Learn how you and your church can enter the debate about this month's big movie release, based on Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel 'The Da Vinci Code'. Steve Hollinghurst reveals how to engage, enable your Christian beliefs to get a positive response, and not be seen as part of a conspiracy to silence the truth. The Da Vinci Code has become a monster best-seller with over 40 million book sales worldwide. Now the Hollywood movie based on this blockbuster is due for release worldwide mid-May. The controversial plot divides people between the many who enjoy the fast-paced hunt to decipher a code to reveal the wherabouts of the Holy Grail, and those who criticise author Dan Brown for sloppy research and for putting forward inaccuracies as buried truths. Many Christians are outraged by the plot which claims Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children, and that the Christian religion and the Roman Catholic church in particular, has deliberately suppressed the true original message of Jesus, substituting a set of beliefs which oppress women and independent spiritual searching. Mark Greene, writing in Christianity (July 2004) described the book as ‘a confident presentation of bogus scholarship with enough truth mixed in to create a convincing alternative account’. Dan Brown insists the novel is not anti-Christian but meant to be an entertaining story to promote discussion and debate. In fact Brown claims to be a Christian and says Christian theologians have been key influences in his life. That said, his novel promotes and seeks to restore ‘the sacred feminine’ to religion in general and Christianity in particular. Brown on his website argues that women in most cultures have ‘been stripped of their spiritual power. The novel touches on questions of how and why this shift occurred… and on what lessons we might learn from it regarding the future.’ While many regard the success of the book and launch of the movie as a big threat to Christianity – many believers also consider this is a major opportunity to talk to friends, family and acquantances about the heart of the gospel. A wide range of books and other resources – some good, some less so – have been produced in response to to The Da Vinci Code (see box overleaf). I highly recommend ‘Coded Messages - Evangelism and The Da Vinci Code’ by Steve Hollinghurst as a conscise and informative mini-book which explores how discussion about the book and film can be used to build bridges. In this exclusive extract from this Grove Book, Steve Hollinghurst suggests how churches can run events this month to address the issue the film raises. Hard on the heels of ‘The Narnia Chronicles: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ (released last December) this movie gives churches an opportunity to share the message of Jesus to a spiritually searching culture. [Words: John Buckeridge]
Running Events Based on The Da Vinci Code by Steve Hollinghurst, a Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at the Church Army, Sheffield Centre. The Event You Should Not Run The venue is a church hall; outside is a poster saying ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Most of the people attending are church members, most of whom have not read The Da Vinci Code. The non-Christians are few and are sympathetic to the book, which most of them have read and a number thoroughly enjoyed. There is only one speaker, the church minister. He has not read the book either but has read a number of books by Christians denouncing it. The evening consists of a talk by the minister in which he goes through a long list of facts that prove The Da Vinci Code is riddled with errors. He quotes book reviews that poor scorn on its bad writing style, some lead the church members to laughter and the minister joins in saying “it’s amazing anyone bothers to read this rubbish isn’t it?” Then there is a time for questions. By now almost no-one will dare support any of the book’s ideas. The minister responds to the few who do by quoting Scripture. He then concludes with a presentation of the cross and the true meaning of the blood of Jesus and makes an altar call. No-one responds. The Christians go home reassured that they can ignore The Da Vinci Code, the non-Christians go home convinced Brown must be onto something if the minister is so dismissive of the book. Key Points in Running a Good Event 1 Be Prepared for a Genuine Debate Brown’s views touch on areas where Christians do not all agree. Indeed he and some of his sources view themselves as restoring the true Christian faith. This makes a genuine debate doubly scary because the Christians present may disagree on important issues. It might be tempting to ensure that a party line is toed, but it is a temptation to avoid. Actually to hear that Christians do not all agree is likely to make Christianity more appealing to those the event will attract. Remember that some of those present are likely to know of different Christian views, even just from reading the novel; any attempt to veto some opinions is likely to be exposed. Needless to say you, like me, are likely to consider some views as inconsistent with Christianity. If such views are raised treat them seriously but explain gently why for you they do not seem compatible with the Christian faith. It is also important that those attending are allowed to ask questions and that their views are taken seriously. You also need to have read the book. 2 Try to Ensure There is Not Only One Speaker Personally I would always like to have at least one speaker who was a supporter