Monday, March 13, 2006

DaVinci Decoded: Defending the Faith Against the DaVinci Code


At my Grandfather’s funeral in the Fall of 2003, I was asked by two family members what I thought of the book “The Da Vinci Code.” When I mentioned that I had never heard of it, they looked at me as if I had a third eyeball. They began to summarize the plot to me, and I just laughed. I said, “Where did you come up with this book?” Come to find out, it was a best-seller. I said, “Well, it is a work of fiction, and there is absolutely no historical basis for any of the things the book is suggesting, and I think it is just a harmless piece of trash written by some kook!” But, as the weeks and months went by, I began to see the book everywhere, and I began to get questions about it from several other folks, and I started seeing TV documentaries about these things. So I started looking into it.

At Christmastime, I saw my relatives again who asked me about it initially. I told them, “You know I have learned a little more about this book you guys were talking about, and like I said, there is no historical basis for the claims of the book, so you know, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.” But the popularity of the book continued to soar, and it is not even out in paperback yet (releases on March 26, 2006). Once a book hits the shelves in paperback, it opens itself up to the masses in even greater numbers. Then I heard that a major motion picture is in the works. And I began to see Christian writers publish books refuting the claims of the novel, and hearing Christian radio personalities deal with the issues, and I became even more curious. The thing that concerned me most was that most of the “Christian” information I was reading and hearing about the book was poorly stated. I was hearing arguments against the book that were full of holes. Any intelligent person who believed the claims of the Da Vinci Code could easily defeat the arguments I was hearing.

So I knew I had to read the book, and try to articulate a response to the claims of the book in a way that was both biblically sound and intellectually responsible. So this series is the fruit of that study, I call it “Da Vinci Decoded.” And we will examine the issues raised in the book carefully over the next several weeks.

What is the Da Vinci Code (DVC)? Simply put, it is a novel by Dan Brown. I had never heard of Dan Brown before, but now, his name is almost a household word. Sales of his previous books have gone through the roof in the wake of the popularity of DVC. The book is a sequel to Angels and Demons, although each stands alone quite well, and a sequel to the DVC is allegedly in the works. DVC has been in the upper ranks of the bestseller lists since its release in March of 2003. After three years, the book still listed at number 10 on USAToday’s top 150 list on 3/9/06. It has been in the top 150 of that list for 155 weeks. The Illustrated Edition entered the top 150 list in November, 2004, and remained in the top 150 for 33 weeks, peaking at number 7. For the week ending February 25, 2006, it was still number 3 on the NYTimes best-seller list. There have been well over 40 million copies of DVC sold, in 44 languages, and it is being acclaimed as one of the most widely read books in recent history. Its publisher claims it is the biggest selling adult novel of all time. The book elevated Dan Brown from relative literary obscurity to Time Magazine’s list of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People.” On May 19,2006, it will be released to theaters as a major motion picture. Ron Howard is the director and Tom Hanks plays the lead role in the film. We don’t even have time to address the rush of sales on the books related to DVC that have flourished since Brown released DVC three years ago.

Now, I would like to tell you, I have read DVC cover to cover, and I must say, it is a great read. If you like mystery and suspense, conspiracy and international adventures, you will really enjoy it. It is 454 pages and I read the entire book in two sittings. I couldn’t put it down. Dan Brown is definitely in the right business. He tells a great story. HOWEVER, the book is built on a very ANTI-Christian foundation. It is not that it is merely NON-Christian, it is rabidly ANTI-Christian, and that presents a bit of an issue for us.

Some would ask why all this fuss over a fad novel anyway? I think David Klinghoffer, writing in National Review, did a good job summarizing what is at stake in DVC. “What’s at stake in the Davinci Code is nothing less than traditional Christianity itself … If true, this theory would overturn some of the central beliefs of Christians” (qtd in Garlow & Jones 23).

The claims of DVC are either ridiculously false, and should be exposed as such for the benefit of all who read it, or else, if they are true, these claims are the death blow to the church, the Bible, and our traditional understanding of who Jesus is. This is not child’s play. These are serious issues at stake, and for those of us who believe in a real heaven and a real hell, the issues have eternal consequences. We have been given, in the pages of the New Testament, a mandate to defend the faith and explain to those in our culture why we choose Christ from the menu of religious options available to us.

Jude 1:3 – Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

1 Peter 3:15 -- But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence

But several folks have asked me, “Why bother? Why waste all that time? After all, its only fiction?” Sure, it is only fiction, but here is the problem. Dan Brown claims it is more than fiction. He claims it is based on historical facts. In the Frequently Asked Questions section on Dan Brown’s website, www.danbrown.com, he says, “It is my belief that the theories discussed by these characters have merit.”

