<Previous Edition | Volume 21 Number 4 2004 | Next Edition>

View the Articles for this issue


Editorial Matters


The Da Vinci Code

Heading the list of book best-sellers for 2004 is Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code . This book has been a world-wide publishing success, printed in 42 languages. In the United States it has been the best selling hardback book ever. The paperback edition, which was published in the United Kingdom in March, will have sold close to 1.5 million copies by Christmas. It has become a must-read book, its popularity spreading by word of mouth and personal recommendation. Easy to read, with a fast moving plot, sales have been encouraged through heavy discounting in newsagents and supermarkets.

The novel is a mixture of thriller and conspiracy theory, a who-done-it with gnostic twist. The conspiracy described concerns the (Roman Catholic) Church's actions in suppressing the truth concerning the life and nature of Jesus Christ, and a counter plot through history to keep the truth alive, but hidden. The truth is in part kept and hidden through the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. The book describes the conspiracy perpetrated by the Church including the false divinisation of Jesus at Nicea and the construction of the Bible so that alternative and 'true' gospels are excluded from the canon. In addition it draws on extreme feminist reconstructions of the gospels to show that Mary Magdalene was the consort of Jesus, and that she becomes the true 'holy grail' through the consummation of that relationship and the bearing of a child. This then would seem to be a big fiction, but it purports throughout to be fact. So it is possible that very many people will read this version of the story and meaning of Jesus, and be confused by it - what is true and what is constructed? Sadly, many Christians are asking the very same questions. The book will be followed by a film in 2006, directed and produced by a team led by Ron Howard ( Apollo 13 , A Beautiful Mind ). An A list cast will ensure that the film will be seem by millions.

The book itself is not prize winning literature, critics commonly comparing the quality of the writing to that of Jeffrey Archer (is Dan Brown better or worse?). Just as Archer's books were popular partly because they caught the zeitgeist of the 1980s with that decade's concern for materialism and power, so this book catches some of the concerns in the US and Western Europe at the beginning of a new century. Throughout the book there is a distrust of authorities and institutions, Jesus Christ is seen as a human and inspirational leader but nothing more, there is a recovery of female power and influence which is strongly sexualised, and the Bible is seen as a book written and shaped by a few powerful men to meet their own ends. Throughout the whole the means to salvation is a secret mediated by a group of intellectuals who form a clandestine fellowship.

In its mistrust of institutional power, which can be overcome through the independent action of an individual, the book picks up a key anxiety of our times. However, anyone who has even a little knowledge of the Church - separate denominations or the catholic Church worldwide - will wonder if a conspiracy maintained over nearly two thousand years is possible. Such a conspiracy would require commitment to collusion on a terrific scale. The history of the Church shows us that there have always been profound differences, infighting and the like. How could such an institution, or set of institutions, manage conspiracy on such a scale? If it were possible to conspire, then surely we would have managed to conspire for good.

More troubling is the challenge to the divinity and uniqueness of Christ represented in the book. Jesus is honoured as an exceptional man, but no more than this. The dialogue of the protagonists in The Da Vinci Code claims that the divinity of Jesus and his establishment as 'the Son of God' were created, proposed and voted into existence at the Council of Nicea in 325. These things were established for political reasons, and were in contrast to the beliefs of Jesus' followers, who saw him as a mortal prophet. The authoritative voices of the 'experts' in the novel can be seen as fictional only if the reader knows something of the New Testament and the development of christology in the Early Church. How many readers know that the most primitive confession of those who counted themselves as disciples and then Christians, was that 'Jesus is Lord', or about the appellations of sonship and divinity in, say, John's gospel, or about the christology of Ignatius (God existing in the flesh)?

The novel understands the development of the Biblical canon to have served the same political ends, deliberately excluding alternative gospels that emphasise the humanity of Jesus. This profoundly undermines the authority of the Biblical text, and in a true post-modern way describes it as constructed truth, which could have taken quite a different form. How many readers - inside the churches and without know how the canon was decided, and why certain 'gospels' were excluded and for what reasons?

Key to the novel is the story of Mary Magdalene. The novel declares that in the history of Christianity there has been no place for female imagery, and that the feminine dimension of spirituality has been denied. This is not the case, Christianity has commonly held up two images of women - the Blessed Virgin and the fallen but redeemed whore. The novel ignores the Virgin altogether, and rehabilitates Mary Magdalene as the consort of Jesus. This does no service to reasonable feminist readings of the New Testament. Rather than Mary being valued as an apostle to the apostles bearing the good news of the resurrection, she becomes the model for female salvation through her sexual activity. The novel presents as though it is pro-female, but it does a great dis-service in presenting feminist studies in this way.

So, this novel will continue to be popular and widely read. By word of mouth those who are not readers will be encouraged to read this book. It will not be at all obvious to many readers how silly the theories and theology described within it really are. Altogether this makes a good case for the good education of laity and clergy in the churches, so that fact and fiction can be separated. When the people of God know how the Bible came to be, how the christological understanding of the person of Jesus Christ developed, and why the early Church drew clear doctrinal boundaries around orthodox faith then books like this will be nothing more than stocking fillers. When the people of God are well educated and informed then they can be confident that there is nothing about salvation that is hidden or secret, but that the Father has revealed his purposes in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.


In this issue

The first article in this issue is concerned with the interpretation of Scripture. John Thomson encourages the practice of interpreting Scripture in community through conversation. He acknowledges the challenges of this method, but sees it as one that will lead to new insights. He takes this further, and suggests that on occasion existing convictions will have to be revised, aware of the questions that will be raised by this possibility.

The second article by Bridget Nichols was first a lecture - the Fifth Annual Michael Vasey Lecture given at St John's College Durham. She considers the role of liturgy in shaping and forming the worshipper through engagement with well known material which stretches both imagination and memory. Using models of worship associated with the liturgies of the Prayer Book, she considers what these might mean using a wider range of liturgies in contemporary texts.

The third article is by Craig Smith and is the third in the series entitled Love Your Enemies . He considers what it means to be a Christian in contact with others who are actively associating themselves with evil, and physically or spiritually then an enemy. In some parts of the world today this is a very real challenge, but in the lessons Craig draws from his examples he suggests a universal application.

Finally Steve Walton gives us an extended review of Tom Wright's significant book The Resurrection of the Son of God . The length of this book will be daunting for many readers, but this review makes the contents accessible, and hopefully will direct potential readers to sections within the whole of particular relevance to faith and ministry.


Anne Dyer