Sensational Novel

Enjoy The Da Vinci Code But Don't Believe It

Bookworm friends said they couldn’t put it down. More traditional Catholics excoriated it, calling it anti-Catholic. And good New York conspiracy nuts were declaring in the diner where I eat on Wednesday mornings that it was all absolutely true.

What could I do but read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code ? Hungry reader that I am, I engulfed it. As a concerned priest?yet averagely gossipy and intensely skeptical person?I had a more complicated reaction to the book.

Can you keep a secret?
There are limits to what anyone can believe. The basic premise of Brown’s novel is that the clandestine Priory of Sion has been guarding the location of the Holy Grail in unbroken succession from the time of the Crusades to the present (while its Grand Poobahs were some of the most well-known people in history?Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, et al.).

There is a proverb that says, “A secret is what is between you and someone who is already dead.” Could a secret like this really stay kept for centuries? Can we still believe this after hearing about a “leaker” in the Bush Administration that blabbed just for mean politics?

Bodies in motion stay in motion
But if you can suspend your disbelief, this book does rate as a page-turner. Brown hits the ground running with a baffling murder at the Louvre museum in Paris that immediately puts our tweedy Harvard hero, professor of symbology Robert Langdon, unknowingly in straits with the French judicial police. (By the way, Mr. Brown, there’s no such thing as symbology; the study of symbols is called semiotics.)

From that moment on, the book is in motion?both characters and their minds. Langdon must solve puzzle after puzzle accompanied by Sophie Neveu, the thirty-something judicial police cryptographer who comes to his aid (until roles are reversed). Soon a campy, knighted British eccentric joins us right from central casting. While most of the characters suffer from some two-dimensionality, they never quite turn out as one would expect.

In a phrase, the story is loads of fun, fresh, unpredictable.

The Zen art of building B.S. out of truth
When we (inevitably) ask ourselves how much of this book is true, someone should just be able to point to the part of the bookjacket that says, “fiction.”

Dan Brown, however, has given us an odd little introduction (called “Facts”) where he dangles before us a couple of facts, some rumors, and a recent discovery or two. He doesn’t say that the premise is true. Shrewdly, he just wants to get the conspiracy wheels turning.

The plot itself suggests that serious scholars know “the truth” but the Catholic Church (a favorite conspiracy bogeyman) has suppressed it for centuries (in fairness Brown characterizes the contemporary Catholic Church somewhat positively). But we find the “serious scholar” characters in the book spouting off New Age vagueness and quoting ridiculous pop scholarship (Holy Blood, Holy Grail) as if it were high quality.

What Dan Brown has given us is, literally, a sensational story. He has taken broken pieces of the truth and woven them into a thrilling narrative full of holes.

Divinity politics
He takes, for example, the strong likelihood that the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity out of a political desire to unify his empire, and he forms from this a conspiracy around Christian bishops declaring the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea and the formation of four gospels in the New Testament.

This is tidy and sounds like an historical slam dunk, but it ignores about a hundred and fifty other important historical, cultural, and theological trends and events that were involved in the formation of both the doctrine of Christ’s divinity (reactions to Arianism, Hellenistic culture, Gnosticism, and so on) and of the New Testament (see canonical criticism) in the form we have it today.

Getting real is getting messy
Real life and real history are a lot messier and a lot more complicated than these types of conspiracy theories. And yet, they make for wonderful reading, excellent diversion on a rainy day.

But we weren’t meant to believe them, for heaven’s sake.