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3 — The Da Vinci Code

codeIntroduction

This is a revision of a page that was on my Tripod English and ESL pages. You really should get The Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code by Michael Haag and Veronica Haag. It begins with a clear account of what The Da Vinci Code is actually about, then goes on systematically and very convincingly to sort truth from falsehood. Quite a few things coincide with what I have said here, but this book is much more systematic. We also get information on all the places mentioned in the novel, and an account of Dan Brown’s other work. Excellent! See also a good article on the movie by American writer Brian McLaren: Sojourners: Brian McLaren on The Da Vinci Code.

For many readers, me included, The Da Vinci Code is fun to read. It has also generated much interest in the art, history, and theology that it makes use of; even if there is much to worry about in The Da Vinci Code, as you will see, I do enjoy a good thriller or a good piece of crime fiction: Michael Connelly, for example, who is (in my opinion) a much better writer than Dan Brown.

templarI did enjoy The Da Vinci Code at a basic thriller level – there are plenty of twists and turns, if many are unlikely. Brown’s repertoire in characterisation is limited to cardboard cut-outs and grotesques, or both in combination. The time-frame – the whole thing takes place in a period of about thirty-six hours and spans two countries – strains even the most willing suspension of disbelief. Is this fiction for the reality TV generation, for the conspiracy theory buff, for the spiritually deracinated and the gullible? Or is that too cruel of me?

Some of you may have seen The Real Da Vinci Code on ABC TV. There is a very interesting website on UK Channel Four you might visit: Weird World Presents: The Real Da Vinci Code.

You might like to compare this page with Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, The Last Supper by Lisa Shea.

Do check too Wikipedia: The Da Vinci Code.

Thanks to Dwayne Willis who sent me an email I received on 10 February 2006, suggesting I look at this Reader’s Guide on altreligion.about.com. It looks very comprehensive (and very long!) so I haven’t been able to check it all out, but I suggest you have a look at it.

Novels like The Da Vinci Code do have a serious down-side: they could be said to pollute the cultural stream. This is not a matter of snobbishness; I don’t feel the same about the even more successful Harry Potter series.

What worries me is that anyone seduced by the inanities of The Da Vinci Code could be equally prepared to accept truly vile things like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s a habit of mind, you see.

In a completely different context, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an African-American political analyst, describes the cultural milieu in which books like The Da Vinci Code, or its progenitor Holy Blood, Holy Grail, flourish:

The conspiracy bug has long bit many Americans. There are packs of groups that span a political spectrum of extreme rightists, Aryan Nation racists, Millennium Christian fundamentalists, leftist radicals, and fraternal lodges and societies. Their internet sites bristle with purported official documents that detail and expose these alleged plots. These groups and thousands of individuals believe that government, corporate, or international Zionist groups busily hatch secret plots, and concoct hidden plans to wreak havoc on their lives. Hollywood and the TV industry have also horned in on the conspiracy act. They churn out countless movies and TV shows in which shadowy, government groups topple foreign governments, assassinate government leaders, and brainwash operatives to do dirty deeds.

Let’s face it, this is fertile ground for many a thriller writer, but there is the question of a responsible attitude to history and the methods of history here. Even writers of fiction have a responsibility to write with integrity, especially when their work touches, or allegedly touches, on crucial historical facts. Dan Brown doesn’t.

NOTE

* Early Christian Writings is the most complete collection of documents from the first two centuries with translations and commentary. Includes the New Testament, Apocrypha, Gnostics, and Church Fathers. The “Early Christian Writings: New Testament, Apocrypha, Gnostics, Church Fathers” site is copyright © 2001-2006 Peter Kirby.

In 2004 Umberto Eco wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Path to the truth is littered with useful failures.”

…these days, in order to substitute a whole series of ideologies in crisis, some people are flirting more and more with a school of thought according to which the course of history is not leading us closer and closer to the Truth.

According to these people all that there is to understand has already been understood by long vanished ancient civilisations and it is only by humbly returning to that traditional and immutable treasure that we may reconcile ourselves with ourselves and with our destiny.

In the most overtly occultist versions of this school of thought, the Truth was cultivated by civilisations we have lost touch with: Atlantis engulfed by the ocean, the Hyperboreans, 100 per cent pure Aryans who lived on an eternally temperate polar icecap, the sages of ancient India, and other amusing yarns that, being indemonstrable, allow third-rate philosophers and writers of potboilers to keep on churning out warmed over versions of the same old hermetic hogwash for the amusement of holiday readers…

That last sentence exactly captures my quarrel with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. “The same old hermetic hogwash.” Indeed so.

cocteau

The so-called Priory of Sion and the pseudohistory of Holy Blood, Holy Grail

Dan Brown alleges that Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963) (artwork above) was a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. I prefer to think of him merely as an eminent avant-garde artist and film-maker singularly well represented on postage stamps. Flirted with the Nazis though.

