After listening to my brother (who is spiritually somewhere between being a deist and a Unitarian-Universalist/Lutheran hybrid) and I talk about theology and early Christianity (well… that and Sean having to act it out during our “friendly” family game of Charades on Christmas night), my mom decided that I needed to read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I had three hours of air time yesterday (and a 15 minute sprint across MSP to my gate because we were 30 minutes late leaving Great Falls due to the crew needing to sleep in and the airport taking its sweet time in de-icing the plane) so I read it. Did I enjoy it? Immensely on an intellectual level. Did it wreck my faith? No… but it did cause me to really ponder some of the things in there.
The curator of the Louvre is killed very nastily and in the 15 minutes before he dies, he leaves some clues: a series of random numbers, two lines of text, and a note saying “PS: Find Robert Langdon.” Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor of symbology who is writing a book on the sacred feminine (i.e. female divinity) and he is the top suspect in the murder. A DCPJ (the French equivalent of the FBI) cryptologist named Sophie Neveu and Langdon end up joining together to crack the codes that unravel the mystery. It turns out that the curator was Sophie’s grandfather and that he was a member of the Priory of Sion, a secret society founded by a French king to protect the the location of the Sangreal (Holy Grail), and he leaves a series of clues based in codes for Langdon and his granddaughter to solve in order to find the Sangreal and protect it from Opus Dei, who is trying to steal it. The “Sangreal” is portrayed to be the relics of Mary Magdalene who was supposed to have married Jesus and had a child. The Catholic Church suppressed this and Brown does not say pleasant things about the Church’s crackdown on heresy during the Ecumenical Councils as well as the supression of the Gnostic Gospels.
As someone who has studied a bit of pre-Christian religions and early Church doctrine, it was a fascinating book. Codes fascinate me as well as symbology and this book was all about them. (It’s partially why I adore languages — I love attempting to figure out the meanings behind words.) As a Religious Studies major and seminary student, I adore Church History and I actually knew what was fact and what was fiction in the book. In short, this book ties together a lot of my studies and fascinations. (The only one missing is Islam.) I loved the suspense, the way things were put together, and a lot of the descriptions of the places — having been to Westminster Abbey (and wanting to visit again some day), I found the description of Newton’s tomb very wonderful.
However, this would be a really faith-shattering book for someone who can’t separate the facts from the fiction. Brown describes a lot of the symbology with accuracy but the symbols themselves weren’t used in the context in which he uses them. He really rips at the Roman Catholic Church for supressing goddess worship when Christianity gained approval in the Roman Empire and he doesn’t do much good for Opus Dei. (The ones initially trying to kill Langdon and Sophie are of Opus Dei and there’s a bishop trying to get the codexes for his own power.) Finally, he talks a lot about the sacred feminine (i.e. goddess worship) and how it needs to be preserved. His premise that Mary Magdalene married Jesus and they produced an heir is pretty much a co-opting of The Last Temptation of Christ, which itself is fiction.
My Faith Issues with the Book
As I said, this would be a really faith-shattering book for someone who can’t separate the facts from the fiction, and Brown doesn’t make it easy. There is a movement today to “crack open the canon” (i.e. revise the Bible) and include the Gnostic Gospels (i.e. the Gospel of Thomas and a few others) because they make Jesus into more of a feminist. There are churches (unfortunately a few within the ELCA) that raise prayers to “Sophia” (Greek for “wisdom”) and who incorporate feminine language into the liturgy. Sorry but… we can’t crack open the canon because some people are offended. As my Systematic Theology professor said, “through the Holy Spirit, these words (the current canon) have been illuminating the Church for 2000 years.” In other words, if the Lord wanted to work through these other books, he would have.
Another issue is the way his characters criticize the Church’s policy on goddess worship and the suppression of it by the Empire after Christianity became the official religion. The Church did take a hard line on heresy — they had to or the faith would have been corrupted. The Councils and their resulting formulas and creeds unified the doctrine of the Church, which had previously differed from place to place. I personally don’t see this (the hard line) as a bad thing — it kept the faith intact to be passed on to future generations. I dislike that his Opus Dei characters are either killers or very power hungry people. I’ve heard both good and bad things about Opus Dei and my thought is that it really depends on how people participate. There are people who take things to the extreme in every faith and Silas (the albino monk who kills the curator and some others) is no different.
Third issue: Brown portrays the “Truth” to be that there is a male/female dualism as the true God. He breaks the word “Jehovah” apart to be “Ja” and “Ahavah”. This is not true. “Jehovah” is not an actual Hebrew word — it is the consonants of YHWH (the W becomes a V) and the vowels of “Adonai”. it was created to avoid the uttering of YHWH because it’s a very holy name and should not be spoken according to observent Jews. (This is why many write G-d instead of God.) I cannot understand how a monotheistic religion can have two deities and I really find it to be a bad explanation of how God can have both male and female attributes. I believe that I was created in the image of God and I have no issue with that. Saying that God can only have male attributes or female attributes is putting God in a box — which limits the One who has no limits. (The first person that asks if God could ever create a rock that He cannot lift will have said rock thrown at them. Thank you.) The only part I really found good about the male/female dualism is that Brown’s premise is that there is a balance between male and female, which I find really to be really OK.
On the positive side, I did appreciate Brown giving Mary Magdalene some good press because she really does get treated badly by the Church. Granted, she was a prostitute; but she repented of her sin. In the Gospel of John, she is the first one to see Jesus after his resurrection — something that is pretty amazing given that women had no legal credibility in those times. She is no better/worse than any other saint — every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. We commemorate saints because of their example in the faith — she repented of her sin and this repentance is something that we should aspire to in our lives.
Would I Recommend the Book?
I think I would recommend it but I would also add the caveat that you need to look at it as fiction with some historical bases. Brown actually tells what is real in the book: the description of the locations, the secret rituals, the existence of the Priory, the existence of Opus Dei, and the artwork. You cannot take the book as all fact or all fiction — you have to try and figure out where each one ends and begins.