The success of Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code reveals a lot about the outlook of many people. Although a novel, Brown claims it has a factual basis and that there is real evidence Jesus Christ had children by Mary Magdalene, and that he intended her (not Peter) to be the leader of the Apostles. Jesus was merely a good man, and was proclaimed as God 300 years later by the Emperor Constantine.
Let us examine Brown's technique by considering what he says about the alleged blackening of Mary Magdalene's character by a sinister Catholic Church desperate to keep the truth a secret. His method here is illustrative of his overall method as he spins his fantastic assertions.
The Church, he says, pretended Mary was a reformed prostitute, but scholars know this is wrong. This "discovery" will doubtless impress some readers, particularly those who have always assumed Mary was the woman who had a bad name in the town and who, repentant, washed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair. Readers may wonder: why weren't we told the truth? Brown's rejection of the error will dispose some of them to believe other claims he makes.
For he is right in maintaining that Mary Magdalene is not the penitent sinner of Luke 7. There is no good reason for saying they are the same person. This identification was apparently never made until late in the sixth century; and when St Luke names Mary Magdalene, after having written about the penitent woman, he seems to be introducing her for the first time. Most Scripture scholars see Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the penitent sinner as three different women.
The identification was made by Pope Gregory the Great in a homily preached in 591 (Homily 33, PL 76, 1239). Did he do so to disparage her? Certainly not. He was always more interested in drawing spiritual lessons from Scripture than in adhering to the literal meaning. In this instance he viewed the seven demons cast out of Mary Magdalene as literally demons but also as representing the seven capital vices.
In the account of the penitent woman he sets in contrast the perfume with which she anointed Jesus with the perfume she would have previously worn when sinning; he sees her eyes which previously had coveted forbidden things as now filled with the tears of repentance; the hair which she had sinfully flaunted is now used to dry her tears; the mouth which had spoken proud words now kisses her Saviour's feet.
The homily doesn't lower Mary in the estimation of the hearers; it elevates her. It praises her for renouncing sin and turning so fully to Christ. Had Gregory wanted to downgrade her he would have adopted a very different approach.
Some of Dan Brown's readers won't realise it, but Christians through the ages have always been moved by accounts of repentant sinners: Peter weeping bitterly for his denial of Jesus; the repentant thief on the cross (the thief who stole Heaven, as Fulton Sheen put it); Thomas renouncing his scepticism with his act of faith "My Lord and my Go"; St Augustine breaking with years of sin to become a great saint.
There ever resonates in the Christian soul the statement of Jesus, "There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7).
Ignoring all this, Brown infers something sinister in Pope Gregory's identification of the two women: something is being covered up; the Pope knows it would be dangerous, indeed disastrous, if the truth got out - if people saw that Mary Magdalene, not St Peter, should have led the Church. So her character has to be blackened.
According to Brown, speaking through his fictional characters, a great conspiracy is in place, and has been since early times, to prevent the truth becoming known. But there has also been a secret tradition which has preserved the truth through the centuries. A vast secret society, the Priory of Sion (whose great enemy is Opus Dei!) knows the truth. The Priory has numbered among its Grand Masters such illustrious figures as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo.
Leonardo, so the story goes, couldn't reveal the facts because of the Church's power, so he left hidden messages in his paintings. In The Last Supper the figure taken to be St John, sitting at Jesus' right, is really Mary Magdalene!
The novel contains much more in the same vein, building up a picture of a secret movement preserving the truth about the real origin and nature of Christianity, while a powerful and corrupt Catholic Church prevents the truth becoming known - for once it became known the Church would be finished.
Brown's contentions are so silly that no reasonably unbiased and reasonably informed person could take them seriously. Yet reactions to the book, including some of the reviews it has received, show that many readers are taking it seriously. The Chicago Tribune claimed the book contains "several doctorates' worth of fascinating history and learned speculation".
One thing reactions to The Da Vinci Code have made clear is the profound ignorance of so many about the past, and particularly about Christianity. They simply haven't got the background to separate fact from fiction. Also, some who think of themselves as Christian lack belief in even fundamental doctrines, and consequently are open to ideas incompatible with their professed faith.
The book's reception shows widespread credulity, a credulity associated very often with a fascination with conspiracy theories. People are thrilled at the thought of cover-ups, mysterious organisations, hidden power struggles, secret knowledge. The same state of mind is open to reports of aliens from other worlds.
A big factor is a deep-seated and often largely unconscious anti-Christian (and particularly anti- Catholic) prejudice. Anything that will discredit the Church will tend to be given a hearing, with a readiness to accept it as truth.
The support given by Brown to feminism and to goddess- worship ensures a sympathetic reception by those who denounce Christianity as male-dominated and repressive of women, and the promotion of a Gnostic-style outlook finds favour with a prominent trend in current religiosity.
Itching ears syndrome
St Paul warns Timothy: "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths" (II Tim 4:3-4). The itching ears syndrome helps make bestsellers of books with outlandish theories.
Should we be concerned about the effect of books like this, or can their popularity be dismissed as a silly fad that won't do any real harm? Can The Da Vinci Code be seen as an exciting novel to occupy one's idle hours, while treating the underlying message as amusing nonsense?
One thing overlooked by that assessment is the insult offered to our Divine Redeemer by denying his divinity, the sacrifice of his life for our salvation, and his gift of an infallible Church led by St Peter and his successors. That, objectively, is what Dan Brown has done, no matter how subjectively innocent he may be through ignorance.
Further, such books promote a mindset alien to Christianity, and thereby make the propagation of the Gospel more diffficult. And if the alleged facts put forward were true, it would mean the demolition of Christianity; so people who see even a probability that Brown's viewpoint is correct will be unable, while in that state of mind, to believe in Christ.
John Young is a Melbourne-based Catholic author, writer and lecturer.