Review - The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
English logician and philosopher 1872-1970
Controversy equalizes fools and wise men - and the fools know it
Oliver Wendell Holmes
American physician, poet, writer, humorist and professor at Harvard, 1809-1894
It is not he who gains the exact point in dispute who scores most in controversy -- but he who has shown the better temper.
English novelist, essayist and critic, 1835-1902
Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.
Spanish born American philosopher, poet and humanist who made important contributions to aesthetics, speculative philosophy and literary criticism. 1863-1952
There is no learned man but will confess be hath much profited by reading controversies,---his senses awakened, his judgment sharpened, and the truth which he holds firmly established. If then it be profitable for him to read, why should it not at least be tolerable and free for his adversary to write? In logic they teach that contraries laid together, more evidently appear; it follows then, that all controversy being permitted, falsehood will appear more false, and truth the more true; which must needs conduce much to the general confirmation of an implicit truth.
- John Milton
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold over 60 million copies worldwide and been made into a major motion picture catapulted into the stratosphere largely by controversy that it probably doesn’t deserve, not because it is a literary masterpiece. The Da Vinci Code is at best a mystery potboiler that has sold 6-10 times the number of copies it would have without the attending controversy, controversy that largely amounts to a tempest in a teapot. Only the threatened would stir up this amount of controversy over this novel. Unfortunately, the groups stirring up the greatest controversy are the least threatened by this novel.
The controversy surrounding the novel focuses on certain assertions of the novelist regarding the historical and doctrinal evidence in the Bible and certain non-canonical works regarding the supposed marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and their subsequent offspring, a daughter named Sarah who supposedly married European royalty founding the Merovingian line of kings. This evidence, according to Brown and others, has been suppressed by the Catholic Church and preserved by a secret society known as the Priory of Sion. In The Da Vinci Code this conflict is played out as a mystery chase to find the resting place of the Holy Grail, supposedly the tomb of Mary Magdalene, between the inheritor of the Priory’s keystone and agents of the secretive Catholic sect, Opus Dei.
Like all good fiction, The Da Vinci Code speculates “what if these things were true?” Unfortunately, for anyone attempting to seek truth within its pages, one must willingly suspend one’s disbelief and accept a series of half-truths and untruths. There is nothing wrong with this, for the duration of participating in the drama of the novel. The highly educated see this as nothing more than dramatic license for the sake of telling the story. I am reminded of one of my favorite statements from Friedrich Schiller in defense of his ahistorical Maria Stuart which paraphrased is, “The artist has no obligation to history.”
Where we run into difficulty with this novel is that certain elements, for whatever spectacular publicity reason, have chosen to forward the fictional propositions of the novel as truth. The result has been the inevitable cottage industry of debunking the text, in itself another 60 million + in unit sales industry because the 60 million who bought The Da Vinci Code are mostly truthseekers who have purchased the accompanying debunking texts in order to understand why they are reviled in church circles for reading this novel.
There are five points of controversy I would like to deal with in this review: the divinity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus, the marriage of Jesus to Mary, the Priory of Sion versus Opus Dei, and the question of whether or not the Catholic Church would ever kill to keep a secret.
First, there is the question of the divinity of Jesus. All Christians are taught that Jesus was one person with two natures; one divine, and one human. The canonical, deuterocanonical and pseudipigriphal texts all confirm that Jesus was at once both fully human and fully divine. Brown, and others, assert that Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote at the First Council of Nicea, “and a close one at that,” according to Da Vinci Code protagonist, Robert Langdon. I searched everywhere for evidence that Jesus’ divinity ever actually came up for a vote at said council and had difficulty finding it. The only reference I could find was a quotation from Karen King, a history professor at Harvard Divinity School, in a National Geographic article in which she stated that Jesus’ divinity was voted upon, but was carried almost unanimously (300-2). (For the full text of this article go here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1217_041217_tv_davinci_code.html)
Now, I’m not certain what the actual proposition on the table was, but I have a feeling that it was more a vote to confirm and publicly proclaim the divinity of Jesus. From the comfort of our 21st Century American viewpoint where religious belief and expression are Constitutionally protected, this seems absurd. However, in the 4th Century, there was no protection against persecution for heretical religious beliefs. It would have required a vote by a council of bishops to allow people to publicly proclaim something they have always believed. The followers of Jesus, while believing in Jesus’ divinity, would have shied away from publicly proclaiming this in the Roman Empire. Under Roman law at the time, only the Emperor could be proclaimed divine.
Despite Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, he was still the emperor and intended to stay the emperor. As emperor, Constantine was a politician and a good one at that. Constantine saw the growing number of Christians in his empire and knew that courting them would help to solidify his power base. However, the winds of politics shift rapidly and if Constantine had sensed a shift from Christianity back to paganism, one wonders if he would have shifted with that wind. For the Council of Nicea to publicly proclaim the divinity of Jesus required Constantine to willingly accept his own non-divinity. This was a very risky move for the Council. One that could have backfired on them had there ever been a political shift by future emperors away from Christianity. While Christians had always believed in the divinity of Jesus, in most parts of the world, they were not permitted to publicly proclaim it because the laws of the lands forbade it. This is a significant religious and political paradigm shift.
