Mark Massa S.J.’s answer and more…
Thanks to Cathy Kaveny for focusing the discussion! On why The Da Vinci Code see Mark Massa, S.J.’s answer as summarized in a fine editorial in the last issue of Commonweal:
At a recent forum sponsored by Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture, Mark Massa, SJ, proposed an explanation for why people find The Da Vinci Code compelling. Catholicism, Massa argued, “represents a corporate culture which is perplexing or dismissed, or even feared, by many Americans, even by many American Catholics.” In its sacramental, hierarchical, and communal commitments, Catholicism challenges the pragmatic individualism that pervades American life. “In the story of salvation, in a very un-American sense, the community is more important than the individual,” Massa said. “We are saved as individuals in and through the community.” In Catholic teaching, the encounter with God is always a mediated experience. Yet for most Americans, the ideal encounter between self and God is an individual and unmediated one. Moreover, Massa notes, “mediation means trusting people who may be wrong.” That entails a respect, even reverence, for institutions, something many of us resist.
The Gnosticism of both The Da Vinci Code and The Gospel of Judas tells us not to trust the church, but to place faith only in ourselves and in our own unique understanding of the truth or of God. Yet as Massa reminds us, individual fulfillment and personal detachment cannot be the final answer. In the Incarnation, God committed himself to the messy business of human history. His spirit remains with us in the community of believers. Trusting in others can prove a mistake, but trusting only in oneself is a tyranny even more absurd than Dan Brown’s albino monks.
This strikes me as entirely persuasive in a broad sense, but not quite on the point of why The Da Vinci Code is so popular now. (This novel doesn’t become the all-time bestseller if published in 1950.) Some larger story, of post 1968 suspicion of institutions in general, and perhaps suspicion of a Catholic Church shattered by the sexual abuse scandal in particular, is surely in play. (And too, the bewilderment or anger many Christians and Catholics feel about the role of women in the church must be important. Perhaps this is why conservatives shy away from speculating on the causes of the book’s popularity, even as they fight the worthy battle of eradicating the novel’s mother lode of misinformation.) Finally, and most disconcertingly for the liberals among us, is the current fascination with “conspiracy,” firmly lodged on the paranoid political right in the 1950s, but migrating to the left since the 1960s. (See a stimulating piece on this point, focusing on John Kennedy’s assassination, in Commentary by James Piereson.)