Do a million little fabrications point to one large truth?
Others have documented in excruciating detail, the many factual errors and fabrications in Dan Brown's thriller. So this review of the book (and movie) asks a different question. What is it about Brown's exciting story that has captivated so many readers and viewers? In this context, there is a strong comparison to be made between The Da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ. Both works were packaged with emphasis upon the seriousness of the research behind them. In the case of Mel Gibson, an entire staff of consultants was engaged to insure that the movie did not depart in significant ways from the New Testament texts on which it was based. (Yet, for all that, Gibson's movie is largely a personal fabrication.) And while The Da Vinci Code is clearly labeled as a work of fiction, Brown's publishers emphasize the amount of scholarly research invested in the book. (Indeed, to give a sense of credibility to his hero, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor, establishing this character's intellectual acumen was essential.)
The book's opening claim that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate" has led some to consider The Da Vinci Code as an intentional expose of orthodox Christianity's secret past. The same claim of factuality has resulted in a generally negative response from Roman Catholic and other Christian authorities, as well as from some historians who argue that Brown has willfully distorted the facts in the service of his story line. Others, including Brown himself, note that the "fact" statement does not claim that the theories articulated by characters in book regarding Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Christianity itself are accurate.
To be sure there is a tone of defensiveness in many of the articles published on various "Christian" websites. For example ...
From Christianity Today (a leading Protestant magazine):
The Da Vinci Code has taken the world by storm. This fictional book challenges our views of Jesus and the historical church. Because Brown uses so many genuine historical facts, it makes his outlandish claims sound more plausible. Many Christians have become confused because of his assertions.
How does the author of this article know that Christians are "confused" by Brown's book? Clearly many are entertained. Some may go away with a heightened sense of curiosity about such questions as whether Jesus was ever married, ever had children, or put forward a view of God that included the dimension of the "sacred feminine" that was later repressed in the official doctrines formulated by patriarchs of third and fourth century Christianity.
From Crisis Magazine (a Roman Catholic publication):
Brown’s lack of seriousness shows in the games he plays with his character names—Robert Langdon, “bright fame long don” (distinguished and virile); Sophie Nevue, “wisdom New Eve”; the irascible taurine detective Bezu Fache, “zebu anger.” The servant who leads the police to them is Legaludec, “legal duce.” The murdered curator takes his surname, Saunière, from a real Catholic priest whose occult antics sparked interest in the Grail secret. As an inside joke, Brown even writes in his real-life editor (Faukman is Kaufman).
But since when does using meaning laden names in a work of fiction indicate "lack of seriousness" on the part of a novelist? Tell that to Charles Dickens. I have always thought that playing games with names in works of fiction was part of the fun.
This critic piles on detail after detail on the fabrications and "errors" in Brown's fiction, suggesting that his criticism:
demonstrate(s) the utter falseness of Brown’s material. His willful distortions of documented history are more than matched by his outlandish claims about controversial subjects. But to a postmodernist, one construct of reality is as good as any other.
Of course, serious postmodernist thinkers do NOT allege that "one construction of reality is as good as any other," but rather that all ideas, theories, and works of art must be analyzed in their context and are contingent upon the influences of time and place. Post modernist analysis does not make Hitler's Mein Kampf "as good as" William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Nor does it equate The Da Vinci Code with the New Testament as equally important sources for knowledge of the history of Christianity or as sources of wisdom.
What both Gibson and Brown are very, very good at is verisimilitude, that is, creating an illusion which appears both realistic and believable. Good fiction draws the reader into a state that literary critics refer to as "the willing suspension of disbelief."
Gibson did this in The Passion of the Christ by creating an imaginary world filled with scenes and characters that closely matched the viewer's preconceptions of what might have happened in the final hours of the life of Jesus, while adding to those preconceptions powerful new images of the suffering Christ that were experienced with great emotion by many who saw them.
What Brown does in The Da Vinci Code is to tell a very good story that builds upon a number of widely circulating impressions about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Among these are the suspicion that many of the official teachings of the church are themselves fabrications of the truth; that religious leaders often know this to be the case, but refrain from letting the truth be known for fear that people will abandon institutional Christianity, and that a religion created largely by male patriarchs has tended to suppress dimensions of reality that women have always been aware of and would be incorporated into traditional Christianity were women allowed their rightful role as leaders.
The critics that have spoken out so sharply against The Da Vinci Code on behalf of organized Christianity -- like the two quoted above -- do a very good job of pointing to factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Brown's text, while missing the larger picture that has resulted in this book's huge success. In addition to his skill as a story teller (and this my be the primary reason for the popularity of Brown's book), a major factor at work in his success is that Brown has picked up the strong undercurrent of skepticism about organized Christianity that is afoot in popular culture. For even as evangelical Christianity has captured the imagination of the news media in the past two decades, people both within and outside the circles of organized Christianity have come to distrust traditional authority even more sharply than before, and the ascendance of evangelical Christianity in places of power such as the White House, has raised currents of alarm within the large majority of people who have difficulty with various aspects of traditional Christian doctrine and teaching.
For better or for worse, the public is now more willing to suspend disbelief while reading a work of fiction, or watching "reality television," than when listening to a sermon or a political speech. Because of this, one can get away with far more fiction in various forms of entertainment today than one can get away with in the world of politics or organized religion. Thank God! Brown may have built The Da Vinci Code out of a million little fabrications, but it conveys one huge truth: God is far too wonderful to be the sole possession of any individual or institution.
While in Paris on business, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon receives an urgent late-night phone call: the elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum. Near the body, police have found a baffling cipher. Solving the enigmatic riddle, Langdon is stunned to discover it leads to a trail of clues hidden in the works of Da Vinci…clues visible for all to see…and yet ingeniously disguised by the painter.
Langdon joins forces with a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, and learns the late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion—an actual secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci, among others. The Louvre curator has sacrificed his life to protect the Priory's most sacred trust: the location of a vastly important religious relic, hidden for centuries.
In a breathless race through Paris, London, and beyond, Langdon and Neveu match wits with a faceless power broker who appears to work for Opus Dei—a clandestine, Vatican-sanctioned Catholic sect believed to have long plotted to seize the Priory's secret. Unless Langdon and Neveu can decipher the labyrinthine puzzle in time, the Priory's secret—and a stunning historical truth—will be lost forever.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.