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Cracking the code

February 2005 | by Crawford Gribben

A review of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (London: Corgi Books, 2003)

Some time ago I was attending a conference in Boston when I overheard a minister complain about the divisions in her congregation. In one corner were the Left Behind readers, she lamented – narrow-minded fundamentalists and rabid supporters of George Bush’s foreign policy.

In the other corner, doubting the historicity and credibility of the Christian faith, were readers taken in by the historical scepticism of The Da Vinci Code.

It is ironic that The Da Vinci Code, a novel describing a modern hunt for the Holy Grail, should create dissatisfaction amongst members of a progressive church pastored by a woman, since the book’s thesis is that the church has long suppressed the ‘sacred feminine’.

History rewritten

Christianity’s demonising of women is just one of the myths in the Code’s complex and confused re-writing of history. The idea that the institutional church has been founded on a lie was always bound to be successful, for, as one of the novel’s characters muses, ‘everyone loves a conspiracy’ (p.232).

The conspiracy presented here is of vast dimensions. Its basic suppositions are that ‘the Bible is a product of man … not of God’ (p.312), and that ‘nothing in Christianity is original’ (p.314).

This radical re-telling links Christianity’s early development with the third-century Roman Empire’s search for a new official religion to overcome the petty factionalism of its warring sects.

To provide this new religion with an appropriate hero, the theologians who attended the Council of Nicaea decided on Jesus’ divinity by a ‘relatively close vote’ (p.315), as the novel wildly claims.

Gnostic Gospels

To confirm Jesus’ new status, the Roman Emperor Constantine ‘commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those Gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits’ (p.317).

Furthermore, referring to evidence in one of the rejected Gnostic Gospels – evidence that is itself best described as highly tenuous – the novel claims that Mary Magdalene’s marriage to Jesus Christ is ‘a matter of historical record’ (pp.329,330).

Despite the difficulties attached to these arguments, the Code refuses to consider the real facts, but stumbles on to its conclusion: ‘almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false’ (p.318).

These curious assertions do not end with an attack on the biblical account of Jesus Christ. The allegation that the church concealed Jesus’ marriage undergirds more general allegations – that the church has concealed evidence of the sexual component of true spirituality and has demonised women and the natural world.

‘The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine … Since the days of Isis, sex rites had been considered man’s only bridge from earth to heaven’ (p.410).

The ‘corroboration’ for this claim? Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple ‘housed’ God and his consort – Shekinah – and that worship in the Temple involved ritual sex with a ‘priestess’ (p.411). This physical union was symbolised in the Star of David, which allegedly combined the triangular symbols of the male and female deities (p.584).

‘Feminine demonised’

With this re-writing of Scripture comes the more general re-writing of church history, in which ‘the sacred feminine was demonised and called unclean’ (p.322).

Across the religious world, Brown claims, the status of women changed. Although they had once been ‘celebrated as an essential half of spiritual enlightenment’, women were ‘banished from the temples of the world’, as men took control.

In Christianity, the act of sexual union – once the key to spiritual enlightenment – was recast as ‘shameful’ (pp.173-74). ‘Holy men … now feared their natural sexual urges as the work of the devil, collaborating with his favourite accomplice … woman’ (p.174). Women became the victims – five million of them were burned as witches within 300 years (p.173).

It is time for the church to address to address its shameful history, the book implies; for, as its liberally-minded pope argues, ‘third-century laws … cannot be applied to the modern followers of Christ’ (p.545). Only a new recognition of the value of the sacred feminine can heal a world ‘marked by testosterone-fuelled wars, a plethora of misogynistic societies and a growing disrespect for Mother Earth’ (p.174).

Sustained polemic

It goes without saying that these astounding claims fly in the face of the Bible’s description of itself.

The Da Vinci Code is a sustained polemic against the divine origin, character and preservation of the biblical text: ‘The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven … History has never had a definitive version of the book’ (pp.312-13); ‘those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical’ (p.452).

Most of the novel’s claims regarding the Bible’s contents are themselves mythical. The Old Testament’s historical books – the best evidence we have for the details of temple worship – never describe the Shekinah (God’s visible glory) as a female deity, and any occurrences of ritual prostitution in the temple were occasioned by Israel’s departure from the true faith rather than allegiance to it.

The deity of Christ was certainly not decided by ‘a close vote’. Early theologians, if they did attempt to eradicate any traces of Christ’s humanity, must have been spectacularly unsuccessful, for orthodox Christian theology has always insisted on the real humanity of Jesus Christ alongside his deity.

Western preoccupations

Furthermore, an ambiguous sentence in an unreliable and incredible Gnostic text is hardly an unassailable ‘historical record’ of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene!

Constantine did not fabricate a new -Bible to foster his political aims. The number of witch burnings fluctuates wildly in historical accounts, but hardly amounts to five million! And biblical Christianity has never ‘demonised’ women, sexual union or the natural world, as any reader of Scripture’s wisdom literature would know.

It is impossible to know how many among the The Da Vinci Code’s eight million buyers have been taken in by its lurid and unpleasant insinuations, but it has without doubt successfully tapped into the modern mood.

It is a sneering and unpleasant book, more a testament to the Western world’s current preoccupation with sex than a plausible account of Christian origins. In making its claim for the feminine, it really lashes out at the heart of the Christian faith.

No wonder even the progressive Boston pastor was concerned!