Christian faith stands or falls on history. Without the great events of revelation and salvation it loses substance. Its confessions contain vital historical references such as the facts that Christ was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’ and rose ‘on the third day’.
Theological liberalism, as exemplified by the 19th century Tübingen school, understood this perfectly, and its effort to reshape Christianity was essentially an attack on its historical basis. It was not by chance that Stalin’s Soviet Encyclopaedia used the radical criticism flowing from protestant liberalism to undermine the historical basis of the received faith.
During the last century, thinkers grappled with the question of historicity – whether or not the events on which Christianity is based actually happened. Doubts and refutations were presented from the perspective of humanistic atheism and agnosticism.
Historic Christianity responded – C .S. Lewis’ book on miracles is a fine example of how this hostile criticism was faced.
Today, in the wake of post-modern individualism, we are witnessing a sea change in people’s perception of history. The plausibility of the Christian tradition is no longer simply under frontal attack, but faces insidious lateral challenges from so-called ‘alternative Christian’ or new-age views.
For example, according to Yann Martell in his book The Life of Pi, what is interesting about a religion is not whether it happened or not – which ultimately cannot be known – but whether it makes an appealing story.
Such ‘alternative’ interpretations of the Christian story set out to make it more attractive to our contemporaries – people who cannot accept exclusive salvation, an all-powerful masculine God, a divine-human saviour and alleged male hegemony.
Fundamental to this approach is the assertion that the New Testament texts are secondary accounts of what really happened. The true Jesus, they claim, is found in supposedly earlier Gnostic writings such as the Gospel of Thomas.
These ideas contain a hint of conspiracy that appeals to the contemporary mind-set. They claim that the mainline church used its power to suppress the truth – which conveniently reappears with modern scientific research at the end of the 20th century.
How convenient! As one of the characters says in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, ‘Many scholars claim that the early Church literally stole Jesus from his original followers, hijacking his human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power’.
What is at stake here? Not just a debate among theologians, but ideas that are circulating as popular literature. The Da Vinci Code has sold more than six million copies in English, even though it is neither original nor well written.
It draws heavily on Holy Grail – Holy Blood by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh, which claims to be the result of ten years revolutionary research.
It mirrors ideas proposed in novels by Lewis Perdue (The Daughter of God); Margaret Starbird (The Women with the Alabaster Jar – Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail and The Goddess in the Gospels – Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine);andUmberto Eco (The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum).
These big sellers, among others, draw on a common stock of esoteric ideas, which can be resumed as follows.
1. The Jesus of the Gospels is a fake invented by the church and imposed by it in such a way as to hide the truth about Jesus.
2. Christianity has eliminated the feminine side of God and the ‘goddess idea’ needs to be recovered for a new era of spirituality to dawn.
3. Jesus was an ordinary man who married Mary Magdalene and his bloodline may still exist today.
4. The Holy Grail is not the cup of the last supper, but the incarnation of ‘the sacred feminine’ which bore the seed of Jesus. This secret knowledge has been kept alive over the centuries in interrelated movements, such as the Knights Templar, freemasonry and an occult group called the Priory of Sion, which may claim to inherit the pedigree of Jesus.
5. At some time in the future a new priest-king, the ‘antichrist’ who opposes the masculine Christ of the church, may emerge to produce a new world order.
Dan Brown suggests that these ideas are presented in the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, who was a member of this secret group, along with Galileo, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Jean Cocteau and others. He proposes that in Leonardo’s painting of the last supper, it is Mary Magdalene who reposes at Jesus’ right hand.
Brown’s book is full of errors, both in his interpretation of Scripture (the Magdalene was not necessarily a harlot as he states), religious symbolism (he claims the star of David is a combination of masculine and feminine symbols), and in his presentation of art history.
However, it can all seem totally plausible to those who are ignorant of Scripture and history.
People who know nothing of the Christian message and who have read these popular works are likely to be conned into thinking they have discovered the truth about Jesus and that the Gospels are full of lies. As Brown himself says, ‘everyone loves a conspiracy’.
Faith or fabrication?
But those who wield the sword also perish by it. Brown’s main character in The Da Vinci Code, the Harvard professor Langdon, pontificates as follows:
‘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 … 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 they are metaphorical … religious allegory has become part of reality’ (Ch.82)
So Brown places himself in a double bind. On the one hand he proposes an interpretation of history that could in principle be true, and on the other claims that every religious belief (including his own!) is ultimately a fabrication.
Those who want to take Brown’s story literally as an esoteric revelation – of the falsity of the Christian gospel and the way the church has distorted the facts for two millennia – must in the end be believing a pure fabrication.
Or, to put it another way, any who attempt to use modernity to demolish the factual basis of Christian truth and post-modernity to construct a new spirituality, are doomed to failure – for the two halves of their equation cancel each other out.
Books such as Brown’s are important as conversation pieces in evangelism, because those around us are probably reading them. But it is vital to show that such examples of ‘virtual history’ are pure fabrication and cannot be taken as gospel!
On the contrary, they only serve to deprive seekers of the real good news – ‘the gospel of the glory of Christ’. As Christians we must not forget that they are part of the arsenal of the god of this age, who blinds the minds of those who are perishing (2 Corinthians 4:4).