Sunday, May 28, 2006

More of the Da Vinci Debate

This is an article which recently appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; I found it through the BAR Companion. I think it's an astute treatment of the tremendous positive side of The Da Vinci Code, which often gets lost amidst scholars' critiques of Brown's scholarship and conservative Christians' bitter diatribes against a perceived threat to their faith. Whether it's right or wrong--and it most likely falls somewhere in between--this book has created a tremendous amount of interest in Christianity's formative years. And I think that's great.

So what is true in "The Da Vinci Code?"

As scholars of religion who study the New Testament and the history of Christianity, we often are asked this question at cocktail parties and on airplanes. With 46 million copies of the book sold, and with the impending release of the movie starring Tom Hanks, that curiosity is not likely to abate.

Whatever "The Da Vinci Code" has done for the publishing industry, it has been an unexpected boon for serious religious scholarship. The book's success has caused people far removed from the classroom or from university libraries to ask questions like, "Who wrote the gospels in the New Testament?" and, "How did the New Testament get put together?" and, "What role did women play in Jesus' ministry and after his death?" and, "What happened to women later in Christianity?"

In short, it has popularized the study of the New Testament as a historical text, and it has brought the feminist study of religion out of the closet.

"The Da Vinci Code" story contends that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship that produced offspring, and that Constantine and the Church imposed their version of Christianity by suppressing most texts written about Jesus, and by oppressing the "divine feminine." It would take an extremely selective reading of a very few texts to support these ideas -- to say nothing of the lectures that the book's hero, a Harvard professor of "religious symbology," manages to sandwich between improbable escapes.

But the book also says that, for centuries, Jesus' followers regarded him as entirely human. Today, when most Christians recite the Nicene Creed affirming both Jesus' humanity and his divinity, this seems equally far-fetched. But from the late third through sixth centuries, Christians did indeed debate how Jesus could be human and divine at the same time. What to make of the debate's revival in the pages of Dan Brown's best seller?

As one reviewer on wrote, "With his impeccable research, Mr. Brown introduces us to aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity that I, for one, had never known existed ... or even thought about. I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the novel, and time and time again going online to research Brown's research -- only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me."

The Web is a terrible source for historical research, and Brown's research is hardly "impeccable," but his novel may well inspire future generations of scholars.

As Karen King, who actually is a professor at Harvard Divinity School, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, popularizing works like "The Da Vinci Code" "may lead people to be more critical, questioning, inquiring and engaging with religion. Boy, do we need that. Any kind of work that emphasizes a critical, constructive engagement with religion can only be good for us."

Too many Americans distrust religion as an academic subject. Secularists think it has something to do with preaching. Believers worry it's an attempt to debunk their faith. But it is neither. It's an attempt to understand one of the most important phenomena in contemporary life. In a country where 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christian, and in the middle of a war charged with religious overtones, it's a subject that should be taught in the high schools, along with English, math and history.
Instead, out of some misinterpretation of the First Amendment, it's barely mentioned.

We both grew up going to church, where we were taught to regard the Bible as if a Jerusalem publishing house issued it in 33 A.D. It wasn't until college that we learned that the earliest gospel in the New Testament, the gospel of Mark, was written at least 30 years after Jesus' death, included no resurrection story, and even may not have been written by Mark. As the Gospel of Judas reminds us, early Christians disagreed about who Jesus was, what his message and his death meant, and who properly understood these meanings. Many "Christianities," rather than one single "Christianity," flourished. Is it scandalous to say so? One top Vatican official has called for a boycott of the movie, but many other Christians and Catholics do not oppose it because they know that to study the forces that shaped the history of Christianity is to understand it better. And, perhaps, care about it more deeply.

The popularity of "The Da Vinci Code" attests to American ignorance about the history of Christianity -- and a profound desire to learn about it.

So, what is true in "The Da Vinci Code"? Did Jesus actually have a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene? If Mary was the first to see Jesus resurrected in the New Testament, why is she not considered an apostle?

We'll see you in class.