The Da Vinci Code and The New Evangelisation
Editorial FAITH Magazine May-June 2006
Drawing Good Out of Evil
Perhaps the best advice to young people who ask whether they should read The Da Vinci Code is that they would make better use of their valuable time by reading one of the excellent apologetic refutations of it (see our Recommended Reading list below). By that means they would learn some Church history, discover something about the formation of the canon of scripture, find out about the contribution of Opus Dei to the life of the Church, and probably enrich their stock of knowledge in various other ways without needlessly enriching Dan Brown any further.
The many helpful lectures, articles and books that have been published in response to The Da Vinci Code have provided an opportunity to teach people about the Church, the scriptures, the divinity of Christ, and the devotion of the Church to St Mary Magdalen. We can also hope that Opus Dei will continue to draw good out of evil by using the opportunity to give a balanced and attractive presentation of their own work and apostolate in the Church.
An Evil Book
Nevertheless, to draw good out of evil is not to say that the overall impact of The Da Vinci Code is good or that it is somehow harmless fun. It is an evil book for several reasons. First, the dishonesty that pervades the book is more than simply the failure of scholarship. Brown’s claim on his website that “I worked very hard to create a fair and balanced depiction of Opus Dei” simply does not stand scrutiny. Characterising the members as monks in long robes is not simply a mistake of terminology, it shows a complete failure to understand the original ethos and character of Opus Dei which was founded for people in the world “to turn their work and daily activities into occasions for growing closer to God, for serving others, and for improving society.” Nor is this information difficultto obtain, being at the top of the “About Opus Dei” page of the Opus Dei website which has the not obscure address www.opusdei.org.
The simple falsehood is mentioned first because such a blatant failure to use information that is readily available to anyone shows that there is no intention even to try to find out the truth. There are many other errors of fact concerning Opus Dei that could also be corrected by a little time spent with Google. The ignorance would not perhaps matter greatly were it not for the outrageous portrayal of Opus Dei as an organisation that lies, steals and murders to protect a corrupt Church.
An even more serious concern is that The Da Vinci Code blasphemes Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalen. This in itself would make the book evil. However it is a particular sort of blasphemy which the Church has had to face since its infancy: gnosticism. Theological students have always had to study gnosticism and its variants in relation to the work of St Irenaeus and St Augustine, for example. In the past, it seemed somewhat remote from daily life; a weird heresy of a bygone age. Today, however, when our bookshops carry shelves of books on witchcraft and Satanism, including books to introduce children to the occult, the invective of the Fathers begins to take on a new relevance. Fr Joe Carola powerfully illustrates this later in this issue.
For much of The Da Vinci Code, the heroine Sophie is estranged from her father. We eventually learn that this was a result of her having seen him lying on an altar engaged in a sexual act as part of a pagan ritual. We might find it understandable that she is disgusted at this and wants nothing more to do with him. However, we are clearly meant to sympathise with her eventual conversion to see that this sexual act is part of a grander plan for the good. The Da Vinci Code denigrates the Church, promotes a form of religion that denies the divinity of Christ, worships a false religion and elevates the sexual act to a ritual act of worship. Hence, the word “evil” is entirely appropriate.
Why So Successful?
The Da Vinci Code has sold over forty million copies worldwide and over four million in the UK. Given its easily refutable errors of fact and its evil character, we need to ask why the book has been so popular and so influential. If a similarly badly researched historical novel were written about, say, Wellington’s Peninsula campaign, it would be treated with derision.
Moreover, there are targets that would be protected against such treatment. Were a book to be written similarly slandering homosexuals, or denying the holocaust, there would be little need for legal censorship because no mainstream publisher would touch it. The Da Vinci Code has been a spectacular success in commercial terms because the market is ready for it. That is to say that many people are willing and ready to be entertained by a book and now a film that blasphemes Jesus Christ and presents the Catholic Church as a corrupt organisation willing to countenance murder to hide the truth. The reactions of many Catholic faithful seem to suggest that the excitement of the plot has easily outweighed any revulsion, sometimes any discernment, concerning the objective character of thebook.
The widespread prejudice against faith in Jesus Christ and against the Catholic Church in particular has been growing for some time. Catholics have noticed with concern the bias that is evident in major media organisations. This has all gone largely unchecked. If there were ever any doubt about the pernicious effect of this bias on ordinary people, the success of The Da Vinci Code demonstrates that the misrepresentation of the Catholic Church has been so effective that there is now a global market for ill-informed slander against it. As an illustration of this, consider the report of a Catholic couple who recently visited their local cinema in the USA. The trailer for the forthcoming film of the book was greeted with a standing ovation.
