The Da Vinci Code—love it or hate it—has achieved the status of a phenomenon. Already translated into 42 languages, it’s a runaway best-seller, with 18 million copies currently in print. Yet it has provoked a storm of criticism and debate. The furor surrounding the novel, published in March 2003, has created its own mini–publishing industry—books about the book. This is in addition to voluminous articles, reviews and Web commentaries.
Why should a novel generate such a torrent of debate? Primarily because author Dan Brown claims that The Da Vinci Code is far more than a mere novel. On his Web site, he remarks, “The secret behind The Da Vinci Code was too well documented and significant for me to dismiss.” At the beginning of the book, he therefore states that its fictional plot is underpinned by certain broad or specific facts. And his editor, quoted in a 2003 New York Daily News article, says that “nothing is made up in Dan’s research. He’s a student of this stuff.”
Is That a Fact?
Before the prologue of The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown informs readers that they should regard certain details of his novel as factual:
“The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
“The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.’ Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.
“All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Because of such claims, what would normally be just an entertaining novel has been transformed into a conspiracy theory, an exposé of Judeo-Christianity (particularly Roman Catholicism), the promotion of alternative Gnostic gospels, a platform for a New Age–style worship of “the divine feminine,” and the virtual deification of Mary Magdalene (a cause célèbre for some feminists)—all rolled into one.
As sales have soared, so has interest in some of the questions raised by Brown’s claim regarding the accuracy of the material on which his fictional plot is built. It is an education in itself to examine how various authors, with different backgrounds and views, have chosen to explain or expose those claims. Here, then, we review five books about the book.
Cracking the Code
The most superficial and least helpful is the inaptly named Cracking The Da Vinci Code by Simon Cox. The author is introduced as “the editor-in-chief of Phenomena, the magazine devoted to challenging dogmas, orthodoxies and half-truths.” Yet Cox singularly fails to identify the numerous half-truths and untruths that masquerade as history in Brown’s novel. This lightweight work mainly provides additional information, almost as a guidebook. It deals with descriptions of places, symbols and characters central to the book rather than dealing with the truth or falsity of its claims. It purports to be “the first book to cut through the confusion,” but in fact it does nothing of the kind.
Code or Hoax?
The Da Vinci Hoax, by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, gives some telling insights into why so many people seem to have bought into the novel’s theses so uncritically. The novel’s appeal—and danger—lurks in its various layers. “This myth works on more than one level, being a mystery novel, a romance, a thriller, a conspiracy theory, and a spiritual manifesto, all at once,” note the authors. “Playing to his readers’ biases and weaknesses, [Brown] insists history cannot be known, but he still offers a history based on ‘fact’ and ‘research.’ He claims that religion is a crutch, but he has written a book permeated with an esoteric, syncretistic religiosity. He implies that there is no truth, but he offers up secret gnosis [knowledge] about reality.”
"Playing to his readers' biases and weaknesses, [Brown] insists history cannot be known, but he still offers a history based on 'fact' and 'research.'"
Olson and Miesel also attack what is often an undiscerning association between Christianity and paganism: “Unfortunately, books such as The Da Vinci Code take the approach of throwing together a convenient mixture of religions (that is, sun-worshipping paganism; Mithraism; the cults of Isis, Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus; and Hinduism’s Krishna) that contain some parallels and similarities and then declare: ‘See the similarities? Obviously Christianity is derived directly from paganism.’”
The authors base their rebuttal of The Da Vinci Code on five main faults:
- It claims to be historically accurate and based on fact, but often it is not. “Without its radical rewriting of historical fact,” they claim, “Brown’s novel does not exist in any shape or form.”
- It repeatedly misunderstands or misrepresents people, places and events. For instance, the novel has Constantine creating a “new Vatican power base.” But the site of the Vatican was nothing but a swamp in the fourth century. Brown also erroneously refers to Opus Dei as a sect and a church.
- It promotes a radical feminist, neo-Gnostic agenda involving a mixture of neo-paganism, neo-Gnosticism, Wicca, occultism and radical feminism.
- It misrepresents Christianity and traditional Christian beliefs about God, Jesus and the Bible. “The misrepresentation of Christian beliefs in the novel is so aggressive and continual that we can only conclude that it is the result of willful ignorance or purposeful malice,” say Olson and Miesel.
- It propagates a relativistic, indifferent attitude toward truth and religion. The authors quote James Hitchcock’s article on the resurgence of Gnosticism, titled “Fantasy Faith” (Touchstone, December 2003): “Millions of people read The Da Vinci Code not because they necessarily believe its absurd story but because it creates a myth that serves certain emotional needs and allows them to be ‘religious’ without submitting to any of the demands of faith.” Olson and Miesel go on to note: “Unfortunately, many Christians who are fans of the novel do not appreciate that it is an attack upon the core beliefs of the Christian faith.”
One of the ironies of The Da Vinci Code is that it paints early church leaders as male chauvinists, with one of the lead characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, stating, “I daresay Peter was something of a sexist.” Yet many Gnostic texts, which in the novel tend to be given more credibility than the Bible, refer to the feminine patronizingly, even with contempt. As an example, Olson and Miesel quote the final verse of the Gospel of Thomas (the most famous of the Gnostic texts): “Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
The Da Vinci Hoax does a commendable and thorough job of exploring some of the key concepts behind Brown’s novel. For those who wish for more in-depth information, it also explores key subjects such as Gnosticism, Mary Magdalene, the divinity of Christ, Constantine and paganism, the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and the art of Leonardo da Vinci. It is written by committed Roman Catholics, so an understandable bias sometimes comes through as they defend against Brown’s indiscriminate antipathy toward their denomination.
