” of the Church. Puzzled, I began to immerse myself in books by C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, and eventually attended a Bible college.
Later, I read Irenaeus, Augustine, and others who fought the dualisms of their day. In graduate school I read some of the so-called gnostic gospels and kept an eye on the many fresh books that proclaimed they had discovered the “real Jesus,” the “hidden Gospels,” and “authentic Christianity.” Since co-authoring The Da Vinci Hoax, I have had dozens of conversations, written and face-to-face, with people proclaiming the same thing—all because they read The Da Vinci Code.
In each enigmatic form, including the clumsy Coded variety, gnosticism is arrogant, irrational, and angry. It is a perfect fit for our troubled, postmodern times. Most of the dozens of readers who have sent me negative e-mails in response to my criticisms of the Code inevitably get around to making one point: They are open-minded (even brilliant); I am not. Anyone critical of the novel is “close-minded,” “stupid,” and even “fundamentalist.” This is often accompanied by the sarcastic reminder that the novel is “just a novel”—so stop taking it so seriously— and that the novel does actually reveal the truth—so start taking it seriously. Arrogant, irrational, and angry.
The sort of conflicting statements made by fans of the Code are free of the faintest hint of irony. One correspondent, a graduate student, mocked my criticisms of Brown’s erroneous statements about established historical facts by stating, “You also seem to miss the fact that the book is indeed fiction.” Yet one paragraph later he confidently asserts, “Kid yourself all you want, but Brown’s work in The Da Vinci Code holds more truth than you would like to think.”
Another wrote, without a trace of humor: “Is The Da Vinci Code real? NO, it’s a fictional piece.” And then spent several paragraphs explaining how the novel uncovers the “truth” about Jesus and Christianity.
Not surprisingly, I am convinced that much of the Code’s appeal results from its relativistic attitude towards truth and religion. The “hero,” Robert Langdon, declares that “ every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith—acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove.” This professor of symbology tells the beautiful, befuddled cryptologist Sophie that “those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical,” while those who believe their religions possess literal truth are doomed to live in “that reality”—that is, trapped by superstition and falsehood.
Dan Burstein, editor of the best-selling Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The DaVinci [sic] Code, insists that the real enemies of truth are “growing fundamentalism and religious extremism,” explaining that the Code “challenges readers to imagine that what they have always heard or believed may not be the truth after all. . . . In doing so, (the book) is an implicit critique of intolerance, of madness in the name of God, and all those who believe there is only one true God, one true faith, and one true way to practice religious devotion.”
Many readers hear the message clearly. After praising the novel, an online reviewer expressed the widely echoed sentiment—found in countless magazines, articles, and websites—that “organized religion is the single most destructive force that humanity has ever created and distances us from having a true relationship with God.”
Not coincidentally, this rejection of “organized religion” in favor of customized spirituality almost always ends up in a vague pantheism. “All I want to say is that I practice no organized religion right now and I have never been closer to God,” insisted another fan. “I commune with God without having Man put his spin on the words of God. God is not some deity that people created thousands of years ago to explain the unexplainable, nor is he the God of any one particular religion. . . . God is love, God is all of us, God is all around us.” So, God is whoever/whatever I want him/her/it to be.
Positive reviews of Brown’s novel repeatedly echo some form of this monistic self-worship. They repeat these key talking points: I can create any belief system (and attack any belief system) I wish simply because it works for me. Religion is bad, spirituality is good. Seeking is good, believing is bad. Mysticism is good, dogma is bad. Indifferentism (“tolerance”) is good, absolutes are bad. Individualism is good, authority is bad. There is no truth, and that’s the truth.
For some, this is not necessarily contrary to their vision of Christianity. Brown himself has remarked that he is a Christian of a non-traditional sort. Christianity is remade in the image of each “seeker,” a practice that likely pleases the novelist.
“Faith is a continuum,” Brown mused on his website, “and we each fall on that line where we may. By attempting to rigidly classify ethereal concepts like faith, we end up debating semantics to the point where we entirely miss the obvious—that is, that we are all trying to decipher life’s big mysteries, and we’re each following our own paths of enlightenment.”
Thus, the best-selling religious book on amazon.com in 2003 was Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. It replaced dogmatic Christianity with an inclusive, subjective spirituality that has little room for doctrine. Pagels, a church historian teaching at Princeton, explained on Beliefnet.com that having rid herself of narrow-minded dogmatism, “I find I can participate in Christian tradition with more open-heartedness, because I don’t feel constricted by the question ‘Do I believe this? Do I believe that?’ which I do think is narrowing. I’m not saying belief doesn’t matter, but it’s been much overrated in Christianity. It’s certainly not the only issue.”
This alluring approach promises spiritual enlightenment and contact with the Divine without any strictures, structures, or systems of authority. It is hardly a new concept, of course, but the Code adds to its attractiveness by both relentlessly criticizing Christianity and then working to recreate it as a customized, dogma-free spirituality. Like the early gnostics, modern gnostics don’t destroy orthodoxy by annihilating it, but by assimilating it.
