“As long as there has been one true God,” Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) tells Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), “there has been killing in his name.”
You may have heard that the polytheist Romans were quite capable of killing monotheist Christians in the name of their own gods centuries before Christians were in any position to be killing anyone. According to Teabing, however, it was Christian atrocities against pagan Romans — not vice versa — that prompted the Emperor Constantine to decriminalize Christianity.
That’s right: Constantine’s 313 edict of toleration was intended to defuse intolerance by Christians against pagan Romans — not to end three centuries of pagan persecution of Christians. (Ironically, McKellen starred in X‑Men; had he watched the deleted scenes from that film, he might have learned from Storm’s lecture that it was the early Christians being persecuted by the pagan Romans until Constantine converted and legalized Christianity.)
Luckily, renowned Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is on hand to offer an opposing viewpoint. “We can’t be sure who began the atrocities,” he cautions. Now, that’s fair and balanced: We can’t be sure who started it. Nero, Diocletian, Galerius, all those early martyrs — it’s all such a muddle, who’s to say who was really persecuting whom?
In terms of early Christian history, this is not incomparable to Holocaust denial, to claiming that it was really the Jews who were oppressing the Nazis (or, at least, “we can’t be sure” who was persecuting whom). Yet the meme that “it’s only a movie” or “it’s just fiction” has largely obscured the fact that the conspiracy-theory conceits of The Da Vinci Code are by and large not novelist Dan Brown’s own flights of fancy, but are based on a lunatic-fringe view of history set forth in “non-fiction” books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Templar Revelation.
While these books have about as much credibility as the likes of Did Six Million Really Die? or The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, which is to say zero, many people who would find the raving antisemitism of the latter an insuperable obstacle in a thriller seem willing to overlook the raving anti-Catholicism of the former in The Da Vinci Code.
Imagine a popular thriller based on the version of history set forth in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with a secret cabal of Jewish leaders conspiring to destroy Christianity and establish a global government to rule the world.
Imagine, further, that the story suggested that for thousands of years ruthless Jewish conspirators had been systematically murdering the true heirs of Abraham (or Moses or David) in order to preserve the lie that Judaism is based on, covering up the “truth” (e.g., that Abraham had no special covenant with God and was actually an adherent to a Canaanite fertility cult, and the Hebrews are not God’s chosen people).
Finally, suppose that the filmmakers tried to suggest that all this was just harmless fiction, despite the fact that for years the author of the book had been alluding to the underlying facticity of the story. Would the claim that “It’s only a story” distract any thinking person from the inherent antisemitism of such a project?
A few years ago, the release of The Passion of the Christ generated much discussion and concern regarding the question of possible antisemitism in the film. Yet, perhaps strangely, while critical reception of The Da Vinci Code has so far not been kind, most reviews seem to be sticking to safe, uncontroversial charges that the film is “boring” and “talky,” while avoiding the more pressing question of anti-Catholicism.
Is The Da Vinci Code anti-Catholic? Well, if it isn’t, then we must simply conclude that no such thing as anti-Catholicism exists, or at least that no anti-Catholic movie has ever been made. I can think of religiously themed films more profoundly oppressive to Catholic sensibilities (e.g., The Last Temptation of Christ), and more searing indictments of corruption and abuse within the Church (e.g., The Magdalene Sisters). But The Da Vinci Code may be the most systematic and sustained cinematic debunking of the institutions of Catholic Christianity and the Catholic Church that I’ve ever seen. That it is risible and dim-witted doesn’t make it less disgusting.
What’s so inflammatory about it? Not just the suggestion that Jesus was merely human and not divine — as radically repugnant to Christian belief as that obviously is — or that he was married and had children. Not just the appropriation of heretical Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene in the name of a postmodern gnostic–neopagan rejection of Christian orthodoxy and the canonical Gospels. Not even just the suggestion that fanatical zealots within the clergy have carried out murderous campaigns in the name of their religion.
No, The Da Vinci Code not only indicts monotheism itself as synonymous with religious oppression and persecution, it casts Catholicism and the Catholic Church — not just hypocritical or abusive Catholics, but the actual institution itself — as inherently perverse and oppressive, maintaining its power solely by centuries of systematically murdering those who could expose the lies on which it is based.
How does the movie compare to the book? Have screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard taken concerns or objections regarding the book into account? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking — but not in a good way.
Ever since the book came out, members of the Catholic prelature Opus Dei — dismayed by Brown’s portrayal of the group as a fanatical, shadowy “sect” or “congregation” characterized by brainwashing, coercion, and self-mutilation — have been trying to get the word out that the book’s lurid fantasies have no basis in reality.
