Thursday, February 09, 2006

Da Vinci Stuff

"Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."
--John Alexander Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford, 1914

Since everyone else is hopping on the Da Vinci Code bandwagon, I see no reason not to blog on it, despite never having read the book, nor planning to, nor intending to waste time or money on the movie. I've already discovered that a Catholic who fails to read the book is doing so because the Evil Covering-Up Church has told her she shouldn't read it, and of course she obeys like the good little brainless minion she is, and that Thinking Catholics have all read it and learned much Truth (TM) from it. And having discovered also that there is no way to climb out of that particular designative hole, I'm not going to bother trying. As is the way with conspiratorial thinking, protests serve only to confirm.

One fun aspect of DVC is that it's so full of rubbish, everybody in every field gets to have a crack at it. Historians disavow any opinions on the theology involved, but just want to point out that all the historical stuff is, frankly, made up. Cryptographers don't have much to say about the history or theology, but have much to mock in the claims that Dan Brown is some sort of expert in their field (do read the whole thread at that link). A linguist with nothing to say on history, theology, or cryptography can tell us, not just that the writing stinks--something those of us who haven't avoided the many excerpts floating around the web figured out pretty quick--but can tell us exactly why it stinks.

I have nothing to say about the history, cryptography, writing, or theology, but a little something to say about the apparent inability of many to recognize a culturally pervasive literary genre. Central to DVC is the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and established a bloodline, and the Evil Institutional Church hushed it up, in part out of hatred of womyn, by spreading the rumor that the Magdalene was a reformed prostitute. All I can say is, are the people buying this nonsense unaware of the one basic Christian plotline? It's this: Awful sinner encounters Jesus, repents, and becomes a great Christian. It's the same plotline used for David, Rahab, St. Paul, St. Matthew, Zaccheus, St. Augustine, St. Thais, Chuck Colson, Fr. Corapi, and in some late Christian literature, Pontius Pilate. The Pilate apocrypha should give us the hint that, where the actual story doesn't quite fit the plotline, it often gets massaged a little, even if this means adding a little extra sin at the front end, or a little extra repentance at the back. Augustine has his childhood theft of pears; Patrick hints at some unnamed great sin of his past; even the evidence for St. Matthew's tax-collecting past is about as strong as the evidence for the Magdalene's past scandals.

Evangelical Christians continue this venerable tradition: many are the testimonies of those who have been raised all their lives as Christians, who accepted Christ as Their Personal Lord and Savior at the age of six (to be applauded at any age), but nevertheless manage to have some story of malfeasance and bad living to be worked up as a foil to their present saved lives. I had thought this plotline so embedded into our culture that the narrative would be easily recognizable. But somewhere along the way, it's been forgotten, to the extent that otherwise educated people think it obvious that the best explanation for playing up the Magdalene's sinful past is an ecclesial conspiracy to discredit her in the eyes of Christians.

The fact is, Christians love a good repentant sinner story. With St. Mary Magdalene, it was pretty easy. She's identified as having had "seven devils" cast out of her by Jesus, hinting at some great unnamed sinfulness of life. She seems identifiable with Mary, the sister of Martha, who in turn is sufficiently similar to the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus, and who seems to be a prostitute, that one could reasonably draw the conclusion they are the same. Whether one agrees with the series of associations made by early Christians--and most modern biblical scholars don't--it's just ignorant to believe either that there was no ground for making them, or that hagiography emphasizing the Magdalene's pre-conversion sins is best explained by a church-wide conspiracy to discredit her. The eagerness to believe in the slander campaign and cover-up could only exist in a society that has forgotten its own stories: a society, that is, that no longer recognizes its own culture.

Not that pointing out the ubiquity of the central Christian story makes any difference. The ignorance and literary tone-deafness of a depressingly large segment of the book-reading population, the eager willingness to believe in the wildest conspiracy theories, and the satisfied confidence of each generation that all who came before them were stupid, uncritical, easily deceived by priestcraft, and considered women to be mere chattel, will prevent mere facts from making a dent, and serve only to confirm that those presenting said facts have bought so deeply into the system as to be wilfully blind sheep, to be pitied if they cannot be made to see.

Being a homeschooler, I can't help reflecting on how ignorance of history, literature, culture, and art (how are so many people unaware of the medieval convention of painting St. John the Evangelist as an effeminate young man with long hair?) has contributed to the culture-wide uncritical acclamation of a third-rate book, filled with laughable inaccuracies and falsehoods, as an incisive thinking-man's thriller. But there's the fact of it. What can we do except try to immunize the next generation against the swallowing of tripe? Not by apologetics or counter-arguments or fideism, but by immersion in the history, literature, art, and science that is their birthright.


Blogger sophia said...

Sharon, Thanks for this article, and the wonderful quote. My husband bought the DVC recently at an airport while he was on a business trip. He read it and then threw it in the trash. I complained that we could have at least sold it to Half-Price Books. However, after he discussed the book a little further with me, I decided that he filed the "rot" in the right place. :)

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Yahmdallah said...

Outta the park! Great post.

I love this line: "As is the way with conspiratorial thinking, protests serve only to confirm."

I've read the book, and it's all that you say. It's a cute little thriller, but that's all. The "Jesus and Mary kissing in a tree" element is certainly an eye-roller. I thought, "That's it?" when THE BIG SECRET comes out. Especially since Kevin Smith had already done the "scion of Jesus" thang in "Dogma." (I have to admit I still chuckle when I come across a picture of his "Buddy Jesus" statuette. (

Btw, is there a reason behind St. John being portrayed as an effeminate young man? Just tradition? Trying to indicate age via no beard?

12:13 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Since St. John was still around to write Revelation at a pretty late date, the assumption has always been that he was a very young man as an apostle. Western art conventionally portrayed youths as having long hair and being, well, kind of maidenly looking.

Since most people were illiterate, pictures of saints always had the same "look," and usually holding or surrounded by some symbolic token: for instance, St. Stephen is usually holding some combination of palm frond (symbol of martyrdom), a book (as he appears in Scripture), a pile of stones (obvious), and wearing an anachronistic deacon's dalmatic, since Scripture identifies him as a deacon.

Similarly, St. John is shown with an eagle (his particular Gospel symbol), a book (since he wrote Scripture), and as a long-haired, Legolas-like young man. Images had to be conventional so you could tell which saint you were looking at, and so St. John is often shown as a young man even when having his visions, when he would of course be elderly. See, e.g.,

Interestingly, eastern iconography went the other way, and focuses on the fact that St. John (the Theologian) was certainly elderly at the time of Revelation. So eastern art shows him gray and balding, with a long beard. See, e.g.,

Speaking of "the big secret," I was startled when first told of the DVC plotline, because it was exactly the same as a computer game I'd played years ago, "Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned." Later I learned that GK3 had taken its plotline from a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which Dan Brown likewise ripped off for his book, leading to the writers of HBHG suing Brown for plagiarism.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Yahmdallah said...


Do you ever wonder if Dan Brown walks around feeling as though he's due for a giant cosmic wedgie?

3:40 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

He certainly is the kind of person that makes the idea of Purgatory appealing: you don't wish him damned, but you can't help feeling he could use some eschatological slapping around.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous mary said...

Hey, you have all missed the REALLY big secret, probably because you couldn't finish the book! At the end the main character looks at Venus at DUSK in the EASTERN sky --- hence the big secret is that THE EARTH IS REVOLVING THE OPPOSITE WAY THAT WE THOUGHT IT WAS!

12:45 AM  

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