The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

DECODING Da VINCI

Delivered 5/21/06
Text: Acts 17:16-34
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

It has been three years now since Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code,(1) was published. From the very beginning, it got lots of attention in Christian circles because of some of the things it said about Christ and the church. For people of faith, there were uncomfortable statements, and they generated any number of articles, books, study guides and seminars designed to debunk DaVinci.

Early on, people began asking me what I thought about The DaVinci Code and what it had to say. My response from the beginning was READ THE TITLE PAGE. What does it say there? Its says, "The DaVinci Code, a novel, Dan Brown." A NOVEL. Fiction. It is a great read, a wonderful airport or beach chair page turner, but it is a NOVEL. Fiction. It can say all the outrageous stuff it wants. Why should we worry about that? And so I never bothered about it from the pulpit.

But now, with the opening of the movie this weekend, one that has BLOCKBUSTER written all over it, the anticipation of a huge world-wide box office, even more folks will be exposed to some of the controversial assertions. Some devout Christians are screaming bloody murder and calling for boycotts and demonstrations. Around the world governments are being asked to prohibit the showing of the film. In India the government delayed the opening of the movie for two days until Catholic groups could be allowed a preview screening. In the Philippines the powers-that-be slapped a "No One Under 18" designation on it which effectively prohibited showing it in most theaters. Here in Warren, the theater at the Mall was picketed by folks holding signs saying that the movie blasphemed Jesus Christ. Truth is, I am not sure how upset they were because they made their protest in the parking lot outside the entrance while sitting in beach chairs with placards, not held high, but rather sitting on the ground and propped against their knees. Not exactly the stuff of outrage.

For those few of you who have not read the book or seen the movie, the story is a mystery, based on a conspiracy. There is a Harvard professor of Religious Symbology, an energetic French policeman, the Royal British Knight, an albino Monk-turned-assassin, and, of course, a beautiful heroine, "Sophie" whose name means "wisdom," in Greek. It is one more plot among many through the years that involve a quest for the Holy Grail, but if you have seen "Indiana Jones and the Search for the Holy Grail," you learn here that Harrison Ford and Sean Connery had it wrong - the Holy Grail is not a cup. It is a woman, one with a huge secret that has been covered up for the last 1700 years. The Holy Grail is Mary Magdalene, the wife of Jesus and the mother of his child.

Now you begin to see where Christian purists have a problem with The DaVinci Code. Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife? Not according to scripture. The novel contends that Leonardo DaVinci's painting of The Last Supper depicts not John, the "beloved disciple," to Jesus' right, but a woman, if we would just bother to look. And not just any woman, Jesus' woman - Mary Magdalene. Well, perhaps. But art historians tell us that Renaissance conventions called for John to be depicted with long hair. And besides, DaVinci did not paint his famous picture from some ancient photograph, it was his creative imagination. And even that raises a waggish question: who has dinner with everyone sitting on one side of the table? Duh.

Another concern: the novel asserts that the early church never considered Jesus Christ as divine. This divinity claim originated when the emperor Constantine, a recent convert to the faith, decided this would be a good political move to consolidate his power. The emperor arranged for a gathering of bishops in a Council at Nicaea to discuss the issue, and their subsequent vote narrowly elevated Jesus to the realm of "divine."

In fact, to buttress that position, the church selected four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - from among the 80 or so that were floating around because these four downplayed Christ's humanity while supporting the divinity claim in ways that all the others did not. As one of the characters in the plot says, "The Bible did not arrive by facsimile from heaven," and he is right. The books we have in scripture were chosen rigorously over the course of more than 300 years with the final canon that we have in our hands today not officially settled until 367 AD. And actually, if you read them (and not particularly carefully even) you will meet a Jesus who is, at times, very human indeed, whereas many of the other non-canonical gospels (like the recently published Gospel of Judas) assume a philosophical position based on a Greek understanding that anything material (including the human body) is somehow evil.

Of course, as you biblical scholars know, the emperor did indeed call a Council of Nicaea, and there were all sorts of theological debates, but they were never about whether Jesus was divine or not. The issue was the nature of that divinity. The church, from day one, responds with Peter when Jesus asked, "Who do you say that I am?" and he responds, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God."(2)

Speaking of scripture, one of the novel's assertions is that the church is in possession of a secret "Q" document (which is being guarded by a super-secret society called the Priory of Sion) which would undermine and actually overturn the church's account of Christian origins. Well, a little yes and a little no. Bible scholars have speculated for years about the existence of a now-lost document identified as "Q." The "Q" is short for the German QUELLE which means source and scholars think existed to compile the sayings and teachings of Jesus. If you read the gospels carefully, you will note that you find the same stories and teachings repeated from one to another which has convinced those who study these things that they must have shared some common source that is no longer available to us: "Q." Nothing surprising in it, and certainly nothing that would undermine the faith.

About this "Priory of Sion." The book says parchments discovered in Paris' Bibliothèque Nationale contain information about the ancient society that has been guarding the knowledge that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children and that their descendants were later part of the Merovingian line of French kings. Actually, there ARE documents, but they have been exposed as a 20th century hoax - 60 Minutes did a segment on it a couple of weeks ago.

