First a confession: I did not want to write this article. Working as an editor at a Catholic magazine, I have grown tired of reading articles about The Da Vinci Code. Every week brings another book or essay detailing the errors of Dan Brown’s bestseller, which now boasts 40 million copies sold. With the release of Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the book this month, this river of material has grown into a flood. I shouldn’t complain. Back when The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, I wrote an article about the book, too. At the time it had not received much attention for its unorthodox views about Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene and the Catholic Church. (For those of you who have been in solitary confinement: the book centers on a church conspiracy to hide the fact that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and that their descendants still inhabit the earth. The crusade to eradicate this secret is led by an Opus Dei bishop and an albino monk.) It may be unfashionable to admit it, but I liked the book, although I found its theories about Jesus and the church utterly fantastic. In preparing that first article, I sent a message by e-mail to Martin Marty at the University of Chicago, who told me that these conspiracy theories have been around for years, and there is no hint of a clue or a whisper of evidence to support them. The Da Vinci Code, I wrote, was Elaine Pagels for the Robert Ludlum set. That, I thought, was that.
Needless to say, my 800-word article did little to slow Brown’s juggernaut. The book continues to sell extraordinarily well. Almost every time I board the subway, I spot someone with a copy in hand. Meanwhile, travel companies offer Da Vinci Code tours of Europe, and churches and universities across the country draw hundreds of people to lectures on the book. The Da Vinci Code has even turned some scholars into minor celebrities. According to one university professor, I could give a talk on the origins of Christianity and I’d get 20 people to show up. If I give the same talk on The Da Vinci Code, 200 show up.
Why is the book so popular? Why are so many Catholics, who are neither gullible nor unintelligent, convinced it is true? And why do they hold on to this belief even when presented with considerable evidence to the contrary? The scores of books and articles debunking, decoding and dismantling the book have done little to diminish its popularity. There is no single answer to these questions, but there are a number of interesting theories. Here are a few.
The Appeal of The Code
1. Secrets and lies. People like being in on a secret, especially one that has been kept hidden for centuries. People also like a good conspiracy theory, and The Da Vinci Code delivers a whopper. As one character says in the movie, What if the greatest story ever told was a lie?
2. History is messy. The Da Vinci Code is not. Church history is an extraordinarily rich and complex field. Scholars spend decades trying to understand the shifts, both minute and seismic, that have altered the course of Christian history. Because of its complexityand, let’s face it, because it can be slightly boringnot many Catholics immerse themselves in the finer points of the Council of Nicea or Athanasius’ arguments on the divinity of Christ. The Da Vinci Code, on the other hand, offers a straightforward narrative devoid of the nuance that can make Christian history difficult to wade through. No wonder some people find Brown’s version of it compelling.
3. Jesus as husband. Peter Steinfels has written that one reason for the drop in priestly and religious vocations was the Second Vatican Council’s elevation of marriage to a calling equal to the religious life. As a result, the priesthood lost its exalted status, and many more people chose marriage over ordained ministry. In this context, it is easier to understand why many Christians like the idea that Jesus was a husband and father. If marriage can be a holy endeavor, as spiritually fulfilling as the celibate life, why should we be shocked to learn that Jesus was married? As one character says in Howard’s movie: Why couldn’t Jesus be a father and still be capable of all those miracles?
4. Women and the church. One of the revelations of The Da Vinci Code is that the Holy Grail is not actually a cup at all, but the symbol of a cult of the lost sacred feminine rooted out by the early church. As Robert Langdon, one of the novel’s protagonists, explains: The Grail is symbolic of the lost goddess. When Christianity came along, the old pagan religions did not die easily. Legends of chivalric quests for the Holy Grail were in fact stories of forbidden quests to find the lost sacred feminine. Knights who claimed to be searching for the chalice’ were speaking in code as a way to protect themselves from a church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.
This passage may seem like ridiculous conspiracy-mongering, but I suspect the notion that the church subjugated women resonates with many women today. The book also proposes that there is a parallel (though small) Christian community that venerates Mary Magdalene and seeks to protect her descendants. While women may not buy the notion that there was an institutional plot to banish the Goddess, they might find something attractive about a Christian community that reveres the feminine.
5. Timing. The publication of The Da Vinci Code took place in 2003, just one year after the damaging reports of sexual abuse by priests. For months Catholics heard and read about bishops who sought to cover up a damaging truth. It’s not surprising that a book that details another kind of coverup resonated with readers, and not just Catholic readers. In a lecture at Fordham University on The Da Vinci Code, Mark Massa, S.J., argued that a deep anti-Catholic prejudice still exists in this country and that there have always been books that cater to this audience. Massa calls this genre The Real Truth About What the Catholic Church Has Been Hiding for Centuries. An earlier book of this sort was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hôtel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, which chronicled sexual escapades that supposedly occurred behind convent walls. Like The Da Vinci Code, it was a big bestsellerthe second highest of the 19th century, behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
6. Don’t read this book. People flock to movies or plays that have been condemned by the church. Whether it is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or the television show Nothing Sacred, people are naturally curious to learn what the fuss is about. And this isn’t true only for Catholics. As one person noted in an online debate about The Da Vinci Code, The fact that Catholics don’t want you to read this book is precisely why my mother, a Unitarian, read it.
7. The church is in on it. James Martin, S.J., tells a good Da Vinci Code story. A member of one parish once asked him what he thought of the book. When Martin laid out the inaccuracies, the person responded, "Well, I guess you have to say that. The Da Vinci Code is bulletproof. It lays out a vast conspiracy, and then explains that any attempt to debunk this conspiracy is just part of a larger conspiracy." So when priests, or even lay Catholic professors or experts, criticize the inaccuracies of the book, they are seen as biased.
8. Suspicion of institutions. Americans are naturally suspicious of institutions, especially those that seek to mediate their relationship with God. This country was founded by Protestants who believed that the individual’s encounter with God took precedence over the communal Christian experience. These Christians have always been suspicious of the Catholic Church. Why, they wonder, does one need a priest or pope as a go-between for the believer and Jesus? According to The Da Vinci Code, not only has the Catholic Church failed to bring believers closer to God, it has actively sought to hide the real truth about Jesus.
And Now, the Movie
After much anticipation, Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the novel opened in mid-May to middling reviews. A. O. Scott of The New York Times called it busy, trivial, and inoffensive, and joked that all films about the Holy Grail should be left to Monty Python. The film is a snooze, largely because the screenwriters tried to cram as much of Brown’s book as possible onto the screen. Summer movies are meant to be exercises in escapism, yet Howard’s feels like one long lecture by a professor who has his facts all wrong. (The filmmakers do deserve some praise for adding an amusing scene between an Opus Dei bishop and his press consultant, who coaches him on how to deal with the hostile media.)
One moment at the end of the film (not in the book) hints at why The Da Vinci Code may be so popular. Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard professor caught up in the hunt for the Holy Grail, is talking with Sophie Neveu, a police cryptologist played by Audrey Tautou. Having solved the mystery of the Holy Grail, they take up the question of belief. The only thing that matters, Langdon says, is what you believe.
This could be the credo of many of Brown’s readers. Presented with facts about the book’s inaccuracies, they cling to a belief thatfor understandable reasonsthey find more appealing than the truth. This may outrage some people, but it should not surprise us.