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Divine fictions: the DaVinci controversy
By George A. Ricker

Anyone who doubts the power of religion to distract us from things that really matter needs only consider the current flap over the movie, The DaVinci Code. Based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel of the same name (which I have not read), the movie is directed by Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks, two names associated with considerable success at the motion picture box office in recent years.

In the period since its release, the movie has achieved blockbuster status even though it has generally been panned by the critics.

Some Christian groups are boycotting the movie. It has been banned by some states in India and by the nations of of Lebanon and Pakistan. At least one Vatican official has called for a boycott, and the Catholic group Opus Dei has expressed concerns about its negative portrayal in the film, asking, unsuccessfully, for a disclaimer. Not since the religious satire Dogma provoked its ire has the Catholic Church been so concerned about a movie.

Of course, Catholics are not alone in expressing their outrage, as Christians from many sects complain about the liberties taken in the film (and the novel) with the orthodox version of their favorite myth (the New Testament tales of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). According to press reports the novel claims (among other things) that Jesus was regarded as simply a prophet by the early church, married Mary Magdalene, had a child and has descendants still alive today.

There already had been protests and objections raised about the book. In our visually oriented culture, it’s thought the movie will give the story more reality and, consequently, make it a bigger threat to accepted religious dogma.

Meanwhile, the newest cottage industry among the faithful appears to be the marketing of books, lectures and other paraphernalia related to The DaVinci Code. Clergy of all stripes have launched campaigns to “debunk” the movie and the novel on which it is based. Sermons and series of sermons are proposed to deal with the subject matter.

There is a level of paranoia at work here as serious people propose seriously to “debunk” a work of fiction that, while it claims to have some factual basis, makes no pretense of being anything other than a yarn spun by a story teller. The gravity with which it has been greeted in some circles would be laughable if it didn’t suggest an enormous loss of critical judgment.

However, this isn’t new. I recall the outrage and protests when the movie Elmer Gantry (based on the Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name) was released in 1960. Then it was Protestants who were most incensed by the unflattering portrayal of evangelists and faith-healers. Burt Lancaster won the Academy Award for best actor in the title role. The movie was a commercial and critical success.

Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) also provoked outrage because of its unconventional portrayal. Critics like Rev. Donald Wildmon couldn’t be bothered to attempt to understand the book or the movie. For the most part they had not read or seen either one. The Scorcese film received mixed reviews and was probably aided at the box office by the controversy its release had provoked. It is now regarded as a minor film classic by some critics.

What seems to be at work in all of these protests and theological objections is the fundamental insecurity of those who rely on faith as the basis for their view of the world and the way it works. Faith is easy to sustain in a hothouse environment in which it is never challenged and where those challenges that do filter through can be shouted down by the faithful in their determination to disregard anything that conflicts with their dogma.

The DaVinci Code is fiction. We all understand that. But what gets ignored in the media hype over the firestorm created by the movie is the fictional nature of the “sacred” myths that are the fodder for the book and the movie.

In reality The DaVinci Code is fiction about a fiction. Those who argue the book is a fictionalized account of a reality that is documented in the New Testament obviously haven’t spent much time studying the New Testament. If they had, they would understand that most of what is written there rests on little or no factual ground.

Then again, it’s most likely that many of them do know that. Certainly, many members of the clergy understand the tenuous nature of sacred myth. That’s why they downplay the importance of credible evidence and invoke faith as the preferred substitute. It also may be why they are so defensive in their attacks on anything that challenges their dogmas.

People are never quite so vicious or so emotional as when they are defending a lie.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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