The DaVinci Code

No one can contest the fact that mystery novelist Dan Brown's latest best seller, The DaVinci Code (Doubleday, 2003) is a "good read". Its fast-paced story -- if you consider 105 quickie "chapters" covering 24 hours "fast" -- is admittedly hard to put down once you've begun. However, other than being a good "thriller" (I won't presume to judge its literary merits), Brown's claim to have based his modern story on historically credible sources is pretty shaky, if not intentionally fraudulent.

Instances of Brown's distortions, if not outright ignorance, of the facts, makes this book a virtual gold mine of misinformation or misunderstandings. Among them are the assertion that the sacred Hebrew name for God, Jahweh, is derived from "Jehovah" (it happens to be the other way around, the latter a misreading of the former), or that the Emperor Constantine made Sunday the official Christian Sabbath: instead Constantine only made the Christian "Lord's Day" -- which had already been the custom for two centuries previous -- a legal civil holiday. Nor could have Constantine have "conspired" with "the Vatican" (almost twelve centuries before the Bishop of Rome had set up the Church's central offices there) to halt wars between Christians and pagans (Christians were generally conscientious objectors) or to begin to proclaim the divinity of Jesus (has Brown ever bothered to read the New Testament?). Nor, does Brown's depiction of the conservative Opus Dei movement seem very credible -- even for those of us who are highly critical of it. Certainly the picture of a member described as a "monk" (sic) sashaying around the streets in a long robe hardly makes sense for an organization whose members are supposed to fit into society as a hidden "leven" of Christian influence. (Nor, for that matter is a "cilicae" -- part of Opus Dei's spirituality -- a leather self-torture belt. It is, for those who are curious, a hair shirt, but Brown apparently failed to check out a dictionary on that.)

However, such misinformation or confusion is small potatoes compared to the basic premise of the story, which is that there exists "a great secret" -- one capable of completely destroying the historical foundations of Christianity -- that has been protected (it would seem for rather conflicting reasons considering the cast of characters who are supposed to have known about it) all these past centuries. This "secret", the figurative "Holy Grail" -- namely, that Jesus had a child by Mary Magdalene who in turn was the ancestor of the first kings of France -- is basically a concoction of self-contradictory Gnostic "gospels" and other writings rejected as bogus by the early church, plus medieval legends cooked up by crusaders to provide a likely story for the "relics" (genuine or otherwise) stolen on their return to Europe from the Middle East. All of this (and still more fanciful "history") it turns out, according to those who have seriously researched these legends, were reworked by a an eccentric Frenchman (Pierre Plantard) in the 1950s to advance some right-wing political causes and his own claim to be a descendent of the Merovingian dynasty.*

As for the mysterious "Prieure de Sion" (an informal group of French artists and composers in the late 1800s) being the heir of this great secret supposedly discovered by the Knights Templar and the Augustinian Priory of Notre Dame de Sion (founded in Jerusalem in 1099 and later dissolved in 1188), Brown's appeal to "historical documents" discovered in 1975 in the National Library in Paris, which supposedly link these two organizations over eight centuries hold no more weight that the same dubious claim advanced in the by now largely debunked pseudo-history Sacred Blood, Sacred Grail back in 1981.**

To be fair, there is one slightly redeeming passage in the book that unfortunately many enthusiastic readers seem to have overlooked. In it, the main character asserts that "every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration... The problems arise when we begin to literally believe our own metaphors." As a result, as another character, a wise old woman who figures briefly at the end of the novel (which with its denunciation of the elimination of the feminine element in religion will undoubtedly appeal to female readers) even the Holy Grail and all the secrets supposedly associated with it, is fundamentally just a "story" and nothing more.

Yet, even granted this apparent disclaimer, the effect on the average reader is could be rather confusing, especially for average Christians who, however much they may admit the symbolic nature of religious language, nevertheless believe that their faith is founded on solid historical facts. Instead, the author seems to have followed the old formula of trying to rewrite history as mystery, not unlike the supermarket tabloid reporters who claim to be presenting the latest news -- something that never fails to captivate those who look for conspiracies behind everything.

R W Kropf 11/25/03

* See Professor Steven Mizrachs' thorough treatment of this subject at www.fiu.edu/~mizrachs/poseur3.html

** According to Mizrachs, among the "Priory Documents" in the archives of the Bibleotheque nationale in Paris is one claiming that these early French kings were also descendants of extra-terrestrial invaders from Sirius ("The Dog Star")!

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