SEPTEMBER 24, 2003
Cracking the Da Vinci Code
Margaret M. Mitchell
Besieged by requests for my reaction to The Da Vinci Code, I finally decided to sit down and read it over the weekend. It was a quick romp, largely fun to read, if rather predictable and preachy. This is a good airplane book, a novelistic thriller that presents a rummage sale of accurate historical nuggets alongside falsehoods and misleading statements. The bottom line: the book should come coded for "black light," like the pen used by the character Sauniere to record his dying words, so that readers could scan pages to see which "facts" are trustworthy and which patently not, and (if a black light could do this!) highlight the gray areas where complex issues are misrepresented and distorted.
In his own lifetime Jesus "inspired millions to better lives" (p.231); there were "more than eighty gospels" (p.231; the number 80 is factual-sounding, but has no basis); "the earliest Christian records" were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (including gospels) and Nag Hammadi texts (pp.234, 245); the Nag Hammadi texts "speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms" (p.234); the marriage of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is "a matter of historical record" (p.244); Constantine invented the divinity of Jesus and excluded all gospels but the four canonical ones; Constantine made Christianity "the official religion" of the Roman Empire (p.232); Constantine coined the term "heretic" (p.234); "Rome's official religion was sun worship" (p.232). There are more.
"The vestiges of pagan religion in Christian symbology are undeniable" (p.232), but that does not mean "Nothing in Christianity is original." The relationship between early Christianity and the world around it, the ways in which it was culturally embedded in that world, sometimes unreflectively, sometimes reflexively, sometimes in deliberate accommodation, sometimes in deliberate cooptation, is far more complicated than the simplistic myth of Constantine's Stalinesque program of cultural totalitarianism. Further, Constantine's religious life -- whether, when, how and by what definition he was Christian and/or "pagan" -- is a much debated issue because the literary and non-literary sources (such as coins) are not consistent. That Constantine the emperor had "political" motives (p.234) is hardly news to anyone! The question is how religion and politics (which cannot be separated in the ancient world) were interrelated in him. He is as hard to figure out on this score as Henry VIII, Osama Bin Laden, Tammy Fay Baker and George W. Bush. Brown has turned one of history's most fascinating figures into a cartoon-ish villain.
"Paganism" is treated throughout The Da Vinci Code as though it were a unified phenomenon, which it was not ("pagan" just being the Christian term for "non-Christian"). The religions of the Mediterranean world were multiple and diverse, and cannot all be boiled down to "sun-worshippers" (232). Nor did all "pagans" frequently, eagerly, and with mystical intent participate in the hieros gamos (ritual sex acts). "The Church" is also used throughout the book as though it had a clear, uniform and unitary referent. For early Christian history this is precisely what we do not have, but a much more complex, varied and localized phenomenon. Brown presumes "the Church" is "the Holy Roman Catholic Church" which he thinks had tremendous power always and everywhere, but ecclesiastical history is a lot messier.
Brown propagates the full-dress conspiracy theory for Vatican suppression of women. Feminist scholars and others have been debating different models of the "patriarchalization" of Christianity for decades. Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza's landmark work, In Memory of Her (1983), argued that while Jesus and Paul (on his better days) were actually pretty much pro-women, it was the next generations (the authors of letters in Paul's name like 1 and 2 Timothy and others) who betrayed their feminist agenda and sold out to the Aristotelian, patriarchal vision of Greco-Roman society. Others (unfortunately) sought to blame the misogyny on the Jewish roots of Christianity. More recently it has been argued that the picture is more mixed, even for Jesus and Paul. That is, they may have been more liberal than many of their contemporaries about women, but they were not all-out radicals, though they had ideas (such as Gal 3:28) that were even more revolutionary than they realized (in both senses of the term). Alas, no simple story here. And while obsessing over Mary Magdalene, The Da Vinci Code ignores completely the rise and incredible durability and power of the other Mary, the mother of Jesus, and devotion to her which follows many patterns of "goddess" veneration (she even gets the Athena's Parthenon dedicated to her in the sixth century).
This list is just a sample. A "black light" edition of The Da Vinci Code would, however, be unnecessary if readers would simply take the book as fiction. But there is an obstacle: the first page of the book reads, under the bold print headline "Fact": "all descriptions of ...documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."
Margaret M. Mitchell is Associate Professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Chair of the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature. Her latest book is The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (Westminster/John Knox, 2002).
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by Thomas J. Curry, a colonial historian and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The essay is entitled "Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement."
Our modern problem arises from the fact that government -- the Supreme Court especially -- has determined that the free exercise of religion is something guaranteed by government, that courts are to define and protect. As a result, understanding of the First Amendment is in utter disarray. Because judges assume themselves to be the protectors of religious liberty -- rather than a threat to it, as the Amendment proclaims -- they assume that they are the judges of what comprises that religious liberty. Thus they read the Amendment as containing substantive theological statements.
Invited responses to Bishop Curry's essay from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and W. Clark Gilpin, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School, may be found on the forum's public discussion board. We invite you to engage the materials and offer your own thoughts on the same discussion board throughout the month of September. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive.
Coming up in October, look for a web forum commentary from Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective." The essay anticipates issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Divinity School conference "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics," October 21-23, 2003.