Sunday, May 28, 2006

Weighing in on Da Vinci Code

Book Reviews

I included a link to the book reviews so that we might not forget the source material of the movie. Jon and I heard Dan Brown speak at a local book store (Books and Co.) in Dayton the week DVC went number one on the NYTimes Best seller list. Dan was engaging, humble and entertaining. My husband had read the book (I hadn't yet) and he asked Dan directly: Do you believe this story? In other words, did Dan believe the primary narrative about Mary Magdalene, the priory of Scion and so on?

He did.

And it's that that has stuck with me these last several years.

I've read dozens of debunking articles on both sides of the theological and historical aisles. We've got evangelicals and liberals all decrying the inaccuracies of Dan's book. Fair enough.

But what stands out to me instead in both book and movie is the power of the narrative that Dan wove. That narrative captured the imagination of a nation! Dan Brown was credited (at one point) with saving the publishing industry single-handedly (have you ever seen such an explosion of books prompted by one title?).

So why the abiding fascination with "mere story"? What is it that drives people to read not just Dan's book, but articles, other books explaining his book, websites and more? And what is it that makes people hate the film?

Ron Howard has a style that many critics find annoying. I don't. That may be the first reason I liked the film. I always enjoy seeing the visions in my head realized on screen and for me, Ron Howard and cast did so more than adequately.

But secondly, I liked the film because I really liked the book. I don't love Dan's writing style (though he has the one page, two person dialog down to a science!). What I loved was the twisting, turning plot (not unlike Shogun but not so arduously long) that unseated complacent "we hold the truth" gate-keepers of Christian doctrine. Dan Brown suggested, even asserted, that the whole truth wasn't locked up in the Bible or the "unbroken line" of popes. There may be more to this Jesus tradition than we've been led to accept and believe.

My contention is that where religion and conspiracy co-mingle, the non-religious everywhere experience a collective smirk. The attempts to prop up Christian dogma as damningly true just don't sit well with everyone, much to the chagrin of committed believers.

Enter Dan Brown with a book that blew the doors off of fiction and made the whole world talk about faith and science, art and history, conspiracy and hope... And what is the primary response in the "boycott the movie" emails I receive, in the articles I read? Lots of work being done to examine the historicity of the claims and debunk them. Comments like "We shouldn't worry about this book because none of it is true."

Feels like everyone sort of missed the point.

What would be more interesting to examine is the phenomenon of the book. The Christian religion became a topic worth discussing for a little while again. And this time, room was made at the table for a powerful tale that the religious don't like, want to destroy, prove untrue. Perhaps Christians are nervous!

Maybe they feel their market-share is threatened.

I can't help but wonder if the original stories (Gospel narratives) had been written in a time when books were more easily published, what might have happened to them? Might we ask what they excluded, included falsely and whether or not the author had an agenda? Would there be boycotts of John's Gospel in favor of Luke's? How many articles, books and emails would debunk any one of the Gospel's claims as historically inaccurate? Would the writers then miss the message because of an obsession with verifying the events cited?

Jesus is back on the front burner for a little while. I like that.


julieunplugged said...

Just wanted to add a postscript.

Some would argue that the Jesus Seminar et al. have done just that with the Gospels - arguing about historicity, preferring Thomas to the canonical Gospels and so on. The difference is that the critiques are not contemporary to the original writings.

With Dan Brown's story, I do think we have a golden moment to think about why his narrative is appealing and what ideas he's included in his retelling that have been/are missing from the original and then to ask why. None of that is dependent on the story being factually accurate, but probably gets to the heart of the fascination with the conspiracy theory about Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

Melissa Wiley said...

And this time, room was made at the table for a powerful tale that the religious don't like, want to destroy, prove untrue. They are nervous!

Perhaps they feel their market-share is threatened.

Now, Julie, I know you don't mean that across the board. :) And while many of us who object to the book "don't like" it and do feel compelled to point out its many, many inaccuracies (as a writer of historical fiction who spends *months* working to ensure strict historical accuracy, it does annoy me to see errors cavalierly presented as fact, like that bit about the Knights Templars' ashes being "tossed unceremoniously into the Tiber"—the papacy wasn't even in Rome at the time; that whole episode happened in France, and differently than Brown presented it)—as I was saying, while some Christians do feel compelled to point out factual errors, that doesn't mean we across the board wish to "destroy it." Heavens no, freedom of the press and all that.