Oh and the Priory? See: Letters dating from the 1960s written by Pierre Plantard, Philippe de Cherisey and Gerard de Sede to each other confirm that the three were engaging in an out-and-out confidence trick, describing schemes on how to combat criticisms of their various allegations and how they would make-up new allegations to try and keep the whole thing going – these letters (over 100 of them) are in the possession of French researcher Jean-Luc Chaumeil, who has also retained the original envelopes. Jean-Luc Chaumeil during the 1970s was part of the Priory of Sion cabal and wrote books and articles about Plantard and the Priory of Sion before splitting from it during the late 1970s and exposing Pierre Plantard’s past in French books.”

Fake, the whole thing. You may learn more about the supposed “Priory of Sion” in Beyond “The Da Vinci Code”: What is the Priory of Sion? Who wrote this site? “The Center for Studies on New Religions, was established in 1988 by a group of religious scholars from leading universities in Europe and the Americas. Its managing director, professor Massimo Introvigne, has held teaching positions in the field of sociology and history of religion in a number of Italian universities. He is the author of twenty-three books and the editor of another ten in the field of religious sciences.” What do they conclude? “No serious scholar has ever regarded the documents as anything else than a 20th century fabrication.” See also: Massimo Introvigne, “The Da Vinci Code FAQ, or Will the Real Priory of Sion Please Stand Up?”

See also from Wikipedia: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the prime source of pseudohistory drawn on by Dan Brown. See also holy blood, holy grail from that fascinating site on human gullibility and “news, politics, conspiracy and weirdness”, Disinformation. Further reading of this Wikipedia site will show more.

leonardo

Leonardo and other wonders

Dan Brown’s slick website: see Dan claim that “the secret behind The Da Vinci Code was too well documented and significant for me to dismiss” while also claiming to be a sceptic. See him assert: “The secret described in the novel has been chronicled for centuries, so there are thousands of sources to draw from. In addition, I was surprised how eager historians were to share their expertise with me. One academic told me her enthusiasm for The Da Vinci Code was based in part on her hope that ‘this ancient mystery would be unveiled to a wider audience’.” See him talk about “true facts!”)

I long ago gave up the purist view, aka “Leavisite”, that one should only read Shakespeare (and even then not all the plays) and a handful of “great writers”. Critique of “the Canon” is well made. See George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University, for a pretty good argument on this. At the same time I think the object of a humanist education is to provide one with “a built- in, shockproof crap detector” as Ernest Hemingway so famously put it. Mine went into meltdown while reading The Da Vinci Code.

For even more crap detection, read Sandra Miesel “Dismantling The Da Vinci Code” in Crisis Magazine: “…So error-laden is The Da Vinci Code that the educated reader actually applauds those rare occasions where Brown stumbles (despite himself) into the truth. A few examples of his ‘impeccable’ research: He claims that the motions of the planet Venus trace a pentacle (the so-called Ishtar pentagram) symbolizing the goddess. But it isn’t a perfect figure and has nothing to do with the length of the Olympiad. The ancient Olympic games were celebrated in honor of Zeus Olympias, not Aphrodite, and occurred every four years.” Yes, I know Crisis is a Catholic magazine, but the article seems better researched than Dan Brown’s book to this reader…

Mind you, even I can see the person on Jesus’ right in Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” looks female, and that M-shape at the centre of the composition does hit the eye…

Of course, it is actually a rather feminine-looking Apostle John. See Is that John or Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper? This could be an artistic figure for John’s more inward “feminine” persona. Or maybe Leonardo, who was not above gender-bending – there is that theory that Mona Lisa is a boy after all – went along with that other idea that John (the “beloved disciple”) and Jesus were, well, close… But probably not. As theories go, it is just as believable (or not) as the Mary Magdalene thesis seized on by Dan Brown.

And the “M”? Just vectors, I would have thought, drawing attention to the figure of Jesus, especially to his hands and, perhaps, the dish and chalice (which Brown says is not there) in front of him. Go to “The Last Supper” after cleaning for a really big image of the painting, or go to Milan. 😉

lastsupper

The Last Supper – image on snopes.com where you can read another urban myth about the painting.

