The Da Vinci Code Culture

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 But the focus has turned away from Campbell’s outdated Freudian and Jungian analysis to an often less-noted aspect of his work: his celebration of feminist goddess religion and symbols, and his tirade against male-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.

St. Elizabeth

I guess I should write something about the reasons I haven’t been posting lately. As I mentioned, I have been commissioned to write a few little things for the 8th centenary of the birth of St. Elizabeth Hungary in 2007. Revising my dissertation on Elizabeth for publication has taken all of my spare time from work during the last month or so. Now it’s been turned in, which means on to the next stage – revising it again! That is, the first revision – involving largely corrections and updating references – will be for scholars; publication is being undertaken by the Franciscans of the Third Order Regular. The second will be for the average reader, and will involve condensing and considerably rewriting my work. It’s under consideration by a publisher right now.

But this is far from all. Here’s a complete list (so far) of what I am being asked to accomplish in the next year or so in regard to the patron saint of the Secular Franciscans or SFO (the order I belong to).

Publishing two revisions of my doctoral dissertation.

Doing a new edition of St. Elizabeth’s canonization process and translation of it into English.

Speaking about Elizabeth to the Regional gathering of the SFO (Tau Cross Region) in Babylon New York on November 11, 2006.

Delivering a talk to the Minister General and International Council of the SFO in Rome on February 22, 2007.

Speaking the next day, February 23, before an international historical conference on St. Elizabeth at the Pontifical University the Antonianum. I will be lodged with the Friars of the TOR in the guest house of their convent at the beautiful basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian with the Roman Forum and the Colosseum in its back yard. My mother, sister and sister-in-law are hoping to join me there while we explore Rome for a week or so.

Perhaps the most exciting part is the news I received a few days ago, that I have been made a member of the international commission of the SFO which will overseeing the centenary celebrations, lasting from November 17, 2006-November 17, 2008; we will choose the logo and motto for the centenary, develop formation materials for the order worldwide, and find ways to spread knowledge of Elizabeth’s secular spiriuality especially among married couples and families.

All of this is a tremendous honor and a great deal of work — as well as a real joy. All in honor of a wonderful and valiant woman and saint. And of course, all in addition to my full-time job, though a grant from the TOR is helping with that.

Of course it means putting many other things on hold, including my attempt at a screenwriting career. Blogging may become erratic. I hope anyone who reads this will pray for me, because I already feel overwhelmed by everything.

History vs. The Da Vinci Code

Many of my fellow Catholics are saying that The Da Vinci Code won’t have that great an impact on our culture. It’s a fad, it will go away, people have such short attention spans, it appeals only to the shallow. . . I think this is to misunderstand what’s going on. There are some deep issues at stake, and I’ve decided I’m going to start commenting on them over the next few posts.

To begin with, one place the book is sure to have a lasting impact is on the study of history. It has already introduced errors that have repeated so often they have become fact. If you think I’m joking, consider this: back in 1828, a popular American novelist, Washington Irving (the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, in which he said that the famous seafarer had great difficulty convincing people of his day that the earth was round. He was dependent on Enlightenment views about the ignorance of people in the Middle Ages. Ever since then, it has been considered historical fact by most ordinary people and many historians; it is even included in school textbooks. In fact, it has been exaggerated even more. In one internet discussion on The Da Vinci Code movie, a young poster claimed: “Your Church deserves what it’s getting. After all, it used to burn people in the Middle Ages for saying the earth is round.”

The only problem with Irving’s little factoid is that isn’t true! It takes only a little acquaintance with medieval literature to realize that in 1492 Europe people universally used the ancient astronomer Ptolemy’s model of the solar system, with spherical planets circling a spherical earth (the idea that the sun was the center of the solar system was introduced only with Copernicus). In his Divine Comedy, almost 200 years before Columbus, the Italian poet Dante describes himself as going through the center of the earth and coming out the other side to the other hemisphere. He not only knew that the earth was spherical, but that it also had a center of gravity. Consequently no one was ever burned in the Middle Ages for believing what every Catholic believed.

