“Blockbuster perfection,” is how the New York Times described Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code. While the word “perfection” may not quite apply to the quality of the prose, it certainly applies to the quantity of books in print. Having sold over 40 million copies, The Da Vinci Code is a perfect “blockbuster” by any commercial standard.
The novel has been made into a film, which opened in cinemas in May. With 40 million book fans behind it, not to mention Tom Hanks starring in it, the film is certain to follow the book into blockbuster territory.
The Da Vinci Code has caused quite a stir not only on commercial grounds but also on religious grounds. Many people have condemned it—and just as many have commended it—because of its portrayal of Christianity and the Church. Through his characters, Dan Brown offers his own brand of “teaching” about the history of Christianity, the actions of the early Church and the identity of Jesus Christ. And most, if not all, of this teaching is hostile to the teaching of the Bible and the traditional understanding of Christians.
In his book, Is It Worth Believing? The Spiritual Challenge of the Da Vinci Code, Greg Clarke summarises Dan Brown’s views about Christianity as follows:
- Jesus was not divine. It wasn’t until a church council in the fourth century that the Roman Emperor Constantine, motivated by politics, declared that Christians would now believe Jesus to be divine.
- The Bible, in particular the New Testament, was stitched together by another politically driven committee of church figures, once again manipulated into doing it by Constantine.
- There were many alternative accounts of the life of Jesus, which tell a very different story of him than the ones we have preserved as Holy Scripture in the Gospels (those Gospels known to us as “The Gospel of Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John”). These alternative accounts were destroyed by Constantine.
- But a few of these alternative “gospels” survived. Documents found in 1945 in the sands of Egypt tell the true story of Christianity. They are known as The Nag Hammandi Library.
- Jesus and Mary Magdalene, one of the women whom the Bible records as followers of Jesus, were in fact married. Mary was carrying Jesus’ child, later born in France and called Sarah, when Jesus was crucified …
- Jesus did not rise from the grave. There was no resurrection, as Christians believe. There is not a lot of specific discussion of the resurrection in the novel, but the implication is that Jesus died on the cross, and that his line continued through the child Mary Magdalene bore. The story of Jesus’ resurrection is derived from the pagan myth of Mithras, the bull-god who was born on December 25 and rose from his tomb after three days …
- The claims of the Gospels that Jesus did miracles, such as turning water into wine and walking on water, are symbolic, not historical. That is, they provide metaphors and stories which people use to live their lives, but did not really happen.
- Sex is the means by which men and women commune with God. In particular, a man is spiritually incomplete until he has intercourse with a woman. The Church recast sex as sinful and disgusting, in order that it might wrest away for itself the power to act as a conduit to God.
These are Dan Brown’s views about Christianity and they are as fanciful as the plotline of his novel. They conflict with everything that the historical eyewitness accounts (the Gospels) teach and that Christians believe about Jesus.
But what does it matter? Why should Christians be annoyed or alarmed? The Da Vinci Code is a novel, after all; and the people who express these fictitious views are themselves fictitious characters. It is just storytelling, art, entertainment, after all.
Well, yes and no. Yes, it is fiction, entertainment—but no, it is not “just” that.
Dan Brown personally believes the views that he puts into the mouths of his favoured characters and weaves into his plot—and he wants his readers to believe them, too. We know this from two sources—namely, the “fact” statement at the start of the novel and the “mission” statements on Brown’s website.
First, Brown prefaces his novel with a statement of supposed “fact”. Immediately after the title page, but immediately before the prologue, on a page headed “Fact”, he declares as factual certain things that underpin the whole concept of the novel. He claims, for example, that “The Priory of Sion … is a real organization” and that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Why is he telling us this, if not to influence our perception as to the underlying truthfulness of his work? Plainly, he wants us to view his novel as something more than a mere novel.
Second, Brown states on his website: “My hope in writing this novel was that the story would serve as a catalyst and a springboard for people to discuss the important topics of faith, religion, and history”. Greg Clarke notes that readers can download a study guide from danbrown.com that “asks not just your usual Book Club questions, but also questions such as ‘Has this book changed your ideas about faith, religion, or history in any way?’” Brown has a mission—a mission to debunk traditional/biblical Christian understandings and to replace them with spiritual understandings of an entirely different sort. He is using his novel as a means to disseminate his religious novelties.
Judging from his website comments, Brown himself believes there is a lot at stake. And he is right. It is not simply that he dishonours the One whom hundreds of millions of Christians love and revere. It is also that a great deal hangs on the truth or falsity of the Christian understanding of who Jesus is and what he did.
According to the Gospels, according to the Church, according to Christians, Jesus Christ is the Son of God who lived, died and lived again in order to make amends to God for our sins so that whoever believes in him will be rescued from God’s judgment and given eternal life. If this view of Jesus is right, if Brown’s view of Jesus is wrong, then matters of life and death are at stake.
This is why Greg Clarke has written, Is It Worth Believing?
Clarke is the Director of the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education at New College, University of New South Wales, and he brings considerable scholarship to his book. Yet he writes in an accessible and appealing way, with an easy style and a courteous tone.
In addition to considering whether or not the claims of The Da Vinci Code are worth believing, Clarke considers why and how we come to believe what we believe about Christianity. Is It Worth Believing? is not just a reply to The Da Vinci Code: it is also a treatise on how to think clearly in an age when emotion and cynicism and superstition seem to hold sway.
The book is suitable for all readers—fans and critics, Christians and non-Christians, alike. This is not to say that Clarke vacillates in his views, having “a bob each way”, in an effort to cater to the views of everyone. On the contrary, he pursues a distinctly Christian line of thought. However, his research and reasoning is express-ed in such an open and considerate way that the reader feels enticed to follow him through the paragraphs and pages.
Clarke even caters for “cave dwellers” who have not read the novel by giving a succinct summary of its plot. He is aware that people do not have to read the novel to be confronted with and affected by the sorts of notions and “facts” that the novel puts forward.