In an interview with Charles Gibson on Good Morning America, Brown said that if he had been asked to write a piece of non-fiction on these things, he would change nothing about what he claimed in the novel (Bock 3).

Beyond this, every reader of DVC is confronted off the bat with a bold claim. On page 1, in gigantic print at the top of the page is the word “FACT:” Below that word is the following, most of which will not make sense to you if you haven’t read the book, but hopefully will after I summarize the plot momentarily.

Fact: The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci. The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as “corporal mortification.” Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City. All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

So from the beginning the book is claiming to be more than just a novel. And the media have understood that Brown’s intention is not merely to entertain the masses. The New York Daily News said, “His research is impeccable.” Library Journal said DVC is “a compelling blend of history and page-turning suspense,” a “masterpiece,” that “should be mandatory reading.” Publisher’s Weekly said it is an “exhaustively researched page-turner about secret religious societies, ancient cover ups and savage vengeance.”

Does Dan Brown come to the table simply for the purpose of entertainment, or does he have the intention of “evangelizing” us into his school of thought? Consider the following:

In Angels and Demons, the previous book to DVC, Brown writes: “Faith is universal. Our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some of us go to Mecca, some of us study sub-atomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth, that which is greater than ourselves.”

But that is just a line from a novel, right? We can’t judge Brown on that can we? Well, compare that statement to the following one, found in the FAQ on danbrown.com. When asked if he was a Christian, Brown responded:

Yes. Interestingly, if you ask three people what it means to be Christian, you will get three different answers. Some feel being baptized is sufficient. Others feel you must accept the Bible as immutable historical fact. Still others require a belief that all those who do not accept Christ as their personal savior are doomed to hell. Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may. By attempting to rigidly classify ethereal concepts like faith, we end up debating semantics to the point where we entirely miss the obvious--that is, that we are all trying to decipher life's big mysteries, and we're each following our own paths of enlightenment. I consider myself a student of many religions. The more I learn, the more questions I have. For me, the spiritual quest will be a life-long work in progress.

On the ABC Special, Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci, Brown said, “I began as a skeptic. As I started researching the Da Vinci Code, I really thought I would disprove a lot of this theory about Mary Magdalene and Holy Blood and all of that. I became a believer” (Bock 3).

Now I am not into book burning and censorship and all that, and I believe a man has a right to write what he wants and you have a right to read what you want. John Milton said in his defense of free speech entitled Areopagitica, “If it be true that a wise man, like a good refiner, can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without book, there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly.” If you want to go read DVC for yourself, I wouldn’t stand in your way. I would just warn you to keep in mind that his book has a patently anti-Christian worldview, and that as a believer in the theories of which he writes, Brown would like nothing more than to undermine your confidence in the Bible and historical Christianity. And hopefully you would not buy into Brown’s ideas hook, line and sinker without thinking through them critically.

However, I do believe that your spare time could be spent much more productively than reading this novel. And I know that some of you would have no desire to read it, and I can’t say as I blame you. But, if you don’t know what is going on in the book, you will have a hard time following our studies for the next few weeks, so I want to summarize the plot for you, and I will try not to give away too many surprises for those of you who may read it.

The book begins with the murder of the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris. In his dying moments, he has positioned himself as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and surrounded his corpse with symbols and encrypted messages, in his own blood and with a marker only visible under black light.

Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor called in to make sense of the symbolism. He is joined by the curator’s granddaughter, a cryptologist named “Sophie Neveu.” Now, you should be aware that Brown is doing something clever with her name. It means literally, “New Wisdom.” And throughout the book, she is going to be enlightened with this “new wisdom,” and we get to take it all in with her. In fact one of Brown’s comments about the book is, "One of the aspects that I try very hard to incorporate in my books is that of learning," he says. "When you finish the book—like it or not—you've learned a ton” (http://www.bookpage.com/0304bp/dan_brown.html).

Of course, these two become suspects of the murder, and flee the police, leading to an exciting chase across France, England, and Scotland for clues, and ultimately, we hope, to solve the murder mystery.

It probably sound pretty innocent so far, not to mention interesting and exciting. Indeed, it is. The entire adventure takes place in less than 24 hours.

