Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The DaVinci Riddle: Why So Popular?

The DaVinci Code has sold more than 46 million copies since it first appeared in 2003, an astonishing commercial success. But why?

As Sam points out, the critics weren’t especially impressed. It’s not world-class literature. I confess to being something of an anti-populist snob, and the mere fact that everyone was reading it was enough to turn me off, until a friend practically shoved it in my hands at gunpoint.

I read it cover to cover in three days. I found myself at 2:00 a.m. saying, “Andy, for Pete’s sake, turn out the light and go to bed,” but it was hard to put down. I even missed my stop on the subway once because I was completely engrossed.

I enjoyed the book for the accurate, evocative descriptions of many places I have visited in London and Paris. It appealed to my interests not just in Christianity, but specifically early church history and the Grail legend. That doesn’t explain why the other 45,999,999 people liked the book, however. Across America, people of faith are lamenting decreasing interest in religion. So why is a novel about Jesus one of the all-time bestsellers?

In a recent interview with Sojourner’s Magazine, Pastor Brian McLaren offered the following suggestion: “The name ‘Jesus’ and the word ‘Christianity’ are associated with something judgmental, hostile, hypocritical, angry, negative, defensive, anti-homosexual, etc.” The overwhelmingly negative and judgmental attitude of America’s evangelical Christian leaders creates a disconnect in the minds of people familiar with the gospel Jesus. McLaren says Brown suggests “that the dominant religious institutions have created their own caricature of Jesus. And I think people have a sense that that’s true.”

That sense is facilitated by the actions of some mainstream churches. Christian fundamentalists do their damndest to insist that the Bible we have today is the literal word of God, complete and without error, and free of translation problems. Brown’s inclusion of the fact that the early church contemplated more than four “gospels” and that Christian doctrine was not codified until three centuries after Christ’s death is something that many Christians of all denominations aren’t aware of. The Bible is a selected, edited anthology of approved historical writings about God; if it were God’s literal dictation to Moses, the prophets and the apostles, it wouldn’t contain so many errors.

The current pedophile priest problem in the Catholic Church makes the idea of a widespread conspiracy to cover up scandal all too plausible. Some commenters on posts below argue that people are too ready to believe anything that challenges the establishment, but one must admit the religious establishment needs help in the credibility department.

McLaren calls the novel “an experience in shared frustration with status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up prone organized Christian religion….Even though Brown’s fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church’s conventional version of Jesus may not do Him justice.”

He proposes that “if The DaVinci Code causes people to ask questions and Christians to have to dig deeper, that’s a great thing, a great opportunity for growth.” He reminds us that “the Holy Spirit works in the middle of conversation….The more we can keep conversations open and going, the more chances we give the Holy Spirit to work….Jesus has handled 2,000 years of questions, skepticism and attacks, and He’s gonna come through just fine.”


Darius said...

Absolutely, Andy - right wing Christianity selects what it likes best in the Bible and accentuates Jesus as condemner and villifier. And that is there to be found in the New Testament. The Gospel of John, for example, gives us a Jesus consigning everybody to hell who disagrees with him.

But obviously there is much better stuff in the NT against judgment, on love, on doing good work, etc.

I think fictional stuff on Jesus always facinates people because so little is known about the historical Jesus. Even those who are biggest on dogma and have definite ideas about exactly who Jesus was can't tell you, for example, what he was doing in the desert those 40 days, or the specifics in his background that led him to become a spiritually precocious 12 year old surprising the elders of the temple with his insight.

Anthony said...

As I said in my comment on your previous post, The Da Vinci code did a fabulous job of getting people talking about Christianity. In an ideal world, it would have made people explore their beliefs rather than assume Dan Brown's fictional work to be gospel truth.

epicurist said...

I agree completely, both as an ex-Catholic and as a person who is still interested in religion. Religion for most people has become an amassing of people blindly following doctrine, never thinking for themselves.

The Bible is a historical reference and like all historical references, it is flawed by personal and religious bias. Religion was a human construction and it serves a great purpose for many people, but not all. It brings people together under a common belief, but at the same time, it divides and destroys under false pretenses and misguided perceptions. For Centuries, the Church has had a steadfast influence on its congregation, and in many cases, on the State. Decisions and policies were intertwined and the morals that the Church deemed fit for the times reflected upon the laws that were administered during those times. Church and State were very much a symbiotic entity. These laws may or may not be in effect now, but they have strong roots in much of our communities. Many of these ideas have become ingrained as part of a belief system that doesn't hold much water in current times. The Church is an extension of the House of God, and since it is run by Humans the Church is not a perfect institution.

So as Darius, Tony and yourself have said, good on the daVinci Code for getting people to use their brains.

Trickish Knave said...

I read Brown's book on deployment last year and I believe it only took me about 24 hours- there was absolutely nothing to do but read that portion of our deployment but with the few interruptions I did have it might be worth reading again. Of course the movie comes out in a few days so maybe I'll jsut forego the re-read and watch the flick.

Darius made a great point about Jesus' personal life- we really don't know much about it. When watching The Passion and seeing Jesus and his mother playing when he was a child, or watching the young carpenter finish a table, or at the end of the movie, watching his mother catch a glimpse of him carrying his cross amidst the angry crowd, it is hard not to identify Christ as a human being and something more than what the apostles say about him.

It is these theatrical and literary indulgences with the Bible that give us insight into our religion on both the "good" side and the "bad" side.

The important thing to remember, as is with all the conspiracy theories surrounding religion, is to know when the fact end and the speculation begins. But many Chirstians get confused and scared of movies/books like this because they fon't really know a whole lot about ther faith so anything that shows Jesus other than giving the Sermon on the Mount seems like blasphemy to them. I challenge Christians all the time to name the Ten Commandments- in order.

