Friday, October 22, 2004

book review of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Yes, I know–I’m only about 18 months late in reading this book! But like I said before, reading is a "hobby" that doesn’t quite match up to the two other things I enjoy doing with my free time–being with my family and sleeping. Sometimes business trips are worthwhile for more reasons than just the business!

I’m sure most of you know by now the gist of this book: a compellingly unfortunate but brilliant man (Robert Langdon) becomes a fugitive from the law in an effort to clear his name in the murder of a reclusive but important person: the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, who was actually killed in the very halls that he tended to daily. Along the way, Langdon meets a young police cryptographer (Sophie Neveu), who has many secrets as well as intersecting (but not fully realized) interests in the happenings at the museum. As Landgon and Neveu unravel clues left at the scene of the murder, they begin to understand that the curator had thrust them into the role of "savior" for a world that was not known to either of them before the night began. In an attempt to escape the nearly maniacal search by police Captain Bezu Fache, Langdon leads Neveu to the ornate home of Leigh Teabing, the foremost scholar on the Holy Grail. (Have I yet to mention the Grail? Well here goes: Langdon and Neveu gain possession of what they believe to be the "keystone", within which lies the directions to the most sought-after artifact in the history of the world: the chalice from the last supper. The two fugitives go to Teabing to enlist his help in deciphering the cryptic messages left by the Grand Master of the Priory of the Sion, a supposedly secret society charged with protecting the contents of the Grail so that they may be made public at a "proper" time.) Langdon, Neveu and Teabing head to England just ahead of the French authorities–and while being pursued by an albino assassin with loose ties to the Catholic Church–to continue the quest in the land that many people consider to be the home of the Grail. Will the band of 3 discover the secret that they believe will unravel 2000 years of Christian teachings and beliefs? Or will this prove to be a wild goose chase?

Only after 500 pages do you arrive at the answer–sort of. But along the way you get enough conspiracy theory to make the most unbelieving (or believing) person interested and involved. Consider it mission accomplished for author Dan Brown, who did indeed write a page-turner that managed to be entertaining and informative even while dancing all over hallowed ground. So ends the book review.

But about those dances: (WARNING!!! Uneducated conspiratorial lecturing ahead!!!) If I’m not mistaken, this book gained notoriety for being so controversial in it’s insistence that the beliefs of Christianity are founded in falsehoods–i.e. that the generations of the followers of Christ have been duped by a Catholic Church that falsely portrayed the life of Christ in order to cement it’s place of authority in the 4th century. And of course there’s a lot of "material" written about by the author to support this belief that Christianity is "the greatest story ever sold". Never being one to pass on a good controversy, I read the book with interest–but a discerning eye that allowed me to remain unpersuaded by the arguments put forth by Brown through his two characters of Langdon and Teabing.

(A little background here: I was born, raised and confirmed Catholic. I am no longer a practicing Catholic, although I still mostly follow the teachings I learned in the Catholic Church. I am far from a religious scholar of any sort–so bear with me here–but I found it astounding that anybody who actually shares Christian faith with me could be persuaded in the least by this book–and I know plenty of people who were!)

For example, Brown (through Teabing) talks about how the Council of Nicea in the 4th century A.D. was called for by the Emperor Constantine, and that out of that council originated the gospel as we know it today (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) as well as the creed that stated in digestible terms the beliefs of the Catholic Church (which at that time represented the whole of what we now call Christianity)–most notably the divinity of Christ. Supposedly supporting this "divinity" was a necessary result of pressures that Constantine was facing in governing his empire, and that the belief in a divine Christ had never been widely accepted before (in other words, Constantine needed to make Christ divine to save his empire, and that for the 300-odd years prior to the Council the story of Jesus Christ had just been one of a great MORTAL teacher). A little research shows me, however, that the Apostle’s Creed (or at least what we now know as the Apostle’s Creed) surfaced in the late 2nd century, almost 200 years before the Council of Nicea (and OVER 200 years from the use of the Nicene Creed as a statement of belief). It is believed that in the earliest versions of the Apostle’s Creed (it has been revised from time to time), Jesus is referred to as "the Lord " and the son of God; is born of a virgin; is crucified by mortals; and ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of God. Granted, the Nicene Creed goes to greater lengths to "define" who and what Christ is ("begotten of the father", "True God from True God", "one human being with the father"), but I think to the common man the latter Creed does not establish the "divinity" of Christ any moreso than the creed that preceded it by 200 years. Therefore, the argument that Constantine "created" a divine Christ doesn’t hold historical water to me–call that one strike against the conspiracy.

Secondly, a large thrust of contention in this book is that the Church way back when sought to create a male-dominated belief system. Therefore they did away with the symbology of strong, free woman and replaced it with the stories of man as the savior, man as the root of the existence of woman, and woman as the creator of "original sin". The "controversies" of Mary Magdalene are expounded upon at length–who was she, "what" was she, and even, to an extent, "where" was she during a crucial time in Jesus’ life. The church, supposedly, had to cast Magdalene in an unfavorable light (i.e. a prostitute) in order to re-cast her role in the life of the savior. Again, all this is done to take woman out of the "spotlight" of the church belief; or, as it is phrased in book, to put an end to the "divine Goddess." This I also find hard to swallow for one reason: no one is more revered in the teachings of the Catholic Church that Mary, mother of Jesus. NO ONE! The picture of a woman who chooses, based on nothing other than her faith, to allow her body to be used as a vessel for God is inspiring beyond words. I remember years ago listening to a sermon given on the Holy Day that celebrates the Immaculate Conception (I think it’s called the Assumption–and I actually paid attention to a sermon! Call the parents!!) that detailed how difficult of a decision it should have been for Mary to accept the task given to her by God–and yet she did so willingly and carried out her task lovingly. The love she showed for her God was great and truly deserving of the reverence that she has within the church–indeed, few are the churches I have been in where there is not a statue in honor of the Blessed Mother. She clearly was not a Goddess–she was physically mortal through-and-through. But she was divine–and the faith she showed in God was not "merely" mortal. I submit to you that the necessarily monotheistic Church did not at all put an end to the "divine Goddess", but rather re-defined the role so that it more closely fit with the deeds and faith that were personified by Mary, the mother of Jesus–she IS the "divine Goddess". Her place of respect in the Church renders the chauvanistic motives purported by Brown through his characters as invalid–call that strike 2.

For strike 3, we’ll go straight to the "Facts", as presented by author Brown before page 1. He tells you that there IS a Priory of Sion–but doesn’t tell you what they actually do. He tells you that there IS a Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei–but so what? He tells you that his descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals are accurate–but fails to tell you what research he has that proves them to be accurate. That’s an awful lot of empty space that he fills into a FICTION book between the FACTS that he presents without actually establishing them as such. It’s fiction, people–suspend belief at the gate before you enter the ride. If you allow this book to shake the foundation of your belief system, then you just aren’t really that much of a believer.


Blogger Michael said...

Just finished Angels and Demons (I'll get to DaVinci in the next few weeks). Similarly, a very good tale that had me hooked by page three.

But with all the same baggage you mentioned. I found that going in with a skeptical eye towards his "facts" made it a lot easier to sit back and enjoy the "fiction." I ended up reading it with about the same level of belief that I read Tom Clancy--"yeah, that would be pretty cool, and there's probably enough truth in it to keep it interesting, but. . ."

Business trip?? Is that how you refer to these little jaunts?

11:52 PM  

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