Sunday, May 21, 2006

Decoding Christianity

"The Da Vinci Code" opened yesterday around the world and I joined a sold-out audience at a theater in Santa Cruz to see it. I enjoyed the book, a real page-turner, when I read it a couple of years ago, and I liked the movie. My name is Will, and I'm a card-carrying Catholic.

So what's the fuss all about? The book and now Ron Howard's film of it have both been panned by all the respectable critics. The guardians of religious orthodoxy have condemned it. It was declared "morally offensive" last week by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And yet some 60 million copies of the book have been sold and probably that many people around the globe will watch the movie on its opening weekend. All the while, the media and Hollywood's PR machine have been relentlessly stoking the fires of controversy in search of readership and ticket sales. Is this all just a tempest in a teapot (or an espresso machine)?

I believe the book and the movie version have awakened a sleeping giant. Their wide-spread popularity and the fascinating flap over the film is a indication of deep spiritual hunger and a discontent with reigning interpretations of Christianity. People are drawn to Dan Brown's story because it portrays the humanity of Jesus and the possibility that communion with the divine might be possible in this life.

When I first read The Da Vinci Code, the novel's thesis, that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, was familiar. It was reported as truth in Holy Bood, Holy Grail, a book published in 1982 by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. And the suggestion that Jesus and Mary were lovers was portrayed in The Last Temptation of Christ, a book and subsequent film written by the Greek Marxist Nikos Kazantzakis. In his story, however, Jesus experiences the temptation of living a normal family life with Mary while on the cross but ultimately choses to die. When the film was released in 1988 there were boycotts by Christian groups and picket lines outside theaters, even in Santa Cruz. I was moved and inspired both by Kazantzakis' novel and the film which was directed by Martin Scorsese. In all of these cases I was able to find something that affirmed my faith rather than attacked it.

My Catholic Church has been identified, in the proceedings of Vatican II, with the "people of God" rather than the historical institution. Institutions, as is their nature, are threatened by attacks on their authority, and the U.S. Bishops have a website, "Jesus Decoded," that calls the book and film anti-Catholic and anti-Christian. My guide for understanding the institution has always been "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter of Fyodor Doestoevsky's magnificent novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In this tale told by the atheist Ivan to his brother Alyosha, a monk, Christ comes back to earth at the time of the Inquisition in Spain and is arrested after performing several miracles. The Grand Inquistor visits Jesus in his cell and tells him the Savior is no longer needed by the Church. Jesus brought freedom but the people cannot handle it. The Church's role, according to the Inquisitor, is to protect its followers from suffering the uncertainties of freedom to choose by surrounding them with comforting dogmas and rituals. Jesus responds to this perversion of his Gospel message by kissing the Inquisitor rather than answering him.

Most Christians are comforted by what I friend of mine once called "Dick and Jane religion." See them go to church on Sunday (perhaps only on Easter and Christmas), see them identifying
religious faith with propositional statements, see them proclaiming the literal truth of the (English) Bible, see them denouncing as heretics any religious seeker struggling with doubts and uncertainties, etc., etc., etc. It is these folk whose faith is threatened by escapist novels and Hollywood's art. They were embolded by Mel Gibson's bloody and orthodox film "The Passion of Christ" to demand that every representation of the Christian story toe the company line.

Brown's "Da Vinci Code" is a unique phenomenon because it opens up a discussion about the nature of humanity and divinity, the quest for the Holy Grail, the place of women as followers of Jesus and in the churches today, and authorities who hide the truth to save their own agendas (this goes for politicians as well as religion). For those whose minds are open, the book and film have the great potential for encouraging dialogue between believers and skeptics.

If the conversation ever happens, what we might talk about is sex. What is so threatening about the possibility that Jesus might have had sex? I fail to understand why God is said to value celibacy so much. Not only did Mary not have sex with Joseph, we are taught by the Catholic Church that Joseph gave up sex for Mary (Jesus had no brothers or sisters in our tradition). Sex has always been a problem for the Church (even before the current rash of sex abuse scandals). There are very few non-virginal saints and even the married couples canonized were reported to have given up sex. Despite much talk about the empowerment of lay people, the celibate religious life is valued more highly than married life.

Most of the criticism of "The Da Vinci Code" has been focused on errors of fact. Brown, it is said, gets his facts wrong about Constantine, the Council of Nicea in 325, the Pirory of Sion, Opus Dei, as well as Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Christians might believe Brown's false facts and stray from the faith. This assumes that religious faith is a matter of fact, like the boiling point of water or the French Revolution. But faith is a way of seeing that leads to a way of being in the world; it is not a rational conclusion about truth based on evidence. Despite claims to the contrary, Christianity is not historical. Biblical texts do not prove anything. The Gospels are a collection of poetry and allegory written by God-intoxicated scribes whose hearts were burning within them, like the followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Reading the Gospel message today can awaken the spirit of God within us and lead us to the love of others, even to the point of death, that is the hallmark of the kingdom Jesus preached.

At the end of the film, Tom Hanks, playing the Harvard "symbologist," wonders about the nature of Jesus, and asks: "Why does it have to be human or divine?" And his answer is that "maybe human is divine." Saint Athanasius of Alexander declared that "God became human that we might become God." Doctors of the Church and mystics have taught that divination is our birthright. Rather than see a rigid separation between the human and the divine, as the early Gnostics did, contemporary literary and cinematic explorations into the human and the divine have emphasized the human possibilities, and what a divinized human nature might look like. We should not feel threatened by any genuine attempts to see the divine in the human, or the human aspects of the divine.

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