of much or all of Brown’s ideas and able to argue his side of the argument. This will ensure better questions and will help you really engage with the issues and not come over as trying to do a cover up. Unfortunately finding people to do this may not be easy. You might, however, find someone to act as an interviewer for your Christian speaker or speakers and be able to push Brown’s points in the way a news reporter will argue the opposite side to get a good interview. Better still get a local celebrity news person and use this to sell the event. In an event run by Robin Gamble, Canon Evangelist at Manchester Cathedral, this was addressed by having a panel representing different issues, a Roman Catholic priest, a New Testament scholar, a leading female priest and an expert on the resurrection. These were interviewed in turn and then took audience questions. I would have suggested a non-Christian historian as another good panel member. If you go for a panel format it is certainly good to try and have a non-Christian, to have a Roman Catholic and a woman minister. Ideally one of the Christians should be sympathetic to a feminist agenda. 3 Choose Your Venue Wisely The venue needs to be either atmospheric or neutral and welcoming. At Manchester they held it in the Cathedral, often used for public events but also having lots of atmosphere and its own share of cryptic looking art and artefacts. They had also considered the local Waterstones, which would have proved another good venue. For others it might be the local pub.32 In Newshy;castle they are exploring having a discussion after a showing of the film at an arts cinema—an excellent suggestion, which also allows the film to speak Better still get a local celebrity news person and use this to sell the event on Brown’s behalf as a ‘celluloid speaker.’ The DVD will also enable discusshy;sion showings of the film, but remember you will need a licence to show it in public even at a free event! 4 Seek to Address the Key Issues… …in no particular order: 1 Would it have been wrong for Jesus to be married? 2 Has the church excluded women? What should be the place of women in the church? 3 Is sex evil? 4 Can we commune with God through sex or nature? 5 Is God male or best seen as a Goddess? 6 Are there descendents of Jesus alive today? 7 Do the Gnostic Gospels represent the true original Christian messhy;sage? 8 Did the church deliberately suppress these books? 9 Did the church suppress Pagan beliefs? 10 How do you think we should view Mary Magdalene? You and your speakers/panel members will need to decide how they respond to these issues. Below, in very rudimentary form, are some things I might say. You may not agree but I hope it helps your thinking. 1 Would it have been wrong for Jesus to be married? Jesus was very much a human being and will have been attracted to women like any other man. Many of the apostles were married and it would not have been wrong for Jesus to marry either. However, the writings we have often depict Jesus predicting his death, so it might have been rather unkind to marry someone only to leave them a widow a couple of years later, particularly as widows had a very difficult time in Jesus’ day. 2 Has the church excluded women? What should be the place of women in the church? I think the church has excluded women in the past. In this it has gone along with the rest of society. Christians do not all agree on women’s roles, but I think Jesus intended to have women in equal position to men. His female followers are the first he appears to at his resurrection and the ones who stayed with him at his death. They travelled with Jesus and some of them funded his ministry. Paul says that in Christ there is no distinction between Jews and non-Jews, slaves and free people, and men and women—all are one in Christ. In his day he fought hard to get non-Jews accepted as equal. Two hundred years ago Christians were campaigning for freedom for slaves; now I believe it is important to see women equal to men in the church and I think Dan Brown is right to want this. 3 Is sex evil? In the book Langdon suggests we need to look at sex as something sacred; for me this is actually a Christian response. Indeed, this is why Christians have often argued for sex only to be within marriage. It is something to be treated as special and only to be shared with those who are special to us. Sometimes Christians have treated sex as evil or as the way sin is passed on. To me this seems to have more to do with Greek ideas which saw bodies as evil, rather than the Christian and Jewish view that bodies are made by God and sex is God’s gift. 4 Can we commune with God through sex or nature? I think we can experience God in the world because I believe God is its source. God is, I think, also experienced our relationships with other people. Indeed, Christian mystics have often described relating to God in sexual terms. Howshy;ever, it seems to be getting the cart before the horse to suggest we ought to have sex in order to commune with God as the Code does. It seems to me sex is first and foremost about the relationship with the other person, so I would not support the kind of sex rites Brown talks about in the book. 5 Is God male or best seen as a Goddess? Christians do not all agree on the language we should use for God but few would see God as male. The Bible begins by telling us God made humans male and female in God’s image, so it makes sense to view God as being the source of both. God, however, is not a human, so in one sense talking of God having any gender is a human attempt to speak