Almost 200 years after Washington Irving, his error is still accepted as fact in many places. Irving was the Dan Brown of his day, depending on Catholic bashing “historians.” . . . and there are hundreds of similar errors in The Da Vinci Code. Desperate Irish Housewife even uncovered a proposal in Minnesota to teach a historical seminar at a local Continuing Education Center using the novel as a basis, until someone caught them and made them stop. The impact of all these errors is going to be greatest among young people in our culture, who are almost completely ignorant about history. Go to The Internet Movie Database and check out the statistics. The movie version of Dan Brown’s book gets its highest ratings by those under 18.

In addition to this, the book fosters the already existing ignorance about how we know what we know about the past. If you should point out to a DVC devotee that Brown has distorted the meanings of ancient manuscripts, he or she generally replies, “it was so long ago, who knows what really happened?” (so why can’t I believe what I want?) Or “those texts, particularly the Bible, have been copied so many times, getting changed each time, that the original meaning has been lost. It’s like a game of ‘telephone’. . . ” (thus excusing themselves from having to confront what the Bible actually says).

This is tremendously distressing to me as someone who is not only a historian but also a textual scholar. The people who say this have no idea of the real process we undergo to uncover manuscripts, examine variants, and determine the earliest form of the text. This is a process I’m going through right now with the medieval canonization process of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The fact is, we do know in many cases how the text was changed and can correct it. People of ancient times themselves were well aware of how errors can creep into texts and were often able to correct them by collating their copies with earlier ones. And this was largely successful. In fact we have papyrus fragments of the Gospels that are probably not much more than 50 years away from the composition of the actual text. The earliest confirmed on is the John Rylands fragment of the Gospel of John, from about 125-130 A.D. And these earliest manuscripts offer a text of the New Testament that is very much the same as the one you can by at any bookstore today.

No one need take my word for all this. Go on over to the blog of Tim O’Neill, an expert on medieval and ancient history and literature, who is also an atheist, but who is interested solely in the truth. He’s called it History vs. The Da Vinci Code. His dissection of the errors is excellent.

It’s going to take years to undo the harm The Da Vinci Code has already done. And it’s not over yet. It seems that Danny Boy is already writing another novel featuring his hero Robert Langdon. And the film version of his DVC prequel, Angels and Demons, has just been greenlighted.

Stay tuned. . .

Something else to Remember on Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, and the horrors of the war in Iraq have been brought home to us more than ever. Not only are we recalling the servicemen and -women who have been killed and injured since the war began, just today two civilian journalists were killed and others seriously injured (bringing the total of journalists killed since the war began to 71). More than ever we are aware that the Muslim countries and nations of the West are only getting worse.
I wrote this little piece in 1990, during the first Gulf War, when it was published in Our Sunday Visitor. Later, not long after 9/11, I rewrote it slightly and had it distributed in my Secular Franciscan fraternity. Today, once again, not much needs to be changed.

Imagine this scene: the allied and Iraqi armies are facing each other in the desert, preparing for battle. Suddenly two men from the allied side slip across the lines into enemy territory. When captured by Iraqi soldiers, they ask to be taken to Saddam Hussein, saying they have a message for him. When they are brought to Saddam, he asks, “Do you have a message from your military leaders?” “No,” they answer, “we have a message from God. We want you to believe in Jesus Christ.”

This scene did not take place during the war with Iraq, but something very like it happened more than 750 years ago, when Christians were also at war with a Muslim country. The Muslim leader then was the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil, and the two foolhardy souls were Brother Francis of Assisi and his companion Brother Illuminato. In his day, St. Francis was considered a lunatic for even considering that the sultan might want to listen to him. Today he is considered a pioneer in Catholic-Muslim dialogue.

As a young man aspiring to knighthood, Francis had loved reading the legends of chivalry which told how Christian hereoes Roland, Oliver and Charlemagne had fought the Muslims. Like other Christians of his time, he believed that those who died in battle against the infidels were martyrs for the faith. He often dreamed of going on the Crusades.

