Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code"

Hello Kari:

I finally got around to reading The Da Vinci Code which has inhabited last year's bestseller lists and created quite a stir. I heard there is even talk of a movie. So the buzz will re-ignite if the film actually gets made and released.

Have you read it? Have some of your friends read it? What do you think? What do they think?

First, I'll write about it in entertainment terms then tackle it theologically.

It is a great detective story page turner. Really fast paced, neat little puzzles, lots of little cliff hangers at the end of short chapters, a conspiracy nut's dream, twists and turns here and there, likeable if thinly drawn characters, all in all an easy read and lots of fun.

I'll be curious to see who gets cast for the movie. Will they land a big star like George Clooney for Prof. Langdon? Will they cast Jennifer Garner as Sophie? I have no idea who they are going to cast but those are my choices.

Anyway, top notch entertainment for a breezy fictional read.

But how does it fare theologically?

The novel reads like it is rooted in truth and history. And indeed, there are elements of truth in the set up to the story and in details along the way. However, Brown does take some liberties to make the story fly with an air of plausibility.

I'll try not to give away the whole story with my critique but I'll certainly be tipping off some things for those who haven't read and plan to.

The book makes three strong theological claims that rest on some weak history:
(1) Gnostic descriptions of the life of Jesus
(2) Conspiracy over the divinity of Jesus
(3) Syncretism of Christianity with paganism.

Brown's story rests on aspects of Jesus life described in Gnostic literature. In brief, Gnostics believed that some secret knowledge was necessary for salvation or enlightenment. Indeed, Brown's book is about a secret society that has some secret information the church is trying to destroy. Some Gnostic literature described a Jesus that is not the same as the one described in the Christian Scriptures (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Brown uses those Gnostic details in his plot.

How does one assess the reliability of ancient documents?

There are several considerations: (1) age of the documents relative to the events they describe i.e. older is generally better (2) numbers of documents consistent with each other i.e. the more independent texts that say the same thing raises confidence and (3) assertion of authenticity i.e. another historical work A makes reference to work B.

On all counts, the Gnostic documentry claims are fairly weak compared with the traditional Gospels.

Brown described a conspiracy regarding the divinity of Jesus. In his book, the characters state that Jesus' divinity was voted in at the Council of Nicea in 325 thus making Jesus divine status a fabrication layered on top of a prior non-divine standing.

This is not an accurate description of the sequence of events. In fact, it is the exact opposite of what happened. The divinity of Jesus was discussed at the very beginning of Christian history before the Council of Nicea. The proximal cause for controversy at Nicea was the teachings about Jesus as less than divine by Arius. Thus, Nicea affirmed the divinity of Christ; it did not invent it.

Finally, Brown's secret society's theology is syncretism of Christianity with Paganism. This divorces the meaning of Christianity from its historic Jewish roots. Judaism held a radically different concept of God and the world when compared to all other religions of its time. Jewish ethical monotheism was incompatible with Paganism (variations of nature worship). I don't doubt that Christianity co-opted some of the symbols and rituals of paganism but its core concepts of God and the nature of the world are Jewish not Pagan.

In the end, the book is entertaining and speculative. However, it has to be taken as nothing more than that. For those who have no religious affiliations or subscribe to one other than Christianity, this book could further bolster their skepticism of Christianity. For Christians or undecideds with less familiarity with doctrine and history, this book could shake their faith and confuse them. Thus, it is incumbant on those who take Christianity seriously to gently but firmly point out where Brown is speculative and mis-reports history and with humility explain the traditional, and I believe correct, understanding of Christianity.

To read much more detailed analysis of Da Vinci Code, check out the articles from this Protestant site and this and this from a Catholic site.



Blogger Kari said...

The pastor at our church did a special presentation on this very subject a couple months ago. I have not read the book but am familiar with the characters' claims in it. As the pastor put it, not only does the book put forth largely discredited theories as fact, but it also gets some of those theories wrong.

In my Bible study group, we recently did an apologetics series that addressed many of the objections people (particularly academics) have to the claims of Christianity, and particularly the early church. It's frustrating to see those theories dressed up as "new revelations" for the sake of a fictional conspiracy story.

10:02 AM  

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