Virtual Reality Christianity: The Da Vinci Code and the Brown-Out of Historical ChristianityMonday, May 15, 2006
After reading the book and researching the claims made in it and by its author, I was privileged to host a discussion forum in downtown Athens area. Publicized on the University of Georgia campus, the Lord brought in several from the campus and off the street to engage in some dialogue about the book The Da Vinci Code, and its upcoming movie to be release this Friday, May 19. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is undoubtedly attacked in this book which presents the assumption that the Jesus we preach today has been a humanly fabricated message covered up by a conspiracy of a power hungry early church just three hundred years after Christ's death. I thought it necessary then to offer this series of posts on the blog as a lesser resource among scores of other greater ones. What follows in this series of posts are the primary notes from which the dialogue was established.
According to one report by The Boston Globe, Dan Brown's latest blockbuster, still at Number One on the New York Times Bestseller's List, "sold more than 40 million hardcover copies in three years in print. The paperback edition sold half a million copies during its first week, prompting publisher Anchor Books to bump its initial printing from 5 million to 6 million.” There are many books and publishers and reports which claim having outsold the Bible. Harry Potter books, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, The Story of San Michele in the 20th century, Samantha at Saratoga in 1887, and last but not least the IKEA catalogue! But if there was ever a legitimate claim it would probably be in favor of The Da Vinci Code which has sold more than 40 million copies in the last three years, and is reported to have outsold the Bible in the year 2005, unlike other works which may have briefly outsold the Bible for only a few weeks. Ten million copies have been sold in 42 languages. Why the outrageous success of the book? In a word: postmodernism.
A Postmodern View of Historical Christianity
For me personally, the most troubling fact about The Da Vinci Code is probably the author’s handling of the historical data. On the very first page of the book, just before the Prologue, he begins with the word, FACT. Brown writes, “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” So then, proceeding on the factual existence of a group known as the Priory of Scion, as well as the Catholic sect called the Opus Dei, artwork by Davinci, secret rituals by the Knights of the Templar and the Masons, as well as ancient religious documents, Dan Brown weaves together the mere existence of such things with his fanciful analyses of those things forming conclusions that, as far as the Scriptures go, run contrary to the reasonable, factual nature and history of Christianity. That's a mouthful which is short for: he mixes facts with plain historical error, seemingly presenting the historical error in a way as if it were as factual as the few real facts he does present.
Now the problem with this is plain: he presents his own private analyses - which are actually historical errors - as if they were facts - facts to be presumed and facts which formulate the supposed true historical background to his fictional story. In most historical fiction novels, the historical background which forms the grid or matrix on which the story is woven is almost always true unless the author explicitly states otherwise. This is where the genre of The Da Vinci Code is deceiving, in my opinion. If one picks up a copy to read it, presuming that like all other historical fictions the historical background info is in fact factual, then it is no wonder that it has rocked the world, possibly outsold the Bible for an entire year for the first time in history, and plunged so many people into confusion and rejection of historical Christianity. People have always loved a conspiracy, and one which is woven on the grounds of something so familiar always produces the biggest outrage. In reality though, his presentation of the "FACTS" is really just plain, outright, dishonest authorship. One respected author on the historical Jesus has written,
“Our concern isn’t so much with Brown’s ability to describe art or architecture accurately (though we will question his interpretation of Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper), but rather with his handling of ancient documents and his treatment of early Christian history. In these realms he is not merely out of his depth, he is also a purveyor of errors of both fact and interpretation, including some mistakes that even the most amateur student of religious history should never make.”
The compelling nature of the book is based on two sad but true commentaries of our culture today. First, people, especially Christians, are largely ignorant of the historicity of their faith. And second, if you’re a good writer or storyteller, you can always sway these ignorant people. The conclusion is that because most are ignorant, most will be, and have in fact, been swayed by its claims and presentation of Christian history.
