May 28, 2006
Acts. 1, 15-17 & 21-end. John 17,6-19
Have you seen the film of The Da Vinci Code? Or read the book? I bought the book some time ago, but I’m waiting for a holiday when I can settle down to read it properly.
There’s been an enormous amount of publicity about the book and the film recently, and a lot of anxiety expressed, not least from Christian groups. A Reader colleague (not from this deanery) asked me during a phone conversation recently, “Is your Church doing anything about the DVC?” to which I answered, “No. it’s only a novel”. However the Church Times had a four page spread about it last week, and the Church of England website now has a link to a whole series of pages about the plot of the film and the book.
Some people are convinced that the book is part of a conspiracy led by the author Dan Brown, to destroy the Christian faith. I have picked up elements of anti-Semitism in some of the comments on mailing lists and conversations. I think this is nonsense – all the evidence is that Dan Brown, is simply an occasional attender at an Anglican church who likes writing books about puzzles and codes – but who is quite happy if this particular book makes people ask questions and become better informed about their faith.
It was a best selling book, and has been turned into a widely hyped film starring Tom Hanks. So what is it about the plot which so worries some Christians?
The novel begins with a murder in the Louvre, inspired by Opus Dei ( which is a Roman Catholic organisation which really exists, and to which Ruth Kelly, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, belongs) The victim however, left behind a series of coded messages, and an American academic ( played by Tom Hanks) and a French cryptologist ( played by Audrey Tatou) set off on a quest to break the code – and in so doing to uncover the secret that Opus Dei is trying to protect. They are pursued by an albino monk ( played by Paul Bettany) who is prepared to do anything, even murder, to protect the secret.
The search takes the two, accompanied by an English expert played by Ian McKellan, to find clues in religious buildings, including Westminster Abbey, the Temple Church off Fleet Street and Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, and in paintings, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper ( which gives the novel its name.)
Part of the secret that Opus Dei ( and before them the Knights Templar and the Priory of Sion) are trying to protect is that Christianity was originally a cult which worshipped the divine feminine. Also that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and left the church in her hands ( not those of his male apostles) after his death. She travelled to France and bore a daughter, who married into the family which became the first Kings of France, and through her Jesus’ descendants still exist. There is a link through word play with the legend of the Holy Grail: sang royale ( royal blood) becomes sainte graile ( Holy Grail) . Anyone who read ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, a book which was around in the 80’s will be familiar with this bit of the plot line.
The plot proposes that all knowledge of this was suppressed by the leaders of the Early Church which despised the feminine and hated sex. So, the gospels were doctored to remove all mention of the marriage, the female apostles, especially Mary Magdalene were down graded, and the Gnostic movements in the church, which were more sympathetic to the feminine, were declared heretical.
Since a lot of theories along these lines have been around for a long time, from various sources, one wonders why this film has provoked such a major reaction. Partly, it seems to come from a feeling that the media in general is very anti institutional religion, and the Christian Church in particular (though it must be said that a lot of the reaction to the film has revealed how very ‘anti the media’ sections of the Church are).
But the plot of the film also appeals to our current obsession with conspiracy theories – about everything from the death of John F Kennedy to that of Princess Diana. These conspiracy theories give an alternative view of reality. Many people have now lost touch with the alternative view of reality provided by religion, that is that as well as the material world, there is a spiritual world, which exists alongside but is also in contact with the visible material world. For Christians, this spiritual world is accessed particularly through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and we are thinking particularly about the interconnections between the material and spiritual worlds at this season of Ascension.
But for people who no longer have a traditional faith, the conspiracy theory approach to life appeals because it makes life simple. Reality is complex, bad things happen to good people, and the randomness of this worries people. It could be you – not just winning the lottery, but on the tube train that gets blown up, or the beach where the tsunami hits. But if a lot of the seeming random events can be shown to be part of a worldwide conspiracy, especially one that has been going on for thousands of years, then life is comfortingly simpler.
This wish for things that happen – especially bad things – to have a simple explanation, to be planned – is not something that is just a modern phenomenon. It has probably always been part of human nature. It is here, to a certain extent in the Bible, and can be seen in our readings today. The early Church was obviously worried by the fact that Jesus had been betrayed by one of his disciples. How could he have chosen a bad ‘un as his friend? The answer is that it was pre-planned, and a search through the Scriptures finds a verse from Psalm 55 which foretold it. So, if it was part of the plan, no need to worry about it.
But is there any ‘truth’ in the Da Vinci Code allegations? Well, yes, there is. The Church certainly has been very anti-female for most of its history. It denied women a place in church leadership, and according to feminist theologians, suppressed evidence of female leaders in the early Pauline churches. But, in the majority of churches, things have changed for the better.