One way to understand why many Christians, especially Catholics, find the book so objectionable is to imagine that the secret and malevolent conspiracy Brown accuses the Church of carrying out was being attributed to some other group: Jews, or women, or homosexuals. If you plug in another group and really imagine the book making the claims against them which it makes against Catholics, it becomes quite easy to see why Catholics take offense at the storyline (even thought it is "just fiction'). A fictional novel in which, say, African Americans deliberately perpetrated an evil truth-concealing fraud upon the masses for centuries would likely meet with a cry of outrage--and I bet I'd feel just as much "dislike" for that book and would feel just as compelled to point out any historical inaccuracies presented as fact.

I'm not saying the Church should be hands-off as far as a subject for fiction (or, since Brown believes his theory, fictionalization); I'm just saying that I don't think it's unreasonable for people to object to the vilification of a body they hold dear. It has nothing to do with feeling like Brown's claims "threaten our market share." It has to do with respect for the truth, which I know is important to you too.

The Lilting House

julieunplugged said...

Hey Lissa, I love your new blog!~

Points well-taken. I would bet you anything that my reaction to the articles, blogs and emails has come much more forcefully through my community than the Catholic one and that is an error on my part not to make that clear. Thank you for pointing it out.

Your analogy (using blacks or women or homosexuals) makes sense to me too - that the Church is wanting to protect its reputation as bearers of the truth as they seek to describe and express it and as having done so without concealing a huge fraud.

I hoped (maybe unsuccessfully?) to point out that the emphasis on debunking overlooked another aspect of the book's attractiveness.

Have you noticed, for instance, that there seems to be general consensus that the book is not accurate factually yet it continues to be enormously compelling? I'd contend that there is something to the message in the book that is speaking to people and that that message may transcend its factual or historical basis.

So while the articles and books that expose Dan Brown's careless scholarship may be necessary on some level (I would never say they shouldn't exist), it seems to me that there is something else at work here.

And I'm trying to think about what that is. It seems to me from some of what I've read that the desire to protect the truth might be missing the reason for the attractiveness of the fiction.

That was my hope in writing this foggy morning and perhaps I was wide of the mark. :)


Scott said...

Have you noticed, for instance, that there seems to be general consensus that the book is not accurate factually yet it continues to be enormously compelling? I'd contend that there is something to the message in the book that is speaking to people and that that message may transcend its factual or historical basis.


At the risk of tag-teaming you… :)

Why is his narrative appealing? I think you’re looking for a complex, spiritual reason when the actual causes are far more mundane. Some obvious reasons off the top o’ my head:

1) It’s a whodunit, and that’s been one of the most popular genres for a hundred years, if not the most popular.

2) It’s about an extremely famous world-wide organization, one which is almost as beloved by some as it is reviled by others, thus guaranteeing controversy. And, of course, controversy sells.

3) It uses some of the most famous figures in human history as supporting characters, names we’ve known since we were kids, people like (obviously) DaVinci and Newton and Debussy and Jefferson. This doesn’t just lend a patina of fact—an attractive fa├žade, mind you, which upon even cursory inspection reveals it to be one created by a second-rate Potemkin—but makes the entire thing that much more intriguing initially.

4) It uses the ODTAA technique—One Damn Thing After Another—which means the reader is on a constant roller-coaster, carried along incessantly, helped by very short chapters, all of which seem to end on cliffhangers, with no time given for the reader to notice how absurdly enormous the plotholes or execrable the writing.

And finally, the real biggie:

5) Because sex sells, of course, especially sex involving famous people—and in the history of the world has there ever been someone more famous than JC?

Why, just look at our current political situation. We’ve got a president who’s pretty much admitted he believes the law doesn’t apply to him and that as the commander-in-chief he can do as he wishes, with the kind of unfettered powers even the King of England hasn’t had in hundreds of years. The response from the press and most of the public? Apathy. Oh, but Bill Clinton cheated on his wife? Stop the presses! This week one of the chief architects of the NSA’s illegal wiretapping program was given a promotion. The reaction? Snores. But the New York Times puts on its front page an enormous story dealing with how often Bill and Hill are having sex these days.

