The Da Vinci Code

Who says that Catholicism doesn’t influence American culture? Who says we’ve been pushed out and away in favor of the joys of secularism?

After all, the number one best selling fiction title in the nation – The Da Vinci Code – has “Catholic” on practically every page.

Granted, the word is usually placed awfully close to other words like “repressive,” “patriarchal,” and “brutal,” but you know – you have to take what you can get.

Or do you?

Since its release in early March, The Da Vinci Code has surprised many by its unexpected bestselling ways. The word on the book is that it’s an “intelligent thriller,” one that challenges the reader’s mind, not just with a suspenseful plot, but with lots of culture and learning, too.

Take this reviewer’s word for it. The Da Vinci Code is neither learned nor challenging, except to the reader’s patience. Moreover, it’s not even really suspenseful and the writing is shockingly banal, even for genre fiction. It’s a pretentious, bigoted, tendentious mess, and the uniformly positive coverage – including a rave in The New York Times and a fawning National Public Radio interview with author Dan Brown - – should give us serious pause.

But you know, if you think you might like a book whose ultimate effect is something like Umberto Eco proudly presented by the Fox (“Boston Public”) Network, go for it.

Here’s the plot, such as it is:

(Be warned, there are “spoilers” – revelations of important plot details ahead. A book this bad deserves to be spoiled, but if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.)

A curator at the Louvre is murdered in a gallery, but before he dies, he manages to leave clues and arrange his body in a significant way. His cryptologist granddaughter, Sophie Neveu, and a visiting American academic Robert Langdon whose specialty is religious symbolism are drawn into the case and discern that Grandpere Sauniere was trying to leave a message – not about his killer – but about a Big Secret.

The Big Secret involves Jesus, naturally. Sauniere was part of an ancient secret society called the Priory of Sion that had for centuries been charged with the protection of this Big Secret. The Big Secret threatens to disrupt Life As We Know It, so, of course, the Catholic Church has spent the last thousand years making sure that the Big Secret doesn’t get out.

And what’s the Big Secret? That Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and she was pregnant when he was crucified. Their child’s descendents are still alive, via the Merovingian royal line, anonymous and protected by the Priory. Also protected by the Priory is the real True Faith that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were supposedly about: the celebration of the “sacred feminine – “ which, incidentally is what the “Holy Grail” really is, rather than the chalice of the Last Supper.

Oh yes, and the Knights Templar are in there too, somewhere.

The Da Vinci Code, then, is the story of the big race to reach the Holy Grail – the remains of Mary Magdalene, mostly - , a race between Sophie and Langdon, on one hand and on the other, we are led to believe, the Church, primarily represented by an albino Opus Dei adherent taking directions from a bishop and mysterious “Teacher.”

The race is from clue to clue left by Sophie’s code-loving Grandfather, puzzles left everywhere from the Bank of Zurich to the Church of Saint-Sulpice to Westminster Abbey to, of course, the paintings of Leonardo DaVinci who supposedly worked his devotion to the Holy Grail of the sacred feminine into his work, including the Last Supper in which the figure at Jesus’ right is not a male, but Mary Magdalene, his partner in the gospel of the sacred feminine.

Hardly any of this background is original. Most of it is derived directly from the fantasy-disguised-as historical work Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and what is not is cobbled from other bits of well-worn and risible nuggets of esoteric and Gnostic conspiracy theories.

Brown’s treatment of the Roman Catholic Church is unoriginal as well, as he uncritically repeats, among many other lies and distortions, the canard that the Church was responsible for killing five million accused witches during the medieval period.

And of course, there’s the whole, totally unfounded Divinity of Jesus Christ thing, which the experts in the Da Vinci Code coolly declare was invented by the Emperor Constantine as a way of shoring up his power:

“’My dear….until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet….a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless. A mortal.’

‘Not the Son of God?’

‘Right.’ Teabing said. ‘Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.’

‘Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?’”

Whoa, dude!

You get the picture, I hope. This is not exactly the learned, intellectually engaging work it’s presented as. It’s not even the well-crafted suspense novel it’s presented as. There is precious little action here. Characters stand in a restroom in the Louvre for two chapters, explaining things to each other. Then they move to the Bank of Zurich, where they explain some more. And so on, until these uniformly two – no, scratch that – these uniformly one-dimensional characters have talked their way to Scotland where they can spend a few chapters explaining the quite unsatisfying climax of this most wretched book.

This would not be a problem worth a moment of worry except for one thing: As Amazon reader reviews show, a startling number of readers are deeply gratified that The Da Vinci Code has taught them some history they didn’t know before.

So sure, thanks to The Da Vinci Code, Catholicism is blipping on the cultural radar, loud and clear, aided by aggressive marketing, generous reviewers of influence, defining Catholic Christianity for scores of gullible readers.

Talk about a conspiracy….

Nah. Couldn’t be. Right?

For a gentle, but thorough takedown of the "art criticism" in the novel see thsi article, originally published in the NYTimes
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