Next, there is the question of the humanity of Jesus. Early Christians had no difficulty comprehending and accepting the human nature of Jesus. They were so close to the source that they knew it almost instinctively, much the way we Americans comprehend and accept the human natures of the founding fathers of the United States. How will those founding fathers be deified 2000 years into the future? Will Thomas Jefferson and George Washington become the Romulus and Remus of American Rome, suckled at the teats of a bald eagle? It is hard to say. It is modern Christians who are squeamish about a human Jesus. While we understand the dual nature of humanity (one creature with two natures, one spiritual, one animal) we cannot stomach the thought of a savior with that nature. We want our Jesus resurrected and spiritual, not alive and animal, mucking around in the miasma of humanity. A human Jesus is not clean, not transcendent, not saintly. Modern Christians cannot stomach the living, breathing, sweating, eating, drinking, burping, farting, urinating, defecating Jesus.
It is this very humanity that drives the action of The Da Vinci Code. God sent Jesus to Earth to experience the full range of human experience before accepting Him as the ultimate sacrifice for all of human sin.
Third, there is the question of Jesus’ supposed marriage to Mary Magdalene. Why shouldn’t He have married and fathered children? It seems reasonable to assume that He would do so. He was a rabbi and taught in the synagogue. An unmarried, 30-something rabbi would have been highly unusual in those days. Certainly not unheard of, but certainly uncommon. So it seems reasonable to assume that Jesus might have been married. We only have the absence of mention of His marriage in the gospels and Paul’s assertion that He was not married on which to base the assumption that Jesus was a lifelong bachelor. Any historian will tell you that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Therefore, it is possible that Jesus was married.
I have heard this forwarded by professors of divinity and theologians on numerous History Channel specials. But every one of them shied away from asserting Jesus’ marriage as a fact. Each one suggested that it was possible. My experience watching Mythbusters proves that possible doesn’t mean probable and probable doesn’t mean actual. Harvard historian Karen King, in the same National Geographic article, states that if Jesus and Mary were married it is more unusual for them to be spoken of together so often in the gospels without mentioning that fact. Conspiracy theorists, of course, will point to the expurgation of these references by the early Catholic church. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Qumran Scrolls and Nag Hamadi parchments, while bringing to light some long-forgotten texts, did more to confirm the authenticity of the canonical works of the Bible than to refute them.
If Jesus were married, it likely was not to Mary Magdalene, although it is highly likely that Mary and Jesus were much closer than we like to believe and Mary has been much maligned throughout history by patriarchal church leaders with an ax to grind with their own contemporary women.
The novel makes a great deal out of a supposed pagan sex ritual known as the heiros gamos in which the high priest and high priestess of the sect copulate while surrounded by their chanting followers. I searched for this online, where it should be easy to find references to alternative sexual and religious practices, and found only a reference in the sacraments of the Ecclesiastica Gnostica, the governing body of the modern Gnostic Christian sect. According to their website, heiros gamos is the Sacrament of the Bridechamber. Essentially, we Christians know this as the heavenly time when Christ (the Spirit) is reunited with His Church (the Bride). Ecclesiastica Gnostica claims that there is no earthly performance of this sacrament as it can only be achieved after Christ’s return. According to their website, the earthly substitute is the sacrament of marriage, supposedly the only way that humans can experience this spiritually significant sacrament while on earth is through marriage. Well, that sort of takes the excitement out of that ritual, now doesn’t it? In fact, the characters Brown has performing this ceremony in the novel turn out to be husband and wife anyway.
Next, there is the question of the Priory of Sion and the supposed rivalry with Opus Dei. The Priory of Sion is a real organization with a bogus history. The Priory was founded in 1956 by Pierre Plantard, a confidence man, who wished to place a claim on the royal throne of France should it ever be reinstated. To do so, he had to falsify historical documents that gave the Priory an ancient history with celebrated Grandmasters who were sworn to protect the secret of the royal bloodline descended from antiquity through the Merovingian kings. Les dossiers secrets were deposited by Plantard and his compatriots in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in the 1960s so that anyone researching the Priory would come across them. The documents were fake and have been soundly debunked for over 30 years. (see the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priory_of_Sion for more information)
Dan Brown could have gotten himself out of a whole lot of scandal and controversy had he simply acknowledged that he exercised dramatic license by playing fast and loose with these documents. But he did not and it catapulted an okay novel into a blockbuster. I guess any publicity is good publicity.
