The movie fades up to the hushed tones of violins, the camera moving dreamlike through long hallways in an enormous, darkened museum. A guard walks in the distance. We pause; the camera pans left. Before us, next to a sign written in French, is the “Mona Lisa.” She looks down on us with a combination of amusement and—is it fear? Onward, past Christ on the Cross, Mary Magdalene at the tomb. A small light appears in the distance, perhaps an office of some kind. We approach, the music building, while a cryptogram appears in the center of the screen. Its strange characters spin slowly, fade and change, while the music quickens. Before us lies a small den off the shadowy corridors. The symbols slowly form letters; the violins grow shrill. An older man sits beneath bookshelves at a wooden desk lit by a single lamp. The music races; he looks up. Words emerge: The Da Vinci Code. As horror dawns upon his face, the strings quit. He raises his arm, as though to block a blow. Cut to black.
Next May, coming to a theater near you and everyone else in the world, “The Da Vinci Code” will be released. Starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou and directed by Ron Howard, the film is a guaranteed blockbuster: sex, suspense, secrecy and Catholicism. Take a seat, boys and girls, ’cuz this one’s got it all.
As this juggernaut approaches, it seems a good time to consider what we might learn from the great interest shown in The Da Vinci Code, the novel by Dan Brown on which the film is based, by adult Catholics over these last 18 months. What does people’s ongoing fascination with this wacky story of the Knights Templar, Opus Dei and the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Christ tell us? Further, what opportunities, if any, will the coming year of media buzz and blitz offer? Some bishops and a number of church organizations have condemned the book as heretical; most scholars have scoffed at its outlandish historical claims. Yet neither of these approaches has adequately attended to the sustained interest the book has generated. The Da Vinci Code may be historical nonsense and, to some, religiously offensive, but the connection it has made with adult Catholics is undeniable. In my own experience leading talks on the book, I have found that people’s interest bespeaks a great hunger for conversation about the church and their own lived experience of the faith. Moreover, the successes and failures of different approaches to The Da Vinci Code offer some suggestions as to how the church might proceed in meeting those desires.
After being ordained a priest in the summer of 2003, I spent a year working as an associate pastor at the Gesu Parish in downtown Milwaukee, Wis. The Da Vinci Code emerged onto the scene sometime that fall. I was eager to do some lectures. The material was chic, hip and trendy; I had just finished studying theology. Time to rock and roll.
Yet my first experience of leading a talk was something of a stinker. An energetic, articulate crowd of about 70 people came to a luncheon at Marquette University, to which I had been invited to talk about the book. I began by letting the group share reactions and offer questions. It was a deluge. Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have children? Did Constantine try to suppress Jesus’ humanity? Do members of Opus Dei really beat themselves? Is that Mary Magdalene in Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”? Was she a prostitute? What’s the deal with the Knights Templar? Does Dan Brown hate the church? Why can’t women be priests? On and on and on.
Still, I had done plenty of research and had some snappy mini-lectures ready to go. In 10 minutes or less I could walk you through some of the major moments in early church history, highlighting in particular both the fact that the early church was a plurality of churches and practices (rather than “the church,” as we tend to imagine it), and the impact Constantine did (and did not) have on Christianity. I had a spiel on the gradual development of the New Testament canon and why the Gnostic gospels were excluded. I knew enough about Da Vinci to be dangerous, assorted nuts and bolts on the Knights Templar, lots on Mary Magdalene and plenty on Opus Dei. I even had handouts. Somebody get me a gold star!
The problem was, no one seemed that interested in what I had to say. Though I was answering people’s questions, generally my responses were met with polite resistance or glassy-eyed stares. Participants redirected explanations back onto possibilities (“But isn’t it possible they were married?”) or onto their own experience of the church today—the place of women, church teachings on sexuality, issues with ecclesial authority and the significance (or lack thereof) of Jesus’ sexual status.
Furthermore, I found that much of what I told them, they had already heard. Many of those in attendance had read reviews or books on The Da Vinci Code that quite clearly separated fact from fiction (as well as plenty of trash that didn’t); some had attended similarly focused lectures. Attitudes toward these lectures and toward articles that pooh-poohed the claims of the book were generally negative. At one gathering in Milwaukee, 500 people came on a weeknight to hear a local scholar discuss the text. You couldn’t ask for a better crowd. Yet afterwards parishioners spoke of it disparagingly. “What didn’t you like?” I asked. The persistent response: “He just talked. He didn’t let us speak.”
What was going on here? People said they had questions they wanted answered. But then when they were given answers, they weren’t satisfied.
‘Da Vinci’ and Donuts
I decided to do an experiment at my parish. I offered a two-hour session on The Da Vinci Code on a Saturday morning, called Da Vinci and Donuts. Though it was advertised as another one of these “Come and Get Your Questions Answered” roundups, I dispensed with the Q&A format. Instead, the morning was organized as small group/large group discussion built around three topics that I found people often brought up: their experience of the church today; truth and faith; and Mary Magdalene/the Gnostics. In each section I began by presenting a few open-ended questions for everyone to consider individually. These questions were tailored to fit the desire people seemed to have to explore possibilities and draw on their own experiences. Thus in the section on the church, I asked people to think of a story from their lives that embodied their lived experience of church; to come up with a definition of church as they saw it; and to describe in three adjectives or fewer the church as they wanted it to be 100 years from now. In the section on Mary Magdalene, people were asked to consider what they knew about Mary Magdalene and what difference it would make for them if Mary Magdalene and Jesus had been married.