It is a sad outcome most of the time.

little-cicero said...

This is why I cringed as the masses made much ado about the life of Pope John Paul II and the ascension of Pope Benedicts.

The truth is that Catholics don't like the orders of intricate rules (kneeling, sitting, standing, no masturbating, etc.) and they don't fear the Church anymore, so it is to them merely another beaurocracy that gives itself the authority to boss people around. As our society grows more and more secular, we feel free to rebel against authority.

Combine that with our fascination with scandals and conspiracy theories and you've got a best seller in the bank.

It is quite frankly a disturbing reflection on the psychological health of the nation. It is becoming a nation of juveniles, acting about as mature as kids my age or younger. Rebelling against authority and concocting conspiracy theories in a search for stability. We look for conspiracy theories because, in an unstable world where nothing is certain, it gives us comfort to know that someone is pulling the strings. It is comforting to know that all tragedies and disasters are planned and organized by mere humans.

Adults are supposed to deal with their own problems and take responsibility, not look for others to blame and delude themselves to think that others are responsible for everything.

Maybe this country's just going through a midlife crisis, or maybe it's going senile, but it seems that we are growing less mature instead of more mature.

Future Geek said...


You've had a great series of posts on this. I'd sworn I wasn't going to get involved, but I've enjoyed your take, and I have to say, right on.

When do we get more of the XL code?

kr pdx said...

I think this is the first time ever that I largely agree with everyone (including, yes, LC :) ). But then I am a thinking Catholic Christian, and share your frustrations about non-thinking religious (or non-religious!) people.

Pedophile priests: sadly, I've read some much more conspiratorial hierarchical conspiracies; this mess seemed mostly a failure of pride (in self, in fellow priests, in faith) mixed with an unfortunate degree of trust in then-contemporary secular psychology; I haven't seen a lot of evidence that the individual bishops got together and conspired to hide The Problem. I really doubt they understood it was a widespread problem. I can imagine they wanted (very badly), like the rest of us, to believe each event was a terribly rare aberration.

And, fact based comments, not to excuse (what could? yuck!) but to clarify: most of The Problem wasn't "pedophilism," but with teenagers. Studies at the time of most intense scandal showed that other denominations had similar rates of both pedophilism and underage rape. (It is a worrisome measure of how insular the Catholic establishment is that they didn't also look into--or at least they didn't mention--the rates in non-Christian society :P. )

LC, it is unclear to me that our society has ever really been "grown up." Those first guys were pretty smart, but also pretty whiney and self-righteous.

Anthony said...

Paedophilia (I take it the spelling is different in American English?) is inexcusable in any circumstance. Had the Catholic church looked into the problem in other denominations and highlighted the extent to which it was a problem elsewhere - for that matter, why restrict it to Christianity alone? - it would not have exonerated them. The fact others may be equally guilty does not make it any the less acceptable.

To my mind, pointing out the extent of paedophilia across the Christian faith would not have helped the Catholic cause. Better that each denomination come clean with regards to its own deficiencies before pointing the finger elsewhere, thus enablying the religion as a whole to work towards a solution.

kr pdx said...

Anthony/Tony: As I said, "not to excuse."

They did it because they wanted to know--once the shock was over, self-examination began. Of course it was used to say "but we're no worse than those others" (which of course we were being painted to be) ... but yes, when one is 100% in the wrong, does it matter if others are too? Not really. The findings got very little press for whatever that's worth to you.

I was pointing out that "Pedophile Priests" is in fact something of an exaggeration, both in the degree of the crime and in its perceived uniqueness to religious leaders of my sect. Comparative information helps, not hinders, understanding and approaching the problem.

I think blowing the thing wide open was great for my Church and its hierarchy. I wonder how long before they figure it out ... well, no, that's not fair, most of them already have. But sometimes it takes the old ones dying, same as any social group.

little-cicero said...

"Those first guys were pretty smart, but also pretty whiney and self-righteous."

Hey- what's wrong with being whiney and self-richeous in the fashion of John Adams? I, like Adams, have been told "You are obnoxious and disliked, you know that sir," (the musical 1776)

kr pdx said...

LC: Which just proves my point, youngster ;).

I am myself, you know, never self-righteous in the least ;).

kr pdx said...

Misc., in the 1970s, on the US Census, a (somewhat dissident) Catholic priest and noted sociologist, Andrew Greeley, got included a question about whether one conceives of God as a Mother or a Father. Although (not surprisingly) very few self-identified Christians declared "Mother," Catholics were more likely to. Fr. Greeley argued that this meant Catholics see God as more nuturing and forgiving rather than emphasizing the judging disciplinarian aspects. [Remembering that this was the 1970s, perhaps he rightly interpreted that--by the time I read it in the 1990s, I groused that he hadn't just asked the direct interpretive question, since I (and others I know) think of mothers as the main disciplinarians, shortcircuiting his point.]

Something to be considered, though, rather than lumping Catholics with "right wing Christianity," which seems to do most of the screaming about the book. (Most Catholics who complain at all seem to grump rather than scream--like that Jesuit scholar, about the Gospel of Judas ;).)

Jade said...

To be honest, I preferred "Angels and Demons" over "The DaVinci Code" - but I read that one first and it made DaVinci Code a bit predictable.

It has gotten me to think more about religion though, at least the historical documents related to religion. I'm now reading a bunch of Bard D. Ehrman books ("Lost Scriptures" and "Truth and Fiction in the Davinci Code")