How dark the con of Dan


By Archbishop George Niederauer


"A lie is halfway round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on." --- Mark Twain


My first reaction to Dan Brown's novel, "The Da Vinci Code," was: "It's a work of fiction, a thriller, a page-turner. Everybody knows that." I was wrong. A young friend of mine met a classmate from Catholic high school who told him that she was seriously thinking of giving up her faith after reading "The Da Vinci Code." My friend said, "You'd give up your faith because of a novel?" She answered, "Oh, but it's all true!"


Oh, but it's not! Soon the movie version of "The Da Vinci Code" will open around the country. Carl Olson has shown us that this bestseller works on several levels: mystery novel, romance, thriller, conspiracy theory and spiritual manifesto. There's a good chance that the movie will work in many of those same ways. As Amy Wellborn points out, "The Da Vinci Code" is fiction but the author makes assertions about history and presents them as widely accepted facts, introduced by such phrases as "historians say" and "scholars understand." Olson lists several claims made by Brown: Jesus was a mere man, and the earliest Christians didn't believe he was divine; Christianity is a despicable sham; all claims to objective religious truth are to be avoided. These assertions demand a non-fiction response from Christian believers. Now some readers might say that the faithful are merely reacting out of fear and anger toward a book that challenges their faith. That's why it is helpful to listen to critics writing from a literary perspective, without a religious slant.


One such critic is Laura Miller, in The New York Times Book Review ("The Da Vinci Con," Feb. 22, 2004, p. 23): "What seems increasingly clear is that 'The Da Vinci Code,' like 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail,' is based on a notorious hoax." Miller says that much of the material about Mary Magdalen and the Priory of Sion depends on fabricated documents planted in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris by one Pierre Plantard, "an inveterate rascal with a criminal record for fraud and affiliation with wartime anti-Semitic and right-wing groups." Miller concludes: "The only thing more powerful than a worldwide conspiracy, it seems, is our desire to believe in one."


Here are some of the most important falsehoods in "The Da Vinci Code," and alongside are the matching truths that, as Twain said, are now "putting their boots on."


'Code' and Truth

DVC: " ... almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false!"

TRUTH: Ditto for everything Dan Brown "teaches" about Christ! Brown contends that, until the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), "Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. Not the Son of God." According to Brown, the emperor Constantine made Jesus divine in the fourth century. When we Catholics complain about anti-Catholicism, especially in the entertainment media, it is easy to hear us as whiners and special pleaders. Hence an outside opinion is helpful and enlightening. However, in St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians (c. 55 A.D.) Jesus is portrayed as God's Son and worshipped as Lord. In St. John's Gospel, written almost two hundred years before Constantine was born, Thomas the Apostle sees the risen Jesus Christ and exclaims. "My Lord and my God!" Brown conveniently does not mention Docetism, a heresy circulating in the first century that claimed Jesus Christ was only God, and not human as well.


DVC: "Jesus as a married man makes infinitely more sense than our standard Biblical view of Jesus as a bachelor." [Here's why] "Because Jesus was a Jew, and the social decorum during that time virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried." “... according to Jewish custom celibacy was condemned." "If Jesus was not married at least one of the Bible's Gospels would have mentioned it and offered some explanation for his unnatural state of bachelorhood."

TRUTH: Jesus was unmarried, as were the prophet Jeremiah, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and members of the Essene community. The words of Jesus from the Cross, entrusting his mother to the care of John the Apostle, suggest the truth of this assertion. Brown stresses the importance of the social decorum at that time. If "social decorum" had been a high priority for Jesus, he wouldn't have healed people on the Sabbath, talked to the Samaritan woman at the well, knocked over the moneychangers' tables in the Temple, or socialized often with public sinners. As for a Gospel explanation for Jesus' "unnatural state," here is Jesus' teaching on celibacy, from Matthew's Gospel: "Some are incapable of marriage because they are born so; some, because they were made so by others; some because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it" (Mt. 19:12).


DVC: "The Bible as we know it today was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great."

