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The Da Vinci phenomenon

On the way from bestseller to blockbuster, Da Vinci Code producers launch a schizophrenic marketing plan to win a religious following without a religious backlash

The Da Vinci phenomenon
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Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold some 43 million copies, making it the biggest-selling adult novel in history. Now the movie adaptation, with A-list director Ron Howard and superstar Tom Hanks, is poised to reach millions more when it opens in theaters nationwide May 19.

If The Passion of the Christ brought millions of moviegoers to see a powerful, though controversial, film about the Jesus of Christianity, The Da Vinci Code presents an opportunity to see another blockbuster about Jesus, this time without letting Scripture get in the way of ancient heresy.

Ironically, The Da Vinci Code has sparked far less controversy than The Passion of the Christ. Some evangelical groups have encouraged Christian moviegoers to boycott the movie, while others urge them to see it and use it as an opportunity to witness to Christ.

Mixed messages also emanate from the producers, who hired a Christian public-relations firm in the States but carefully screened advanced access to the movie-scripting an unusual opening for the movie (and slating highly selective critic viewings) overseas, with a May 17 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival followed by a worldwide premiere two days later. It's as if director Ron Howard, according to Barbara Nicolosi, a scriptwriter and executive director of the faith-based arts movement Act One in Hollywood, "knows that the movie is denying Christ's divinity, and appreciates that making that case is a long, long dark way from Main Street, Mayberry."

The Da Vinci Code story begins with art historian Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), who tries to solve a murder in the Louvre. In the course of his investigation, he uncovers the mother of all conspiracies. By tracing arcane clues in artistic masterpieces, decoding mysterious riddles, and dodging murderous Christians, the hero learns that Christianity is really a monumental fraud.

The storied Holy Grail, the chalice that contained the blood of Jesus, is really a person; that is, the physical descendants of Jesus. The savior called Christ, he learns, was really the founder of an occult religion that worshipped the "Sacred Feminine." When Jesus died, his true successor was his wife, Mary Magdalene, followed by the couple's daughter and subsequent "holy grails."

According to this storyline, the Christian church created the Bible, the dogmas of Christ's divinity, and sexual morality in order to suppress this true religion. But instead of dying a natural death, it went underground, passed down in a secret society of Western civilization's great minds, who combined feminist ideology, cultivation of the occult, and orgiastic sex rituals as a true bulwark against fusty scriptural religion.

By itself, this twisted theology is not what makes Mr. Brown's novel so popular. What sells The Da Vinci Code-and fuels expectations ahead of this month's movie premiere-is its quintessential "good read," full of thrilling action, page-turning suspense, and a plot that twists and turns and surprises. What Mr. Brown says about Jesus, Christianity, and history is ludicrous on the face of it. No reputable historian, no matter how liberal or anti-Christian, accepts Mr. Brown's historical howlers.

And its New Age elements are anything but new. Many derive from a book published in 1983: Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh. Earlier versions of that pseudo-history have appeared in other occult literature. But Mr. Baigent and Mr. Leigh sued Mr. Brown and Random House, his publisher, for plagiarism in an unsuccessful attempt to cash in on the novel's success. A British court threw out the case, since the borrowings were of "facts" rather than verbatim passages.

But since a postmodern public struggles to distinguish between truth and fiction, the message of The Da Vinci Code, coming as it does in an enjoyable package, is to be taken seriously. A George Barna poll found that 53 percent of the book's readers said that it aided their "personal spiritual growth and understanding." Try witnessing to an unbeliever today and you may well hear a Da Vinci Code response: "Well, but you know Jesus wasn't necessarily who the church says he was."

And if church historians reject Mr. Brown's assertions, other scholars insist that history itself is only a construct, a narrative created to keep a particular group in power. Thus, the revisionist history in The Da Vinci Code is a fitting way to challenge the power of the church, as well as to advance more "progressive" power agendas.

That includes especially the power agenda of women, or, more accurately, feminists. The story injects into the culture the otherwise obscure writings of feminist theologians, with goddess-worshipping religion based on the "Sacred Feminine." Placing Mary Magdalene as the true successor of Jesus and the rightful ruler of the church, through a sort of apostolic succession-rather than Peter or all of those male authors in the New Testament-casts a new light on disputes over the ordination of women.

The Da Vinci Code popularizes what Princeton religious professor Elaine Pagels has been arguing, that orthodox Christianity was a construction to put down the allegedly more female-friendly Gnostics in order to keep males in power.

Indeed, The Da Vinci Code is at the forefront of a Gnostic revival. Like The Gospel of Judas and Philip Pullman's children's novels, His Dark Materials, Mr. Brown and his modern-day bestseller-turned-blockbuster resurrect that ancient heresy. Religion here has to do with secret knowledge. Spirituality is unrelated to what one does with one's body. Religion is a construction that exists primarily inside one's head.

