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.

Looks Like We Can Forget the Oscar Nominations. . .

. . . for The Da Vinci Code. The consensus: too long, laughably pretentious and boring. Even critcics who made no secret of their disdain for Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular didn’t like the film (Check out Richard Corliss’ review in Time, or Owen Gleiberman’s review for Entertainment Weekly here). And audiences are no happier — a 6.2 rating on imdb.com. Keep in mind that open-night audiences are usually the ones most eager to see a film: in this case, that would be all the fans of the book. Happily, while we can probably still expect a huge opening weekend, the movie won’t be around long. The influence of the book, unfortunately, may go on and on.

I’m off very shortly to join the “Othercott” brigade with a friend, at the AMC theater in Times Square. We’re going to see the very well-reviewed Over the Hedge. (Saturday afternoon and a family film? Bound to be huge crowds). It will be interesting to find out how many other people are there for the same purpose we are. Whatever happens, we’ll probably have a much better time than the people suffering through the DVC.

Check back here to get the story.

Da Vinci Dialogue?

I’ve had a very long and busy week, so anything I’m now posting is already old news . . . but I’m going ahead anyway.

Last Tuesday afternoon, May 2, I went to a special event at the Tribeca Film Festival — a panel discussion called “What would Jesus . . . Direct?” All the people on the panel were Christians involved in the film industry. They discussed how Hollywood is waking up to the fact that there is a huge Christian audience out there, but they really don’t know how to reach us.

The talk soon turned to the upcoming Da Vinci Code movie. Cuba Gooding Jr. seemed to get the most microphone time — but then he is an Academy-award -winning actor (and does ever know it!) He made some good points. Among them, that the Christian audience does have a good sense about movies that would be worthwhile from their viewpoint. Back in 1981, when Chariots of Fire came out, Christians and others turned out for a film no one had heard of and made it a hit. Now with the Da Vinci Code, he said “they will have it on their radar — and if they sense it isn’t something they want, they won’t come, and the film will flop” (or words to that effect).

This made things a bit difficult for another panel member, Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media, who was working with Sony on the marketing campain for The Da Vinci Code. He declined to say much about his work on it, but insisted the film was a great opportunity to “engage the culture” and get “dialogue” going. “After all,” he said, “when was the last anyone cared about what happened at the Council of Nicaea?”

It’s hard to blame him for defending his work — which is one of trying to minimize the damage that the book and movie are causing, engaging in dialogue and debating the very real issues involved. But forgive me for being a little dubious. Of course, any of us who are able to and who have read the book, should by all means engage in dialogue with those who want to. I’ve done so myself. Just the other day, a young colleague at work, who had just recently returned to the Catholic Church, asked me about the truth of the “historical” claims in it. She had not read it, but was certainly curious. I gave her the straight dope, and she seemed satisfied.

But there is a whole other group of people, the Da Vinci Code “true believers,” who cannot be brought to engage in dialogue. When they listen to our explanations of the truth, they tend to reply “Oh, you Catholics are brainwashed — you’ll believe anything your Church tells you,” or “the Church is afraid — anything they say is just more lies to maintain power.” Most of them are led not by belief in Dan Brown so much as anger against the Church. Many don’t care about truth, but cling to the book because it’s what they want to believe. It’s very hard to debate when one side is interested in truth, and the other is wandering in a crackpot fantasyland. The claims in the DVC are, to borrow one of my favorite phrases from C. S. Lewis, nonsense that has not even risen to the dignity of error. Discussion here is not going to do much good — and the movie is going to fuel the fire.

Certainly there are issues that need to be cleared up – the reasons for believing in the divinity of Jesus, the truth of the Gospels, the too-negative attitude of some Christians toward sex, the Church’s treatment of women — but if you are going to seriously tackle these things, it would be best to leave The Da Vinci Code out of the discussion altogether, since it only spreads error and confusion.

Above all, the main reason not to go see the film continues to be the fact that we would be putting money into the pockets of people who are defaming Christ and insulting the Church. Let’s not let Sony sucker us in to get our money to support blasphemy. If you want to read the book in order to be prepared for questions, please do — but borrow it from the library, or, as I did, from a friend.

And the “Othercott” is gaining steam — more than 16,000 hits on Google as of today! Also an article in the New York times on Thursday.

See you at Over the Hedge on May 19!