After some quiet time to consider these questions, people turned to the other members of their table for extended small-group discussion. This was followed by large-group conversation, which I facilitated, noting patterns, challenging viewpoints and throwing in some of the research I had done.
This format proved a huge success. Small-group and large-group conversations among the 100 participants were so long and energetic that we went on for over two hours, and people inquired about further sessions on this topic or others. The room had a nice spirit about it, too; though people did not always agree, there was a lot of laughter among us and a sense of liberation. Again I noted the paradox—people came saying they wanted answers, but what they most seemed to appreciate was the opportunity to ask questions and explore possibilities without any final answers being given. To be able to say, “Well, what if Jesus was married?” without being dismissed or corrected proved such a radical experience for many that some worried that I would get into trouble for having allowed it to go on. At the same time, this format did not seem to encourage false conclusions about Jesus, the early church or the current hierarchy. No one left saying they now had the “real story” of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as lovers. As far as I could tell, they just wanted the chance to talk about it.
Adult Education Today
It is something of a commonplace in the church today to complain about religious education. Young adults today know nothing, so the argument goes, because the post-Vatican II religious educators replaced the catechism with a Wonder Bread faith, heavy on self-affirmation and light on anything else. God is Jesus in his Birkenstocks, surrounded by butterflies and rainbows, telling you it frankly doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you know in your heart of hearts that you’re O.K. I need a hug.
Undoubtedly, mistakes have been made in religious education programs. I certainly couldn’t tell you what we did in my C.C.D. classes; I seem to remember lots of glue on my hands. Yet much of this criticism forgets that the style and substance of education is always conditioned by one’s situation and stage of development. Our minds and our experiences are different at age 8 than at 16, and that affects both what we can understand and how we can understand it. Crayons and papier-mâché probably are part of the right way to reach many 8-year-olds, even if at 30 they may not be able to remember what they learned back then. Sixteen-year-olds come with different questions and ways of thinking and require new methods and different goals. So in parishes the preferred form of religious education for adolescents is often the youth group, which combines instruction with the sharing of personal experiences, with socializing, service work and sometimes just plain horsing around as a means to deepen one’s understanding and life of faith. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where I used to work in Red Cloud Indian School, the church youth group was famous for its frequent social outings; yet they were also well prepared for confirmation and formed a dependable support group for one another in dealing with the struggles of adolescence.
Adulthood involves a number of further stages of development, with their own issues and needs. As adults we continue to grow and change. We persistently face new experiences—falling in love; gaining and losing jobs; sustaining or failing at marriages; having children; illness; aging; the deaths of friends and family. And these events lead to new insights and provoke new questions, often the big unanswerables not easily resolved by Krispy Kremes and snappy patter. How am I to understand my own sexual impulses and experiences? What kind of God lets my child die? What is the purpose of my life? What is the role of different teachings of the church in my decisions? Who am I if I can no longer do my job, can no longer walk, can no longer remember so well? Why did my marriage fail? These are subjects that can only be mulled over. We talk, we wonder, we add new data here and there, and we settle things only gradually (if at all) and for ourselves.
Religious education remains important at any stage of life. But style and content must fit the stage. Adults are not blank slates; be they priests, theologians, homemakers or dentists, they come to the table with wisdom of their own to offer. Scholars in the field of education have long argued that adult learning requires an open sharing of experience and expertise. So the Catholic adults I have worked with on The Da Vinci Code sought forums in which to explore and discuss the matters of their lives and faith.
Given the excessive claims of the book, it makes sense that theologians and church leaders should look to respond to people’s questions with lectures and articles. Yet by and large I think this approach has missed the interest and needs of its audience. The Da Vinci Code has proven so abidingly popular because it raises many of the issues—authority, sexuality, the role of women, the person of Jesus, truth and secrecy—that adult Catholics yearn to discuss; and it does so in a provocative, open-ended way. The author, Dan Brown, deserves some sort of award for the further interest he himself has generated in interviews, responding to questions with the dramatic and simple declaration, “It’s all true.” But in my experience the book itself is less the actual subject of people’s attention than the occasion that speaks to their questions and longings. Adult Catholics do want to know about the Gnostics and Mary Magdalene and Constantine; but first and foremost, they seek opportunities to talk freely about their faith and the contemporary issues of their church.
It is worthwhile to consider what parish programs might currently meet such needs. The Little Rock Scripture Study program and other Scripture study packages certainly offer the possibility of an experience that well combines instruction, sharing and personal exploration. In some places these programs are very successful. Beyond them, however, there does not seem to be very much used. Furthermore, the insistence of some in the hierarchy on certain nondogmatic positions about which a variety of theologically acceptable positions are possible, without subsequent discussion or adequate explanation, has led to a sense among many Catholics that conversation is somehow sinful. In condemning The Da Vinci Code church officials and groups risk reinforcing this sense that open discussion somehow constitutes an act of unfaithfulness.
The Da Vinci Code has lots of problems in its claims, and undoubtedly the film adaptation will share them. At the same time, Catholic dioceses and parishes would be wise to see the film as an opportunity. Adult Catholics want to talk about their faith. The Da Vinci Code is well suited to begin that conversation.