Insidiously, the film absorbs this message into the Da Vinci Worldview. In an early scene, when we meet Opus Dei Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina, Spider‑Man 2), he’s on a plane rehearsing talking points intended to defend Opus Dei against critics. Opus Dei simply rejects “cafeteria Catholicism,” he says benignly, while his aide recommends he avoid sounding defensive. It sounds precisely like the message the real Opus Dei has been trying to put across — or for that matter what any serious Catholic would say about his faith. You see, that’s what they want you to think.
In a similar vein, protagonist Langdon has been subtly reworked from an outspoken proponent of Da Vinci esoterica into a more skeptical, ostensibly neutral scholar who mouths many of the objections Brown’s critics have been making, putting the burden of the Da Vinci worldview onto Teabing. Now we have Langdon arguing that the Priory of Sion is “a myth” and “a hoax,” while Teabing actually gets the line, “That’s what they want you to think.”
A few critics have interpreted this as a concession to Christian concerns, but the actual effect is precisely the reverse: It essentially undermines critical objections by incorporating them into the film’s overall picture and then seeming to rebut them as Langdon is gradually converted to Teabing’s point of view.
Some Christians have optimistically hoped that The Da Vinci Code might provide a potential opportunity for dialogue and discussion about Jesus with people who might not otherwise be open to such discussions. Yet if anything the film seems calibrated precisely to inoculate viewers against any such discussion — to leave viewers with a skeptical agnosticism about efforts to set the record straight as all part of the conspiracy, “what they want you to think” (or “we can’t be sure”).
The Da Vinci Code throws so much mud around that at least some of it is likely to stick in viewers’ minds. Was Constantine really a lifelong pagan who invented the doctrine of the deity of Christ and compiled the Bible as we know it? Did the Church really declare Mary Magdalene to be a prostitute in 591? Was Sir Isaac Newton really persecuted over his theories of gravitation, the way we all “know” Galileo was for his heliocentrism (or not)?
How many viewers will have any idea about all these questions? There are so many specifics, so much information, surely some of it has to be true, or is likely be true, or could be true. Or at least, “we can’t be sure.”
Most viewers will probably assume that Opus Dei doesn’t really have monk assassins (or for that matter any monks at all). Yet the general impression of something shadowy and unsettling about the group is likely to remain in their minds.
Beyond that, on an imaginative level, there is a sense in which the film’s relentless association of Catholic imagery — crucifixes, clergy, churches — with pervasive creepiness and depravity amounts to a kind of aesthetic slur that is hard to counter with mere arguments or talking points.
Astonishingly, after a 2½‑hour seminar on the evils of monotheism, Christianity, and the Catholic Church, The Da Vinci Code tries to have its cake and eat it too, as Langdon suggests to Sophie that “What really matters is what you believe,” even questioning whether exploding the “greatest cover-up in history” would really be such a good thing after all: Does Sophie want to “destroy faith or renew it?”
It almost sounds as if Langdon is saying, “So Christianity is a lie — let the Christians have their lie, if that’s what makes them happy.” Whatever happened to “For 2000 years the Church has rained oppression and suffering on mankind”?
Is it possible to put all this aside and just enjoy the story as a thriller, an enjoyable yarn? I honestly have no idea how people can take that approach.
Catholic writer Mark Shea tells an anecdote about a college bull session among students at Central Washington University over The Da Vinci Code. “Even if it’s just fiction,” a student opined, “it’s still interesting to think about.”
To which another student replied: “Your mother’s a whore.” And then, to the first student’s stunned incredulity, he added, “And even if that’s just fiction, it’s still interesting to think about.”
Once you’ve established that your story is set in a world in which Jesus Christ is explicitly not God, and the Catholic religion is a known fraud perpetuated by murder and cover-ups, it sort of sucks the wind out of whatever story it was you were going to tell us next. Langdon could be ironing his chinos and helping little old ladies across the street, and it would still be set in that world, and those of us who care about such things will find it hard to bracket that and just go along with the thrill machine.
When Sony Pictures, the production company behind the hit film The Da Vinci Code and the new sequel Angels & Demons, reached out to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN management in Geneva saw a high-profile teachable moment for science.
In a Q&A billed as an “interview” on his own website, Brown writes (in a comment recently highlighted by Carl Olson in This Rock), “My goal is always to make the character’s [sic] and plot be so engaging that readers don’t realize how much they are learning along the way.” Or how much misinformation they’re absorbing.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.