By deciphering the codes and clues, Langdon and Neveu determine that this murder has something to do with the legendary Holy Grail. So they enlist Langdon’s friend, Leigh Teabing. By the way, here again, Brown is doing something with the names. The primary source from which Brown drew his information is Holy Blood, Holy Grail by three authors: Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Brown has taken two of their names, and Leigh becomes the historian’s first name, and he rearranges Baigent to make Teabing, for his last name. So in essence he is saying that this wise historical scholar is a walking, talking edition of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

Teabing sits the two down, and with Langdon, they explain to Sophie the “new wisdom” she has been lacking. There are some historical “facts” that have been deliberately hidden for centuries. What are they?

  • Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a daughter named Sarah.
  • Jesus intended Mary Magdalene to lead the church, but the male apostles refused his wishes and shunned her.
  • After the crucifixion, Mary and Sarah escaped to France, and established the Merovingian line of French royalty.
  • Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail. Teabing explains to Sophie, “When Grail legend speaks of ‘the chalice that held the blood of Christ’ … it speaks, in fact, of Mary Magdalene—the female womb that carried Jesus’ royal bloodline” (DVC 249).
  • The Christianity we have come to know is based on lies invented to suppress women and turn people away from worshiping the “divine feminine”, the true goddess who has been worshipped for all human history in every culture through sex rituals.
  • “Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” (p235)
  • Constantine and the Council of Nicea invented the deity of Christ for their own political advancement.
  • These “secret facts” are kept secure by the Priory of Sion.
  • Founded in 1099, related to Knights Templar
  • Leaders included Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and of course, Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Da Vinci embedded clues to these secrets in his artwork, including, “The Last Supper.”
  • A Catholic organization known as “Opus Dei” will go to any length (even murder) to keep these “facts” hidden.

Now, somehow, even as a college history major, I missed some of this stuff in my educational process. But according to Teabing, “The royal bloodline of Jesus Christ has been chronicled in exhaustive detail by scores of historians.” And Teabing shows Sophie a row of several dozen books (hardly what I would call exhaustive, hardly what I would call scores).

Four of these books are named:

The Templar Revelation

The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

The Goddess in the Gospels

Holy Blood, Holy Grail (It is interesting that in Feb. 2006, two of this book’s authors, Baigent and Leigh filed a copyright infringement suit against Dan Brown alleging he plagiarized their book. Their book had come to be viewed as a joke after being thoroughly debunked for about 20 years. It would seem that Brown should sue them for royalties off their renewed sales hike.)

Needless to say these have not been on the Pastor’s Book of the Month list recently. These books are all built on the premise of these supposed facts concerning Jesus. And we are told that there are many books of Scripture that affirm these things too, only the mean old church would not allow them to be printed in the pages of the Bible.

So, with all this, it is easy to see that DVC raises many issues that we need to confront. My guess is that many of you have already had questions asked about some of the things in this book, and others of you will be asked once the book is more available in paperback, and especially once the movie comes out. So, in order that we are prepared to give every man an answer, to give a reason for the hope within us, we need to discuss several issues over the next few weeks.

Was Jesus married with children?

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Who is Constantine, and what was the Council of Nicea?

How did we get our New Testament, and is it reliable?

What are these “other scriptures”?

Did the early leaders of Christianity suppress women?

Now, you notice, we will not devote an evening to the study of secret societies, and Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion, and other intriguing mysteries. We aren’t even going to spend time on Leonardo Da Vinci. Why not? Because those are simply sideline issues. If we can validate the historical Christian position on these other issues, it makes very little difference what Da Vinci believed, what the Priory of Sion may claim, and how Opus Dei operates. However, because those are very intriguing parts of the book, we need to make a few brief comments about them.

Leonardo da Vinci lived nearly 1500 years after Christ. Therefore to draw historical details about the life of Christ from his artwork would be the equivalent of someone drawing a picture of this very church service in the year 3506.

Some of the supposed clues of DVC involve Da Vinci’s paintings. For instance, in The Last Supper, Brown would have you believe that Da Vinci painted Mary Magdalene to the right of Jesus. Three questions must be asked: First, is Judas Iscariot pictured or not? In the gospel accounts, Judas is reaching for the bowl simultaneous with Jesus (Matthew 26:23), as one man is in this picture. If this person is not Judas, then I don’t really understand who else it could be.

Second, if this is Judas, and the person to Jesus’ right is Mary Magdalene, then where is John? Now, I will grant believers in the DVC that the figure does look effeminate. The Apostle John was always painted as a very young man. Therefore he is always seen with fair skin and clean shaven to distinguish him from his older counterparts. The picture, as we have it, is a perfect rendering of John 13:21-24. John, speaking of himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved, is reclining next to him, and Peter motioned to John and said, and we can assume he whispered, “Ask him which one he means.” And then it says that John leaned back against Jesus. Now that means that he leaned away from him to hear Peter, which is exactly what we see in this picture. Now, if this person is Mary Magdalene, then I need help understanding where John is. If the dark haired figure reaching for the bowl is Judas, and the person to the right is Mary, then counting heads, someone is missing from the table, and I cannot imagine it would be John.

