Mark Greene looks at the film, The Da Vinci Code and the coverage of God in the media.
It came, I saw it and it won’t conquer the world.
The film version of the Da Vinci Code may have had one of the top 10 grossing weekends in American cinema and done really rather well in Italy but if you can’t sell tickets for an adaptation of the most widely read novels in history then you need to find another job. Still it was dull, perhaps made to seem more leaden by the fact that I’d just been to Mission Impossible III which was quite possibly the best one-dimensional, high octane, adrenalin-pumping action thriller I’d ever seen on the big screen. In sum, Dan Brown’s book may well be one of the finest examples of the popular thriller ever penned, but the film adaptation singularly failed to match its pace, its intrigue, or the exciting sense of discovery that Brown’s whirlwind tour of art, history, symbology, theology and some really rather lovely buildings provided.
Still, if the adaptation was lacklustre its central thrust remained intact. As grail expert Leigh Teabing puts it in the film:
“What if the world realises that the greatest story ever told is a lie?”
Essentially, it was this assault on the reliability of the New Testament accounts that made most Christian commentators regard it as a dangerous novel. Certainly, the book’s attacks on the Church have been softened though certainly not removed. As Teabing puts it with acerbic irony:
“As long as there has been one true God there has been killing in his name.”
Indeed, the film’s focus on fanaticism– whether Teabing’s or that of the manipulated albino priest Silas or those who manipulate him – is sharper than in the novel. In a post 9/11 world, with the TV movie of Flight 93 in Blockbusters and the cinema version being promoted, and in the very week that there’s been so much debate about whether a public memorial should be erected for the victims of the 7/7 bombings, the resonances with the fiction of Brown are sobering. The danger is clear: people increasingly associate religion with violence. And with very good reason.
Interestingly, perhaps to mollify Christian pressure groups, the film significantly changes the views of its professorial hero Robert Langdon. In the book, as I recall it, he comes across as a man without faith or any personal religious experience. In the film, he tells us that he is a lapsed Catholic and that he fell down a well at the age of seven and spent a terrifying night struggling to stay afloat. Langdon confesses that he prayed to Jesus and, more tellingly, that he felt that there was ‘someone’ down there with him. Prayer was answered, presence was experienced
This was may sound more positive than the book’s heretical conclusion but it comes to the viewer in the context of Langdon’s belief that he has indeed discovered the last descendant of Christ’s marriage to Mary Magdalene – Sophie Neveu.
Who then is Jesus for this cinematic Langdon? “Jesus is a human inspiration – that’s all that has ever been proved.” And what should Sophie do now that she knows the truth about herself and the reliability of the Bible? Destroy the beliefs of millions? Or let them live with a nourishing but nevertheless wholly ill-founded myth? The answer: better a good myth, than a disruptive truth. It is the same conclusion that the Vatican and Langdon came to in Dan’s earlier book Angels and Demons – now also a bestseller, with a film being mooted.
Jesus, of course, thought differently. It is the truth that sets us free. And while we certainly need to tell those who are interested why the Bible is trustworthy, we also need to find a way to demonstrate that the life Christ brings is indeed a life of joyous freedom, of wonder, discovery and high adventure. After all, are not all Christians called to be part of God’s epic purposes in time and eternity? Are we not all called to be agents of transformation in His world?
It’s great to crack the code, but it’s vital to live the word. People are after all looking for more than facts, they are looking for a sense of awe and transcendence, for a spirit-deep connection with the divine, and for a sense of adventure.
Positively, the Da Vinci Code has put a whole host of important issues on the mainstream cultural agenda. It has provided myriad opportunities for Christians to understand their faith better, to talk to people who don’t know Jesus, to invite friends into church for Da Vinci evenings and so on. And it’s not the only catalyst. Indeed, something quite profound has happened over the last decade.
A decade ago, Christian mission strategists were bewailing the fact that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, had been pushed to the margins, that we were off the agenda. That’s simply no longer the case. On the day of writing, Madonna’s latest departure into shock – hanging herself from a 20 foot high mirrored crucifix – found itself on the front pages, complete with negative responses from church leaders. They may be right, they may be wrong – she was hanging against a video backdrop of statistics and pictures of world poverty whilst she sang the lyrics of Live to Tell which, though clearly not originally intended to carry an anti-poverty agenda, do have something to say about realising the truth:
“I have a tale to tell
Sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well
I was not ready for the fall
Too blind to see the writing on the wall.”
