Report on the Da Vinci code talk from June 06
So what was all that hype about the book and then the film? With the benefit of hindsight and now the considered view of a literary expert like Professor Emeritus Pat Reilly, we can perhaps draw some conclusions. Here are some reflections on Dan Brown’s book and then the film.
Headlines have abounded:
• The Da Vinci Code: Truth or Myth? (Life and Work magazine, September 05)
• Holy war against Da Vinci Code – Catholic Church in Scotland to send out DVDs [by Professor Reilly] to re-educate public over ‘nonsense’ in book (Scotland on Sunday, 23 April 06)
• Da Vinci Code shows ‘spiritual thirst’ (The Scotsman, 26 April 06)
• Da Vinci Code boost Opus Dei numbers (Scotland on Sunday, 28 May 06)
I myself read the book while on holiday last year. Perhaps because I was in happy-go-lucky mood, I saw the funny side of the novel. I was fortunate to have some prior Christian knowledge, so wasn’t taken in by Dan Brown’s fiction and did not feel he presented a challenge to my own faith.
In fact, in my mind’s eye I could see Dan Brown and his wife – to whom he pays tribute before the start of the book – staying up late at their kitchen table hatching up all sorts of clever scenarios, the one more hilarious than the last! OK, so maybe I have a quirky sense of humour, but do join me in laughing over:
• An albino on the run twice for murder and not being caught!
• When Sophie is introduced to Sir Lea Teabing (I fell about at the name) he “appeared to Sophie no more like a knight than Sir Elton John”!
• Teabing, a top-drawer speaker of Queen’s English, is made to say at one point “This better be good.”
If you know anything about various Church traditions and have some basic Bible knowledge you have to laugh when you read the likes of:
• “Inside the [C of E] church, an altar boy was almost finished vacuuming”
• “It was not Peter to whom Christ gave directions with which to establish the Christian Church. It was Mary Magdalene.”
• “The early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacking His human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity.”
• and funniest of all but perhaps a bit esoteric: “Solomon’s Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal Shekinah”!
Humour is also generated, surely not unconsciously, by the setting side by side of, on the one hand, such would-be grand concepts, and, on the other, mentions of:
• Walt Disney
• “Harvard dropout Bill Gates”
• “The Sphinx himself, François Mitterand”
So what was Patrick Reilly’s view as Emeritus Professor of English Language and Literature, the University of Glasgow? He was not as charitable as I may have been above. But why should he have been? “I’ve spent too much time with giants and spoiled by their writings,” he told us at the start. Professor Reilly was unimpressed by Dan Brown’s approach and style.
But you will want to know why: as a literary critic Professor Reilly takes issue with Brown above all over his deliberate melange of fact and fiction. An author can do whatever he / she pleases with characters of their own creation, said Professor Reilly – e.g. a Robert Langdon or a Sophie Neveu.
But he cannot do whatever he likes with Napoleon, Bonnie Prince Charlie or John F Kennedy. One cannot make Napoleon the victor at Waterloo or Bonnie Prince Charlie the romantic martyr dying on the field of Culloden or JFK faking his own assassination attempt so as to go off with another woman to live incognito in South America.
Professor Reilly went so far as to say that Dan Brown crossed a moral boundary by presuming to have dominion over the lives of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, St Peter and Constantine and making them do or say things that are preposterous, i.e. completely contrary to the known historical facts.
Dissecting Brown’s “logic”, Professor Reilly dealt this killer blow to the fiction writer’s playing fast and loose with history: “Jesus must have had a wife – according to Brown – because she is not mentioned in the Gospels. By the same token, He must have had an Aston Martin too.”
Bottom line according to Professor Reilly: Brown blighted his book by his inability or refusal to make the necessary distinction between fact and fiction, history and imagination.
Thus, it is one thing for Brown to defame the Priory of Sion, but quite another to defame Opus Dei. Professor Reilly charged Brown with “deliberate misleading” and “promiscuous mixing up of fact and fiction”, also with showing contempt for historical fact. The Professor ended: “Why trust him? Don’t please confuse the Christ of the New Testament with what you read in The Da Vinci Code.”
