The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has been a hugely popular novel, with sales beyond any author’s wildest dreams and with a general release film based on it. Controversy has surrounded it as readers have been drawn into the world of the novel and confronted with all sorts of theories and conspiracies which appear to call into question the origins and subsequent history of Christianity. Some of the responses from Christian groups have been surprisingly strong considering the book is, after all, a novel. But are there grounds for thinking that Dan Brown deliberately implied the actual historical truth of the novel’s improbable central hypothesis? If this is true, is it a perfectly legitimate literary technique or, as the novel’s critics claim, a cheap hoax calculated to lead millions of readers astray?
Finding The Facts
An entry on The Da Vinci Code phenomenon in Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, provides a synopsis of the novel and an outline of its plot and characters. While author Dan Brown has never claimed that his novel is anything but fiction, the way it is written, especially the opening ‘Fact’ page, certainly conveys the impression that the novel is based on reputable scholarship and reliable theorising. However, to anyone even moderately familiar with the development of the New Testament or early Church history, it is obvious that many liberties have been taken with well established facts. Deconstructing the Da Vinci Code includes a fact and fallacy section which addresses the many inaccuracies in the novel concerning the scriptures and early Church history.
- Have class members conduct a survey, perhaps of another class or the school staff or a parish group, in relation to The Da Vinci Code.Help class members devise survey questions to explore the impact of the novel, e.g. How many had read the novel? How many enjoyed it? What made the novel enjoyable? (Optional responses could be included, e.g. that it was fast-paced/intriguing/plausible/scholarly.) How many thought it was basically truthful and historically reliable? How many felt it contributed to their spiritual insight or knowledge? How many felt that the novel challenged their beliefs? How many thought the novel inaccurate and badly researched? How many plan to see the film? Use the Stop, look and listenthinking routine to explore reliability of truth claims and sources of both the novel and its critics.
- Use the results of the survey to determine the overall impact of the novel.
- In general, do the articles you have read so far on The Da Vinci Code tend to confirm or question its historical accuracy? Does it matter whether this novel is historically accurate or not? Explain your opinion.
Read Dan Brown’s own view of the novel in an interview in which he defends his novel as raising questions about religion which people ought to explore. Brown has said all along that his book is fiction, not history. However, the style in which The Da Vinci Code is written, especially the way historical places and persons and movements are incorporated into the plot, blurs the distinction in many people’s minds between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Readers easily understand that the protagonists Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu are fictional, but may also be inclined to accept the truth of the ‘historical’ accounts and theories which are often equally fictional. Brown manipulates the facts and exploits real data to further the intrigue, excitement and apparent authenticity of the novel, but in doing so he seems to substantially distort what is known of the Christian past. Is this an valid use of historical material?
Peter Goldsworthy, an Australian writer, robustly defends the right of everybody to question received truths, whether religious, political or scientific, in whichever way they see fit. He would extend this freedom even to extremists, trusting to the commonsense of people to see through bogus, inhumane or inaccurate writing. Others dismiss The Da Vinci Code as a ‘formulaic knock-off of fascistic conspiracy theories … it is a book whose publishers flooded the preview/review market with thousands of free copies. Yet for many students, it is the book that brought them into the English major. For others, it is the only book they’ve ever enjoyed reading. IS it possible that even a Bad Book can do Good?’
What really happened?
Many think that writers, especially of factual or historical novels, do have an ethical responsibility to be honest as far as possible in the presentation of historical facts. Of course historical ‘facts’ are not always as concrete and clear-cut as we might imagine. An article on the philosophy of history, suitable for teachers and senior students, looks at various questions in history, including whether it is ever possible to find out ‘what really happened’ (scroll through the article to the heading ‘Historical Facts’).
- To what extent are readers entitled to trust the historical accuracy and reliability of novels? Use theThink, pair, share routine to nut out your response to this question.
- Was Dan Brown dishonest to claim in the preface to his novel that ‘all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate’? Or is his preface itself a legitimate part of the technique of setting the scene for his story?
