I’m finally able to begin on what I had hoped to do a month ago — discuss the deeper cultural meaning and impact of The Da Vinci Code. What led up to this book and the film, which have been such an amazing cultural phenomenon? It is based on several things that have been going on for some years — a combination of post-modern skepticism and cynicism, rejection of the notion of an ultimate reality, New Age beliefs, spiritualism and the occult, feminism, wicca and goddess worship. One of the most popular of these threads has been a fixture in our culture for the past 30 years or so — the theories on myth and religion of Joseph Campbell, the high priest of myth in our day.
Campbell rejected traditional religion in favor of myth and metaphor. Jesus is only one of many heroes of myth. His historical existence is not important. The message of his myth, like that of all other myths, can be reduced on the psychological side to the need for individuation and separation from one’s parents, and on the spiritual side, to contact with some vague, nebulous “god” who is little more than a projection of the self. For him, the metaphysical realm is equivalent to the unconcious. Campbell’s theory, based on Freudian and Jungian analysis, was one basis for the Star Wars series. George Lucas has described himself as a follower of Campbell, and Lucas’ films followed Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern of rejection of and final reconciliation with the father.
Much of Dan Brown’s thought (if it can be called that) is based on Campbell’s theories. But the focus has turned away from Campbell’s outdated Freudian and Jungian analysis to an often less-noted aspect of his work: his celebration of feminist goddess religion and symbols, and his tirade against male- dominated religion. The book’s author, Dan Brown, says that Campell was a great influence on him. Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, is a” symbologist.” There is actually no such discipline. It is Brown’s popularization of the idea of the Campbellian expert on myth interpreting its symbols for us. This theory leads us away from any idea that historical and factual reality is in any way important. Toward the end of the novel, Langdon says:
Every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith — acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to help our minds process the unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors . . . Those who truly understand their faiths understand that the stories are metaphorical. (DVC, pp. 341-42).
This is almost unadulterated Campbell. This view is specifically identified with the female. At the end of book Sophie’s grandmother says, with an air of amusement: “Why is it that men simply cannot let the Grail rest?” She says that the mystery of the Grail is more important than the object itself, implying that only men with their logical and factual views want to know what really happened. (If this is Brown’s actual view of women, most of the women I know would laugh at it).
In Brown’s work then, an alternative history is presented, which makes readers feel they are pursuing the truth (and the movie’s poster says “Seek the truth”), yet what has traditionally been thought to be the ultimate goal of seeking the truth — certainty about the truth — is declared to be unimportant, if not outright denied. All trace of a belief in objective historical reality behind religion, much less a transcendent God, disappears. Which makes it all the more amazing that Brown himself goes around saying that the theories about Jesus, the Grail, Mary Magdalene, etc are true and really happened. Evidently he doesn’t understand his own book very well — that is, he completely misunderstood Campbell, even while parroting his theories.
Why has this laughably incoherent book been so popular? Many people still feel a nostalgia for Christianity and desire to be close to the person of Jesus, but they want to do it without having to buy into a Church or a specific doctrine, much less having to believe a divine being who wants them to obey moral rules. Some would say this is because the Church is authoritarian, and that its morality is preached only by the hypocritical. Perhaps, but I would guess that the deepest reason is a simple dislike in our narcissistic culture for the idea of heroism and sacrifice, true death and rebirth. Campbell‘s hero not very heroic in this sense: he is still trying to become an individual and break away from his parents. He does not appear to be someone who could give his life for the world in any real sense.
In The Da Vinci Code, modern “goddess religion” attempts to mix with Christianity – but it is a Christianity watered down and stripped of meaning, because it has no use for the divinity of Jesus; it misunderstands or more often completely denies the meaning of Christ’s sacrificial death. As a result, it renders the search for overcoming evil in the world meaningless — not that secularism is doing any better.
Instead, Campbell and his latest fictional incarnation encourage us to find God within us. We simply choose the metaphor that comforts us most. We are navel-gazing gods, while war, terrorism and genocide wash over us.
This is why I’ve been very disatisfied with some of the books that attempt to debunk The Da Vinci Code. Most of them are good at supplying the facts that are obscured by Brown’s fantasies, but don’t get to the root of the actual dissatisfactions with the Church that his readers experience, or the actual world view that the book appeals to. But then, the answers are often hidden from the debunkers themselves, because Christians know so little about their own heritage about myth and metaphor in relation to God.
For instance, Ben Witherington’s The Gospel Code attempts to deal with Brown’s appeal to a longing for a feminine aspect to God. He does this by showing how the New Testament’s idea of God the Father is necessary. Many people with this kind of question will tune him out instantly. He might have done better by pointing out that well before “Sophia” or Holy Wisdom, the feminine aspect of God, was taken over by the Gnostics, she was the daughter and emanation of God in the Old Testament. Both Eastern and Western orthodox Christianity retained memories of Sophia (or, in Latin, Sapientia). In the Middle Ages, spiritual writer Henry Suso spoke of his mystical marriage with Christ as wedding Lady Sapientia. Much of his language was echoed by English anchoress Julian of Norwich, who also spoke of Jesus as our mother. Most Christians themselves are ignorant of this heritage. But it clearly serves to show that “the sacred feminine” has existed in Christianity since the beginning. Our Christian culture needs to recover something of this — but it doesn’t need to buy the bilge Dan Brown is offering to do so.
Most of all, however, it’s Brown’s (and Campbell’s) misuse of the ideas of myth and metaphor that I think needs correcting. If may take a whole book to do so — one I would love to write. At present, there definitely doesn’t seem to be time for that. But perhaps in a few more posts over the next few weeks, I can outline some of the answers to Campbell’s theories of myth. One excellent way to do so is through the works of C. S. Lewis, who wrote extensively on both myth and metaphor. It will be interesting to see who has the better concept of myth in the end.