That would seem to be the biggest charge that critics have levelled at Brown. Passing off as fact what is clearly fabrication is dishonesty, and in this case subversion of people’s faith too. If you pick up a copy of Nicky Gumbel’s very readable booklet on the novel you will read there this refrain: “There is not a shred of evidence that…” – a phrase all the more impressive when you realise that Gumbel started his working life as a barrister.
What about the Brown thesis that “the sacred feminine” has been suppressed by early Christian writers and then by the Church? Gumbel is great on that too:
“It is ironic that The Da Vinci Code claims that Jesus was more sympathetic to women than the New Testament documents suggest and that there is evidence of this in these other documents [Gnostic ones that Brown makes play of]. In fact, Gnostic anthropology had a very low opinion of women. They were regarded as secondary and defective human beings.”
Moreover, scholars of the New Testament agree that Jesus was radical and revolutionary in His attitude to women: He was immensely respectful as well as very friendly towards them.
And Brown’s own intellectual integrity? Well, in his assessment of Jesus as being only an ordinary man he has completely ducked the issue of Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy and the implications of this. To quote Gumbel again:
“Wilbur Smith, the American writer on theological topics, said: ‘The ancient world had many devices for determining the future, known as divination, but not in the entire gamut of Greek and Latin literature, even though they used the words prophet and prophecy, can we find any real specific prophecy of a great historical event to come in the distant future, nor any prophecy of a Saviour to arrive in the human race… Mohammedanism cannot point to any prophecies of the coming of Mohammed uttered hundreds of years before his birth.’
“Yet in the case of Jesus, he fulfilled over 300 prophecies (spoken by different voices over 500 years), including twenty-nine major prophecies fulfilled in a single day – the day he died.”
Oh dear, it looks to me like game, set and match to Christian orthodoxy!
Switching now to the film, I wonder what you made of it? It seemed to get a panning in the press, and no wonder: for a start it was so very dark! The first 1½ hours of what is only a 2½ hour film take place in darkness, and even at the end the skies over Rosslyn Chapel are a gloomy leaden grey! Oh dear, again! And the plot was not the easiest to follow. As for the music, that must surely be one of the most forgettable sound-tracks ever.
In the light of the above remarks about the blurring of fact and fiction, I was struck by some of the film credits:
• Imagine entertainment
• Skylark Productions
Continuing with irony, what about:
Tom Hanks is made to say: “Destroy faith or renew it.” [Indeed!]
Audrey Tatou avers: “What matters is what you believe.” [hmmm…]
And a delicious piece of no doubt unconscious “pro-American”, “pro-Anglo-Saxon” irony: when daylight finally dawns after 1½ hours, it is when we have left France and are in… England!
If Bleak House on TV scored 9 out of 10, this film probably only got 3 out of 10…
But hey, Dan Brown got us all thinking, even if he also got us into a lather!
Final thought to ponder: isn’t it fascinating though that when Brown uses the word his when referring to Jesus or God it always appears with a capital, i.e. as His? – that is what some would call a respectful, true-blue evangelical style! And the final line may be where it’s at after all: “Robert Langdon fell to his knees.”
Slim tomes you may like to read:
For a simple tour de force riposte:
“The Da Vinci Code – a response” (Revised Edition)
Alpha International 2005
ISBN 1 904074 81 2
For a more scholarly but still slim volume:
“Decoding Da Vinci – The Challenge of Historic Christianity to
Conspiracy and Fantasy”
N T (Tom) Wright, Bishop of Durham
Grove Books, Cambridge 2006
ISBN 1 85174 616 1
For an Australian’s insightful thoughts on our culture and society today:
“Is it Worth Believing? – The Spiritual Challenge of The Da Vinci Code”
Matthias Media, NSW, Australia 2005
ISBN 1 921068 17 5
A great opening to chapter 2:
“In one sense it is obvious how The Da Vinci Code has been received.
With open wallets.”