But then God touched his heart and changed his entire life. He devoted himself to a life of poverty and preaching God’s love. He now burned with the desire to convert the Muslims instead of fighting them. Francis obtained Pope Innocent III’s blessing for his project, but illness cut short his first efforts to travel to Morocco and Syria to preach to the Muslims.

Francis’ dream was unusual for his time. He told his friend, Cardinal Ugolino, “God has sent my brothers for the good and salvation of all men in the entire world. . . They will be received not only in believing countries but also among the infidels.” He explained that if they were faithful to their life of poverty and humility, they would be able to live among the Muslims, who would supply for their needs as the Christians had done. This was at a time when even the clergy called Muslims “Sons of the devil,” “an abominable race,” and “vermin to be cleared from the Holy Land.” Few believed that Christians and Muslims could live in peace.

In 1219, Francis and his brothers finally managed to reach Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, where Christians from nearly every European nation (a sort of U.N peacekeeping force) were besieging the city of Damietta. When they captured the city, the infuriated sultan offered his soldiers a large sum in gold for the head of every Christian brought to him.

Francis and Illuminato approached Cardinal Pelagius, the papal legate in Damietta, to ask permission to visit the sultan. The cardinal thought they were crazy. He warned them that if they went, he would not be responsible for their deaths. Undaunted, the two headed into Muslim territory, where they were captured and brought before the sultan.

Malik al-Kamil was often cruel to Christians, but he was a religious Muslim and had great respect for holy men. He received the friars courteously and suggested that they debate with his own theologians. Instead, Francis proposed a “trial by fire,” a common practice in the Middle Ages. He offered to enter a fire alone or with one of the Sultan’s men, asking the sultan to promise that if he were to come out alive, he and his people would accept it as proof that Jesus Christ was truly God.

Some scholars think that Francis may have been inspired to make this proposal after learning of an incident in the life of Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Mohammed had regarded Jesus as a prophet, though not as the Son of God. According to Muslim tradition, he once invited the Christian clergy from Najran to undergo a similar ordeal to prove Christ’s Incarnation. The Christians had refused the test, and the Muslims attributed it to their lack of sincere faith. In offering to do what those Christians hadrefused to do, Francis was the only Christian of his time who tried to enter into the Muslim psychology.

The sultan would not agree to the test because it would make him look like a doubter of his faith to his people. But he was touched by Francis’ willingness to risk his life to save Muslim souls, and gave him and his brothers permission to visit the Holy Land without the usual payment demanded of Christians. Before the brothers left, he said to Francis, “Pray for me, so that God may reveal to me the law and the faith that are most pleasing to him.” He then had the two escorted safely back to the Christian camp, where the Crusaders could not contain their amazement that they had escaped alive.

After Francis returned to Italy, he found out that five of the brothers who had gone as missionaries to Morocco had provoked the local Muslim leader by insulting Mohammed and had been put to death. It may have been this which led him to spell out the attitude that his brothers should adopt towards Islam in a revised rule for his order, finished in 1221. In it he asked the friars who “go out among Saracens [Muslims] and other unbelievers . . . not to dispute or be contentious, but to be submissive to every human creature for God’s sake, and to acknowledge that they are Christians.” He knew that this would mean submitting to laws in Muslim countries that restricted the practice of the Christian faith, but he felt that a peaceful and humble attitude would touch hearts more than any argument would.

After Francis’ death, and after his own brothers were recruited by the Pope to preach in support of the Crusades, his ideas about relations with the Muslims were almost forgotten by his own order, and remained forgotten for more than 700 years. But in 1985, in line with the 2nd Vatican Council, which called for friendly dialogue with non-Christians, the Franciscan order once again adopted Francis’ words as their mission charter, and are following them in their missions among Muslims. Brother Jean GwenoleJeusset, the President of the order’s Commission on Islam, has called St. Francis’ words “a prophetic commentary on Vatican II.”