Iambic pentameter? fact versus over-ripe fantasy

I have not read for years anything as pathetically silly as Brown’s attempt to explain the significance of iambic pentameter – the most common metre in English verse but not in Italian – as having something to do with the Templars and the suppressed goddess religion.

Before Langdon could even ponder what ancient password the verse was trying to reveal, he felt something far more fundamental resonate within him – the metre of the poem. Iambic pentameter. Langdon had come across this metre often over the years while researching secret societies across Europe, including just last year in the Vatican Secret Archives. For centuries, iambic pentameter had been a preferred poetic metre of outspoken literati across the globe, from the ancient Greek writer Archilochus to Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and Voltaire – bold souls who chose to write their social commentaries in a metre that many of the day believed had mystical properties. The roots of iambic pentameter were deeply pagan.

Iambs. Two syllables with opposite emphasis. Stressed and unstressed. Yin yang. A balanced pair. Arranged in strings of five. Pentameter. Five for the pentacle of Venus and the sacred feminine.

‘It’s pentameter!” Teabing blurted, turning to Langdon. ‘And the verse is in English! La lingua pura!

This is purest poppycock. It happens to be the metre nearest to the speech rhythms of English, that’s all, and also, some say, may relate to the heartbeat – but even that is speculation. It has absolutely nothing to do with yin and yang or the divine feminine.

And then on the same page to be rabbiting on about English being a mystically pure language (lingua pura). Look in any history of English.

The Divine Feminine

See a rather odd review on Sancta Sophia.org.

Of course there are good reasons to explore the concept of the divine feminine if only as a counter to the patriarchal assumptions behind so much traditional Western religion. An episode of the ABC’s Compass on the Witch Craze in King James VI’s Scotland certainly gave me a lot of food for thought in that regard. It was a hell of a lot less dishonest than The Da Vinci Code too, even if it used fictional tropes to make its point.

An article in The New Yorker in February 2006 is well worth reading for its insight into the history of women in Christianity and the role and representation of Mary Magdalene in particular. Joan Acocella, “The Saintly Sinner”, is a fascinating history of the representations of and place of Mary Magdalene in church history. It is of course inspired by the success of The Da Vinci Code. It is no less fascinating than The Da Vinci Code, but rather more reliable. Just a taste:

Jesus, for his time and place, was notably unsexist. In Samaria, when he talked with the woman at the well; this is the longest personal exchange he has with anyone in the Bible — his disciples “marvelled”; a Jewish man did not, in public, speak to a woman unrelated to him. In another episode, in Luke, Jesus is dining with Simon the Pharisee when a “woman in the city,” a “sinner” — presumably a prostitute –enters the house, washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them, and then anoints them with balm from a jar. Simon says to Christ that if he can accept that tribute from such a person then he is surely not a prophet. Christ answers that the “sinner” has shown him more love than Simon has.According to some scholars, Christ’s equanimity regarding gender was honored in some early Christian communities, where women served as leaders. But by the second century, as the so-called “orthodox Church” consolidated itself, the women were being shunted aside, along with the thing that they were increasingly seen to stand for: sex. It was not until the twelfth century that all Roman Catholic priests were absolutely required to be celibate, but the call for celibacy began sounding long before, and the writings of the Church fathers were very tough on sex. By the fourth century, Christ’s mother was declared a virgin. Chastity became the ideal; women, the incitement to unchastity, were stigmatized.

The “Tetragrammaton” or Name of God: more dubious scholarship on this and other matters

p. 411 The Jewish tetragrammaton YHWH – the sacred name of God – in fact derived from Jehovah, an androgynous physical union between the masculine Jah and the pre-Hebraic name for Eve, Havah.

I don’t think so. “Jehovah: An artificially constructed name for Israel’s God first attested to in sixteenth-century CE Christian texts… Renaissance Christian tradition erroneously combined the consonants of Yahweh and the vowels of ‘adonai [Lord] to produce ‘Jehovah’…” – The Oxford Companion to the Bible. See also Tetragrammaton. That links you to the gnostic sources for Brown’s half-baked gee-whizzery.