Third question: Let’s suppose Da Vinci did paint Mary Magdalene there. So what? Leonardo da Vinci was not at the Last Supper. He doesn’t know who was there. He could have painted Mickey Mouse there for all I care, and it won’t affect how I understand the Bible. The Bible is my guide for interpreting artwork that comes along 1500 years later. I am certainly not going to use a piece of artwork to interpret the Bible that came 1500 years before.

Opus Dei is a legitimate Catholic organization. You can visit their website at www.opusdei.org. I would refer you to that site for specific questions about them. I can tell you that they were founded in 1928 by a priest named Josemaria Escriva, who died in 1975 and was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002. It is called a personal prelature of the Catholic Church. The Opus Dei website explains, “A personal Prelature is a jurisdictional entity within the Church's hierarchical structure, presided over by a prelate, answerable to the Sacred Congregation of Bishops, and to which laity and clergy can belong. It is established by the Holy See for specific pastoral or organizational purposes, and it is governed by statutes given it by the Holy See. The word personal indicates that it is defined by persons, whereas, for example, dioceses and parishes are defined by geographical areas.” They do occupy a rather elaborate headquarters in New York City.

Now, Opus Dei is not without it’s critics who claim that the organization encourages its members to use some questionable tactics of disciplining themselves. One of the primary critics is the Opus Dei Awareness Network (www.odan.org). On their website are documented claims of personal experiences involving some of these practices, such as the ones frequently mentioned in DVC: corporal mortification through the cilice and the discipline.

Now to all of this, I say, I do not have an opinion concerning Opus Dei. If they do the things their critics accuse them of, they deserve criticism. If they do not, then so be it. However, I believe that the Roman Catholicism has erred in that they have elevated tradition and the office of the pope to equal standing with the Bible. So, I will not defend Opus Dei, nor any other group affiliated with Roman Catholicism, because I believe they are foundationally and fundamentally flawed.

There is probably no feature of DVC more intriguing and seemingly more well developed than the historic secret society known as the Priory of Sion. With connections to the famed Knights Templar and the mysterious brotherhood of Freemasonry, this hidden fellowship of the intellectually elite has guarded the secret of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, and this farce we call Christianity for round about 1000 years. They are keeping the surviving descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene safe from those who would snuff out the holy bloodline in order to protect their religious fairy tales, but when the time comes, they will make all their claims and evidence public.

It is too bad for Dan Brown that it is all a hoax. Dan Brown relies on Holy Blood, Holy Grail for most of his information on the Priory. The authors of that book were dependant on information provided to them by Pierre Plantard, a man with a shady history of anti-Semitism and a criminal record for fraud. In 1954, after being released from a jail sentence for fraud, Plantard and three friends started a small social action group for the cause of calling for more low-cost housing. They registered themselves with the French government under the name “Priory of Sion,” drawing on the name of a nearby mountain. The organization dissolved in 1957, but Pierre Plantard kept control of the name.

Over the next twenty years or so, Plantard forged a series of documents concerning this alleged bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which ran through the historic kings of France, and currently was active in, of all people, Pierre Plantard. He began using the name Pierre Plantard de Saint-Clair, claiming that the Saint-Clair family were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. During this time period, using the name Priory of Sion, Plantard began to recruit followers and begin a campaign to restore the French monarchy to its rightful occupant (namely, Pierre Plantard!).

With his followers, Plantard stashed their forged historical documents in the National Library of Paris. Among these documents, which were labeled, “Les Dossiers Secrets”, was a list of past masters of the Priory of Sion, those named by Brown: Boticelli, Newton, Hugo, and da Vinci.

But the truth about the Priory of Sion came out finally in 1993 when Plantard became involved in what was known as the Pelat Affair. Roger Patrice Pelat was a close friend of French President Francois Mitterand. Pelate became involved in a securities scandal, and consequently committed suicide. In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that Plantard had given Pelat the title of Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. Plantard was brought into court to testify under oath, where he admitted that the Priory of Sion was a hoax, and he had made the whole thing up. A thorough search of Plantard’s home uncovered many forged documents, most of which were claims that Plantard was the rightful king of France. When the court heard all of the testimony and saw all of the evidence, Judge Jean-Piere Thierry ruled that Plantard was a harmless crank and issued him with a stern warning against playing such games in the future.

