Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

For Kelvin who asked. :-)

Much good stuff has already been written on the subject so it's embarrassing to add to all that's out there. Perhaps just the broad strokes will do?

Like many others, upon first reading a borrowed copy of the eagerly awaited "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, I found it quite a rubbishy letdown, returned the book to its owner and thought no more about it, because correcting all the errors in the world won't get people saved, but telling them the gospel will.

However, in the intervening years, the book has been the target of incredible amounts of interest from non-Christians and Christians alike (even the Fortean Times), spawning articles on plagarism, reports on "plagarism evidence", "additional" theories about Da Vinci's "Last Supper", an unauthorised biography of Dan Brown, dredged up mp3s of the author singing and even a website set up by Sony for "dialogue" with Christian leaders (sneaky!).

Now that a movie is to be released by Sony as soon as it clears the legal hurdle of a suit filed by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh for copying their work (update: 14 March 2006 - Dan Brown gives his witness statement, 17 March 2006 - the defence wraps its case, 7 April 2006 - High Court dismisses the claim) in "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail", it's worth another look, if only because all this publicity's a readymade bridge to the world.

I've found that knowledge of the historical accuracy and veracity of what I put my trust in is especially helpful for recalling why I put my trust in Jesus in the first place, more so when the going gets tough.

*Spoilers follow. But then again, the plot (if there is one) is a fairly easy guess in any case.*

The Plot
This is Greg Clarke's summary in "Is It Worth Believing?: The Spiritual Challenge of the Da Vinci Code" (read an extract here):
Harvard Professor of Religious Symbology, Robert Langdon, is called in by Bézu Fache, captain of the French Police, to investigate a murder. The murdered man is Jacques Saunière, curator of The Louvre, the famous art gallery in Paris. Langdon's assistance is required, because Saunière has left a baffling collection of symbolic messages, beginning with the positioning of his own corpse in the shape of Leonardo Da Vinci's drawing, The Vitruvian Man. Langdon is joined by Sophie Neveu, an agent of the French Police and a cryptographer - one trained in the science and art of deciphering riddles. Together, they begin to piece together the clues as to why Saunière was murdered and what secrets he was endeavouring to pass on as he met his demise.

The assassin is, in fact, a tragic figure called Silas, a "hulking albino" is described as a monk in the Opus Dei group within the Catholic Church. He is doing the dirtywork of his "Father", Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, who in turn is in the service of a shadowy character called "The Teacher" ("Aringarosa" in Italian means something like "red herring"). Together, they have systematically killed off the last remaining keepers of the secrets that Saunière was attempting to pass on.

These secrets belong to a group called the Priory of Sion, a secret society claimed to have existed since medieval times. Among this group's previous Grand Masters have been famous figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo and Leonardo Da Vinci. What secrets does the group hold? Many, but the most startling one concerns the true history of Christianity - that Jesus was not divine, but a mortal prophet who was married to one of his followers, Mary Magdalene.

Clues to this secret history of Christianity can be found throughout the great works of Western art and architecture, for those who have eyes to see them. Robert and Sophie come to realise that the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion are being murdered to prevent them from making public these secrets of true faith. The Catholic Church, it seems, has a vested interest in maintaining the "falsehoods" that Christians everywhere believe.

Robert and Sophie learn this alternative history when they visit Sir Leigh Teabing, a wealthy and bombastic scholar who was once Royal Historian and now lives in a castle northwest of Paris. Teabing is fascinated by the legend of the Holy Grail, and has reinterpreted it to refer to this story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. She is the real Holy Grail, the vessel by which Jesus' influence on the world continues. Teabing is desperate to solve the mystery of the Grail - his life's ambition is to find the final resting place of Mary Magdalene and whatever secrets and treasures might be found with her bones. He will stop at nothing; in fact, he is The Teacher behind the assassinations.

The quest for the Grail accelerates as the different parties race from France to Switzerland to Scotland to England. It ends with the unravelling of Teabing's devious schemes, and the reuniting of Sophie with her long-lost family - who are, to her great surprise, in the bloodline of Jesus. Finally, Robert solves the mystery of where the Grail lies - back beneath The Louvre, where the whole adventure began.
What implications does this book have on our lives whether we are Christians or non-believers?