TRUTH: By 150 A.D. (175 years before Constantine) Christian writers were listing the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and Paul's letters as the most reliable sources of information about the life of Jesus and the faith of the apostles. Also, as Laura Miller observes in the New York Times, Brown tries to have it both ways in "The Da Vinci Code": "Sources --- such as the New Testament --- are qualified as 'questionable' and derivative when they contradict the conspiracy theory, then microscopically scrutinized for inconsistencies that might support it."


DVC: According to Brown, "Peter's party" among the early Christians slandered and demonized Mary Magdalen and, through her, all women.

TRUTH: From the beginning, the Church has honored Magdalen for her faithfulness at the foot of the Cross and at the tomb. Christian writers described her as "the apostle to the apostles" because she brought them the good news of Christ's resurrection. The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Mary Magdalen on July 22 each year, and many churches are dedicated to her as their patron. In the Diocese of Salt Lake City the Cathedral is named for St. Mary Magdalen, and she is the heavenly patron of the entire diocese. That's a strange sort of demonizing.


DVC: “... 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."

TRUTH: That's an unbeliever's definition of faith. How does a believer define faith? Perhaps as "a human response to God," or, "a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed." A fair-minded person would let a socialist give his definition of capitalism, but he or she would let the capitalist give his definition as well. Believers and unbelievers should be treated the same way.


DVC: "Virtually all the elements of Catholic ritual --- the miter, the altar, the doxology and communion, the act of 'God-eating' --- were taken directly from earlier pagan mystery religions."

TRUTH: Oh, dear. It's such a long-established fact that the roots of Catholic ritual are in Jewish worship, which is not surprising, inasmuch as all the first Christians were Jews, not former pagans. The Temple in Jerusalem had altars; the doxology is rooted in Psalms 8, 66 and 150; communion had its roots in the Jewish Passover, celebrated by Jesus and 12 other Jews at the Last Supper.


DVC: "Originally Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine [4th century] shifted it to coincide with the pagan's veneration day of the sun. To this day most churchgoers attend services on Sunday morning with no idea that they are there on account of the pagan sun god's weekly tribute --- Sunday."

TRUTH: Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week, a Sunday, so the weekly Eucharist was celebrated from the beginning on "the Lord's Day," a Sunday. Here is St. Justin Martyr, writing before 165 A.D.: "We hold our common assembly on the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead." The names for the days of the week do come from the names of pagan gods such as Woden, Thor, Freia and Saturn. However, someone who goes to Thursday evening Bible study in 2006 is not therefore honoring the god Thor. Incidentally, the only thing Constantine did about this matter, in 321 A.D., was to declare Sunday a day of rest.


DVC: "The Church launched a smear campaign against the pagan gods and goddesses, recasting their divine symbols as evil."

TRUTH: Well, that's what monotheistic religions do --- they oppose the worship of dozens or hundreds of greater and lesser gods. For example, Jews maligned Moloch, and discouraged the people from sacrificing newborn infants by tossing them into the fiery stove in the belly of the god. It's hard to cast that divine symbol as anything but evil. Islam also replaced the worship of minor deities in the lands to which it spread.


DVC: "The Church burned at the stake over five million women [as witches]."

TRUTH: Genuine scholars agree that most people executed as witches (20 percent were men) were put to death between 1500 and 1800 A.D. These historians estimate the total at 40,000, with an upward limit of 50,000. Most of those were poor, ordinary and unpopular citizens, not strong, independent-minded women as described by Brown. Their accusers were usually their fellow citizens, not clergymen. More than half of those accused were acquitted. Some witches were executed by Catholics, some by Protestants, most by governments. Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century, for example, could hardly be described as Catholic-dominated. Several popes condemned the practice of executing witches. Still, it doesn't seem uncharacteristic of Brown to multiply the total number of victims by 100, and then blame them all on the Catholic Church.


Why are these lies so easily believed? Why then are so many people so easily misled? Amy Wellborn suggests that most people know very little about the historical origins of Christianity, so they are "easy targets for a cleverly packaged, sensationalized set of lies." Carl Olson suggests several traits of postmodern culture that make a book like "The Da Vinci Code" attractive: a relativistic attitude toward truth and religion; a dislike for religious authority; a fondness for conspiracy-based claims; a belief that reality is malleable and can be customized to each person's wishes.


Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, takes a more ironic view: "A cultural anthropologist, a hundred years from now, will doubtless find, in the unprecedented success of 'The Da Vinci Code,' during the time of a supposed religious revival, that, in the Elvis mode, what a lot of Americans mean by spirituality is simply an immense openness to occult superstitions of all kinds."


Is "The Da Vinci Code" Anti-Catholic? "I have been educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic, and sometimes, in consequence of this, I find it much easier to discover Catholic faults than Catholic virtues." ---Mark Twain, 'Innocents Abroad'


Let's begin by admitting that anti-Catholicism is as American as, well, Mark Twain. Of course Twain was more honest about himself and everything else than most of us are. The Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., remarked to the American Catholic historian, John Tracy Ellis, "I regard the prejudice against your church as the deepest bias in the history of the American people." The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, used to describe the anti-Catholicism of a few decades ago as the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in the United States. Such witnesses can't easily be waved aside.


Catholics in this country have even had a Dan Brown-style experience before this present one. In 1836 "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk" was first published. It was a sensational success, and stayed in print for many years. One mob even burned down a convent school, partly because of that book. It took the dedicated investigative work of a Protestant newspaper editor, Colonel William Stone, to debunk the book's lurid portrayal of the decadent goings-on between priests and nuns, and the murder of their infant children. The Colonel did his work very well, but generations of readers continued to buy the book and believe it.


Is "The Da Vinci Code" anti-Catholic? Well, sure it is. The book is at least as anti-Catholic as it is anti-Christian. For instance, it's not only 1.1 billion Catholics who believe Jesus is divine, recite the Nicene Creed and accept the books of the New Testament while rejecting the Gnostic gospels; Protestants --- numbering 800 million worldwide --- and Orthodox Christians --- in excess of 200 million ---are mostly guilty of that same Christian behavior, though they get no mention in "The Da Vinci Code." Instead, it is "the Church" that does those terrible things.


Nevertheless, when we Catholics complain about anti-Catholicism, especially in the entertainment media, it is easy to hear us as whiners and special pleaders. Hence an outside opinion is helpful and enlightening.


Slightly over a year ago David Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker, wrote a review of a film titled, of all things, "Constantine." Denby described the movie as a "religio-satanic horror spectacle," starring Keanu Reeves. At the showing Denby attended, it was being watched "by rapt adults as well as teenagers."


After dealing with that particular film, the critic moved on to the difficult, more general topic of how Hollywood deals with matters Catholic. Denby wrote: "Which raises a touchy point.’Constantine' turns Catholic doctrine, ritual and iconography into schlock. God's warrior wins, but is that enough to justify the tawdry, promiscuous borrowing? Will the trashy exploitation of Catholicism in movies ever end?"


Could any Catholic have asked those questions better? Denby went on to conjure up Jewish and Hindu variations of the frequent Catholic exploitation films: "Imagine a Jewish version of the spectacle ---'Angel,' starring Vin Diesel, in which God's messenger stays Abraham's hand in mid-sacrifice and then earns His approval by lowering himself into cursed pharaonic tombs with tied together prayer shawls. In a Hindu version --- 'Vishnu," with Nicolas Cage --- Shiva unleashes his snakes on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie and starts a war between truck drivers and apple pickers."


Denby knew that the strategy of satire is often to take things over the top to show how ridiculous the situation has become, and he did that very well. In conclusion, however, he made a thoughtful and provocative remark:


"Somehow I think these projects might be shelved. Yet terrible movies like.... 'Constantine' get made and become enormously popular. I will leave the issue of blasphemy to experts. But maybe some of the audience should wonder if they aren't doing the Devil's work by sitting so quietly through movies that turn wonders into garbage."


"The Da Vinci Code" --- the book and probably the film --- presents Catholics with one set of problems, and those are best dealt with by knowing the facts of our Church's faith and its history. A broader challenge is an entertainment establishment that doesn't know very much about Catholicism, doesn't like what it thinks it knows, doesn't want to learn any more, and can't leave Catholic faith, practice and imagery alone.


Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco is a Los Angeles native originally ordained for the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1962. He served as Bishop of Salt Lake City before his assignment to San Francisco earlier this year. This article first appeared in Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the San Francisco Archdiocese.


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