Da Vinci: Attack of the Killer Turkeys?

Well, it looks like the film version of DVC is proving as big a hit with the film critics as the book was with the literary world. The consensus seems to be it’s a dud (sorry, make that a “a dreary, droning, dull-witted adaptation of Dan Brown’s religioso detective story” – Rolling Stone. Now there’s one for the posters).

This should at least mitigate the film’s negative effects: the reviews won’t stop it being a huge hit, but if it’s a bad film then it is likely to have a fairly short shelf-life. It was at least theoretically possible that the adaptation could have achieved a Godfather-style potboiler-to-masterpiece transformation – though perhaps Ron Howard’s involvement made that unlikely.

But it is clear that the book has had a negative effect on people’s perception of historic Christianity, as seen in the poll reported in yesterday’s Telegraph, which showed that two-thirds of people who had read The Da Vinci Code – as many as six or seven million people in total – believe that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene. This is somewhat depressing, if only because many of those six or seven million people are still allowed to vote.

However, in this post I want to look at one reason why this news might not be as bad as it sounds, and one reason why it might be.

1. Looking on the bright side

What these polls rarely manage to uncover is how strongly people hold a given view, and how much it matters to them. I suspect many (if not most) of the two-thirds who have swallowed Dan Brown’s thesis previously had pretty vague ideas about Jesus, and Jesus was a pretty marginal figure in their lives. They now probably have similarly vague ideas about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and having children, in a manner that is similarly peripheral and unimportant to their daily lives.

In other words, as a politician might put it, the numbers may be bad, but they’re soft.

Dan Brown’s historical errors are so glaring that it should not be difficult to convince an honest enquirer that Brown’s account is not to be trusted. Contrast someone like Richard Dawkins (sorry, Thomas), who I think is far more dangerous, because on the scientific level he is as knowledgeable, persuasive and convincing as Brown isn’t on the historical level. So when Dawkins says, “…and all this implies that God does not exist and that religion is a hoax”, he has established a level of scientific credibility that makes it easier for people to accept the metaphysical conclusions he claims to draw from the science.

2. Why Da Vinci is still a serious problem

As Boris Johnson points out today, one reason why Brown’s potboiler is a “seditious text” is that it resurrects heresies that the church thought it had dealt with over 1500 years ago, including Arianism, which Johnson describes as the heresy:

…for everyone who has ever said that “Jesus was a really great guy and a great teacher, but I don’t think he was really the biological son of God”

That may be part of it. But our old friend NT Wright, in a superb dissection of Brown’s book dating from last year, points out that the power of Brown’s book lies in its popularisation, not of an old heresy, but of a “new myth of Christian origins”. This myth “is well known and widespread”, asserts Wright:

I have met it at Harvard; I have met it in Baptist churches in the South; I have seen bits of it all over the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.

This myth has five main components:

  1. In addition to the NT, there were dozens (at least) of other documents about Jesus, which present him as a human being rather than as divine.
  2. The four canonical gospels are later products, adopted under Constantine to secure power for the church by reinventing Jesus as a divine being. The other documents were then suppressed.
  3. Jesus wasn’t at all like the four gospels describe him. He didn’t think he was God’s son; he was just a Great Moral Teacher™, and may also have been married to Mary Magdalene and had a child by her.
  4. Christianity is founded on a huge mistake, and is also anti-women, anti-sex and politically powerful and conformist.
  5. So we need to abandon the traditional (and deeply damaging) picture of Jesus and Christian origins, in favour of the “original vision of Jesus himself”, a process of “getting in touch with a different form of spirituality based on metaphor rather than literal truth, of feeling rather than structure, of discovering whatever faith you find you can believe in”

As Wright goes on to point out:

I had met this myth in various forms all over the place, long before Dan Brown wrote his book. Brown has, however, given it wings, and I fear that it is now flying all over the place and confusing many people as to what they can and can’t believe.

The deepest irony about it is that it portrays itself as historically rooted, when it is a tissue of fantasy; as going back to Jesus himself, when he would not have recognized anything like it; as embodying the really creative new voice of Jesus, when it is simply offering a variation on a well-known pattern of postmodern spirituality.

So there is the real danger of Brown’s book (and the film adaptation): it helps create an intellectual/social “mood” in which there is a generalised, diffuse sense that the “real story” of Christianity is the one outlined above.

Close examination shows that the “new myth”, while having some elements of truth in it (such as the church’s attitude at times towards power, women and sex), does not stand up to proper scrutiny. However, the effect of the myth is to give people the sense that they don’t need to bother with that close examination or scrutiny. It helps that the “real story” presented by the myth is so appealing to our contemporary mindset, with our suspicion of “authorised narratives”, our love of conspiracy theories, and our tendency towards an introspective spiritual narcissism.

And that is why The Da Vinci Code, while it may be a turkey, is still a killer turkey.

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