Impact on the Uninformed
The excellent “Da Vinci Outreach” website (www.davinciantidote.com) has a very good 47 page “Teachers’ Guide”. It may be thought controversial that this guide has a section “Why teens should not see (or read) The Da Vinci Code.” (It should be added that they also offer some good advice on how to talk with those who have already seen the film or read the book.) Yet their reasoning is quite sensible. As they rightly say, The Da Vinci Code “deliberately tries to convince the reader/ viewer that the Church and its leaders are fraudulent con-artists trying to cover up the greatest scandal of all time.” They pertinently observe:
“In general, teens lack the knowledge to make the necessary distinctions about questions that have huge implications for their Catholic faith. The Da Vinci Code joins a few outright lies with a few partial truths and uses them to support an entire web of deception that seeks to undermine the very foundations of Christianity. Again, since reading the book can cause confusion in kids, seeing the movie with all its bells and whistles will only make matters worse.”
They are absolutely right and such a sensible approach would be welcome in the UK. Unfortunately, many of our young people have read the book and will see the film. The groups of Dan Brown fans in our Catholic schools will very likely flourish further as the film is released.
The Da Vinci Code also has a disturbing effect on ordinary uninformed adults. Anecdotal evidence abounds. By giving the false impression that it is a work based on scholarship, it gives an excuse to people who are happy to seize on any argument that justifies their lack of faith. Allied with the blasphemy that is bound up with the book and now believed by a large number of people, we have a problem that is more than simply a matter of a work of fiction with some questionable elements.
As we have said, the impact of the book has been helped by the general prejudice against religion in general, Christianity in particular and especially Catholicism. To be complacent about the impact would be foolish. We need to understand why the book has caused and will continue to cause spiritual damage and we have a responsibility to respond and rebuild appropriately.
Problems Over Truth
ne can only ponder with gloom the prospect that some Catholic teachers in our own schools, still living the glorious rebellion of their own youth, will offer the opportunity of uninformed discussions to hear “both points of view.” This approach is routinely offered in some schools as an approach to questions such as abortion or contraception. There is an unspoken assumption that young people have been “indoctrinated” by the Church and therefore need to be exposed to another point of view in order to develop their critical ability.
The truth is that they have usually been thoroughly and expertly indoctrinated by the magazines that are marketed for them, by the television programmes that they watch and by the organisations that are funded to give them advice. The one “point of view” that they have probably never heard presented fairly and cogently is the teaching of the Catholic Church. A “discussion” based on such an unequal distribution of information cannot but reinforce the student’s rejection of the Church’s teaching.
It is high time that this travesty of education was exposed for what it is, namely the abdication of genuine care for the young on a grand scale in those areas of life where they most need it. None of the teachers who take this approach would countenance a similar debate on the pros and cons of the Nazi holocaust with information on the Protocols of the Elders of Sion.
Nor would a science teacher waste time allowing young people seriously to debate whether the earth was flat. The Da Vinci Code should be taken as a “wake up call” for Catholic educators to understand that critical ability is not an end in itself, but is at the service of truth, and that the truth usually denied to our young people is that proclaimed by the Catholic Church.
A contributing factor to the success of The Da Vinci Code is the assumption that there is no real historical knowledge. In an excellent 1996 article for The New Criterion, Roger Kimball examines this historical relativism as exemplified by Simon Schama’s assertion in his Dead Certainties (1991):
“The claims for historical knowledge, must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator.”
Kimball quotes the Australian author Keith Windschuttle who called such scepticism “The Killing of History”. As Windschuttle points out, historians have often been proved wrong, but their critics have, in the past, wished to show that they were proved wrong about real things.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to deny that historians can give any kind of true account of what happened in the past, because they are prevented from doing so by the perspective of their own culture. In such Post-modernist thought there can no longer be any real distinction between history and myth.
In Defence of History Itself
The relativising of historical knowledge is not new. Kimball quotes Nietzsche’s “There are no facts, only interpretations” as the root of this approach. “What is new”, he observes, “is the prestige and currency that such ideas enjoy.” Kimball and Windschuttle are concerned primarily with the teaching of history at university level. Unfortunately the relativist approach has now filtered down to many schools where the historical method and the analysis of the historical “text” is more important than any attempt to construct a narrative of what happened and why.
