Breaking the code

The publishing hit of the summer wasn’t written by J. K. Rowling or a certain well-compensated senator from New York. That distinction belongs to Dan Brown, the previously unknown author of The DaVinci Code, a fast-paced thriller set amid the museums and cathedrals of Europe. The book is that rarest of birds: a critical and commercial success. New York Times book critic Janet Maslin called it “an exhilarating brainy thriller” and at one point this summer, it was on top of every bestseller list in the country.

Yet it’s a strange sort of hit. Consider these reviews from readers. “Completely turned my opinion of the Bible and the Catholic Church upside down,” wrote one. “This is one of the best books (if not the best book) I’ve ever read,” added another. “Appropriately, there are many who would remind me that it’s the second best book, after the Bible. Well, The DaVinci Code is, in many ways, a further exploration of the Bible.”

Some plot summary: The book begins with the murder of a curator at the Louvre. A Harvard symbologist named Robert Langdon is called in to interpret the clues left by the dying man. Before long, Langdon is fleeing the police with a female cryptologist, on the trail of a mystery involving Leonardo DaVinci, an ancient secret society, Opus Dei, and (you guessed it) the Holy Grail.

Spoiler alert: the book’s big secret is that the Holy Grail isn’t a cup, but a code, of sorts, for the lineage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Magdalene, it turns out, wasn’t a prostitute, but a close companion of Jesus. Her real identity was concealed by early church leaders who feared the truth would undermine church teaching on celibacy (which, of course, hasn’t been questioned since). “The church, in order to defend itself against the Magdalene’s power, perpetuated her image as a whore and buried evidence of Christ’s marriage to her,” one character explains breathlessly, “thereby defusing any potential claims that Christ had a surviving bloodline and was a mortal prophet.”

This may sound like Last Temptation Redux, but The DaVinci Code is a great read, despite its theories. I bought a copy at the airport and finished it on the flight home. Some have taken offense at its religious content: on her Web site, Amy Welborn called it a “pretentious, bigoted, tendentious mess.” It is tendentious, but I didn’t find it bigoted. I was particularly surprised by the sympathetic portrait of the Opus Dei bishop charged with making sure the Magdalene secret isn’t revealed.

The problem, it seems, is that some people have taken the story to be true. Indeed, Brown has encouraged this confusion by insisting upon the book’s historical accuracy. Asked in an interview how much of the novel is based on fact, he replied: “All of it.”

At least one expert disagrees. Writing in the New York Times last month, Bruce Boucher, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, disputed several facts in the book, including Brown’s contention that Mary Magdalene was pictured in DaVinci’s Last Supper, disguised as the Apostle John. (Brown offers this as partial proof of her relationship with Jesus.) It’s true that no one would mistake DaVinci’s John for a linebacker. Still, Brown seems guilty of confusing art with fact.

Less has been written about the book’s theology, but it’s just as problematic. Brown relies heavily on the Gnostic Gospels, predictably presenting them as secret texts that reveal the real “truth” about Jesus’ life and teachings. This is familiar stuff: Elaine Pagels for the Robert Ludlum set. But it also an incredibly simplistic reading of both history and theology.

More troublesome is Brown’s reliance on Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Published in 1983, the book centers on the Prieure de Sion, a secret society founded in the twelfth century, and a nineteenth-century French priest who argued that French Merovingian dynasty of the seventh century carried the royal blood of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. At one point in The DaVinci Code, Leigh Teabing, a character named for Leigh and Baigent, pulls their book from his shelf and declares: “To my taste, the authors made some dubious leaps of faith in their analysis, but their fundamental premise is sound.” Really?

Back in 1990, University of Chicago Professor Martin E. Marty called Holy Blood “sensationally misguiding.” “I saw nothing at all in the earlier book-absolutely hokey,” he told me via e-mail. “I’ve not read The DaVinci Code but know it’s built on the same kind of thing. There’s no hint of a clue of [a] whisper of evidence in any documents from the time....These things come and go every few years and this one will pass, too. Good entertainment, but ‘ungrounded.’”

Brown has argued that historical arguments are themselves suspect because history is written “by those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived.” This is a cop-out. It is disingenuous for Brown to present his book as factual and then hide behind questions like “how historically accurate is history itself?” He should stick to fiction. end

Published in the 2003-09-12 issue: 

Maurice Timothy Reidy is a former associate editor of Commonweal.

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