Dismissing Da Vinci
By Jean-Claude Gerard Koven
Dan Brown’s runaway best-seller, The Da Vinci Code is shaking the foundations of Christendom. The battle lines are clearly drawn and the stakes are uncommonly high. The outcome has yet to be determined.
With each week that Dan Brown’s blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, remains one of the most talked-about books in the world, one can almost sense the growing apprehension of the Vatican. The innumerable editions of the book and more than 40 million copies already in print surely must seem like a bad dream to those who feel targeted by Brown’s allegations of chicanery and skullduggery within the inner sanctums of the Holy See.
Many critics slammed the book even as it consolidated its position atop the New York Times reports list and Amazon.com’s sales charts. Peter Millar, writing in the Times of London, considered The Da Vinci Code as “without doubt, the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype-driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cutout-populated piece of pulp fiction I have read.”
Archbishop Angelo Amato, a high-level Vatican official, dismissed Brown’s best-seller as a work “full of calumnies, offenses, and historical theological errors.” On the Catholic Answers website (www.catholic.com), the question was posed: “Should other Christians be concerned about the book?” The answer was clear and unequivocal: “Definitely. Only some of the offensive claims of The Da Vinci Code pertain directly to the Catholic Church. The remainder strike at the Christian faith itself. If the book’s claims were true, then all forms of Christianity would be false (except perhaps for Gnostic/feminist versions focusing on Mary Magdalene instead of Jesus).”
Dan Brown refused to back down. In the face of threats and denunciation he responded by telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, “When you finish the book, you’ve learned a ton. I had to do an enormous amount of research.” He has also said his book is “meticulously researched and very accurate.”
History may well be in Brown’s corner on certain matters. The Bible is a carefully selected compendium of writings that were debated by the bishops attending the First Council of Nicaea convoked in 325 by the Roman emperor Constantine. Unfortunately, there is no definitive account of what actually occurred during this historic conclave. The writings of those in attendance don’t even agree as to the number of bishops present, with reports ranging from a low of 250 (Eusebius of Caesarea) to 318 (Athanasius of Alexandra). The main purpose of the synod, however, seems relatively certain. Constantine needed a reconciled church to create stability within the Empire. The major rift that needed reconciliation centered on the question of Jesus’s divinity: was he the son of God or the son of man?
The bishops (however many were present) overwhelmingly ratified the Nicaean Creed, which upheld the position championed by St. Alexander of Alexandria – that Jesus was indeed of the same substance as God the Father. That having been decided, along with several other issues (such as the dating of Easter),
Constantine requested that the synod produce a cohesive sacred text as the agreed basis of Christianity. This was a formidable task, as many of the gospels in circulation at the time were deemed blasphemous and a threat to the newly agreed-upon doctrines. It was seven years before Emperor Constantine received fifty copies of the final version of the sacred scriptures, handwritten by practiced scribes on specially prepared parchment. These were distributed throughout the Empire to standardize Christianity, and the text, the Bible as we know it, has remained until today the basis of Christian teachings.
It is true that despite Brown’s claim to have researched the matter thoroughly, he seems to have been casual about some finer points. For instance, he writes that the establishment of Jesus as the Son of God “was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea” and that it was “a relatively close vote at that.” Yet there is no record of a vote being taken on any matter during the Council. In other words, while decisions were made, we do not know definitively what method the bishops used to arrive at them.
However, by basing his book on apocryphal material and giving the fallout from the Council of Nicaea a key role in the book, Brown has brought to the table a set of much larger issues for all the world to contemplate: What did the discarded gospels say? Why did the content of these gospels so deeply concern the bishops attending the synod that they were not included in the Bible? And what happened to those gospels? These questions may be far more worth probing than the theory of a Merovingian bloodline stemming from the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene that lies at the heart of Brown’s book.
During Christianity’s early, formative years, a considerable proportion of the Church’s hierarchy were proponents of the Gnostic teachings, which emphasized personal experience over dogmatic faith. The Church libraries of the time contained many such gospels, which were read aloud by the monks for inspiration. These texts so bothered Athanasius, archbishop of Alexandria, that in 367 he sent out an Easter letter to the clergy all over Egypt in which he condemned all texts not specifically included on his approved list as “the invention of heretics.” The meaning was unambiguous: all non-approved writings were to be immediately destroyed.
Apparently some of the monks defied the bishop’s orders and secreted some thirteen papyrus codices in a heavy jar buried under a cliff, where they remained for over one and a half millennia. These texts, known as the Nag Hammadi Library, were discovered in 1945 and are believed to be some of the early Christian Gnostic texts condemned by Athanasius. It turns out that their authors were not heretics as Athanasius claimed but disciples of Christ, including some of the original twelve apostles, or perhaps the followers of those disciples. What they reveal, if true, indeed shakes the very foundations of Christendom.By popularizing some of the ideas in these texts, as well as highlighting the Church’s banning of gospels other than those presently in the New Testament, Brown’s Da Vinci Code (its possible literary and historical failings aside) seems to have set a fox loose in the henhouse.
