Many of my fellow Catholics are saying that The Da Vinci Code wonâ€™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 Iâ€™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. . .