St. Francis’ example has perhaps never been so important as it is now, when hatred between Muslims and Christians has been stirred up by the war in Iraq. Muslims in the U. S. have been the target of hate messages. Beheadings are continuing, and no end is in sight.

St. Francis shows us that efforts to understand others and simple acts of love can be more effective than any words. If all Christians followed his example, and preached love and respect for those of other faiths by our lives, is it possible that we might have more of the peace he preached so fervently?

If you think this couldn’t happen in the age of Saddam Hussein, think about Francis and the sultan.

No matter what we think about the war, let’s remember that violence can never accomplish as much as love can.

Over the Hedge With You

So here’s what happened. My friend from work and I were walking towards the AMC Empire Theater in Times Square around 4:15 p.m., plenty of time, we hoped, to scope out what was happening with the lines in front of the respective screens for Over the Hedge and The Da Vinci Code before our film’s 4:50 showing. We had to make our way through the usual huge Saturday afternoon crowds of tourists, and were so deep in conversation that we didn’t notice the man distributing leaflets in front of the theater until we were past him. My friend hurried back to take one. It was put out by St. Michael’s World Apostolate, and read on top,”Why Protest the Da Vinci Code?” and had a headline from a newspaper on the bottom,”Poll: Book turns Christians into ‘Code’ clods.” The report was about a Reuters poll stating that 60 percent of Code readers believed after reading the book that Jesus and Mary Magdalen had children together. (The report didn’t say how many had changed their minds about the divinity of Jesus – the media often don’t get that this is the part that upsets us most).

After we got our tickets for OTH and went upstairs, we saw that our film was playing just a couple of doors down from the DVC. There was a huge line waiting for DVC. We went to our theater, where there was a long bench in front of the entrance, and only 2 or 3 families with kids sitting there. Then they suddenly left , and my heart sank. There went my plan of finding out how many in line were “Othercotting” – there was no line! No one else came, and after a while I want to look at the DVC line again. I found out that they were waiting for the 1:55 showing to end. Probably they had been certain the show would sell out if they didn’t get there early.

I went back to our bench, and my friend and I began discussing the actual date of composition of the Gospels. . . then a couple with kids came out of our theater and headed toward the restroom, and it finally dawned on me where all our audience was – already inside! Evidently parents just want to corral their kids in their seats as early as possible – and maybe keep them from running up and down the escalators. So we went in, and the theater was more than half full, but still not crowded. But by the time the previews were over, most of the seats had been filled.

The film? Not a timeless classic, but cute and enjoyable. We giggled throughout and had a great time, though I don’t think we two adult professional women were anywhere near the target audience for the film. The family crowd especially the kids, loved it. We both agreed we’d gladly see it again – for Steve Carrell’s hyperactive squirrel alone!

My friend unfortunately had another appointment, so I was going to have dinner alone. When we got down to the sidewalk, we stopped so I could take her picture with my new Palm Treo (the coolest cell phone/handheld computer /digital camera on the planet). We walked on and said goodbye some distance from the theater, and I decided to turn back and see whether the man was still distributing leaflets, so I could get a picture of him.

Protesting the Da Vinci CodeWhen I arrived back in front of the theater, the lone man had been replaced by a group who had set up posters saying “The Da Vinci Code is Hate Crime.” They were earnestly praying the rosary. A writer – someone from a newspaper, I think — was interviewing one of them, whose name was Jeffrey Smith.

Protesters at Da Vinci CodeWhen the writer left, I told Mr. Smith (on the left in the picture) about my support and our participation in the “Othercott.” He looked happy about that, but was still weary and upset. “We are a whole nation of robots who will line up automatically for anything Hollywood puts out,” he said. “They wouldn’t dare do this to Islamics, they wouldn’t dare do this to Jews — why do they think they can do it to us?”

Was our protest a better way to answer this madness and injustice, or was his? All the Christians there today spoke out in some way or another — that’s what really counts.