Closely related is a piece of illogic that fans of the Code either miss or ignore. It is the insistence, as one Unitarian website put it, that “ The Da Vinci Code presents a human Jesus, one who is more believable and accessible to modern, educated Americans.” A Catholic parish newsletter positively recounts that at a book club the novel was praised for helping people grow in their faith: “One woman told of her teenage son who was reluctant to go through the sacrament of Confirmation, yet after reading the book found a more believable, understandable, even human Jesus. That actually inspired him to continue the path. Another person said that such material added to the mystery, and in doing so served to strengthen her faith.”
How this works cannot be grasped rationally, since the Code takes pains to deny Jesus’ divinity, claiming it was foisted upon the Church by Constantine at the Council of Nicea. It is not, of course, rational at all, but the emotional embrace of a Jesus who can be molded to meet any need anyone feels while avoiding the unpleasant talk of sin, salvation, and the Cross.
Ascent to Victimhood
It is popular, especially in academia, to portray the early gnostics as helpless victims of orthodox Christianity and the Church’s male leaders. The novel plays the culturally popular victim card well and often. It is rife with victims, all having supposedly suffered great injustices, even violence, at the hands of the seemingly omnipotent “Vatican”: women, wiccans, pagans, the homosexual Leonardo da Vinci, gnostics, and—featured prominently—Mary Magdalene.
Brown writes of the “deceitful and violent” history of the Catholic Church, which allegedly includes the murder of five million women accused of witchcraft, the persecution of Mary Magdalene, and the related injustices against women who seek ordination, worship goddesses, and embrace the “sacred feminine.” The Magdalene has a central role, and readers are informed that the early Church launched “a smear campaign” to defame and destroy her.
All of this appeals strongly to radical feminists and to many Catholic women who are frustrated with the Church, often because they believe they should be ordained, given ecclesial authority, and vested with powers that would make the pope blush.
It is no coincidence that the majority of fans of the novel are women. When Brown gave a rare public talk in May 2004, news accounts noted that “women outnumbered men about 5–1” at the event. Many of those interviewed explicitly mentioned the novel’s portrayal of the Church’s allegedly misogynist history and anti-woman character. Brown stated in his talk that “I get letters from nuns (saying) ‘Thank you for pointing out that we give our lives to Jesus and we are still second-class citizens.’”
The novel hits a nerve with those who think they are powerless and who see Christianity—indeed, all of reality—in terms of who has power and who does not, and feel themselves to be among those who do not. “I do admit . . . that as a reformed Catholic,” wrote an online fan in a typical comment, “I appreciate every word that reveals the real political reasons for the gospels, etc. The Catholic Church is simply a mechanism for the few to exercise power over the superstitious ignorant masses.”
Writing in Touchstone, James Hitchcock noted, “Millions of people read The Da Vinci Code not because they necessarily believe its absurd story but because it creates a myth that serves certain emotional needs and allows them to be ‘religious’ without submitting to any of the demands of faith.” All of the intertwining, even inconsistent, themes and claims of the novel form a mythology not meant so much to revise history as to ignore it.
This mythology declares that it is the individual’s personal beliefs that must have priority, as evidenced by the ecstatic, mystical experience of Robert Langdon at the conclusion of the novel. On his knees, the Harvard symbologist experiences “a sudden upwelling of reverence” as he hears a “woman’s voice . . . the wisdom of the ages”—that is, the gnostic goddess Mary Magdalene—coming up from “the chasms of the earth.”
Recently I came upon an online article from the Village Voice, titled “Faith Off” and written by Curtis White, author of The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. The Da Vinci Code, he argued,
is important as an expression of a desire for a spirituality that cannot be had within the confines of the institutionalized church. More simply yet, it is the popular expression of a desire for a kind of meaningfulness to life that is missing for most of us. . . . Beyond the scandal and the sensation and the heavy-handed fiction, it is this assumption of our shared sense of spiritual fraud and the assumption that we’re willing to think heretically in order to escape that fraud that makes Brown’s deepest appeal to his readers.
There it is again, the insistence that true fans of the Code not only know better—they are better. Yet these desperate words ultimately echo St. Augustine’s famous reflection that “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.” Much like the early gnostics, today’s arrogant and irrational fans of Brown’s novel are seeking answers in darkness, pursuing autonomy to spite authority, and worshiping a self that cannot satisfy.
Yes, the Code is a fraud and relatively easy to critique, but all too often the true story of Jesus and Christianity is ignored by the dominant culture because it is told poorly or not shared at all. Substantial numbers of readers from every walk of life are convinced that orthodox Christianity is finished and has nothing for them. The challenge is to show them that Christianity is not dead and obsolete but is, in fact, very much alive. The life of true Christianity is what angers them; it is also the one thing that can save them, if only they can break out of their coded cells.
Carl E. Olson is the author of Will Catholics Be ?Left Behind?? (Ignatius), and co-author, with Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius).