Saturday, June 16, 2007

Dan Brown was right

Ever since Dan Brown wrote his popular novel The Da Vinci Code in 2003 there has been a great deal of criticism and controversy in a proliferation of books refutting, rebutting and reviewing his claims. Evangelical Christians and Catholics have both been vocal in pointing out the inaccuracies and historical errors in the book, although possibly for different reasons.

These subsequent books have debunked many of the myths in The Da Vinci Code. For example, a substantial part of the plot of Brown's book is based on the claim that "The Priory of Sion" was founded in 1099. In fact, the 'Priory' didn't exist before 1956.

While there is a brass line running north-south through the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, it is not a part of the Paris Meridian, as claimed in the book. The Paris Meridian actually passes about 100 metres east of it. The line is instead more of a gnomon or sundial/calendar, meant to mark the solstice and equinoxes. The book also claims that at the explicit demand of French President Fran├žois Mitterrand, the Louvre Pyramid in Paris was constructed with 666 panes of glass. The pyramid actually contains 603 diamond-shaped and 70 triangular panes of glass, totalling 673. And Mary Magdalene isn't buried beneath the pyramid.

The claim that Rosslyn Chapel was built by the Knights Templar is also false. It was actually founded by Sir William St Clair, third Earl of Orkney and Lord of Rosslyn, and its construction began in 1470, long after the Knights were suppressed.

In fact, there are so many historical and geographical errors in this book it is good to be reminded that it is, after all, a work of fiction (and not a particularly good one either, in my opinion). No one should take its claims seriously.

However, there are a few things which Dan Brown got right (but not many).

First, he tapped into a widespread interest in the community in matters of faith and religion. A lot of people are interested in the historical Jesus and in His teachings. This interest is also reflected in the substantial number of books about Jesus and early Christianity which have gone on to become best-sellers since the publication of The Da Vinci Code.

Second, and perhaps even more noteworthy, Dan Brown realised that while there is an interest in Jesus and matters of faith generally, an enormous number of people do not trust the church to interpret such things for them. It seems, in fact, that they trust a fiction-writer more than they do the institutionalised church. Of course, Brown profited substantially by writing a book which tapped into the community interest in Jesus while at the same time further eroding the credibility of the church. This was actually a great deal more clever than anything in the book.

Third, Brown realised that there was a watershed in the development of Christianity in the fourth century, and that Christianity took a significant change of direction. Two significant landmarks in this development followed the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) to Christianity. By the Edict of Milan in 313 AD he legalised Christianity and made it the preferred religion of the Roman empire. Then, in 325 AD the Emperor himself presided over a council of Christian Bishops called the First Council of Nicaea which was held in Bithynia in modern-day Turkey. This Council set the church on a new course which was to irreversibly change the way Christians thought of their founder, and the way the teachings of Jesus Christ would be interpreted and applied.

Although Brown made some historical errors about Constantine and fourth-century Christianity, he at least realised that there was a change of direction after Nicaea. But he missed the main issue completely. The key to understanding what went wrong at Nicaea lies in understanding why the debate about the divinity/humanity of Jesus was important to the Emperor of Rome, why it was a political issue (more than a theological one), and why the victors at that particular Council sought to destroy their opponents and eradicate their writings and teachings. It had everything to do with power and politics and had nothing to do with Mary Magdalene.

To put it simply (something Brown didn't do) Christianity has been distorted by its neglect of the actual figure and teachings of Christ. It seems that a lot of people intuitively know this, and therefore do not trust the church to tell the truth about Jesus or faithfully interpret His teachings.

Brown's alternative, however, is sheer nonsense.

I believe that the success of books like The Da Vinci Code have created an opportunity for us to teach the same message which Jesus taught. Jesus didn't come to build a church. He didn't come to do three days work. He came to prepare people for His Kingdom. His message is surprisingly simple, and if we remove the clutter which the church added to His message, and take away the church's authoritarian structures and trappings of power, the teachings of Jesus are also amazingly attractive.

Jesus was undoubtedly an interesting speaker. Large crowds followed him, sometimes travelling long distances and going without food so they would not miss a word. His audience were impressed by the way in which He taught, as well as by His message and His unique personality. The reason He drew large crowds was a combination of what He taught, who He was, and how He taught. If only we could re-focus on His message and methods, and disconnect it from 'doing church', I believe that more people would be interested in looking at the actual teachings of Jesus.