First off, what we make of "The Da Vinci Code" is determined by the type of literature it is. If it is a purely fictional tale out of the plagarised minds of several people, there would be no hue-and-cry over it.

But even though the book has been touted as a "novel", Mr. Brown makes it clear that it is a work based on facts. Even before the Prologue, the author states 3 facts:
The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organisation. In 1975, Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Doessiers 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 brain-washing, 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.
In his FAQ, Dan Brown says:
The Da Vinci Code is a novel and therefore a work of fiction. While the book's characters and their actions are obviously not real, the artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals depicted in this novel all exist (for example, Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings, the Gnostic Gospels, Hieros Gamos, etc.). These real elements are interpreted and debated by fictional characters. While it is my belief that some of the theories discussed by these characters may have merit, each individual reader must explore these characters' viewpoints and come to his or her own interpretations. 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.
While this is his claim, the "Fact Sheet" quoted above, the characters are portrayed as reliable and reputable persons in their fields and the reader is encouraged not just to trust the existence of the artwork, architecture, documents, secret rituals, but also that their interpretations by the characters in the novel. The fictional-narrative method seems to be a vehicle for propogating those interpretations in a more interesting and readable way, rather than being mere elements for spicing up a fictional storyline.

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?
But so what if that which Dan Brown (perhaps on hindsight) now claims is pure fiction is infact promulgated as "facts" in his book? Why should it have any impact on our lives?

This depends on why we believe what we believe and how our values and worldviews are formed:
  • some people might site sociological factors: because their parents had these beliefs, values and worldviews and this is what they grew up with.

    But at some point in their adolescence, most people are able to ask why they should continue to adhere to the beliefs of their parents and proceed to set their own course if they notice that the beliefs they have held thus far do not accord with the reality they have experienced or observed;

  • some might believe because something "feels right", "has good vibes", "gives a feeling of peace" or because their intuition tells them to do so. Unfortunately, this has as much to do with the objective truth as, say, a fortune cookie or an 8-ball;
  • others believe because they have experienced something which forms the basis of their belief. But experience as a basis for believing something is fraught with difficulty. Perhaps the person who had the experience misinterpreted it and came to a wrong conclusion about it. For example, the usual boy-girl relationship problems that teens have: a boy listens to a girl pour out her problems and buys her a meal when she is down. The girl experiences this show of brotherly love and believes that he wishes to be more than friends. A terrible misinterpretation of the situation which leads to tears and heartbreak later on; and
  • the strongest reason of all, because there is evidence for those beliefs. Clarke says that evidence is anything that supports the belief - objects, writings, people, facts.
And the beliefs and interpretations proffered by the characters in "The Da Vinci Code" simply are not well-supported by evidence.

Errors and Corrections
In "The Gospel Code", Ben Witherington III looks at some of the main errors in "The Da Vinci Code". I've divided these into 3 main categories:
  1. errors concerning the sources of truth; which lead to
  2. errors concerning Jesus; which lead to
  3. errors concerning the church.
Errors Concerning the Sources of Truth
Error 1: The Dead Sea Scrolls along with the Nag Hammadi documents are the earliest Christian records

The character, Teabing, supposedly a Grail enthusiast and scholar, argues,"In addition to telling the true Grail story, these documents speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms".

This is so false it's what the British would call a howler. The Dead Sea Scrolls are purely Jewish documents, that is, they are the documents and library of early Jews who lived at the Dead Sea before Christ. They aren't Christian and so no Christian documents were found there. It is hardly surprising that they don't "speak of Christ's ministry" at all. Teabing should have known that.

There is no evidence that any of the Nag Hammadi documents existed before the late 2nd century AD, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas. The canonical Gospels had already been written and accepted by the church before the Nag Hammadi writers put ink to papyrus!

Error 2: The canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are not the earliest Gospels; rather the earliest are the suppressed Gnostic Gospels (such as the "Gospel of Philip" or the "Gospel of Mary")
Teabing and Langdon claim several times that the 4 canonical Gospels were chosen from among some 80 competing Gospels by the Roman emperor, Constantine.