Responsible scholarship on the origins of Christianity

There are many scholarly approaches from radical to quite conservative which do embrace responsible historical methodology. If you want to know what real scholarship on Christian origins looks like, go to Burton L Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? for example, or from another perspective, the impeccably researched studies of Geza Vermes. Yes, there are responsible sources on the Bible and the origins of Christianity. Here are just two, both secular. The Bible And Christianity – The Historical Origins by Scott Bidstrup is actually rather good. Christianity’s origins in ancient Pagan religion is somehow connected to responsible scholarship at least, even if very controversial and speculative, in my view. See also Wikipedia. This is excellent. Believers, please note, may not agree with everything on these sites. You will find critiques below that reflect a believer’s viewpoint.

See: – The Da Vinci Code: The facts behind the fiction. (Catholic Education Office USA, but pretty good.)
“‘Da Vinci Code’ sets a record, inspires a genre” (Christian Science Monitor March 19, 2004.) “‘The Da Vinci Code’: A Brilliantly Crafted Deception” is from an evangelical perspective. They would have no truck with any theory that would oppose a non-divine Jesus to the Biblical (or allegedly Biblical) one of course. However, they have little trouble tearing Brown into shreds, so it is worth it.

“Cracks in the Da Vinci Code” by Ronald V. Huggins, B.F.A., Th.D. is also good.

The mere fact that I’m a historian of early Christianity does not mean I don’t like picking up an occasional pulp-thriller, checking my brains at the door, and spending a couple of evenings riding a surging wave of cheesy prose down an implausible course of events that eventually breaks with the bad guy getting his comeuppance, and the good guy getting whatever it was he was looking for, and the girl he was looking for it with.When one is in my position, as a historian that is, one must learn early on, if one wants to embark on such escapist adventures, to wink at great heaping multitudes of blatant historical errors. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is fantastic as a flash-in-the-pan pulp thriller. It takes you on a white-knuckle ride, without ever once distracting you with a well-turned phrase or a round character. Not only so, but its plot is also a good deal tighter than many of its market competitors. Still the only reason I can conceive of anyone wanting to do The Da Vinci Code twice is that they forgot what it was about…

The author is a traditional Christian believer, but even so he is well-informed enough to challenge The Da Vinci Code from a reasonable historical perspective.

The Australian Jesuit magazine Eureka Street has a good article by Michael McGirr, “DAN AND MEL GET RELIGION – While Dan Brown and Mel Gibson can draw a crowd, Michael McGirr finds their stories still miss the mark…”

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code also provides food for thought. It is a little difficult to account for the runaway success of this rather ham-fisted thriller. The Da Vinci Code uses stock characters, such as a stereotypical eccentric Englishman, Leigh Teabing, and many of the narrative devices of pulp fiction. …The Da Vinci Code is based mainly around the idea, by no means new, that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus, that they had children and that their bloodline has continued in secret unto today. One of the phrases that recurs throughout the book is ‘the sacred feminine’. It is this which has drawn people to the book and for good reason.

Brown’s readers include many refugees from a male-dominated church which has undermined its own integrity by the way it has written women into the lesser parts of its tradition. Mary Magdalene, disguised as a man, is said to be the 13th disciple in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. It is her need to disguise as a man which encapsulates the book’s real concern. The Da Vinci Code is a polemic against boys’ own Christianity…

McGirr is probably right about the appeal of the book to some feminist readers. Of course I would tend to see this as commercial calculation on Brown’s part.

The September 2004 Quadrant, a conservative Australian magazine, has a review of The Da Vinci Code by D L Lewis; Lewis is much kinder to the novel than I am: “Like most good novels, it does make you think.” However, when Lewis says the novel “seems impressive” in its “breadth of research”, I would obviously claim Lewis is being far too kind.

On my Blogspot blog in October 2005 I wrote:

I cited this review in my own Da Vinci hogwash page last year. Imagine my surprise, then, on checking my emails a few days ago to find a letter from David Lewis: “I was looking at your site…, and saw that you have read my review of The Da Vinci Code. Thanks for quoting me, and I suspect I am kinder on the book than you are…” We have subsequently corresponded, and I referred David to this blog, which he checked yesterday, and to the rest of my ESL and English pages. Very kindly he wrote last night: “Your site is terrific. Will look in on it from time to time!”So there you are, endorsed by a Quadrant writer!

And More!

Dismantling The Da Vinci Code – Gospel Fantasy by Mark S. Burrows. (Mark Burrows teaches the history of Christianity and directs the Program in Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Andover Newton Theological School.)

The Last Word: The Da Vinci Con by Laura Miller (“The New York Times”, February 22, 2004).

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One response to “3 — The Da Vinci Code

  1. owner

    July 31, 2008 at 10:54 am

     
 
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