The Da Vinci Code opportunity

GEORGE WEIGEL

Why do intelligent people think that The Da Vinci Code has some basis in historical fact? Why do Catholics imagine that a novel which suggests (and not so subtly) that the entire structure of faith is a lie is, well, no big deal?


I was on the road a lot during Lent. And from sea to shining sea, nary an airport bookstore was without a Da Vinci Code display, in anticipation of the May release of Ron Howard’s film. One tries to ignore the hype — “the greatest cover-up in history!” — but there’s something depressing going on here. Why do intelligent people think that The Da Vinci Code has some basis in historical fact? Why do Catholics imagine that a novel which suggests (and not so subtly) that the entire structure of faith is a lie is, well, no big deal?

The good news, though, is that the film’s release is a great opportunity for bishops, priests, and deacons to dedicate Eastertide 2006 to preaching the truth of Christian history.

One of the reasons why so many Catholics have been vulnerable to the novel’s preposterous claims is that most Catholics are woefully ignorant of the Church’s history. How, for example, did the original Christian confession about Jesus of Nazareth — “Jesus is Lord” — came to doctrinal articulation in the Nicene Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in Being with the Father”? If you don’t know, at least in broad strokes, how the Creed of the Council of Nicaea came to express the New Testament faith of the Church, you’re going to be vulnerable to Dan Brown’s risible suggestion that it was all imperial politics in the age of Constantine. So I can well imagine a month’s worth of sermons on the development of Christology, the Church’s theology of Jesus as Son of God.

Then there’s the question of the integrity of the New Testament itself. The historical-critical method of Biblical analysis has immeasurably increased our knowledge of the Bible. Yet, filtered through inadequate homiletics and catechetics, historical-critical readings of the New Testament have also created suspicion about the historical reliability of the Gospels in many minds. “That’s just a story,” is a phrase too often encountered in casual discussions about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ. Yet I think it’s safe to assume that the Second Vatican Council didn’t reclaim the Bible for the people of the Church so that the people of the Church could learn to be suspicious about the Bible.

I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican exegete N.T. Wright as an antidote to this suspiciousness, and let me do so again: if there is one book to give a friend troubled by The Da Vinci Code and its portrait of the life of Jesus, it’s Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press), in which impeccable, contemporary scholarship is deployed to defend the historicity of the Gospels, including the historicity of the resurrection. Based on a set of lectures Dr. Wright gave for evangelical leaders in the late 1990s, The Challenge of Jesus is accessible to any intelligent reader, and provides a far more fascinating account of the complexities of Jewish life and messianic expectation at the time of Jesus than anything to be found in Dan Brown’s fevered imagination.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Web site, www.jesusdecoded.com that’s full of resources for those who want to turn the Da Vinci Code fuss into an evangelical and catechetical opportunity. In addition to a devastating critique of Brown’s understanding of Leonardo da Vinci by Elizabeth Lev, the Web site includes a very useful “When they say...you say...” essay by Catholic author and blogger Amy Welborn, “What Do You Say to a Da Vinci Code Believer?” Ms. Welborn is always interesting and always feisty: for example,

"There is enough truth in The Da Vinci Code to be seriously misleading.

"Yes, the sources, like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and The Templar Revelation, exist. But they don’t reflect serious historical scholarship. You’re not going to find a university history department on the planet that uses the works that provide the meat of The Da Vinci Code theories as part of the syllabus."

Indeed.

Got lemons? Make lemonade. The Da Vinci Code is an opportunity waiting to be seized.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

George Weigel. "The Da Vinci Code opportunity." The Catholic Difference (April 19, 2006).

Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.

George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.

THE AUTHOR

George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of seventeen books, including God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (2005), The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005), Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring (2004), The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church (2002), and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored (2001).

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

Copyright © 2006 George Weigel


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