of God. However, I do sometimes think we have underused the female language for God in the Christian and Jewish tradition and this has led to a male biased view of God at times. I think we would gain a deeper understanding of God if we consciously related to the female as well as the male imagery. Contemporary Pagans view the balance between gods and goddesses as very important. As a Christian I believe there is only one divine being, so we cannot add a goddess to a god. Rather I think it is important that God is viewed as equally female and male. 6 Are there descendents of Jesus alive today? I do not think Jesus had any children. There were Jewish groups at Jesus’ time who did not marry so it was not as unusual as people think. However, Christianity tells us that Jesus makes it possible for everyone to be children of God like him. So in a sense his blood is passed on to us. 7 Do the Gnostic gospels represent the true original Christian message? The people who wrote the Gnostic gospels certainly believed they were represhy;senting the truth and some scholars would view them as an original form of Christianity. Most would say, though, that the ideas in them seem to be later and not earlier than the traditional gospels; certainly the texts we have are later, though that does not prove there were not earlier texts we do not have. With regard to The Da Vinci Code the irony is that the Gnostic gospels, whilst they do give more prominence to female apostles, in other areas are more against Jesus’ humanity and sex than the traditional ones. Many Gnostics believed that creation was made by an evil God and so nature was evil and that female sexuality was the tool used by evil to seduce human spirits into bondage in human bodies. These ideas turn up in various places in the Gnostic gospels. In line with this Jesus is viewed sometimes as not truly human either. In contrast I think the Bible teaches that creation is made by the same God who was in Jesus and that God plans to heal and transform creation through Jesus just as he offers this to people who seek it from him. That Jesus was both God and a real human being also shows us that bodies are good. 8 Did the church deliberately suppress these books? The church did exclude Gnostic books from the Bible. However, most Chrisshy;tians at the time viewed Gnosticism as a new idea contrary to what Jesus taught rather than an original view they were replacing as some like Dan Brown suggest. Sadly, the church has in the past had a very poor record of brutality to those it viewed as heretics, and I suspect this has a lot to do with Christianity becoming a state religion, making it an act of treason to think differently about faith. I am glad we live in a world where free speech is alshy;lowed and think it important for Christians to allow people to air all sorts of views and respect those views. This does not mean we cannot disagree with them though. 9 Did the church suppress Pagan beliefs? The church’s approach to Pagan beliefs is varied. In some cases Christians have seen parallels in these beliefs, which is why many Pagan festivals were incorporated in Christianity. However, in other areas Christians did oppose them. Unfortunately there has been persecution of people for Pagan beliefs in Christian history. I think it is important today for Christians to respect Pagans and support their acceptance as a serious religion, even if we do not agree with all they believe. 10 How do you think we should view Mary Magdalene? Mary Magdalene is I think one of the key apostles of the Bible. Unfortunately in the West she has been hampered by being wrongly connected to the prostitute who anointed Jesus—a position that the Catholic church rejected in 1969, by the way. In the East she is viewed as the person who first preached Jesus to the Roman Emperor and she is the origin of their red Easter egg tradition. Mary used the egg to explain the idea of Jesus’ resurrection to the Emperor who retorted that it was as likely for someone to rise from death as the egg to turn red. At this point the egg (reportedly) turned red. Mary is one of many female saints it would be really good to bring to prominence as a much needed role model. Her importance, however, rests on her being the key witness to Jesus’ resurrection and her going out to spread the good news that by his death and resurrection Jesus had overcome death and evil, not on whether or not she was married to Jesus. Indeed it seems to me rather sexist to suggest the only way a women can become important is based on who she marries. Reproduced with permission from 'Coded Messages: Evangelism and The Da Vinci Code' published by Grove (booklet Ev73 in the Grove Evangelism series), available priced £2.95 with free UK pp from Grove Books Ltd, Ridley Hall Rd, Cambridge CB3 9HU Tel: 01223 464748 or via the Grove Books website www.grovebooks.co.uk Key Facts The Da Vinci Code makes various claims but many are exaggerations or plainly untrue, here are some of the key facts Dan Brown falls down on. • Some Gnostic gospels do make Mary Magdalene important, but do not say Jesus and Mary were married or that they kissed on the mouth, though a section of manuscript is missing at this point. • The Gnostic gospels are usually considered to be later than the four in the Bible, though a few serious scholars doubt this. • The Dead Sea Scrolls are pre-Christian texts and say nothing about Jesus or Mary as Brown claims. • It is claimed as a Rabbi Jesus must have married. However, rabshy;binical Judaism is later than Jesus’ day when there were many different forms. Groups