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Da Vinci movie is mean-spirited, but less so than book

Christians can take heart. Some heart. OK, maybe just half heart. The DaVinci Code: The Movie is not as bad as we thought it would be. It is still a nasty piece of work, don’t get me wrong, with horrible misrepresentations of the Gospel story and intentionally vicious distortions of Christian history. But compared to Dan Brown’s novel, Ron Howard has given us a kinder, gentler Code.

Howard’s firstproblem was that Brown’s novel is filled with factual errors, errors which arenow exceedingly well documented and widely known. In addition, Brown’s reading of history is largelybased on the far fringe of conspiracy historians, which has failed to pass thetest of peer-review. How can a Harvardscholar like the main character, Robert Langdon, believe all of this, as hedoes in the novel? Howard’s solution is: He doesn’t.

For the first halfof the film at least, Langdon is painted as a typical academic skeptic. He knows the story of the Priory of Sion andthe secret it supposedly protects, but for him it is just one of countlessmyths he has studied. [Tom Hanks,playing Langdon, said the word “myth” so many times early in the film that Ialmost laughed.]

In the central section,when the heroine Sophie is being ‘educated’ about the true history of MaryMagdalene, it is Leigh Teabing – later revealed to be the primary villain – whomakes all of the truly outrageous and erroneous claims. Langdon is foil for Teabing’s sales pitch, sometimesmocking what he says, at other times contradicting him, but never enough toprevent Sophie (and the audience) from being swayed. Nevertheless, the overall effect is todownplay the scholarly support for the claims being made.

Even the claimsthat Teabing himself makes have been toned down for the movie. The Church’s witch-hunts are said to haveclaimed 50,000 lives, a reduction of the number Brown gave in the novel by 4.95million.

In the discussionof the Council of Nicaea, Teabing claims that many of Jesus’ followers believedhe was a mortal human being until the council. While still off, this is far better than the novel, in which allChristians believed Jesus was just a mortal human until the fateful vote by thecouncil of Nicaea. (As far as any actual evidence goes, therewere no groups that saw Jesus as a mere mortal. There were enormous disputes about exactlyhow Jesus was the Son of God, and the Council of Nicaea decided by overwhelmingmajority that Jesus was truly God as well as truly human.)

In the movieversion of Teabing’s pitch for the marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene,he no longer claims that the ancient texts contain “countless references toJesus and Magdalene’s union.” PerhapsHoward and his script-writers didn’t feel comfortable with calling twoambiguous references in second century documents “countless.”
Nevertheless, themovie is still a hateful thing. Peopleof faith are unfailingly villainous or stupid, or both. The church is assumed to be  capable of perpetratingfraud, mass murder and millennium-spanning cover-ups that would embarrass theCIA of our worst imaginings.

In a scene mademuch worse by film than print, Howard’s DaVinci Code alleges that it wasChristians who began a holy war against pagans in 300’s, and shows scenes ofChristians torturing and killing their victims in al Quaida like rampages. (Again, by the evidence we have available,Christians were a 5-10% minority at that time, periodically subject to gruesomepersecution by the government forces, and apparently mostly dedicated to apacifist understanding of the Sermon of the Mount. Hardly likely that they began a blood-thirstypogrom against the pagan majority. Mainstreamhistory says the conflict of the 300’s had to do with shifting economic andmilitary power in the eastern and western portions of the Empire. Religion had little or nothing to do with ituntil after Constantine.)

And of course themovie still makes the central claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene,and her offspring are still living among us. This is supposed to be a secret so terrible that high officials in thechurch are willing to fund murder and blackmail on a massive scale to keep itsecret and maintain their power. It isthe suppression of this fact that is somehow responsible for the oppression ofminorities and women – though it must be admitted that the movie’s editingmakes a complete hash of this part of Brown’s revision of history.
So, what does TheDaVinci Code movie mean for the people of Christ? It’s doing very well so far – a recordbreaking weekend opening in spite of absolutely abysmal reviews. We can expect lots more people to see it. And unfortunately, movies do drive booksales. So even more people will exposedto Brown’s book.

As a result, wehad better be ready for the questions people are going to be asking: “What dowe know about Jesus, really?” “Whatmakes you think you’re reading the real gospels?” “Isn’t this all just the story the churchwants us to believe?”

There isn’t anyalternative – we have to educate ourselves a little bit if we want to answerthose kinds of questions. The nice thingis that the errors of the The DaVinci Code about history, architectureand art have been exposed repeatedly and refutations are easilyaccessible.

But the doubtsthat The DaVinci Code raises will take a little more work. To help ourselves and our questioning friendsanswer those questions, we need to know more than we often do about what reallywent on in the second through fourth centuries of Christianity,and the very human, political processes God used to bring our Bible together. The primary insinuation of The DaVinciCode is that Christians are afraid to discuss the truth. Let’s equip ourselves to give the world thereal truth.

JIM BAIRD is a professor of Bible at Oklahoma Christian University, Oklahoma City. Contact him at [email protected] .

May 22, 2006

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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