Opus Dei is also a real organization. I have not taken the time to research them and I do not know enough about them to speak freely about them. All I will say is this, when you shroud yourself in secrecy, you open yourself up to all kinds of conspiracy theories. Opus Dei would do well for itself if it opened up all of its documents for transparent scrutiny to the public. The Catholic church in the United States has not fared well in the last several years what with hidden transfers of priests accused of sexual misconduct only to be permitted to continue their abuses in new parishes. Secrecy lends itself to the suspicion that drives the action of The Da Vinci Code.
Last, there is the question of whether the Catholic church would ever resort to murder to keep embarrassing secrets hidden. This question is central to both The Da Vinci Code and its predecessor, Angels and Demons. The short answer is this: any time religion and politics combine an inflammatory mixture is created. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I will simply assert that to deny that the Catholic Church was once capable of murder is to deny that the Spanish Inquisition ever happened. But it did, and the Middle Eastern morass that we find ourselves embroiled in today is a residual effect of that very attempt at genocide at the behest of the Vatican.
The legends surrounding the demise of the Knights Templar in 1307 are the starting point for The Da Vinci Code. According to history, King Philip IV of France prevailed upon Pope Clement V to round up, torture and execute all members of the Knights Templar for acts of heresy. According to legend, some members escaped the pogrom, gathered the bulk of the Templar treasure and spirited it off to Scotland where they formed the Scottish Rite Freemasons who supposedly guard the treasure of the Temple of Solomon to this day.
Since we are dealing with politics, it is more likely that the truth is less spectacular than the trumped up charges of heresy or the heroic legends. Philip IV inherited a poverty-stricken nearly bankrupted France. He needed money for the treasury. The Knights Templar were a wealthy, militarized order protected by the Pope and represented a threat to Philip. Upon the death of Pope Benedict XI, a year passed before a new pope was elected because of disputes between French and Italian cardinals. Pope Clement V, a Frenchman born Bertrand de Goth and a childhood friend of Philip IV, was elected to the papacy. Clement was widely known as a pawn of Philip and the two succeeded in diminishing the power of the papacy over Europe. One can deduce from these facts that Philip IV was threatened by the Knights Templar whose wealth he coveted, so he manipulated the election of Pope Clement V in order to legally overthrow them and claim their treasure for his own coffers. Nothing more than simple political corruption.
I need not belabor any other points of controversy in The Da Vinci Code because this is a book of fiction, not a journalistic account. The suspect nature of continuing to support the Priory of Sion as a true ancient organization in the face of facts that prove its bogus nature, throws any other spurious claims in the novel into serious doubt. Now to the actual review of the novel.
The Da Vinci Code is a spectacular textbook example of great plotting. It moves quickly through the action of the mystery. It is tightly plotted with short chapters that drive the action rapidly forward and a search for a secret that the reader is asked to participate in with brief explanations of the necessary skills to achieve this goal. It is a brilliant example of Aristotelian Poetics. Brown observes all the rules of unity of place, time and action. It should be read as an example of perfect plotting by beginning writing students. Theoretically, this novel should translate perfectly into a movie. It is also highly addictive brain candy.
Before I began reading the novel I was already acutely aware of the bogus nature of the Priory of Sion, so I absolutely had to suspend my disbelief in order to accept the action. I was unable to put the book down once I got to the last 150 pages. The pace had quickened so greatly and I was able to solve the final three puzzles pages before Brown revealed their solution so I was not inclined to put the book down until I had finished it.
The ending, however, left me nonplussed. I had read every page expecting something more spectacular, only to find it nothing more than a near deus ex machina ending lifted from the ancient Greek story of Orestes and Electra.
As for characterization, Brown is no master of subtleties. His characters are largely ciphers, two-dimensional caricatures of their basic functions: the chief inspector, the cryptologist, the curator, the art historian, the banker, the professor, etc. They are broadly drawn with few shading strokes. His women are always exceptionally gorgeous and as author he states that Langdon is always surprised by how intelligent they are. Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code are both largely adventure fantasies of the lonely bachelor college professor plunged into a mystery beyond his abilities to solve, but who somehow manages to bring his intellect to bear in order to solve it. This book should not, however, be read as an example of sophisticated characterization.
Dan Brown is reported to have begun his writing career in an attempt to do a better job of writing a thriller than Sydney Sheldon. While I was enthralled by Brown’s action, I was less than thrilled by his characters and his faulty scholarship. I am reminded of a statement a friend of mine used to make when referring to plays with splashy high entertainment values and little thematic substance. She would say they were “all sizzle and no steak.”
The Da Vinci Code is all sizzle and no steak, empty carbohydrate brain candy and the literary equivalent of professional wrestling and should be accorded the same amount of controversy as that “venerable sport.” It is not clear whether The Da Vinci Code generated controversy because of its phenomenal sales or generated its phenomenal sales because of its controversy, but it is clear that it is nothing more than a novel that is speculative, owes nothing to history and requires great suspension of disbelief for its dramatic license to be accepted. It poses no threat to the church except that it requires the church to do a better job of deciding which battles to fight and which ones to ignore.