If the “text” of any historical event can be what we make it, the result is that there can be various versions of history that are objectively incompatible with each other. Allied with an over-emphasis on “discussion” with students who do not have a mature critical ability, the result is that almost any version of events can be accepted as a valid account.
Ironically for a movement that began by highlighting the impact of cultural prejudice on the received account of history, the Post-modernist approach to history leaves young people with little else besides the prejudices that have been so attractively presented on the television in their bedroom. Education should be able to provide for them a route out of the narrow prejudices of their culture. Sadly, a relativistic approach to history merely serves to perpetuate the culture from which it originated.
The refutation of The Da Vinci Code therefore becomes more than simply the accurate analysis of historical data. Ultimately, Catholics who defend the Church against the slander and blasphemy of the book are defending history itself, and the opportunity to use education to grow beyond received opinion.
Lack of Philosophy
One of the previews of the film of The Da Vinci Code ends with the slogan “Seek the Truth”. The slogan is hypocritical. The Da Vinci Code does not seek the truth even to the elementary extent of checking basic facts about those it slanders. However, we can heartily agree with seeking the truth in that we are indeed concerned about the value of truth itself and the ability of the human mind to know the truth.
The global impact of The Da Vinci Code makes it clear that the denial of objective truth is not simply an academic or theoretical concern. Many people have lost faith, been weakened in faith or strengthened in their opposition to the Church because of the false picture of Christ and the Church which such pervasive secular relativism presents. It is commendable that Opus Dei and many parishes have used the opportunity to evangelise and to explain to people the truth about Jesus Christ and the gospels. Nevertheless these efforts will reach only a small fraction of the book’s forty million readers or the millions of potential viewers of the film. Such a vast audience for gnostic speculation would not have occurred to Saint Irenaeus in his darkest nightmare. His comment in the preface of theAdversus Haereses is very much to the point:
Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself. (Adversus Haereses, 1, preface 2).
The Need to Evangelise, Not Just Refute Errors
Our response to The Da Vinci Code should go beyond the refutation of its errors. The success and impact of the book demonstrate the vital importance of the new evangelisation called for by Pope John Paul:
But what moves me even more strongly to proclaim the urgency of missionary evangelization is the fact that it is the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity in the modern world, a world which has experienced marvellous achievements but which seems to have lost its sense of ultimate realities and of existence itself. (Redemptoris Missio, para. 2, 1990)
His presentation of this urgent challenge before us goes deeper in his later Encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998):
... in the light of faith which finds in Jesus Christ this ultimate meaning I cannot but encourage philosophers, —be they Christian or not— … not to abandon … the audacity to forge new paths … willingly to run risks (para. 56).
To be consonant with the Word of God, philosophy needs first of all to recover its sapiential dimension as a search for … the ultimate framework of the unity of human knowledge and action, leading them to converge towards a final goal and meaning (para. 81) … to verify the human capacity … to come to a knowledge which can reach objective truth (para. 82) … Hence we face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent. (para. 83)
A Counter Cultural Movement of Total Renewal
Through such an urgently needed, newly forged, counter-cultural foundation we can revindicate “the indispensable requirements of the Word of God” that
God alone is the absolute … Man (is) in the image of God, … the immortality of the human soul ….. evil stems not from any material deficiency, but … (from) the disordered exercize of human freedom, … Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God … is the perfect realization of human existence.(para. 80).
Participants in Faith youth events and readers of this magazine will know that Faith Movement exists in order to do its bit towards these specific ends. William Charlton’s article in this issue is of direct relevance to the task.
An example of what happens when people "lose the sense of existence itself" is that they will believe historical assertions that can be proved false, for example, that the divinity of Christ was a doctrine invented by Constantine, or believing that Jesus married Saint Mary Magdalen. These are symptoms of an advancing cultural cancer. Pope John Paul was right: the new evangelisation is not a matter of promoting a point of view. It is the primary service which the Church can offer to humanity in the modern world.
Recommended Further Reading:
Amy Welborn, Decoding Da Vinci,
Sandra Miesel Dismantling The Da Vinci Code,
Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division;
A recently created website offers a number of resources including an excellent guide for teachers.
Fr Gary Coulter has a comprehensive list of links .
Timothy Russ is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Northampton, not Nottingham as stated in our March/April edition. Apologies for any confusion.