This was just 24 hours after we were reminded that impossible things happen – Finland won the Eurovision Song Contest – with a heavy metal ensemble called Lordi dressed up in masks that made your average orc look really quite appealing and enthusiastically squawking out the lyrics of Hard Rock Hallelujah. Once again, some Christian commentators commented negatively, though Lordi’s intentions may well be on the side of the angels – one of their albums is called The Devil is a Loser.
And lest we forget Lord Joffe’s assisted dying bill has been all over the press. Whilst at the same time, a debate has raged about the appropriateness of Ruth Kelly to hold the post of Equality Minister, given her Catholic faith and her refusal to deny that homosexuality is a sin. Butiglione lost his job for holding such a conviction, though there was no evidence that it prevented him acting justly and in line with EU law. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor then entered the fray – good for him, I say – writing to The Times:
“The Catholic Church teaches that some actions are sinful, sexual acts outside marriage among them. St Thomas Aquinas taught that not every sin is necessarily a crime, and not every crime is necessarily a sin. From this stems the Church’s defence of human rights. Homosexual people are first of all persons, and have the same entitlement to legal rights as anyone else. The Church has consistently spoken out against any discrimination against homosexual persons, and will continue to do so. Every politician needs to balance the demands of his or her conscience with the need for collective responsibility in Government. Ruth Kelly is finding that balance for herself. For this she deserves respect, not criticism. Ms Kelly may well be scrutinised for her fitness for office. That is a political judgment; her Catholicism should not be a criterion in that judgment.”
And all this coverage of religion and religious perspectives is not now unusual. Last November, a letter to the editor of the Guardian complained about the high level of coverage of religion and religious issues in a newspaper traditionally light on religion. The editor responded by comparing recent Guardian content with that of other newspapers. Two things emerged:The Guardian gave more column inches to religious issues – excluding the Times coverage of the church calendar – than any other newspaper Its coverage had risen.
The editor was, however, unapologetic, precisely because religion has become a critical component of so many national and international issues. This may have primarily been driven by 9/11, the rise of militant Islam and perhaps more importantly the rise in awareness of the potential for militant Islam to grow rapidly. However, it is broader than that – it involves our many struggles as a society in working through how personal faith should or should not impact everything from education to business to government.
Some big businesses have, for example, sought to suppress faith groups, giving none of them space for meetings or access to internal communications. Others have taken the opposite approach, encouraging faith groups as part of a more confident diversity policy that perhaps recognises that, in the workplace at least, that faith groups don’t generate conflict and do build positive community. Either way, the issue is on the agenda.
The struggle for public space has had a long history and has become fiercer as the secularists who thought they had won the war have begun to realise that religion has not died, that the yearning for spiritual transcendence has not withered under the fiery blast of secular scientism but has flourished. Indeed, moving to the private sphere, research has shown that our population may go to church much, much less than 20 years but that far from being less open to the transcendent, the opposite is true. We’ve never seen so many angels.
Ten years ago, people were trying to work out how to put God on the national agenda. Well, he’s certainly there now. It may not be, as one leader put it, in the way we would have wanted – wars, heresies and blasphemies – but it’s on the agenda. And we are, it seems, getting much better at dealing with the media and making our case in an increasingly winsome way. They may have burned a copy of The Da Vinci Code in Italy but in Britain we’ve responded in a whole variety of positive ways – careful arguments, insightful questioning about what we can learn, firm but thoughtful stands of conscience, creative responses in print, in the media and in live events. As the founder of Jews for Jesus once put it to me before my first skirmish in the lion’s den of a media debate:
“Don’t defend God. He can look after Himself. Don’t defend Mark Greene, that’s not important. Look for the opportunity for the Gospel. And if you make a total mess of it, don’t worry, Jesus is still Lord.”
Look for the opportunity for the Gospel. Look for the opportunity for the whole-life, liberating, gracious, joy-bringing, burden-lifting, heart-healing, body-feeding, spirit lifting, redeeming, hope-filling, loving, adventurous, mysterious, limitless Gospel.
Where you are. A few weeks ago The Independent made Bono its guest editor for the day. A bold move. He used the opportunity to speak out, as I’m sure they thought he would, for the poor, for the victims of Western indifference and unjust trade agreements. But it came, as I’m sure they thought it might, infused by and wrapped (literally) in his Christian faith. For those with eyes to see, there was Da Bono Code in small type running along the top of Damien Hirst’s front page illustration of a cross made up of a skull, praying hands, a syringe, some pills and, at the apex, a dove: RX Genesis 1:27 04.80.NO. RX = rex = King. Genesis 1:27 = “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them .” 04.80.NO = for Bono. Of course, you're not Ruth Kelly or Bono, or at least only one of you is either, but in your own context, in your own conversations, i wonder if there's an opportunity for the Gospel. There are certainly plenty in the news.