This is a shortened version of the introduction to 'The Da Vinci Hoax'. James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St Louis University and a prolific writer on Catholic topics.
'The Da Vinci Hoax' is available from AD Books for $33.00 (see page 19).
People who do not read serious books are reading The Da Vinci Code, and for many it is the closest to a "real" book they will ever come. There is an odd assumption, detectable even among some professed Christians, that Dan Brown's book would not have been published, would not have become a best-seller, if it were not true.
In speaking about the book to Catholic audiences I have found that there are people who, if they cannot deny that it is a work of fiction, are nonetheless unwilling to concede that it is not reliable as history. Such people latch onto peripheral items ("isn't it true that Opus Dei owns a big building in New York?") and use those things to "prove" the accuracy of the entire fantastic plot.
For many people today, including some professed Christians, the Good News is bad news. At one time, Christians found deeply troubling the claim that the Bible was unreliable history, and if they accepted the claim they did so with a heavy heart. But today some church members would be troubled if presented with incontrovertible evidence that the Scriptures are historically accurate, because such a revelation would require them to rethink their entire relationship to their faith.
Paradoxically, many people who might be thought of as unusually active church members, the kind who frequent Bible-study groups, workshops, and adult-education classes, often seem to do so precisely because they have, as St Paul warned, "itching ears". They yearn to hear novelty. They rejoice to have sacred truths "deconstructed". Thus there are parish groups that have made The Da Vinci Code the subject of their study, treating it with more credulity than they ordinarily give to the Bible itself.
For two hundred years, the primary Western assault on Christianity was the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the claim that traditional religion was simply a set of fairy stories believed by the gullible in the face of growing evidence to the contrary. Because of this critique, until fairly recently it seemed necessary to choose between religious faith and a rather sterile rationalism.
But the "counterculture" of the 1960s inevitably discovered "spirituality", which is now touted even in the business world. Prosperous people in the advanced Western countries cannot deny themselves anything, and at some point it occurs to them that religious believers are "enjoying" something that the secularists have denied themselves.
The historical forms of Christianity stand in the way of this new spirituality, however. Creeds require individuals to rise above themselves, to submit to a truth much greater than themselves, to become real disciples. By contrast, contemporary New Age religion is simply the worship of the self, or at best the worship of deities that the self has created. (How many New Agers really believe in goddesses?)
The moral implications of this are also obvious. The "sexual revolution" is the single most formidable dividing line between the culture and serious Christians. But if religion is a human invention, there cannot be an objective moral law, and all things are permitted.
In an often unrecognised way, the passion that drives debates about The Da Vinci Code has more to do with abortion and homosexuality than it does with the origins of Christianity. New Age religiosity invites people to make up their own deities, and The Da Vinci Code invites them to invent their own history, to replace the Gospel of Jesus Christ with scriptures that cater to contemporary preoccupations like feminism.
Christianity makes fundamental historical claims about itself - that, if Jesus did not live, die, and rise again as the Gospels announce, our faith is in vain. This is a daring claim that makes Christianity vulnerable to attack precisely through its history, and Brown invites the reader to see Christianity as nothing less than a gigantic fraud perpetrated over two thousand years, a conspiracy of power that long held a monopoly on the things of the soul and is now being exposed. Shallow though the book is, it is a major weapon in the campaign to discredit the Christian faith once and for all.
The purported scholarly roots of this attack lie in the gnostic gospels, which, although written later than the New Testament, are often treated as more reliable than the New Testament. Elaine Pagels, who has done the most to promote the gnostic gospels, is quite candid about her own agenda - "spirituality" freed from the constraints of creeds.
Ignorance of history
If Brown offered his arguments in the form of a historical treatise, they would be dismissed as sheer fantastic speculation. But he invites the public to accept the book as history and then, if challenged, retreats to saying "but it's just a story".
It is another example of a pernicious genre now practised by, for example, the film-maker Oliver Stone and the novelist Gore Vidal - exploiting the public's ignorance of history by serving up mixtures of fact and fiction and failing to delineate between the two, scoring points through fiction that could not be made with fact.
It is more than ironic that so much obloquy has been heaped on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which is based almost entirely on the New Testament, while many of the people who excoriate the film see nothing wrong with The Da Vinci Code.
Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel have done a superb and meticulous job of dissecting the fraud that is The Da Vinci Code. Not only Christians, but all fair-minded people owe them a debt of gratitude.