Behind the Code
The author of The Truth Behind The Da Vinci Code, Richard Abanes, is an authority on cults and religions. In this small, accessible book, he convincingly takes Brown to task for the sheer sloppiness of what he presents as historical fact through the words of his two male “scholar” characters, Robert Langford and Leigh Teabing.
Brief quotes from The Da Vinci Code are followed by detailed refutations. Abanes’s extensive coverage of the Priory of Sion hoax is particularly well-documented.
Another idea that is essential to the plot of Brown’s novel is the speculation that Christ married Mary Magdalene and that they produced a royal bloodline. One of Brown’s fictional scholars refers to this as a recurring theme in Gnostic gospels that have been rejected by mainstream Christianity.
Abanes counters that “none of the Gnostic gospels . . . contain any references to a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.” He goes on to point out that the thesis proposed by Brown’s fictional scholar is oxymoronic. “Ironically, if this text [the Gnostic Gospel of Philip] does anything, it cuts out the very heart of any assertion about Mary and Jesus being wed. It does so by adhering to one of the basic tenets of ancient Gnosticism, which declares that all physical matter was inherently evil. Consequently, sexual relations were intrinsically debasing!”
If one book stands out for rapidly and convincingly debunking The Da Vinci Code, it is this small volume.
The Code's Secrets
Secrets of the Code, edited by Dan Burstein, identifies itself in its subtitle as “the unauthorized guide to the mysteries behind The Da Vinci Code.” Burstein himself calls it a compendium. The editor has used a small team of consulting and research editors to pull together a quite comprehensive selection of material. The longest of the books reviewed here, it includes a collection of essays, chapter extracts from other books, interviews, as well as translations of the better-known Gnostic gospels (those ascribed to Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene). There are two sections on “the sacred feminine,” with essays or chapter extracts from well-known feminist writers on the subject, such as Margaret Starbird, Karen L. King, Elaine Pagels and Lynne Picknett.
Secrets of the Code is not the kind of book one reads from cover to cover. It is divided into two “books,” which in turn are subdivided into parts, then chapters. The chapters feature the numerous essays, extracts and interviews, grouped by category.
This volume is not for those who just want to focus on the factuality of Brown’s claims. It is very useful, however, as a reference tool. For instance, some of the works of the aforementioned religious-feminist writers are central to the hypotheses that The Da Vinci Code puts forward as fact. It may be helpful, therefore, to read a couple of key chapters by some of these writers to realize how much speculation comes into play and how few tangible facts support the bizarre notion that Christ married Mary Magdalene and that she bore Him a child.
Breaking the Code
Breaking The Da Vinci Code, by Darrell L. Bock, is concerned with helping people “recognize the agenda that lurks behind the codes.” Bock is a research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, a noted Protestant university.
He points out that Brown’s claim regarding the accuracy of “descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals” creates a kind of virtual reality that goes deeper than the fantasy of a good novel. Where does fact end and fiction begin? “No longer is The Da Vinci Code a mere piece of fiction. It is a novel clothed in claims of historical truth, critical of institutions and beliefs held by millions around the world,” writes Bock. He adds, “The issues of faith and relationship to God are too important to be left to the confusing category of ‘historical’ fiction where the claim is that despite being a novel the history is fact.”
Brown's claim regarding the accuracy of "descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals" creates a kind of virtual reality that goes deeper than the fantasy of a good novel.
Bock sets out to break a number of what he calls “codes” within the novel: who Mary Magdalene was; whether Jesus married; Jesus’ singleness; the Gnostic gospels; how the New Testament Gospels were assembled; claims that Mary was an apostle; and the cover-up claims of The Da Vinci Code.
His primary concerns are quite clearly the credibility of the Bible and the core belief that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, and that He was viewed as divine from the time of the apostles. His book is clear, logical and accessible. One of his most telling points is to emphasize that there really is no common ground between the canonical, scriptural Gospels and the Gnostic ones: “Two distinct views of spirituality emerge, one rooted in Jesus (that of John’s gospel) and one rooted in the divine potential in each one of us (Thomas’s gospel). These are two different theologies, two different faiths.”
A Code for Our Time?
Ultimately, the millions of readers of The Da Vinci Code will have to make up their own minds about how seriously to take some of Brown’s assertions—assuming they care. Brown passionately believes the central thesis of his novel. Yet his thesis itself would appear to be a fateful blurring of fact and fiction. It would seem safer to conclude that even his statements about what comprises fact are themselves merely part of the fiction.
The Blurring of Truth
One of the curious characteristics of our age is an absence of any accepted yardstick against which to measure what people choose to believe. This is especially true of religious or spiritual beliefs. Having cut ourselves free from belief in the Bible as an authoritative source of spiritual truth, we seem willing to flirt with almost any titillating hypothesis from a smorgasbord of prepackaged opinion and accept it as truth. It begs a question: Have we neglected or lost those critical faculties that enable a proper discernment of truth from error—of fact from fiction?
The apostle Paul seemed to have been prophesying about our own New Age of casual, noncommittal, religious sloppiness—as perfectly illustrated by the concepts posited by the opinionated characters in The Da Vinci Code—when he warned the evangelist Timothy: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). Is it not high time to reverse this defining characteristic of our postmodern age: that truth is relative and personalized and can be whatever you want it to be? But not everything we might want to believe is actually truth. The Bible says it defines truth (John 17:17). Should we not be concerned to discover its remarkable message and what it really teaches, rather than lightly dismissing it as the work of mere men?
Dan Brown’s claims invite serious scrutiny. Some of the books reviewed here make a commendable contribution in assisting readers of The Da Vinci Code to distinguish truth from fables. In a wider sense, Vision is dedicated to this same goal.