Look! Who is that right in front of Jesus with soft features and no beard? It must be... Mary Magdalene, the secret wife of Christ whose descendents are the true Holy Grail and whose story has been ruthlessly suppressed by the evil Catholic Church! Jeepers! It's a good thing that Leonardo was a member of the secret Priory of Sion and knew the truth, and could transmit it through a code... Wait... That's not Leonardo's Last Supper, it's a medieval wall painting from the south of France. Oh... So the apostle John was always represented that way? Oh...
I swear, I don't know why The Da Vinci Code gets my goat so much. I mean, I read the damn thing and even enjoyed it after I got over the vapid prose, wild historical errors, and cardboard characters. I'll probably see the movie if I get the chance. Still, when I hear mention of it on a blog (like Steve's or Crystal's), I go on and on about it. Why is that? It's not so much a question of blasphemy or offence to my religion (although it really is insulting to Catholics), rather I think it's offensive to my calling as a historian. Look, we historians work very hard. We read lots and lots of documents, some of them very old and written in dead languages with very difficult scripts, and we are methodologically almost pathologically anal. We realize that history is complex and never easy to explain. The real causes of events are myriad and intangible, the evidence is often spotty and the questions usually outweigh the answers. When we teach history, we want to give our students a coherent story of what happened in the past, fighting in a Sisyphean manner against an accepted narrative based on pop-culture simplifications and vulgar prejudices. The last thing we need is a testacazzo like Dan Brown making things harder for us.
Oh, please do not tell me "it's just a novel." Yes, but Brown places a page at the beginning claiming that certain of the things referred to are "facts." These "facts" include the existence of both the ancient "Priory of Sion" (invented in the 1950's by a fanatical French anti-Semite) and the documents about the "priory" in the French National Library (forged and planted there by the aforesaid anti-Semite). This sets the tone for many discursive passages in the book in which characters explain even more "facts" about early Christianity, the Church, art history, etc. Brown makes it obvious that he wants the reader to see his information as based on a real, credible alternative reading of history. Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" is "just a movie," but I'm sure Lee would be upset if we were not to take seriously the many brilliant insights about race and American society he transmits through the film's fictional story. Both works claim a certain seriousness, even if Lee's film is good movie-making and profound social commentary whereas Brown's book, although admittedly a page-turner, is from the literary and historical point of view a pure exemplar of birdie doo-doo.
Perhaps the Catholic in me is slightly annoyed as well. I mean, there is so much to criticize in the Church, why come up to me and spout this drivel in order to get me to change my beliefs? A couple of Christian commentators, being wise and generous, have pointed out that the fact that people get excited by conspiracy theories of this type or look to the gnostic gospels as evidence of some kind of cover-up of "true Christianity" may be due to the fact that what they see as Christianity is disappointing. Perhaps. But it takes very little investigating to see how clearly they are barking up a wrong tree (to see some responsible debunking of the Da Vinci claims, here are two alternatives from the official Catholic and secular perspectives). Maybe my annoyance is primarily that of an academic. Why even try if people will not check with the experts to see if a particular theory holds water? Once again, the triumph of anti-intellectualism. Why read a book on early Christianity by a respected scholar when you can read the Da Vinci Code? Why listen to every responsible scientist in the country about global warming when you can just invite a guy who writes thrillers about dinosaurs to the White House to help formulate your policy?
I'm beginning to get whiney, I'm sorry. I'll shut up now.
One more thing: a moment of silence for one of our oldest poets, Stanley Kunitz who died this weekend at age 100. Flights of angels, Stanley.
PS: Speaking of loss and scholars, one of the great historians of Christianity, Jaroslav Pelikan, died this weekend at age 82. Requiescat in pace.