Friday, May 19, 2006

Is The Da Vinci Code dangerous?

From an article on the Sojourners' newsletter, on their website. This sums it up.

Is The Da Vinci Code dangerous?

by Ryan McCarl SojoMail

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has topped bestseller lists, entertained millions of readers, and inspired a major film as well as a host of other books investigating whether the novel's so-called claims about history, art, mathematics, the Catholic Church, and Jesus Christ are true.

In addition to fans, the book has created some major enemies. The Catholic Church has suggested its followers boycott the movie set for release this week. Many evangelical groups are torn between supporting the boycott and using the film's release as a teaching moment to expound their own views of the truth. The New York Times reports that some prominent evangelicals, such as Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, are calling for Christians to see and discuss the movie.

But do Christians really have anything to fear from The Da Vinci Code? It is true that the novel's characters make assertions that challenge much conventional wisdom about Christian history and raise difficult issues for believers. But anyone who loses his or her faith by reading The Da Vinci Code, or any single book, needed a stronger foundation for his or her beliefs before reading it. "There is nothing in Christianity which is original," one character sneers - but the same could be said about the religious and historical speculations in the novel. Nearly all of the theories expounded by the book's characters have been around for some time, and the most book's most challenging assertions about history are familiar territory for students of theology and comparative religion.

For example, the novel is filled with assertions about the ubiquitous presence of pagan symbolism in Christian belief and practice. To the best of my knowledge, most of these claims are true - and while they can be uncomfortable for a believer to think about, they are basic facts that have been recognized and dealt with by countless theologians and apologists. One common idea is that such symbols were used as a bridge from paganism to Christianity, to aid the conversion process; another is that the common symbols are attempts to highlight a greater truth larger than any single religious tradition.

A second trouble-spot that the novel raises for believers is the reminder of how the books of the Bible were selected - not by any single individual, but over time by the decrees and votes of a number of scholars, translators, and councilors. The story of how the Bible came to take its various present shapes is fascinating, but it poses problems for the minority of Christians who accept the Bible word-for-word as literally true and complete - as "arrived by fax from heaven," as a character in The Da Vinci Code says. It poses no such problems to most modern Christian thinkers, who understand the crucial role of metaphor in the ancient texts and are willing to focus on the essential continuities of the texts rather than their contradictions.

A third challenging issue commonly referred to in the book is the often brutal and repressive history of the Catholic Church. Until very recently, the Vatican was as much a political power-player as any state or party, contending for influence not only in the spiritual realm of human affairs but also in the material and political realm. This, too, is not crazy blaspheme that originated with The Da Vinci Code - it is right out there, clear as day, in any European history book.

It is worth remembering, though, that our modern idea of church-state separation is relatively very new. Also, those who point accusing fingers at modern Catholics for the past sins of their church should ask themselves whether any similar human institution or ideology would have fared significantly better. Throughout history and today, in every time and place, there have also been countless groups, religious and secular, that have tried to monopolize truth. It is a nasty habit common to all humanity, not just to the Vatican.

It is a bit embarassing to see groups that claim to be the guardians of eternal, timeless truths prominently scrambling to suppress the popularity of a three-year-old thriller novel. If the fundamentals of Christian doctrine are true, then Christians should have no fear of discussing their faith and objections to it in the public and academic arena. Other claimants to truth - philosophers, writers, and scientists - have to do so on a regular basis.

If the tough questions are openly examined and discussed, the truth ought to prevail without the help of boycotts, political intervention, or force. As St. Paul advises us, "test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The Christian faith has survived a great many tests over the centuries, and it is hard to believe that a popular novel poses any threat to its survival; if anything, it is the shameful response of some Christian groups to anything that looks like a challenge that makes the church lose credibility in the eyes of the public.

Ryan McCarl is a Christian theology student at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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