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Crazed Catholics 

Wednesday, May 17 2006

Hate, Fear and?The Da Vinci Code

Unlike the Bible, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. But like the Bible, it makes sense of an absurd and chaotic world. Not logical sense, maybe, but intuitive sense. People like that. And they respond.

Published in March 2003, the conspiracy/mystery/adventure potboiler has continued to sell so well in hardcover that it went to paperback only two months ago. Brown got $6 million for the film rights, and with the Tom Hanks vehicle just out, the book will have moved more than 50 million units within the year.

It was obviously always intended to be a movie. Not every mystery novel has murderous albino monks, scholars who make leaping escapes through high windows, murder victims who pose like famous artworks, or more than two or three car/plane chases. Brown did everything but name his main character Indiana.

It’s more than the cinematic aspect of the thing, though, that makes The Da Vinci Code such a bell-ringer. Brown has understood what people hate, fear and hope for.

What they hate is the Catholic Church. Here’s a religion that has waved red flags at too many interest groups. To parents, it represents child molestation. To women, it represents unequal treatment and birth-control prohibition. To evangelicals, it represents legalistic remoteness from the fundamentals of faith. To First World liberals, it represents moral rigidity, backwardness, hypocrisy and greed. And Brown, eager to push buttons and knowing that readers are uncomfortable with shades of gray, has virtually stuck devil horns on his book’s venal, cynical, lying, power-mad or simply misguided Catholics. Of course, even white supremacists aren’t that bad, but references to the church’s stands opposing war and promoting human rights would have been distracting. Catholics correctly point out that if Jews or Muslims got the same kind of media treatment, there’d be a firestorm of outrage, especially considering the pains Brown has taken to indicate that all the organizations and locations mentioned in The Da Vinci Code are real. Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organization so cartoonishly ogrified in the book, has warned the filmmakers against riling Catholics, pointing to what happened with the Danish Muhammad caricatures. But O.D. has said it doesn’t plan to boycott the movie. Yet.

What people fear is the modern world. They feel powerless in the face of it. First, it can easily seem that every single thing they’re told is a lie, that 1984 came true at least 22 years ago, and that the deception and mind control have only gotten worse. They’re suspicious of computers and the Internet, the technology and scope of which are ungraspable, even as they acknowledge utter dependence on them. In The Da Vinci Code, the symbol for those fears is the suppression of the Sacred Feminine, a wiser and more humanistic paradigm driven underground by the Masters of Control.

So people hope for simplicity, escape, connection with the Real, a.k.a. the Sangre Real, the Royal Blood, the Holy Grail. And The Da Vinci Code provides a magic key. The idea is that if we turned away from the false path and walked down the enlightened road of Mary Magdalene, we could break through. Such a revelatory acid trip would change everything. That, in fact, is just the goal toward which Da Vinci’s valiant Gnostics strove, though their methods were a lot more gradual.

Being a bunch of feeble hippies, they got their asses kicked in this world of illusion.

The Da Vinci Tomes

When it comes to spawning related books, The Da Vinci Code has put a mama salmon to shame, with more than three dozen in English having appeared in only the last several months to ride the movie’s slipstream. Walk into your local bookstore, and you’re sure to bang into a big display. There has been historical context (Bart D. Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code). There has been religious outrage (Rejecting The Da Vinci Code: How a Blasphemous Novel Brutally Attacks Our Lord and the Catholic Church). There have been travel books. (Dan Brown’s got one!) There have been parodies. There have been three Idiot’s Guides. There have even been fitness books (The Diet Code: Revolutionary Weight Loss Secrets From Da Vinci and the Golden Ratio). I read them all, cover to cover (not). Here are three notables.

GNOSIS IS KNOWLEDGE, and knowledge is a curse. (Remember, it’s the tree of knowledge whose apples caused the Fall.) So idiots are electable; genii finish last. Faith gets you welcomed; enlightenment gets you persecuted. No wonder Gnostics through the last few millennia have spent so much time underground: The overground is dangerous dirt.

The activities of Gnostic-type secret societies are the hub around which the plot of The Da Vinci Code turns. But what exactly do Gnostics believe, and where do their beliefs come from? Richard Smoley, author of Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy From the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code, wants to tell you, and he does a marvelous job.

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