In 1996, on a BBC documentary, Andre Bonhomme, the original president of the Priory of Sion said, “The Priory of Sion does not exist anymore. We were never involved in any activities of a political nature. It was four friends who came together to have fun. We called ourselves the Priory of Sion because there was a mountain by the same name close by. I haven’t seen Pierre Plantard in over 20 years and I don’t know what he’s up to but he always had a great imagination. I don’t know why people try to make such a big thing out of nothing.”

While Plantard claims that the organization dates back to 1099, it seems we can only trace it back to the 1950s, and rather than finding a line of French kings, we find only a French criminal who dreamed of being King. There is evidence of Catholic monastic order called the Order of Our Lady of Zion which was founded around 1100, and ceased to exist in 1617 when it was absorbed by the Jesuits. There is no evidence that there is any connection between this group and the Knights Templar. However, in 1698, a Father Vincent wrote that there were during the Crusades some knights attached to the Abbey of Notre Dame of Sion who took on the name of the Knights of the Order of Our Lady of Zion. Whether they were affiliated with the ancient monastic order is debatable, but we can be sure that they knew nothing of this fraudulent organization founded by Plantard in the 1950s.

Pierre Plantard died on February 3. 2000.

There has been a wave of Christian publications released in recent days concerning the claims of DVC, and I have read most of them and would recommend most any of them, but each has its particular niche. In particular I would recommend Darrell Bock’s Breaking the DaVinci Code, Erwin Lutzer’s The Davinci Deception, or The DaVinci Hoax by Olson and Meisel. For those looking for a very quick treatment of the issues, let me recommend, Richard Abanes’ The Truth Behind the DaVinci Code, and Hank Hanegraaff and Paul Maier’s The DaVinci Code: Fact or Fiction. I am indebted to all of these books and many others in guiding my research for these studies, and if I fail to document something, you can probably find the information readily accessible in any one of these books.

Allow me to conclude tonight by quoting from Darrell Bock’s excellent book, Breaking the Davinci Code. He says, “It is my view that novelists do not necessarily make good historians, and that matters when a topic like this one is portrayed in such an entertaining way as quasi nonfiction. It is especially important when several ideas build into a huge theory—and each part of the construct is suspect. It is also important when, here and there, one can spot an agenda expressed through the novel’s key characters. It would not be right just to complain, however. Our role is to explore the labyrinth of these ancient ideas and studies. Claims are easy to make on each side of the discussion. We need to consider what we know and what is debated” (Bock 4).

Now, let me say some reasons why I am glad that this book has received the attention that it has. First, it demonstrates to Christians the importance of studying theology and church history. Second, it opens tremendous doors for us to share the truth about our beliefs with the world. Third, it reminds us of the power of good art as a vehicle for communicating a message. The DaVinci Code ought to be a wake-up call to Christian artists to stop cranking out "kitsch" and start producing high quality art (novels, movies, etc.) to convey our worldview. It speaks poorly of us when the world produces DaVinci Code and Million Dollar Baby and we crank out Left Behind. In recent years, we have seen good art like the Passion and Narnia, but we have yet to break the stronghold of liberalism in Hollywood. The popularity of Narnia was overshadowed by the controversy of Brokeback Mountain. Fourth, DaVinci Code tells us the importance of recapturing and renewing our understanding of the symbols of our faith. I am not advocating "iconography" but I am suggesting that we lost something when we moved away from symbols that represent our faith and our Lord. We need to recapture imagery in our communication. Fifth, the DaVinci Code stresses the importance of critical thinking, a practice that is rare in our day. Ten minutes in any public library doing good research would debunk most of the claims of Dan Brown. Finally, the Davinci Code gives us an opportunity to demonstrate the differences between biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity and the many perversions of it that have developed over the last 2,000 years.

So I hope that you will join me in the coming weeks as we look carefully at the questions that the DVC raises, and you will think through these matters and what we may believe in the wake of these challenges to our faith, and how we can defend our faith to those who are asking us questions about the DVC. The studies will be fun, they will be challenging, they will be relevant and helpful, so I hope you will hang in with me through them. I will try to have time available at the end of each study for Questions and Answers. We will also try to make tapes available of each of these studies.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Russ,

What do you think about the book, "The DaVinci Code"? A friend of mine told me that it is completely based on historical fact. Could you write an article sometime about this book, and maybe even dig into the historical setting a little? Thanks.

Horrell

Russ Reaves said...

Dear "Horrell,"

I think I just did.

Russ