- Can we rely on any historical facts? Debate this question using the What makes you say that? routine..
- ‘Truth, what is that?’ Discuss this famous quotation from the Gospel of John in relation to The Da Vinci Code. (See also articles in Understanding the Tradition)
Exploring Sacred Texts
History and the New Testament
What do scripture scholars have to contribute to this discussion? How ‘historical’ are the texts of the New Testament, especially the gospels? Scholars of the New Testament are frequently quoted as saying that the gospels are theological books, not biographies or history books. Nevertheless, Christianity is a historical religion, and the gospels in particular are rooted and located in a very specific social, cultural and religious context. They are also the most accurate records we have of the facts concerning Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity. A quick glance at how the New Testament was formed and an article by Professor R Franceprovide a summary of the consensus position of New Testament scholars on the extent to which the gospels are reliably accurate on history. Daniel Harrington SJ tries to answer the question How Do We Know Who Jesus Is?
The Historical Jesus
In an excerpt entitled ‘The Historical Jesus’ scholar Luke Timothy Johnson takes a look at what happens when scholars try to ‘push past the limits imposed by historical sources’ in their efforts to discover ‘the facts’ about Jesus. Some of what he says also applies to novelists like the author of The Da Vinci Code.
- Given that biblical scholars freely acknowledge that the gospels are not strictly factual accounts of the life of Jesus, what would you say, is the essential difference between them and the interpretations suggested in books such as The Da Vinci Code?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
Conspiracy theories and arcane ideas are far from new to a 2000 year old institution like the Catholic Church. Gnosticism was one of the first ‘systems’ of thought to be confronted by the Church. Variations on the concept of secret knowledge and insight leading to union with God have recurred regularly in the history of the Church, sometimes being suppressed with great force. However, few Church officials have been concerned by the success of Dan Brown’s novel, although some Vatican leaders disapprove of the fad for esoteric theories based on aspects of the life of Jesus which simply cannot be known.
Some have actually welcomed the novel’s phenomenal success as stimulating new interest in Christian origins. This has provided a chance to clarify misconceptions, assert the reliability of the gospels and encourage interest in Church history. This is very much the line taken by Sr Elizabeth Johnson, quoted in an article which explains the distortions of the understanding of Mary Magdalene, both in the novel and in the tradition of the Church.
In response to the widespread interest in the novel, the American bishops have put online a site entitled Jesus Decoded which switches the focus on to Jesus himself. This compresses discussion of a number of issues surrounding the novel into a couple of minutes.
- Many scholars believe that the Church’s effort to answer Gnostic distortions of the faith stimulated the writing of a significant part of the New Testament: a classic example of how inspired ideas can be stimulated by genuine but inadequate ideas. What useful responses might be made to the challenges to Christian faith posed by various esoteric religious groups of our own time?
- Use the creative Questions routine to explore how the history of the Church would be different if Dan Brown’s version of what happened were true. What scriptures would we have? Would there be sacraments? How would the Church be organised? Would it have survived? What would be the role of women? What commitment would there be to truth, peace, justice and learning? What would be the relationship between Church and State???
Respecting Other World Views
A somewhat similar parallel with the controversy over The Da Vinci Code is the storm triggered by a Danish paper publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Just as some Christians are offended by the novel’s theories about Jesus and its falsification of Church history, some Muslims are deeply offended by the caricatures of Mohammed. A BBC Q and A feature highlights aspects of the controversy and its consequences.
- What are the parallels between the publishing of The Da Vinci Code and the printing of the cartoons of Mohammed, and what are the differences?
- What limits, if any, are there to the right to free speech?
Examining Personal Experience
Having read the novel and the many comments and opinions above, what is your own response to The Da Vinci Code? Why, apart from clever marketing, has this book been so wildly popular? What nerve has it touched in the secular West? What aspects of human and religious experience might it be appealing to, and what fears and suspicions catering to? Is it an unethical piece of mendacious literature which undercuts Christianity? Or is it simply a fast-paced piece of popular fiction that works very well as a story, but is sadly lacking in careful historical research?