Sex sells. Whether it’s a president or the man billions believe to be the literal son of God. Again, no mystery there. :)

julieunplugged said...

Wow both Petersons in one day!

Listen, I am fully aware that the book is a mostly ham-handed conspiracy theory novel and that that fact accounts for much of its intrigue and enjoyment. Total beach read in that sense. Agreed.

Otoh, I hang out in quarters you might not and there is also a huge undercurrent of fascination with all things theological as they appear in popular culture... This book most definitely taps into that vein in a provocative way (not just sex sells, but religion too).

The DVC offers a perception of Jesus that speaks of his humanity in a way many people relate to (regardless of the veracity of the claims).

Additionally, it challenges the idea that one body holds the correct version of the Jesus story and that others must be challenged and silenced.

I was just with a friend last weekend (Jewish) who said to me that her biggest stumbling block about Jesus has always been that he had never married. How can we relate to him as fully human when he was so different than us as portrayed by the Bible? The idea of a married Jesus humanized him for her. She literally said she didn't care about all the books written to overturn that idea. This book opened a different imaginative possibility to consider.


My original point is this: that the factual debunking of DVC is not adequate to overthrow the power of the fictionalized narrative (imagined alternative narrative) of Jesus's life and the meaning of it.

We gotta ask why... or not. But since theology is my gig, I like to ask why. Why do people like this alternative? Have we looked at our own story with the level of scrutiny that we are applying here? Had these ideas been presented in a less page-turning novel, I agree - might not have made a dent in the universe. But these ideas have been written in a compelling, page-turner and the net effect is that many people like something of the story itself, not just the mystery solved. And sex? Come on. Ritualized sex does not a compelling sexual odyssey make. :)

My final point is this: I think many online theologians are too busy using the historical critical method on the DVC to debunk it and are missing the reshaping of religious imagination for many readers.

I don't even care much about judging that reshaping, but am more interested in what it means, if anything.


Matt said...

Julie, this is a great thread that you've got going here. I have not yet seen the movie (preferring instead to wait until the DVD is released, when my wife and I can watch it and discuss it without upsetting anyone in the seats around us with our conversation).

You wrote, "Why do people like this alternative? Have we looked at our own story with the level of scrutiny that we are applying here?" I am currently in the process -- have been for a few years now, in fact -- of looking at our story with a great deal of scrutiny. If I'm going to do justice to myself in this search, it goes without saying that I should spend as much time as possible looking at all sides of the story. While DVC hasn't played directly into my search/study at this point, I have read the book and found the theories that Brown utilizes to be interesting (and, for the conspiracy nut in me, quite compelling).

I don't think it's enough to change my faith or the direction of my own journey, but I enjoy hearing what others think and being challenged by other theories.

And, above all else, I love a good page-turner!

Keep up the great work on this blog -- I love it!

Dave said...

I'm pretty much in the same place re: seeing DVC as more a cultural phenomenon than as a source of trenchant theological insight. And even from the conspiracy-theory angle, DVC is pretty cookie-cutter stuff. I imagine that the intrigues are even more convoluted and multi-threaded than Brown had the time to fully explore in the process of putting together his pot-boiler. :o)

It's fun to read the thoughtful comments of some of your other acquaintances!

Christine said...

Julie, thanks for a well-written view~ I suspect it's easy for people to go off onto all kinds of rabbit trails when one tries to make a specific point on these kinds of hot-button issues, but I think I got the point you were trying to make.

Though I'm not Catholic, and haven't read the book yet (so don't know how Catholics would feel on the subject), I did happen to fall into a conversation about DVC with a few of my friends who are nuns.

Their attitude was, "Who knows? Could be!"

From what is being said here, I guess that's an unusual pov?
They were quite open to the ideas they'd read in this fictitious book; it seems to resound with a part of us that registers a truth in it. It might not be truth, but it works in many like truth.

There are a lot of things in biblical history that seem odd to us, maybe even unfair, and this book seems to hit on them. It is a great opportunity to delve into our perceptions and facts and beliefs.