The Success of a Hoax: The Da Vinci Code, Culture and The Church

In many ways The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown which was published in 2003 is an anomaly in recent publishing history. The thriller,   Brown’s   fourth novel, received glowing reviews from leading newspapers and magazines, and held its place on the New York Times best-seller list for a remarkable sixty weeks. A reviewer from the New York Times describes it as a riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller ’, while The Library Journal raved, ‘This masterpiece should be mandatory reading’. The Chicago Tribune said that the book contained ‘several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation’.

So what is The Da Vinci Code? Is it a one-hit wonder?  Is it a fad? Is it a novel? Why should Christians be bothered with it?

On the surface, The Da Vinci Code is, of course, a novel.  It has a story, a plot, and various characters to play out the story. But The Da Vinci Code is more than this. It claims to deconstruct the history of the church and its traditional teachings regarding Christ. By Brown’s own admission, the novel hopes to provide an alternative account of the history of Christianity. ‘Since the beginning’, Brown asserts, ‘history has been written by the “winners” (those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived)’. ‘My sincere hope’,   he continues,   ‘is that The Da Vinci Code, in addition to entertaining people, will serve as an open door to begin their own explorations’.

Why is The Da Vinci Code so successful? And why is it being taken so seriously by so many readers and by the mainstream media?

On an immediate level, the answer lies in the genre that Brown has chosen to communicate his theories. In his website, Brown admits that the theories that he presents are not new.   What is novel is that for the first time such theories are expounded in the format of a popular thriller. In his chosen format, Brown could entice the reader until the latter is fully absorbed into the ‘secret’ that he unveils. As one reader puts it, ‘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’.

But on a deeper level, the novel panders admirably to the ambiguities and ambivalence of our culture – its suspicion and even deep-seated distrust for institutionalized religions like Christianity on the one hand, and its spiritual restlessness on the other. As Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel put it in their book, The Da Vinci Hoax, ‘The Da Vinci Code is custom-made fiction for our time: pretentious, posturing, self-serving, arrogant, self-congratulatory, condescending, glib, illogical, superficial, and deviant.  It has managed to tap into the deep reservoir of spiritual longing, restlessness, distrust, suspicion, and credulity’.

Philip Jenkins has argued convincingly in similar vein in The New Anti-Catholicism:  The Last Acceptable Prejudice that ‘the main reason for the book’s popularity is deeper, a fundamental suspicion of traditional claims to authority, where they conflict with contemporary ideas and standards, especially over sex and gender. It mainly illustrates a broader suspicion about orthodoxy generally, and the idea that the truth is out there’.

Many decades ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote perceptively that ‘Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves’. The Da Vinci Code is able to enjoy such a huge success precisely because ours is a culture that no longer has respect or patience for truth. It is a culture that has sought to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality, myth and truth. In many ways The Da Vinci Code is the ideal postmodern myth, pulp-fiction style. ‘We have made fiction to suit ourselves’.

The success of the book can be further attributed to the fact that many people do not care that they are historically illiterate. As historian James Hitchcock has put it pointedly,

The Da Vinci Code can be viewed as merely an ephemeral artifact of popular culture, but its immense sales ensure that it will have influence on people who never read serious books. Brown has found a formula for becoming rich: sex, sensationalism, feminism, anti-Catholicism, and the occult. But it is also obvious that he sincerely hates Christianity and sees himself as engaged in an anti-crusade. The culture is ripe for such a debased book, so that even professing Christians are being seduced by it.

Should Christians take the book seriously? Since the appearance of The Da Vinci Code, a steady stream of reviews, articles, essays and books have been written by Christians to debunk its claims. Seminars, conferences and classes are organised to expose the gross historical inaccuracies of the book and the agenda of its author. Some churches have organised comprehensive projects to educate their congregations and the Christian public.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that such efforts are necessary. Some are of the opinion that Christians have over-reacted, while others feel that the enormous interest in the book is just a harmless fad.

I think Christians should take the book seriously. Imagine if someone were to write a novel that argues that the Holocaust never really happened, and that it was fabricated by a group of powerful Jews, who used the ‘myth’ to attain for they power and fortune. Or imagine a novel that claims that the prophet Mohammed was a violent alcoholic and a homosexual.  Such novels should be rightly condemned, not just by the relevant religious communities but also by a majority of critics and readers. The Da Vinci Code claims that Christianity is fraudulent, that the church is a misogynist, violent institution, and that Jesus was a mere mortal. Christians have every right to respond to such claims.

But there is another reason why Christians should take the book seriously. And that is because the book has caused much confusion even among Christians. One Christian reader wrote, ‘Honestly, [reading the book] shook my whole faith. I realise that the book is fiction, but much of what he wrote about seemed like it was based on historical facts aside from the characters. Since I am not a Christian scholar I don’t even know where to begin to refute such claims’. The issues raised in the book must be addressed because there are Christians who need guidance and help.

However, it is not enough for the church to organize seminars to address the issues raised by The Da Vinci Code. The success of the book, and the confusion that it has caused among Christians should remind the church of the importance of its teaching ministry. The church neglects this important ministry only at its own peril. In

2004, I published a brief review of The Da Vinci Code in the Methodist Message. I think the words I wrote in the concluding paragraph of the review still ring true and bear repeating as I end this essay:

… the success of the book should serve as a wake-up call for the Christian church. It should challenge Christians to know their own history and to steep themselves in the apostolic tradition that shapes their faith. It serves as a clarion call for Christians to take theological truth seriously.

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