Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What's Really Behind the Da Vinci Code Furor?

The Da Vinci Code opened this week and yes, I'm looking forward to seeing it. I happened to like the book and have thoroughly enjoyed Dan Brown's other novels, Angels and Demons and Deception Point. Other bloggers thought the book boring and have no interest in seeing the movie, but what can I say...I like Tom Clancy novels too. I read enough academic literature during the day that when evening comes around I much prefer the simplicity of being entertained, sitting in my chair with a beer, rather than having to think about the broader message of the author and whether he or she is conveying it in the proper genre of the day. When it comes to novels, just throw in a plot twist, a conspiracy or two, assassinate a couple of people and I'm pretty much good to go. I never interpret novels as accurate portrayals of history - that's where scholarship comes in. If a novel happens to tweak my interest in some historical figure or event, I drop the novel and do the hard work of scholarly research to find better information. I would like to think most people follow this course but in truth I really wonder. I can understand frustration on the part of the William Donahues, Mark Sheas and Pat Buchanans of the world over the expected interpretation of fiction as historically factual. Unfortunately the mindset is fairly common among the American public. Those who consider the Da Vinci Code as historically accurate are mental brethren with those who think FOX News is "fair and balanced", or that Jonathan Well's Icons of Evolution is a truthful summation of evolutionary theory.

I still can't help wondering why all the furor. I really don't think it's because Opus Dei gets a bum rap in Brown's book or because the Priory of Sion didn't really exist. I'm not even sure it really has anything to do with the proposal that Jesus married specifically to Mary Magdalene. That the book implies Jesus was not divine is certainly a point of contention, particularly given that Christ's divinity is a major tenet of Christianity. But I even wonder about that as the prime motivation. I don't think it's the specific historical inaccuracies of Brown's book that bother the Christian community so much as it is the broader implications that compel the audience to seek answers based on something other than Church authority. There is a general pall over the culture at large that simply does not believe the Church is telling the whole truth about its origins. And while Brown's book in and of itself does not provide a historically accurate road on which to seek answers, it definitely implies that there are questions for which answers can be legitimately sought from other sources (and when Brown suggests he simply hopes it will prompt more people to explore their religion in depth I think this is what he is driving at). And what orthodox Christians largely don't want the general populace to know is that those sources are becoming legion. Archaeology, biblical interpretation and historical research continue to at least complicate our view of early Christian origins if not outrightly contradict the current orthodoxy. Nor is this anything new, but in the age of easy access to information such ideas make the rounds more quickly to a larger audience than they would in the 13th Century. Of course the response by the Church and its defenders is to label anything that strays from orthodox interpretation as "heretical" or some current vernacular equivalent. In Born of A Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus (1992), John Shelby Spong makes a case that the virgin narrative of Isaiah was misunderstood by the gospel writers and that Isaiah was not talking about what everyone thinks he was talking about:

When one reads Isaiah 7:14 in the context of Isaiah's history, the first and most obvious fact that must be recorded is that Isaiah was not referring to the virginal conception of Jesus when he wrote this work. Isaiah was concerned with addressing God's challenge to Isaiah's own day, not with predicting the future course of events. (Spong 1992:76)

Spong is of course labeled as ignorant, a poor scholar, lacking in theological knowledge, or otherwise espousing "heretical" interpretations of scripture. He is in good company. A renewed interest in Gnosticism has given wide recognition to the hitherto unrecognized fact (at least among the broader populace) that many more gospels, letters and documents of faith were written in the centuries immediately following Christ than were included in the current Bible. Elaine Pagels, professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University, (and among others) has written extensively and provocatively about the Gnostic Gospels and the history of the early Church. In Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003) she asks some scholarly questions that certainly parallel the theme of the Da Vinci Code:

Why had the church decided that these texts were "heretical" and the only the canonical gospels were "orthodox"? Who made those decisions, and under what conditions? As my colleagues and I looked for answers, I began to understand the political concerns that shaped the early Christian movement. (Pagels 2003: 33).

Are the apologists upset about Brown's specific, historically inaccurate portrayal of Constantine's role as the architect of the New Testament? Or is the real motive behind the outrage that Brown is bringing to a wider audience the fact that such questions are legitimately being asked by scholars like Pagels? Of course the Christian response to Pagels is to use the same language of division common to most apologetic arguments against their detractors: she's not intelligent, has no knowledge of scripture, and shouldn't even be allowed to study scripture from a historical perspective. She is in fact labeled a modern day heretic.

Of course through the centuries the church has been labeling as "heretical" anyone who disagreed with them. Iraneus, Bishop of Gaul, authored a five volume treatise, Against Heresies, in which he chastises the Gnostics and others as heretics for suggesting anything other than the four canonical gospels might have some spiritual value. Pagels suggests it is not clear that Iraneus was not simply verifying his own convictions by coming to the conclusion that only certain gospels should be considered "authentic":

Iraneus knew that this claim [Jesus Christ was God] far oversteps anything found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke...as the church father Origen said later, only John speaks of Jesus' "divinity". Iraneus, like Origen, took this to mean that John is not only different but also "more elevated," having seen what the others missed; and from this conviction he apparently concluded that only by joining John with the others could the church complete the "fourfold gospel," which teaches that Jesus is God incarnate. (Pagels 2003: 152-53).

Pagels is not the only biblical scholar who has doubts about the context in which the current bible was created, or who questions what personal or political benefit might have been gained by those forming the bible. Nor is she the only one who has raised the issue that other documents from those centuries might be of equal or greater spiritual value for those who wish to read them more carefully. Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005) also has a lot to say about how the words of scripture have been changed, often innocently, but sometimes on purpose. The picture painted by a new look at the origins of Christianity is not one espousing a consistent message. Interestingly, Ehrman makes it clear that a heretic is dependent on which side of the theological fence you happen to be standing on:

From the earliest times, Christians were aware that a variety of interpretations of the "truth" of the religion existed within their own ranks. Already the apostle Paul rails against "false teachers"...Reading the surviving accounts, we can clearly see that these opponents were not outsiders. They were Christians who understood the religion in fundamentally different ways. To deal with this problem, Christian leaders began to write tractates that opposed "heretics" (those who chose the wrong way to understand the faith)...What is interesting is that even groups of "false teachers" wrote tractates against "false teachers"...(Ehrman 2005: 27-38).

Again, the specifics of Dan Brown's fictional narrative may not be correct, but has he successfully mirrored legitimate questions about the historical nature of Christianity? Consider further the news from biblical archaeology, which is not flattering to the view that the bible is "correct"; at least not in the way fundamentalist Christians would like it to be. In The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman argue that the bible's historical saga differs dramatically from archaeological reality. Consider also the recent furor over publication of the Gospel of Judas or the long history of the Jesus Seminar and its quest to understand the historical Jesus. The suggestion that Jesus was married did not originate with the Da Vinci Code: Spong devotes a whole chapter to the historical possibility in Born of a Woman. And perhaps the Vatican did not conspire to hide the "truth" about a Jesus and Mary Magdalene union, but they have certainly been accused (with justification) for limiting access to archaeological finds that may not yield orthodox information. And let's not forget the general cover-up and political maneuvering that took place over the priest sex-abuse scandal, including attempts to blame it on liberalism and academia. The question Dan Brown raises is not really "Did the church conspire to hide the truth about Jesus's offspring?"; the real question is "If the church finds evidence countering its orthodoxy, to what extent will they and their apologists try to suppress it?"

It seems that the Da Vinci Code has hit a nerve less because of specific historical inaccuracies Dan Brown may have promulgated than because he's gotten the larger issues correct.

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