[From the February 2004 Banner.]
Last weekend I was mingling with mostly strangers at a wedding brunch hosted in a beautiful home in Frisco, Texas, just outside Dallas. My good friend Hutz, the groom, was occupied, so I made small talk with Jim, who had interesting insights on owning dozens of Taco Bell franchises. My work as a professor at a small seminary seemed rather incidental in comparison.
As our conversation lagged, I mentioned a novel I was reading—The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I knew immediately that I had touched a raw nerve. Jim became animated as he told how the book had captured his attention for some two hundred pages (out of 454) until he learned from a friend that the “code” revealed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child whose bloodline continues to today. So outraged was Jim that he threw his hardcover copy in the trash. “I refuse to read one more word of a book that smears my Savior,” he fumed.
Jim was surprised that I, a seminary professor, would read such sacrilege. I was about to respond when Hutz interrupted with his mother in tow, reintroducing us after a 20-year hiatus. The Da Vinci Code conversation evaporated.
I set the book aside for a few days, picking it up again on Thanksgiving. But as I read, I couldn’t get Jim’s angry critique out of my mind. Unlike him, I had begun the book knowing the author’s speculation about Mary and Jesus. Indeed, that very topic drew me to the book. But now with every page I read, the question was in the back of my mind: Should a Christian read such “trash”?
My answer is an emphatic yes. Published in 2003, it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 30 weeks, and Columbia Pictures is planning a film with Ron Howard as director. In November the book was featured in an ABC News documentary that gave some credence to its “historical” authenticity. But more significant than the media hype is its content—content that goes to the very heart of the gospel.
Last spring, in my course “Gospel and Western Culture,” I challenged students to engage culture with discernment and passion. The Da Vinci Code presents a natural opening for such activity—an opportunity to share the gospel with people who might otherwise change the subject. Millions of people are reading about the gospel, albeit a false one.
Brown’s book is a page-turner, though it’s not necessarily my kind of fiction. I like either believable fiction or pure fantasy. This is a mixture. His description of the Louvre and the Mona Lisa and Westminster Abbey brought back recollections of visits years ago. These depictions were real—no Narnia make-believe here. But his story line is not believable—any more than is the rapture in La Haye’s Left Behind series. (I was ready to toss that book in the trash even before I got to the description of a harried husband spotting his wife’s contact lenses in her left behind pile of clothes. As someone who has crawled on the carpet for 40 minutes looking for a lens, I have no time for that kind of fantasy.)
Brown’s fantasy, unlike La Haye’s, however, easily captures the imagination of a more sophisticated audience interested in art and travel and esoteric or feminine religion. But the plot is highly implausible. That a man fatally wounded would have the presence of mind to leave complicated clues and codes to an estranged granddaughter he hoped would find his body is as hard to believe as are the succeeding hours filled with more conspiracy theories and spy versus spy intrigue than even the most devoted aficionado of suspense thrillers can digest.
And that a secret the size of Jesus married with children could be kept under wraps for centuries by a group of conspirators defies common sense. Some years ago I interviewed Kenneth Lanning, who was heading an FBI task force investigating claims of satanic ritual murder. Many of the accounts featured conspiracies involving dozens of people. It’s possible to keep secret a crime involving one person, he told me, but as soon as two or three—or dozens of people—are in on the conspiracy, the odds of secrecy are progressively and drastically reduced.
But what I found most disturbing about the book is not its implausible plotline but its false history. Brown’s data on Isaac Newton, Da Vinci, art history and religious orders, and Vatican politics may be historically based. But his purported historical background on the Council of Nicaea is ludicrous—claims that no serious church historian would proffer.
Space does not permit a challenge to Brown here, but his assertion that the Bible was “collated” by Emperor Constantine is laughable. His uncritical acceptance of Gnostic texts is unwarranted, particularly with the anti-Semitic strain that runs through many such writings. And his extolling Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus may relate to his own male bias: that a woman needs a husband to attain greatness. Mary was a courageous disciple of Jesus—a single woman. She does not need marriage, even to Jesus, added to her résumé.
But the central issue is Jesus. “If Jesus was only and essentially a first-century Palestinian Jew, then in all likelihood he was married,” writes Paul Jewett in his book Man As Male and Female (Eerdmans, 1975). And if his disciples and succeeding generations thought he was a mere man (as Brown contends) there would have been no reason to cover up his marriage. But, Jewett continues, “if he was the Word made flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14), then in his person the kingdom of heaven is present, the kingdom in which ‘they neither marry or are given in marriage’” (Luke 20:34-36).
We live in an era in which gospel and culture intersect. Opportunities for witness abound—opportunities we too easily throw in the trash.