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There’s nothing new under the sun as ‘Da Vinci Code’ movie premieres

What is truth? That’s the question the Roman governor Pilate asked of Jesus 20 centuries ago. His was the voice of the agnostic skeptic, who dared to utter such words while staring the son of God in the face. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun, as the writer of Ecclesiastes once said. Today, the latest voice to ask the question is Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. But he is not the only one; so is Michael Baigent.
Justin time for Easter season, Harper Book Publisher released Baigent’s new workentitled The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History. This isnot Baigent’s first attempt at selling the conspiracy theory theme: Some 20years ago, he and Richard Leigh wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in which theysuggested that Jesus had sired a child by Mary Magdalene. The Jesus Papers goesone further: Its pages speculate that Jesus did not die on the cross, butremained alive and was spirited away to recuperate. Jesus was seen again adecade later — so goes the theory — teaching mystical lore of the kind thatwill be reflected in the heretical gospels.

Thetiming of Baigent’s book is perfect: It coincides with the conclusion of acourtroom trial in Londonagainst Brown, his competitor in the Jesus conspiracy theory business. TheBritish judge actually ruled against Baigent in his claim of plagiarism in TheDa Vinci Code, but this matters little. The important thing is that now Baigentcan ride the financial coattails of Brown’s book and its blockbuster success(46 million sold worldwide; No. 3 on USA Today’s best-selling bookslist). I truly am beginning to believe in conspiracies: conspiracies to makemoney in the name of Jesus. And now the National Geographic channel is joiningthe fray, as it has been selling hard its special on the latest alternativegospel, the one by Judas.

Thetiming for any version of a pseudo-history of Christ is perfect for anotherreason: The movie version of the Brown novel — a Sony Pictures productionstarring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard — came out May 19, and the hypein the media reached the level of a thundering herd. Interestingly enough, theposters advertising the celluloid version of The Da Vinci Code show a smilingMona Lisa above the simple line: “Seek the Truth.”

Letme be clear about one thing: Brown has written an engaging mystery novel,indeed a riveting one. It’s a page-turner you can’t put down. I knew that muchwhen I saw my 19-year-old son devour it in the back seat of our van on a longjourney to Oklahomain the summer of 2004. Engaging? The questions on topics of art, history andtheology kept pouring at me from that same back seat for hours. Brown hasfigured us postmodern readers out: We have short attention spans, so he writesshort chapters that have teasers or lead-ins to the next, and then the next.More importantly, he has also learned that we love a good conspiracy, in thevein of Oliver Stone. But this one is not about JFK, it is about Jesus ofNazareth.

Seekthe truth. Now exactly how much truth is in Brown’s novel? Is not a novelfiction by definition? Yes, but the author keeps confusing us, probablyintentionally. On his Web site, and in interviews, he paints his work bothways, supposedly theories couched within a historical novel. One of the manyproblems is that it is hardly historical at all, in every sense of the word. Itis not good church history (see his take on Constantine and the Council ofNicea), it is not good secular history (what did Clement V do to theTemplars?), and it is not good art history.

Take,for example, the art history component of the book: He plays fast and loosewith so many details that one can hardly keep up. How many glass panes arethere in reality in the I.M. Pei glass pyramid of the Louvre? Are we to takeseriously his play on words on the “fleur-de lis” symbol? Any Renaissance arthistory course will have him discover that most Last Supper scenes of the 15thand 16th centuries have a young, unbearded (and therefore more feminine) figurelying in Jesus’ lap. If Leonardo was part of a secret society trying to coverup a great secret, then many other artists were in on the secret, as well. Thatfigure is John, not Mary Magdalene, as Leonardo himself would have verified.The list of inaccuracies goes on and on.

Thepoint is that if Brown is found to “fudge” on the small things, he will be lessthan truthful on the big ones, as well, such as his take on Jesus having agirlfriend and a progeny that speaks French. The writer may have been countingon a contemporary reader who, because he or she is less informed about churchhistory and art history, would not be able to unravel the tapestry of far-outinterpretations and out-right fabrications set within a few strands of actualtruth. Maybe he was banking on many Christians having a feeling that somethingwasn’t quite right, but not being able to put their thumb on it.

Arewe 21st century believers easier to dupe than our forefathers in the faith? Iam impressed with the ability of the early church fathers to sort out the truthamong the many heresies. They placed those many heretical gospels (Judas,Thomas, etc.) in the trash heap of history not because they were on a powertrip but because they were able to distinguish between the real thing and atruly bad parody of truth. The Da Vinci Code could be said to be the latestversion of a Gnostic gospel: Call it Heresies-R-Us. There is truly nothing newunder the sun: The movie will be selling an old lie, repackaged in a 20thcentury medium, film.

Manycalled for a boycott. The Vaticanhas come out swinging, and evangelical voices are clamoring, as well. Iunderstand the rage: This is not just entertainment. The Da Vinci Code isselling ideas. Whether you call it fiction or you call it (unsubstantiated)theory, it is blasphemous of God and His Son.

Weneed to meet this latest challenge to our faith head on. We need to teachclasses on church history, on the Gnostic gospels, on the development of thecanon. We need to help all believers, young and old, meet Brown in themarketplace of ideas and help them to challenge his theories, and his claim totruth.

Recognizehim for what he is: He’s just another Pilate.

TERRYEDWARDS is a professor of Bible and humanities at Freed-Hardeman Universityand preaches for the Bethel Springs, Tenn.,church. He lived in Italy and Greece for 26years and teaches courses in Renaissance Art, the NewTestament World and the Life of Paul. He and his wife, Kimberly, have sixchildren and one grandchild.

Filed under: Staff Reports Views

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