If there are skeptics, agnostics, or non-Christians reading this post, allow me to expose a similar genre of literature from my own camp of evangelical Christianity…the recent best-sellers from The Left Behind series. Here is a perfect example, one that I would put right alongside The Da Vinci Code, which presupposes an interpretation of Christian literature and its history and upon it building a fictional account of people who are left behind after a supposed rapture takes place. Why was it, like The Da Vinci Code, so popular? Why did both religious fictional works make it to the New York Times Best Seller’s List? Why do so many Christians believe not just in the rapture but also the political ideas and concepts so imaginatively reinforced in that book series? N.T. Wright, one of the most prestigious Anglican theologians, concurs with the same sentiment.
“In a sense, Dan Brown represents the mirror image of LaHaye and Jenkins, reproducing in fictionalized form some of the myths of the postmodern world as LaHaye and Jenkins reproduce in fictionalized form some of the myths of the fundamentalist right.”
The answer to my question is simple, I believe, and I’ve already stated the first reason. People en masse, and especially Christians, are ignorant about their beliefs and their history. Therefore, anything can be sold to them and embraced by them as truth when they don’t know any better. Just as there were Christians who could get themselves in a massive dither over questions, concerns, issues, or outright attacks on the historical background and biblical teaching of The Left Behind books, including the authors themselves, there are also Christians and non-Christians alike who are also getting themselves in a dither over questions, concerns, issues, or attacks on the historical background of The Da Vinci Code.
Allow me a moment of personal commentary, if you will. In both cases I believe we have a situation where the church is surrounded by and saturated with a postmodern culture intent on desiring to have their ears tickled with fanciful stories and imaginative narratives. Anything but the truth! The church of today is unmistakably living in the time prophesied by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:1-4 and following.
1 I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom: 2 Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. 3 For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will reject the truth and chase after myths.
I do not want to be sidetracked here, but suffice it to say that what we are experiencing today is exactly why Paul commanded Timothy by the authority of God to preach the word, whether it is welcome or not, because a time is coming when people would rather hear fantasy than truth.
Books like Left Behind and The Da Vinci Code are ear-ticklers. They stimulate mental adrenaline and emotional excitement. And ours is a feeling-oriented culture where the steady, slow, sure, tried, tested and true are all replaced with fantasy and make-believe, excitement and suspense, action and drama. That our culture is saturated by all of this should be evident enough by the fact that so many people actually believe whatever they read in print, hear on the radio, or see on television. Many are unable to distinguish between truth and fiction, for it is all rolled up together in a tasty treat that entices the mind and heart with eye-popping visual effects, stunning thrillers, and unbelievable conspiracy theories. And what is equally surprising is that those who think they are not so gullible or easily led astray are often the very ones who are.
Christians and non-Christians alike are engaged in mega navel-gazing while defending the lint that is in each of their navels. In other words, books and movies like Left Behind as well as The Da Vinci Code, including the emotional responses to them and defenses of them are all rather pointless. There’s really no historicity or relevant fact behind either of the titles. In this post-modern generation, both the Left Behind series as well as The Da Vinci Code are novels that have come to be preached as the gospel rather than the Gospels themselves.
The bottom line is that for a post-modern culture which is largely if not entirely driven by entertainment, this kind of medium is so powerful that it can communicate error as truth and sway millions if not billions of people into believing it. The Da Vinci Code is only the most recent example of this, and there will always be others. Dr. James Hitchcock, a Catholic scholar and theologian, is correct when he wrote concerning The Da Vinci Code,
“This is not merely another liberal "revision." It is nothing less than the claim that Christianity has been a deliberate fraud almost from its beginning, that the true story of Jesus was suppressed, and that only now are we finally learning what it was all about.”
 Ben Witherington, III, “An Exercise in Pure Narcissism” at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/145/ story_14509.html.
 Wright, N. T. “Decoding The Da Vinci Code, in Response 28:2 (Summer 2005), at http://www.spu.edu/depts/ uc/ response/summer2k5/features/davincicode.asp.
 Holy Bible, New Living Translation, 2 Timothy 4:1-4.
 Hitchcock, Ph.D., James. Arlington Catholic Herald, http://icq.beliefnet.com/story/135/story_ 13519.html.