Cover Story

The Da Vinci phenomenon

On the way from bestseller to blockbuster, Da Vinci Code producers launch a schizophrenic marketing plan to win a religious following without a religious backlash

Issue: "The Da Vinci craze," May 20, 2006

Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold some 43 million copies, making it the biggest-selling adult novel in history. Now the movie adaptation, with A-list director Ron Howard and superstar Tom Hanks, is poised to reach millions more when it opens in theaters nationwide May 19.

If The Passion of the Christ brought millions of moviegoers to see a powerful, though controversial, film about the Jesus of Christianity, The Da Vinci Code presents an opportunity to see another blockbuster about Jesus, this time without letting Scripture get in the way of ancient heresy.

Ironically, The Da Vinci Code has sparked far less controversy than The Passion of the Christ. Some evangelical groups have encouraged Christian moviegoers to boycott the movie, while others urge them to see it and use it as an opportunity to witness to Christ.

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Mixed messages also emanate from the producers, who hired a Christian public-relations firm in the States but carefully screened advanced access to the movie-scripting an unusual opening for the movie (and slating highly selective critic viewings) overseas, with a May 17 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival followed by a worldwide premiere two days later. It's as if director Ron Howard, according to Barbara Nicolosi, a scriptwriter and executive director of the faith-based arts movement Act One in Hollywood, "knows that the movie is denying Christ's divinity, and appreciates that making that case is a long, long dark way from Main Street, Mayberry."

The Da Vinci Code story begins with art historian Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), who tries to solve a murder in the Louvre. In the course of his investigation, he uncovers the mother of all conspiracies. By tracing arcane clues in artistic masterpieces, decoding mysterious riddles, and dodging murderous Christians, the hero learns that Christianity is really a monumental fraud.

The storied Holy Grail, the chalice that contained the blood of Jesus, is really a person; that is, the physical descendants of Jesus. The savior called Christ, he learns, was really the founder of an occult religion that worshipped the "Sacred Feminine." When Jesus died, his true successor was his wife, Mary Magdalene, followed by the couple's daughter and subsequent "holy grails."

According to this storyline, the Christian church created the Bible, the dogmas of Christ's divinity, and sexual morality in order to suppress this true religion. But instead of dying a natural death, it went underground, passed down in a secret society of Western civilization's great minds, who combined feminist ideology, cultivation of the occult, and orgiastic sex rituals as a true bulwark against fusty scriptural religion.

By itself, this twisted theology is not what makes Mr. Brown's novel so popular. What sells The Da Vinci Code-and fuels expectations ahead of this month's movie premiere-is its quintessential "good read," full of thrilling action, page-turning suspense, and a plot that twists and turns and surprises. What Mr. Brown says about Jesus, Christianity, and history is ludicrous on the face of it. No reputable historian, no matter how liberal or anti-Christian, accepts Mr. Brown's historical howlers.

And its New Age elements are anything but new. Many derive from a book published in 1983: Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh. Earlier versions of that pseudo-history have appeared in other occult literature. But Mr. Baigent and Mr. Leigh sued Mr. Brown and Random House, his publisher, for plagiarism in an unsuccessful attempt to cash in on the novel's success. A British court threw out the case, since the borrowings were of "facts" rather than verbatim passages.

But since a postmodern public struggles to distinguish between truth and fiction, the message of The Da Vinci Code, coming as it does in an enjoyable package, is to be taken seriously. A George Barna poll found that 53 percent of the book's readers said that it aided their "personal spiritual growth and understanding." Try witnessing to an unbeliever today and you may well hear a Da Vinci Code response: "Well, but you know Jesus wasn't necessarily who the church says he was."

And if church historians reject Mr. Brown's assertions, other scholars insist that history itself is only a construct, a narrative created to keep a particular group in power. Thus, the revisionist history in The Da Vinci Code is a fitting way to challenge the power of the church, as well as to advance more "progressive" power agendas.

That includes especially the power agenda of women, or, more accurately, feminists. The story injects into the culture the otherwise obscure writings of feminist theologians, with goddess-worshipping religion based on the "Sacred Feminine." Placing Mary Magdalene as the true successor of Jesus and the rightful ruler of the church, through a sort of apostolic succession-rather than Peter or all of those male authors in the New Testament-casts a new light on disputes over the ordination of women.

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