I was on the road a lot during Lent. And from sea to shining sea, nary an airport bookstore was without a Da Vinci Code display, in anticipation of the May release of Ron Howard’s film. One tries to ignore the hype — “the greatest cover-up in history!” — but there’s something depressing going on here. Why do intelligent people think that The Da Vinci Code has some basis in historical fact? Why do Catholics imagine that a novel which suggests (and not so subtly) that the entire structure of faith is a lie is, well, no big deal?
The good news, though, is that the film’s release is a great opportunity for bishops, priests, and deacons to dedicate Eastertide 2006 to preaching the truth of Christian history.
One of the reasons why so many Catholics have been vulnerable to the novel’s preposterous claims is that most Catholics are woefully ignorant of the Church’s history. How, for example, did the original Christian confession about Jesus of Nazareth — “Jesus is Lord” — came to doctrinal articulation in the Nicene Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in Being with the Father”? If you don’t know, at least in broad strokes, how the Creed of the Council of Nicaea came to express the New Testament faith of the Church, you’re going to be vulnerable to Dan Brown’s risible suggestion that it was all imperial politics in the age of Constantine. So I can well imagine a month’s worth of sermons on the development of Christology, the Church’s theology of Jesus as Son of God.
Then there’s the question of the integrity of the New Testament itself. The historical-critical method of Biblical analysis has immeasurably increased our knowledge of the Bible. Yet, filtered through inadequate homiletics and catechetics, historical-critical readings of the New Testament have also created suspicion about the historical reliability of the Gospels in many minds. “That’s just a story,” is a phrase too often encountered in casual discussions about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ. Yet I think it’s safe to assume that the Second Vatican Council didn’t reclaim the Bible for the people of the Church so that the people of the Church could learn to be suspicious about the Bible.
I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican exegete N.T. Wright as an antidote to this suspiciousness, and let me do so again: if there is one book to give a friend troubled by The Da Vinci Code and its portrait of the life of Jesus, it’s Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press), in which impeccable, contemporary scholarship is deployed to defend the historicity of the Gospels, including the historicity of the resurrection. Based on a set of lectures Dr. Wright gave for evangelical leaders in the late 1990s, The Challenge of Jesus is accessible to any intelligent reader, and provides a far more fascinating account of the complexities of Jewish life and messianic expectation at the time of Jesus than anything to be found in Dan Brown’s fevered imagination.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Web site, www.Jesusdecoded.com, that’s full of resources for those who want to turn the Da Vinci Code fuss into an evangelical and catechetical opportunity. In addition to a devastating critique of Brown’s understanding of Leonardo da Vinci by Elizabeth Lev, the Web site includes a very useful “When they say…you say…” essay by Catholic author and blogger Amy Welborn, “What Do You Say to a Da Vinci Code Believer?” Ms. Welborn is always interesting and always feisty: for example, “There is enough truth in The Da Vinci Code to be seriously misleading. Yes, the sources, like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and The Templar Revelation, exist. But they don’t reflect serious historical scholarship. You’re not going to find a university history department on the planet that uses the works that provide the meat of The Da Vinci Code theories as part of the syllabus.” Indeed.
Got lemons? Make lemonade. The Da Vinci Code is an opportunity waiting to be seized.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.