Much to the Vatican’s chagrin, the new movie based on Brown’s already successful book is a smash hit. To quote the Deadline Hollywood Daily (DHD) website: “Da Vinci Code Is 2nd Biggest Opening Weekend of All Time Worldwide with $224 Million; No. 1 International Opening Weekend with $147 Mil; $77 Mil U.S. Opening Weekend; Sony Execs Attribute Huge Success to Teen Moviegoers Globally.” Now the blasphemous word is being spread worldwide to nonreaders, impressionable teenagers, and God knows who else. Apparently there is no lid large enough or strong enough to contain what Dan Brown has unleashed on the bastions of Christianity. DHD further disclosed that the Vatican’s attempts to censure the film fell woefully short. The Da Vinci Code “was #1 in predominantly Catholic countries Italy and Spain, and #1 or #2 in every South American territory.”
Now we have the predictable onslaught on the Internet – the ultimate weapon of anarchists, modern-day Gnostics, and other radical freethinkers. A few weeks ago I received a sixteen-page email that, judging by the number of arrow brackets preceding each line of text, must have traveled around the world several times before finding its way to my inbox. The title alone piqued my curiosity: “The Gospel of Judas, Barbelo, & Long-Kept Secrets.” Since it would take multiple clones to keep up with the email traffic that penetrates my spam filters, I generally skim just the first few paragraphs of such a long message before deleting it. Not so with this one.
Two weeks later, I find myself still referring back to that email. I visited the website of the author, Mary Sparrowdancer (http://www.sparrowdancer.com), then called her to learn more. She’s as real as you get: knowledgeable, impassioned, intelligent, and articulate. I’ll pass on a few of her insights that bear directly on the growing debate between Dan Brown and the Catholic Church:
In the “forbidden” Gnostic gospels that have begun to emerge from antiquity, we find we have actually been divinely invited to seek the truth and ask questions, because the truth is never marred or harmed by questions. Asking questions only serves to make the truth shine brighter. One might wonder into which direction we should begin a search for the truth at this hour when the truth about anything is very hard to come by. According to the Gnostic gospels, the answer from above seems to have been, “go within,” because there is something within that awaits discovery.
In the Gnostic scriptures, we learn that blind faith has never been demanded of us. Instead, the one we now refer to as “Jesus” (the J is relatively new – it is Iesous in transliterated Greek) urged people to go within and seek the truth and not stop seeking until they found the truth. Only a portion of this appears in the New Testament, but a more complete version can be read in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. It includes a curious caveat of wisdom after the invitation to come seek and find all that awaits us. The caveat warns that when we discover the truth, we will at first be disturbed as well as astonished. In the end, however, it is the truth that will set us free.
Indeed, I followed Mary’s lead and took a look at some of the writings in The Gospel of Thomas. It says: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” The bishops like Athanasius (and Irenaeus before him) who advocated the destruction of offensive writings apparently preferred that the faithful believe the Church was the only route, “outside of which there is no salvation.” The Gospel of Thomas also quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the light that is before all things; I am all things; all things come forth from me; all things return to me. Split a piece of wood, and I am there; lift up a rock, and you will find me there.” This mystical statement may have been considered dangerously close to a pantheistic view suggesting that people are encouraged to discover their own divinity.
Along similar lines, The Gospel of Philip quotes Jesus: “Do not seek to become a Christian, but a Christ.” The text has been deemed “an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ” because of this. But perhaps the most remarkable revelation in the Nag Hammadi scrolls is the manner in which Christ viewed women. The following has been translated from The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene):
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember – which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them.” Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.” After delivering the teachings that were given to her in a vision, she was rebuked by some of the disciples, whereupon Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?”
Levi answered and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as He commanded us, and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said” . . . and they began to go forth [to] proclaim and to preach.
The Secret Book of John offers additional insight into Jesus’s view of the divine feminine. In it John recalls seeing a brilliant flash of light following the crucifixion from which he heard the voice of his Master: “John, John, why do you weep? Don’t you recognize who I am? I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the Son.” The meaning, to John, was crystal clear: the Holy Trinity includes the Holy Spirit/Divine Mother as the feminine manifestation of God.
All of these words, apparently, were ones the male-dominated clergy did not want their faithful to hear. For the past two thousand years, the clergy has had its way. Now, in large measure because of a book and a movie, there is room for expanded debate. Dismissing The Da Vinci Code as meaningless pulp fiction may be like trying to brush off a tsunami with a flyswatter.
Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Rancho Mirage, CA. He is a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, selected by both Allbooks Reviews and USABookNews.com as the best metaphysical book of the year. For more information, please visit www.goingdeeper.org.
©2006 Jean-Claude Koven / All Rights Reserved
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