And since, as Harold Bloom argues approvingly in his book, American Religion, Americans have strong Gnostic tendencies, readers have no trouble buying into a book that confuses fiction with truth. If religion is not a matter of objective truth, but inner experience alone-as Gnostics and many Americans believe-then why not let an enjoyable thriller teach us about Jesus? And if the book has had such an impact, what might the movie do in our image-centered culture?

That's a wager Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, who own Imagine Entertainment and bought the movie rights for $6 million, were willing to take. Mr. Howard, the Oscar-winning director who got his start as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, directed the $125 million film. The price tag bought the popular Mr. Hanks as the star, and on-location shots in Paris, London, and Germany. Paris' Louvre granted permission to shoot in its galleries, but church leaders at Westminster Abbey in England and Saint-Sulpice in Paris refused to allow filming, objecting to the story's anti-Christian message.

England's Lincoln Cathedral, though, agreed to stand in for Westminster Abbey for the price of $200,000. And London's Temple Church, another church that figured into the story, also agreed to permit filming.

The church connections leave the entertainment press mentioning The Da Vinci Code in the same breath as The Passion and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe-examples of the money waiting to be made with "religious-themed" movies. But film distributor Sony and other marketers may wonder whether a movie that opposes Christianity will have the same reach as those that endorse it.

Perhaps with that in mind, Sony took a somewhat schizophrenic approach to marketing Da Vinci, first hiring the public-relations firm Sitrick & Co., which specializes in "sensitive situations" and "reputation management," to try to manage any potential controversy arising from Christian groups upset with its blasphemous message. Sony then hired Grace Hill Media, which specializes in marketing movies to Christian audiences, to try to blunt criticism from Christians.

Grace Hill was consulted during filmmaking and has encouraged Christians to see the film. Grace Hill president Jonathan Bock early on told reporters he did not believe boycotts would work, considering Da Vinci's already enormous penetration of the culture via book sales. And any movie that puts Jesus at the center of a cultural debate, he said, "is something Christians ought to be interested in."

To engage public discussion, Grace Hill set up a website called "The Da Vinci Dialogue" (www.thedavincidialogue.com) and enlisted an array of Christian writers to post their thoughts about the story. Set up out of Sony's desire to provide "a forum where a wide variety of respected religious scholars could discuss some of the serious questions the movie may raise," the website thus far has drawn criticisms of the story and refutations of its historical claims in all postings. But Sony must believe that providing a sounding-board for its critics will show its sensitivity and respect for Christian concerns.

Mr. Bock told WORLD that he believes The Da Vinci Code represents an opportunity for Christians. Apologist and popular Christian author Josh McDowell urges Christians to go see the movie and to read the book. That way, Christians will be prepared to discuss it and to refute its claims. He and Campus Crusade for Christ are preparing thousands of booklets to help Christians use the movie as an opening for Christian witness.

In contrast, Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, urges Christians to boycott the movie and the book. "We recognize that while the movie may give Christians a good opportunity to talk about faith issues, millions of people-not familiar in the least with the Gospels-could be spiritually poisoned with false propaganda against Christ," reads a boycott pledge card. "Since every movie ticket purchased is a vote, saying, 'Yes, Hollywood, make more movies like this!,' we choose not to buy a ticket for this movie. We choose not to support the blasphemy."

Focus on the Family is not recommending that Christians see the movie and is also marshalling resources against the film. But, according to a statement on the organization's website, "Ultimately, issues raised by The Da Vinci Code present believers with a unique opportunity: to openly talk about Jesus Christ and church history! Dan Brown's book has suddenly made it okay to discuss Christian truth claims and specifics of the biblical worldview."

On the whole, evangelical protests against The Da Vinci Code are expected to be more muted than the mass theater protests that greeted The Last Temptation of Christ, the 1988 film that had Jesus on the cross fantasizing about Mary Magdalene.

But protests are planned by Roman Catholic groups. With its creepy inquisitors skulking around in black robes committing murders and secretly controlling the world, The Da Vinci Code is arguably the most flagrant manifestation of anti-Catholicism since the 19th-century Know Nothing Party. Its villains are members of Opus Dei, an actual organization of conservative Catholic laity.

Opus Dei is taking a turn-the-other-cheek approach, posting corrections on its website about how it is portrayed. But Archbishop Angelo Amato, the Vatican's secretary of doctrine, has called on Catholics to boycott the movie. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria has gone further, urging legal action apparently based on "religious defamation" laws that many countries have passed to protect the sensibilities of Muslims.

Evangelicals who go to the movie may thus pass through crowds of otherwise closely allied demonstrators. The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, a conservative Roman Catholic group, is organizing nearly 1,000 theater protests and prayer vigils to take place across the country. Spokesman John Horvat told WORLD he could not agree with the argument that Christians should see The Da Vinci Code: "I cannot patronize a blasphemous film-a bad means-just so I can talk about Christ-a good end."

Gene Edward Veith Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.


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