First of all, the fact is that there were less than 20 documents that might be called "Gospels", or stories of Jesus' life here on earth.

Secondly, the Gnostic Gospel were written late in the second century or even the third century A.D. The canonical Gospels were written mainly during the first century!

Thirdly, there are only about 45 fragments of these Gnostic Gospels, as opposed to the 5,000 copies (counting the Greek version only) of the New Testament.

Ah, but perhaps that is because...
Error 3: Emperor Constantine suppressed and eradicated the "earlier" Gnostic Gospels and imposed the canonical Gospels at the Council of Nicea
Well, the Gnostic Gospels were simply never recognised as authoritative in the church. Lack of recognition is certainly not the same as suppression. The four canonical Gospels were already recognised as sacred and authoritative by 130 A.D (Irenaeus reports this and we also have the witness of the Muratorian Canon, a list of Christian book from the period 150-200 A.D.). This was before the Gnostic Gospels were written and long before Constantine was even conceived.

Constantine became sole emperor in the West only in 312 A.D. and the Council of Nicea was only convened in 325 A.D.

In any case, the Council's conclusions had nothing to do with the canon of the Bible. They were actually debating certain aspects of the divinity of Christ.

(And although it is fashionable to include the Gnostic texts along with the New Testament as equally valid sources of the truth, both sets of documents are so different in theological and understanding of Jesus and the movement he set in motion, that they cannot both be correct. Read them for yourselves here.)

Errors Concerning Jesus
Error 1: Jesus was a great man or prophet in the earliest historical sources but was later proclaimed divine at the Council of Nicaea
The canonical Gospels which predate the Council of Nicea already proclaimed the divinity of Jesus. By the time of the Council of Nicaea, the debate assumed the fact of his divinity and the dispute was actually the more nitpicky question of whether Jesus had a divine substance like the Father or whether he shared the same substance with the Father. It certainly did not bother with voting the fact of his divinity which was already taken to be true.

Error 2: Jesus must have been married since he was an early Jew
As unusual as it might have been, it wasn't unprecedented for an early Jewish leader or a particularly devout Jew to abstain from marriage for some religious purpose. Prominent non-Christian Jewish writers from the New Testament era, Josephus and Philo, both refer to celibate Jews during this time.

Various prophetic figures reamined single in earlier Jewish eras. Elijah appears without family (1-2 Kings) and is taken up into heaven at the close of his ministry. Hosea had to be commanded by God to take a wife. John the Baptist was clearly an ascetic in both diet and relationships. There is no reason why Jesus could not have likewise abstained from marriage and sexual relations.

In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul asks,"Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?".

Error 3: Jesus was married and the reason why this was suppressed was that it would affect his divinity
It is a false notion that if Jesus had sexual relationships with a wife and sired offspring, this would be defiling. There is no reason why Jesus could not have been married and have been divine at the same time. Jesus did not teach that sex was defiling (indeed, in Mark 10:1-2, he speaks of it as the means by which two become one flesh as God intended).

So there is no reason fro suppressing any fact that Jesus was married. There's just no evidence anywhere that he was.

Errors Concerning Gnosticism
Even though The Da Vinci Code seems to promote Gnosticism, it doesn't seem to understand its fundamental tenets.

Gnosticism doesn't value mundane events, processes or persons. It is concerned purely with the spiritual. Normal ways of relating (eg. marriage and sexual intercourse) are seen as inherently defiling. Gnostics withdraw from the world and deny the goodness of matter and bodies. Salvation is a matter of knowing the right things (which doesn't include the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ).

Gnostic texts would see sexual union as tainting and evil and would never advocate it as a means to see God. The concept of the "sacred feminine" is actually a pagan belief because for Gnostics, male or female was unimportant, only asceticism was key.

Why Bother?
Why should the truth or untruth of Dan Brown's this affect us? Isn't this the consequence of yet another media frenzy, giving us something to talk about on blogs like the ah peks in coffeeshops?

Many enjoy "The Da Vinci Code" because it tells them what they want to hear: that the Establishment can't be trusted, that females are sacred, that we can believe what we want to believe whenever we want to believe, tell ourselves fairy stories and not be hemmed in by historical facts.