like the Essenes, who share a number of things in common with Jesus, were celibate, so it would not have been unthinkable for Jesus to be single. • Pope Gregory did mistakenly combine several biblical women to make Mary a prostitute in 591. The Catholic Church has since reshy;jected this at the second Vatican council of 1969. Some iconography and writing also shows that the western church made her at times symbolic of female sexual sin. The East has always rejected this tradition and Protestants have rarely accepted it. • Leonardo Da Vinci never wrote anything about Jesus’ marriage or the Holy Grail. Brown’s ideas are modern theories with no record in Leonardo’s day. Leonardo was indeed unorthodox and homosexual but almost certainly did not paint Grail codes into his paintings. • The original Grail in the legends was not the chalice of the last supshy;per; it was the name given to a bowl in which Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to have gathered Jesus’ blood at the cross. • The word for Holy Grail in French ‘sangraal’ cannot be rendered ‘san grael’ and thus cannot mean ‘sang rael’, holy blood. The mistake comes from an English copy of the legend which got the French wrong. • The Priory of Sion was a real organization, registered by Piere Plantard who claimed to be the Merovingian royal descendent. However, it has no reliable history prior to 1956. The documents in the Paris library were admitted to be forgeries by Plantard during a trial in 1993. He made them to create a false genealogy. • 5 million women were not burnt as witches by the church. It is hardly edifying to record witch trial deaths at 50,000 at most, but true. And many of these were not women and the majority were not burned by the church but by small rural communities in Protestant Germany. The Catholic Church did set up the Inquisition to root out heresy and targeted women, Protestants, Muslims and Jews unpleasantly and inexcusably, but this is not Brown’s claim. • The Knights Templar did become very powerful and were destroyed by Philip lV on a charge of devil worship. However, it is highly unshy;likely they dug 50 metres under the Temple to recover documents from Jesus’ time (or even further to uncover magic books of King Solomon as others have suggested). There is no evidence for such a massive dig. They did not build churches either. DA VINCI CODE RESOURCES This list does not claim to exhaustive but does highlight some useful resources ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown published by Corgi £6.99 – read the book that created the furore. Christianity columnist Mark Greene wrote on Da Vinci Code in July 2004 last year. Read his helpful feature by clicking here.‘Da Vinci Code Decoded’ by Martin Lunn (The Disinformation Company, 2004). An expert historian reveals the truth behind Brown’s research. It is non-dogmatic and not out to discredit Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for religious motives. ‘Secrets of the Code’ edited by Dan Burstein (CDS Books, 2004) is unusual in being a collection of experts sympathetic to the book (and several are Brown’s sources). These will help you get into the issues and cannot be accused of being part of a church conspiracy, as can the numerous books written by Christians, many of which are also well researched. Opus Dei (A Catholic organisation maligned in Browne’s book have issued a measured response at www.opusdei.org. It will not answer all their critics but does point out some glaring errors in Brown’s book, notably that there are no monks in Opus Dei. There is also a lot of information at http://tinyurl.com/9t7f4http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Da_Vinci_CodeA site more sympathetic to Brown is:http://altreligion.about.com/library/bl_davincicode.htmBreaking the Da Vinci Code by Professor Darrell Bock's (2004) is an excellent book length Christian response. ‘The Da Vinci Code – A Response’ by Nicky Gumbel of Alpha/ Holy Trinity Brompton is a short booklet responding helpfully to the novel (Alpha) £1.00 08457 581278 ‘Cracking the Da Vinci Code’ by Rev Mark Stibbe (Word Spirit Resources) is a booklet which considers 10 key claims made in the book. Other linked resources include a DVD, a scratchcard with 10 questions relating to central claims of the novel (which is being made available in cinemas or could be used as invitation cards to an event) and a website link for interested inquirers www.thedavincicode.org.uk ReJesus has an excellent website for enquirers www.rejesus.co.uk‘Cracking Da Vinci’s Code by James L Garlow Peter Jones Victor/Kingsway £6.99 ‘The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?’ FF Bruce IVP ‘The Da Vinci Code Discussion Curriculum Kit is a resource for small groups produced by the Willow Creek Association includes a DVD and discussion guide (firstname.lastname@example.org) ‘Da Vinci – A Broken Code’ by Brian Edwards (Day One) £2.50 ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Garry Williams (Christian Focus) £1.99 responds to claims in Dan Brown’s book. CPO have a ‘Da Vinci Code outreach pack’ for churches which includes 200 A6 invites and four A2 posters (which can be overprinted with your local details), sermon outlines, booklets etc. £55 Phone: 01903 263354 to order or for more details. Connect Bible study on The Da Vinci Code (Scripture Union (£3.99) Steve Hollinghurst is a Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at the Church Army, Sheffield Centre. He helps run a Christian spirituality venue at the Glastonbury festival and has an MA on the New Age and Paganism in Britain today.