Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Da Vinci Code revisited

Last night, I saw The Da Vinci Code with some pastor friends. I suppose everyone’s commenting on the movie and book, and I went expecting the worst – especially because of the bad reviews the movie has received.

For what my opinion is worth, I think the movie was better than the book. People seem to forget that the book is no literary gem. When good literature is put on screen, we often say, “That was a good movie, but it’s no substitute for the book.” A good novel always contains more than can be captured in two hours on screen. I did not feel that way with this book and movie. There is no depth, no overflowing of meaning and detail in this book that was missed on screen. The movie can be faulted for not being very exciting or fast paced, but listening to the book on tape (unabridged) and then seeing the movie, the movie captures the book very well, and transcends some of its cheesiness.

Here is what I wrote about the book in a comment on my Easter sermon:

I agree about Mary. The sexism that crept into the early church did not originate in Jesus! Mary was one of Jesus’ closest disciples and friends.

In one of the non-typed parts of my Easter sermon, I commented on The Da Vinci Code - how could I not, given the Bible text and the upcoming movie? My problem with the book is not that it gives Mary Magdalene a place of prominence. It would be cool if Jesus had been married, common law or otherwise (from what I know, legal marriage in the Roman empire was usually reserved for Roman citizens) - as a married Protestant, I would not be part of a conspiracy to silence the ‘truth’ about Jesus and Mary’s marriage. There just isn’t any evidence for it - and why Jesus’ first century followers would hide the truth of Jesus’ marriage is beyond me - they weren't celibate priests. [let me add – Peter seemed to have been married.] There are lots of historical inaccuracies in the book - such as arguing that it was the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century who deified Jesus. If Jesus was only a human, then he was deified by his followers in the first century. The manuscript evidence for the Newer Testament and the early church goes way back.

The Da Vinci Code also borders on incoherence, using the old skeptic's argument that Jesus was merely (or only) a human, while making Mary into THE GODDESS. I’d rather lift up Mary as Jesus’ close friend and the first evangelist - the story does make it difficult for people who wish to limit the place of women in the church.

Most importantly, though, The Da Vinci Code is not a very good book. Reading it (listening unabridged on tape), I got the feeling that too much happened in the book in one night. In one night, the main characters went all over Paris searching for clues, while being chased by the police; then they flew to London, and chased around some more; then went to Scotland and- from what little I remember - they solved this mystery of the ages by dawn, and fell in love at the same time.

Part of the cheesiness of the book, in my judgment, was the whole made-for-American-moviegoers-two-main-characters-thrown- together-by-events-and-falling-in-love-in-a-day cliché. From what I recall, there was lots of innuendo between Langdon and Neveu, and the book ends with a promised sexual ‘retreat’ together. In the book, a big part of Langdon’s experience of ‘the sacred feminine’ happens through the sensuality and anticipation of sexual union with Sophie. Is that really a liberating message for women? That is one area in which the movie transcends the book: the sexual innuendo is replaced by a healing touch, a growing friendship – there is no hint of a weekend of lovemaking in their future.

I am not denigrating sexuality, attraction, erotic love. But I would argue that the pagan focus on the sacred feminine and woman as ‘grail,’ bearers of the seed of man, have not always been good for women. From the book and movie, you’d get the picture that Roman religion was kind to women, and then Christianity came along and overturned that. Actually, something of the reverse is true. The earliest followers of Jesus were pretty radically egalitarian (see the place of Mary Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and many women who had leadership and a voice in the earliest church), but as Christianity spread in the incredibly patriarchal Roman Empire, it ‘adapted’ to the sexist culture by limiting the role of women in the church. Christianity took on a negative view of women precisely from paganism. And, sexism can easily coexist with a focus on the sacred feminine: it’s amazing that the book and movie ignore the Roman Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary, the Theotokos or God Bearer, the Mother of God. Some in the RC Church even consider Mary the Co-Redemptrix, the co-redeemer with Jesus. How much more ‘sacred feminine’ can you get?

One more point: I am no expert on the apocryphal Gospels, including the Gnostic gospels – in fact, it’s been years since I read them. But, there is no secret to them – you can search for “Gnostic Gospels” (look for the Nag Hammadi Library) and “New Testament Apocrypha” on and find them. They also don’t seem to tell us much about Jesus, but more about the Gnostic sect.

I just reread the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene). It elevates Mary as one whom Jesus loved more than the other disciples (which I have no problem with, based on John 20), and it puts in Mary’s mouth a secret message from Jesus. But the message is typically Gnostic – anti-flesh, anti-desire, anti-incarnate life, forming an elite group who are ‘in the know,’ while the rest of humanity is lost in ignorance and tied to the flesh. Mary is even anti-feminine in a sense – at one point, she says, “[Jesus] has prepared us and made us into men.” The Jesus of the Bible is much more earthly, much more human, much more life-loving than the Jesus of the Gnostics, in my judgment – and so is the Mary Magdalene of the Bible.


  1. I think this is one of the best things I've read about the Da Vinci Code yet...thanks for explaining several things that I had wondered about!

    Though, I will add, the book didn't trouble me too much, or set my faith askew. (at least, anymore askew than it might be already!)

    Or maybe it's akimbo...

  2. Kris - I agree. The book and movie did not trouble me much either. It's more the triumphalistic anti-Christian preachiness of it. When you think of good fantasy literature or movies, they can have a religious perspective as long as it's subtle and not preachy or in your face.
    I still can't get over the basic contradiction of the Da Vinci Code - the belief that Jesus was ONLY a man, in sort of a 19th century naturalistic perspective, while his wife - either because she was Jesus' wife or because of her own divinity - is worthy of worship.
    But why has the book been such a phenomenon? The church has not done a good job telling the Story in a life-affirming way that coheres with people's life experience in the world. Many people do experience the church as an oppressive force, an opiate of the people, rather than a community of liberation and justice. In this situation, a story of conspiracy and murder seems plausible.