But telling fact from fiction is important because our lives depend on it: if what the canonical Gospels say are true, then we are in great danger. We are enemies of God and his wrath is on us. If the canonical Gospels are true, then we can escape the wrath of the God of the Universe through the substitutionary death of his Son, Jesus Christ, who took God's wrath upon himself that we might live. And we can take hold of this escape route if we trust in him.

Other Resources:
The Da Vinci Code Project
"Redeeming The Da Vinci Code" by Michael Gleghorn
"Not InDavincible" by James Patrick Holding
"Articles about The Da Vinci Code" by Gary C Burger
Woah. Amphipolis responds by chapters. Start with his post on 28 July 2005.
Ben Witherington III's blog butofcourse
"How would you go about demonstrating the historical reliability of the Gospels?" - an essay I wrote, while not yet Christian, for theology class. The style is juvenile, there was a word limit of 1,000 words and it is beset by typos but still fairly useful.

Ben Witherington III will be in Singapore in June for a seminar. Details are:
The National Council of Churches Singapore Seminar
Venue: St. Andrew's Cathedral
Dates: 1st June and 2nd June 2006
Time: 7.45pm - 10.00pm
Limited seats on a first-come-first-served basis
Please email if you need more information.


At April 19, 2006 10:35 pm , Anonymous nonymous said...

very useful!

At April 21, 2006 2:45 am , Blogger kelvin said...

Shadow, YOU ROCK!!!(I have class in 5 hours so I will make my comments brief...)

Like I said, I haven't read the book, though I have the eCopy (I have a gazillion books that I have not read, just lying there under the DSMs and APA Manuals). But I'm glad Dan Brown wrote it (and I'm glad that you are up-to-date with the court trial[s]). Too bad you didn't like it. I'm not reading the book because I don't want to spoil the movie for myself.

Books like that (fiction or not) bring about controveries that spur investigations for the truth. Like I always say: How can you know what is really good, if you don't know what is bad (or vv).

Anyway, (just to go slightly off tangent) I think there are great secrecies within the old (Catholic)Church that have been kept for many centuries. Some of which are still there, but it has been so long, that no one really know why they kept them in the first place. But God forbid that any one should find something that will reveal some historic truth. Anyway...

This novel has cleverly used physical evidences to weave up a story that may be plausable (with other variables factored in). I'm actually inspired to write a mystery/thriller story based on SBS bus schedule timing (I think there is a conspiracy between the bus company and insurance agencies. Really!).

So, from a fiction novel standpoint, is the story believable (like Snow White and the 7 Little People [as they prefer to be called]); is it gripping (like LOST-the TV show); (and for the publishers) can it sell (like Pokemon and Harry Potter)...

Can anyone imagine a world without the DVC? There will be no one walking away puzzled by what their Sunday school teacher says and what they read in the DVC; there will be no Christian writers digging up their seminal notebooks, working their asses off, trying to publish articles that clarifies the Truth vs. the DVC; there will be no kids wanting to seek the Truth for themselves and going into the History Department of universities; there will no intellectual questioning of evidence and the political role (if any) of the Church; worst of all, there will be no Tom Hanks movie, how can anyone survive without a Tom Hanks movie?

Then again, I'm the kind of person that watches "I have a date with a vampire" (All 3 seasons). The kind of weaving they created in that show is more complicated (and more hilarious) that the DVC. Maybe that is why, the DVC hit too close to home. People are uncomfortable... for various reasons. They are uncomfortable because it insulted their Lord; they are uncomfortable because they have no idea what is real anymore; or (in the US) they are uncomfortable because they are afraid that it makes them less creditable to the (voting) public...etc... the reason can go on

I think faith is like a muscle, it needs to be worked in order to be strengthened. It needs to tear and be wore before it can be stronger. The DVC can be a good workout gym... and it looks like you had a good workout.

p.s. Did Jesus really walked on Water? The April 2006 Volume of the Journal of Paleolimnology suggested that there are evidence that Jesus COULD have walked on ice.
Well, just to borrow from Steve, if they had any balls, they would have made claims (like the Bible) that Jesus HAD walked on ice whether they had evidence or not. TTYL

At April 29, 2006 12:19 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

More here:


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