Cracking the code of Da Vinci's popularity

Cracking the code of Da Vinci's popularity

June 30, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

'Good Christians can be trusted to sift the gold from the sand'

Republican senators have now withdrawn their modified Tooth Fairy Plan to leave $100 gasoline tax rebate under every American's pillow. That leaves some in organized religion - eager to ban, burn, or bankrupt the soon-to-open movie of "The Da Vinci Code" - in sole possession of the dumbest idea of the season.

The book's plot falls into the you-can't-make-up category: that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene and that the Holy Grail is not a chalice but their bloodline. Their descendants now live - where else? - in France and the church has covered all this up, along with the female role in the origins of Christianity.

But, of course, novelist Dan Brown did make all this up. That is what fiction writer Andrew Greeley knows better than most reviewers. He writes that the Code is "fast-paced, intricately plotted," deserves to be a best-seller and "practically all of it is fantasy."

Conservative religious groups, ever the avant garde in defending the concrete and literal meaning of the Scriptures, have published books, launched websites, and deployed designated heavy theological hitters to decry the "errors" in Dan Brown's novel and criticize Brown himself as if he were an assistant to the anti-Christ.

Now that the movie is opening, sonorous Catholic voices are being raised, the loudest of which may be that of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, who claims "The Da Vinci Code" is part of a plot to build "a castle of lies" to negate the spiritual benefits of the Vatican's Jubilee Year 2000 celebrations.

"Don't read it," the Cardinal urges, "and don't buy it."

Vatican-based Cardinal Francis Arinze urges people to sue those responsible for the book's attacks on Catholicism. Bertone's timing is bad since 25 million copies of the book have already been published in 42 languages. Before filing a suit, Arinze should remember that the last people who took Dan Brown to court lost and must now pay $2.4 million of the publisher's legal bill.

Even though this frenzy of self-righteousness will sell more books and movie tickets, it will not discourage other church officials from condemning first and asking questions later. Thoughtful bishops, however, will worry less about the novel's inaccuracies and more about why the book has touched a resonant chord among so many readers.

Great mythic themes cannot be fully disguised or blunted no matter how they are appropriated or stretched to serve the imaginative needs of any author. It's the same with a song whose words may be trite but whose melody transmits a message about love or loss that touches people deeply and sticks with them for life.

That's why this book can be "beach reading" on the surface level and a story for all seasons on another. Indeed, Brown, throwing everything into a boiling plot, may not have realized how some of his motifs would affect readers. We all respond when somebody - a writer, an artist, a filmmaker - expresses symbolically what we feel but have not been able to put into words for ourselves.

Perhaps "The Da Vinci Code," like the songs of medieval troubadours that made people aware of romantic love, expresses out-loud subjects that have roiled in the unconscious of good Christians for a long time.

One of these is the subjugation that women have experienced in the practical order of authority and power in the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. That this bureaucracy supposedly covered up the love relationship of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is nonsense. Nonetheless, it is a powerful device that expresses the control that church officials have exercised over sexuality, making millions feel guilty just for being normal, healthy human beings.

Good Christians can be trusted to sift the gold from the sand in this much maligned book/movie. "The Da Vinci Code" reminds good Catholics that the Vatican bureaucracy is to the church - the people of God - what the crumpled architect's drawings are to the glories of the Chartres Cathedral.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a cultural commentator for Religion News Service, is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago. 

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