It’s been truly bizarre watching the extent of Christian overreaction to the Da Vinci Code. I’d be astonished if anyone who read Dan Brown’s potboiler took it seriously as a religious text – it’s preposterous enough purely as a work of fiction. But the idea that Jesus might be adopted and reinvented by a thriller writer to provoke a reaction has provoked a somewhat panicked reaction from most major Christian groups. Apparently the church gets nervous when someone else tries to make a buck out of Jesus.
Opus Dei made themselves look silly instead of sinister when they tried to make Sony Pictures insert a disclaimer to say that the film was fictional. In so doing, of course, it acknowledged the book’s far-fetched claims about their prelature might seem plausible to viewers, which is a terrible thing to admit. Sony, reasonably, suggested that no other fictional film needs a disclaimer, and so they should have. The Da Vinci Code is patently, self-evidently fictional, and it’s an insult to anyone’s intelligence to presume they’d think otherwise. Brown brilliantly appropriates existing artworks, geographical and screwy conspiracy theories to concoct his over-the-top story, but all thrillers do this to some degree. He’s just better at it than most.
Perhaps thriller writers and religions should simply never mix. Look what happened to L. Ron Hubbard.
But really, surely anyone who gives any degree of credibility to the Da Vinci Code has abandoned it by the time Brown starts mentioning the Holy Grail – a sure sign that you’re dealing with a nutso conspiracy theory. Or perhaps I just think that because the CIA’s New World Order brainwashing satellites have deleted the truth from my memory?
Then there’s our local Anglican church, which has decided to blow $38,000 on advertisements diverting moviegoers to their high-budget, re-education website. (By the way, is it just me, or does the voiceover guy sound totally camp at the end, when he says “Hmm”? How’d that get past the Sydney Anglicans?) It’s classy effort, but hardly worthwhile. Why anyone would bother to go into detail about how Jesus didn’t actually hang around and get married is beyond me. Surely if you buy Christianity, you have to buy the bit about the resurrection and eternal life? Otherwise all the religion has to offer is guys in sandals and acoustic guitars.
But they aren’t the only ones who’ve made a website. Every other Christian group’s done the same thing, in the fairly forlorn hope that Da Vinci buffs are genuinely interested in Jesus, instead of being entertained for a few hours on a plane. Typing “Da Vinci Code” into Google brings you a whole pile of paid ads, including this one from a student group, this one from some obscure group that sounds like the Uniting Church but isn’t (the “United Church”) and this one from poor old Opus Dei.
This film was Google’s first-ever movie marketing tie-in deal, and really, you can see why. They must be making a fortune just from all the Christian groups trying to convert Googlers to their own particular brand of Christianity.
But there is one respect in which Dan Brown’s novel genuinely threatens the religion, and it’s got nothing to do with Jesus’ sex life. The idea that there are a whole bunch of other potentially religious texts (the Gnostic gospels cited by Teabing) which were left out of the Bible is a genuine threat to the whole basis of evangelical Christianity – that the Bible is a complete and perfect revelation from God. So much of the religion’s appeal is based on the historicity of Jesus – that there actually was this guy, who really lived, and honestly did amazing things. Which requires taking those Gospels that made it into the Bible as historical, indisputable truth.
But Jesus lived long ago, as opposed to religious figures whose existence is indisputable, like L. Ron Hubbard. So the historical record is somewhat sketchy. Much of the New Testament – in particular, the doctrinal rather than the narrative parts – were written by St Paul, who never actually met Jesus, but claimed a miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus.
Of course, there are plenty of guys today who reckon Jesus or his assistants have appeared personally to them – lunatic asylums are full of them. And many of their works doesn’t get to make it into the mainstream Bible – take the Book of Mormon, for example. Actually, don’t, if a young American guy in a suit offers it to you on a street corner.
So the whole “Jesus is historical” claim gets a serious challenge when you discover that there are a whole bunch of other, somewhat contradictory Gospels – Philip, for example. There are lots of bits missing, but here’s the controversial passage, about the woman whom Philip mentions elsewhere as the ‘Companion’:
And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […] more than […] the disciples, […] kiss her […] on her […]. The rest of the disciples […]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.
A manner of speaking which sounds somewhat like Jesus. But there’s nowhere in the accepted Gospels where the Messiah says that Mary Magdelene is a hottie. You can see why this was kept out of the Bible.
Many brands of Christianity have different versions of the Bible, depending on where they draw the line. I won’t go into detail, but to give one example, the Catholic Bible contains several extra books in the Apocrypha. So if there are a whole bunch of other potentially contradictory religious texts, and even mainstream Christian religions can’t agree on which ones are sacred, that raises the possibility that perhaps the content of Bible was determined by men, not God? In which case, perhaps the passages against, say, homosexuality, actually reflect human bigotry rather than God’s opinion? If we reject Philip, why not reject Paul as well?
This idea is what really worries the church. At the point where you can pick and choose bits of the Bible to believe – like Thomas Jefferson, who believed that St Paul had polluted the teachings of Jesus and could be ignored (in fact, there’s a reasonably popular theory that Paul is the Antichrist!) – is the point where the church’s authority as the interpreter of definitive texts is undermined. In that scenario, Christians could mix and match their own Bibles, choosing themselves which bits they felt were divine – just like the various councils of religious elders did all those years ago.
And that does genuinely challenge the whole authority of the Christian church. Unlike the stuff about Jesus gettin’ busy with Mary Magdelene.