Is the church anti-sex? Yes, it has been extremely uncomfortable with human sexuality, and especially female sexuality, for most of its history. As it moved from its Jewish origins into the Gentile world, it tended to adopt the Greek view that saw the human body as part of a material world that was evil and unspiritual – and the female as the one who would ‘trap’ the spiritual male in that world. It was always ambivalent about marriage, and it is only recently that the marriage services have affirmed sexual love, and seen marriage as a vocation.
Was Jesus married? It is possible. The gospels tell us very little about Jesus’ life for the first 30 years, and he could well have been married. It would have been normal for a man of his age to be married, and for a rabbi to be. But there were also celibate religious groups around, like the Essenes. The Gospels don’t tell us very much about the private lives of Jesus and the apostles – we learn that Peter was married only because his mother-in-law is the recipient of Jesus’ healing, so Jesus could have been married. But, does it matter?
Was he married to Mary Magdalene? Who knows? It is certainly a theory that has been put forward by some modern theologians, including Bishop John Spong, who thinks the marriage at Cana was Jesus’ own marriage. Mary was certainly an important woman disciple, mentioned in all four Gospels and the first witness to the resurrection. Her importance was certainly downplayed in later church life, but this simply reflected the Church’s obsession with the male disciples, and was partly because of an unfortunate confusion of Mary Magdalene with other Mary’s in the Gospel stories and the woman of ill-repute who anointed Jesus. Would it matter if she was Jesus’ wife? I don’t think so, and if it does worry people, then they need to reflect on why – because there is a danger of going down the road to Gnostic beliefs if being married makes Jesus less divine.
Did the Gnostics have the truth about Jesus, and were they suppressed because of this? Unlikely. Gnnosticism was a complex of beliefs rather than one tradition, but generally they held the view that the body was bad, that women were unspiritual and that you were saved by secret knowledge. They weren’t interested in a human Jesus, so were unlikely to have been concerned about whether he was married or not.
Much of their writing was lost for centuries. Some of what has been rediscovered recently is extremely weird. There is a Gospel which has Mary Magdalene as a major figure and confidante of Jesus but not because she is his wife. She only becomes spiritual being, worthy to be Jesus’ companion because she has got rid of all her female characteristics and become ‘like us’- a male spiritual being. In contrast, mainstream Christianity, when it is being true to its origins, like Judaism, affirms the goodness of male and female.
Has the Church been selective in its choice of Gospels and have the scriptures been edited to promote certain viewpoints. Anyone who has done any study of the Biblical literature knows the answer to that is ‘Yes’. As Canon Professor Martyn Percy of Ripon College Cuddesdon is quoted as saying in “The Da Vinci Code” “ The Bible did not arrive by fax from Heaven”. The Gospels were filtered through human intelligence, and probably went through several editions before reaching the form in which we have them. They present different pictures of Jesus – quite radically different in the case of the Gospel of John. Other viewpoints are put forward in the other writings of the NT – the epistles of Paul and others, Acts and Revelation. Human beings made decisions about which books were to be included and which excluded as ‘erroneous’ or of lesser worth. There have been different emphases in the faith throughout Christian history. There is no simple truth, and Christians who know the Bible and Church History acknowledge this.
Martyn Percy and the Opus Dei organisation, and the Church of England are quite relaxed about the film, and urge Christians to engage in discussion about it and use it as an opportunity to examine their faith and become better informed about early Church history and the Bible. They advise us to be more honest about the past of the Christian faith, and especially its treatment of women and those it has labelled heretics.
They ask us to face the fact that the Bible is a human as well as a divine document – and parts of it are expressing a human agenda. They ask us to face the fact that reality is complex, and we need to use our God-given intelligence to work out for ourselves what is the truth. They advise us to face the fact that many people have been turned away from the Christian faith by male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone, establishment friendly organised Christianity, which is defensive and judgemental and presents a caricature of Jesus; yet, at the same time to hold fast to the faith that is there in the Bible, and to which the Church has born witness, that the good will triumph and that the love expressed in the life and death of Jesus is supreme.
The Church has a terrible history of trying to suppress anything which runs counter to its established faith. But the Holy Spirit works best in a dialogue, not in a monologue. If the book and the film of The Da Vinci Code help Christians to listen to other people’s perceptions of the church, and to enable them to demonstrate where those perceptions are distorted, it can only be a good thing. And if it spurs ordinary people in the pews to become better informed about how the Bible came to be as it is , and about the detail of Church History, that can only be for the good too.
The Church and the Christian faith have stood through 2000 years of questions, attacks and scepticism –and it’s still going. So we shouldn’t get too anxious over a novel or a film!