Just one other issue, the abuse of power by the church and the murderous religious "underground" represented by the society Opus Dei. There is no question that, at times in history, the church has done some horrible things, especially when it becomes allied with political power (which is why some of us are concerned about the religious right's involvement with partisan politics right now, but that is another story). So saying, the church has never tried to cover up the existence of physical descendants of Jesus (I suspect they would have been objects of worship rather than a cover-up). And, yes, there is a conservative Roman Catholic organization called Opus Dei, but these are simply folk like you and me who are trying to live out their faith in a disciplined manner, not some collection of murderous freaks.

Enough about the problems with The DaVinci Code. I, for one, am glad that it is out there. I am glad for anything that gets people talking about Jesus. Tom Hanks, who stars in the movie, got it right when he said, "I think the movie may end up helping churches do their job. If they put up a sign saying, 'This Wednesday we're discussing the gospel,' 12 people show up. But if the sign says, 'This Wednesday we're discussing The DaVinci Code, 800 people show up.'"(3) About right.

So saying, I am sorry that some well-meaning Christians have raised such a fuss. As a church, we look like petulant, selfish, angry children who throw hissy-fits anytime we don't get our own way. It smacks of the reaction that Islamic extremists had to the Danish newspaper cartoons that were not entirely reverential toward the prophet Mohammed.

Note the different attitudes toward the book by two different churches. One, historic Westminster Abbey in London, which is where one of the climactic scenes takes place. Director Ron Howard asked permission to film the movie inside the Abbey, but the officials there turned him down cold. They said the novel is filled with "factual errors" and is "theologically unsound" and therefore they were not going to open their doors for the film.

The second church was Lincoln Cathedral, which is a two-hour train ride north of London. After being turned away from Westminster Abbey, Ron Howard went there in the hopes he could transform the interior of this ancient church into a replica of Westminster for his movie. Cathedral officials were just as critical of Brown's book as the Abbey officials had been. They called it "speculative and far-fetched" and even heretical in places. But then they said something else: "The book claims that the church has suppressed important facts about Jesus. The way to counter this accusation is to be open about the facts and welcome vigorous debate." They decided to let Howard inside to film.(4) Good for them. Dialogue and engagement are much more productive than protesting and picketing.

Remember our lesson in Acts 17 when the Apostle Paul traveled to Athens. The city was the center of classical antiquity and home to such famous philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. By this point, Athens was resting on its laurels a bit (the Romans were in charge, not the Greeks), but it was still an intellectual capital, like a major university town today.

It was a religious city. In fact, Athens had more statues of gods and goddesses than all the other cities of the day combined. So here comes Paul. Not happy at what he saw - as the lesson has it, "he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." Perhaps he could have organized a protest in the parking lot. He had a better idea: "So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there." He could attack or attract...but not both. I think he chose well.

As he continued in conversation with these Athenians, he was complimentary: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you." And he proceeded to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

And how did people react? "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.'" The lesson ends with, "A few men became followers of Paul and believed." How about that?

The current issue of The Christian Century includes an interview with Robin Griffith-Jones, Master of the Temple Church in London, the site of some of the story's excitement. Lots more tourists have come since the publication of the book, and many have questions. Griffith-Jones has a good attitude:
So many people--inside and outside the churches--have wanted to ask so many questions for so long about Christianity, but have felt they might seem insulting or stupid. The novel has brought a lot of these questions out into the open. If the churches raise the drawbridge, hide in their ancient pageantry and make some angry or dismissive response, it will simply confirm in people's minds that we have something to hide or simply don't know the answers to their questions. What if we take this opportunity to present our story? It is far more exciting, humane and deep than Dan Brown's; let's help people to hear it.(5)
Amen. Decoding DaVinci. Sixty million books in print, a blockbuster movie. And we have the same choice Paul faced in the first century: we can lash out or we can reach out - and based on Paul's approach, I think the way is clear. If the questions raised are openly examined and discussed, the truth ought to prevail without the help of protests, boycotts, or political intervention. As Paul advised the early church, "Test everything. Hold on to the good."(6) Christianity has survived one test after another through the centuries, and it is hard to believe that a novel, no matter how many copies it sells, or a movie, no matter how many eyeballs see it, pose any threat to the survival of the faith. If anything, it is the embarrassing response of some Christian groups to anything that looks like a challenge that makes the church lose credibility in the eyes of the world.

"Be Prepared" is not only a good motto for the Boy Scouts, it can be good for you and me as well. "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..."(7) So says the scripture. Good advice anytime, but especially now that folks want to talk about The DaVinci Code. Familiarize yourself, first, with the story itself and, second, with the reasons why its claims do not withstand scrutiny. And do not forget the title page - It says, "The DaVinci Code, a novel, Dan Brown." A NOVEL. Enjoy.

Amen.

1. New York : Doubleday, 2003

2. Matthew 16:16

3. Quoted by Lee Strobel, "Leveraging The DaVinci Code," www.sermoncentral.com

4. ibid.

5. "Temple Church and The Da Vinci Code," The Christian Century, 5/16/06, pp. 20-21

6. I Thessalonians 5:21

7. I Peter 3:15

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