Peddling pagan temptations

FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

A confessor of mine once delivered himself of this sage aphorism: If there is not enough time to read the good books, there cannot be any time to waste reading the bad ones. I doubt he has read The Da Vinci Code.

I haven’t. Even if I thought it worth wasting the time, my taste in recreational reading does not run to thrillers comprised of anti-Catholic tall tales.

Nonetheless, Dan Brown has proved himself an adept salesman, and the release of the movie version of his novel tomorrow has made The Da Vinci Code very much the hot topic. After all of the coverage — commentaries, summaries, rebuttals, debates, boycotts, lawsuits — I feel like I have read it. It certainly is taking up too much time. Despite the hullabaloo, I find it hard to get excited. There has always been a vast market for lurid stories about the sinister secrets of the Catholic Church, especially in English-language letters, where anti-Catholicism, latent or explicit, is as common as, well, Mark Twain, who was honest enough to write: “I have been educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic, and sometimes, in consequence of this, I find it much easier to discover Catholic faults than Catholic virtues.”

Mr. Brown’s shocking tales are meant as an indictment of Christianity and the Catholic Church root and branch. The Church has regularly dispatched foes more erudite and more ferocious than Mr. Brown, and it remains hard to take him seriously. But the commercial success of his book is a serious indictment of the enfeebled state of Christian formation in our culture. To put it bluntly: Only the weak of mind or weak of faith are taken in by the serial nonsenses peddled by Mr. Brown. Weak-mindedness is dangerous to the faith, as faith requires the discipline of distinguishing between mysteries beyond, but not contrary to, our reason, and mere claptrap that requires suspending critical judgment altogether.

Faith does not require great intelligence, let alone academic credentials. It does require common sense, or better, a common wisdom. Indeed, the great liberating power of Judeo-Christian revelation was that it freed man’s transcendent character from the oppressive world of pagan religion, with its secret knowledge, godlike natural forces, arbitrary powers and fanciful myths and legends. The great innovation of biblical religion is that it is accessible to the common wisdom of common people.


My suspicion is that the popularity of The Da Vinci Code lies precisely in that it avoids putting the simple choice of faith before us — a choice that has consequences. It provides instead the comfortable paralysis of not being responsible; after all, if the whole religious architecture of the West is the mother of all frauds, what is left to do but simply go to the movies?


Yet the old pagan temptations never entirely fade away, and it is to those longings for a more complicated, more fantastic, more spectacular, religion that Mr. Brown’s novel is aimed.

After all, the fundamentals of the Christian creed can be summarized in a few sentences easily learned by schoolchildren and recited aloud from memory by the whole congregation on Sunday. They are great mysteries to be sure — Trinity, incarnation, redemption, salvation, crucifixion, resurrection — but they are simple enough to explain. Contrast that with the account Mr. Brown offers of a centuries-long fraud, sustained by shadowy groups, imperial politics, ruthless brutality and latterly revealed by a secret code “hidden” in one of the world’s most famous paintings.

The Christian Gospel offers a coherent, comprehensible account of reality that invites the assent of faith. It requires a choice with consequences. Mr. Brown’s dissent from Christianity offers a bewildering and incredible amalgam of falsehoods and implausibilities, painting a picture of a world in which the unenlightened are subject to the manipulations of the few. Call it paganism, Gnosticism, or simply hucksterism, but Mr. Brown is in a long, and occasionally lucrative, tradition.

My suspicion is that the popularity of The Da Vinci Code lies precisely in that it avoids putting the simple choice of faith before us — a choice that has consequences. It provides instead the comfortable paralysis of not being responsible; after all, if the whole religious architecture of the West is the mother of all frauds, what is left to do but simply go to the movies?

There are some Christians who think that they can make lemonade out of Mr. Brown’s sour lemon. Perhaps. God does write straight with crooked lines, though in this case I remain skeptical. The weak-minded who accept a novel riddled with errors instead of the Gospel are not looking for faith, but rather an alternative to it.

Alternatives are always at the ready. Sony Pictures and Mr. Brown are not the first to sell the story that Jesus ran off with Mary Magdalene. Christian tradition considers Mary Magdalene a saint because she repented of her prostitution. The writing of books and the making of movies are not quite such ancient professions, but they are not immune from the same temptations.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Peddling pagan temptations." National Post, (Canada) May 18, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2006 National Post


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