With the publication of The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown has topped the New York Times best-seller list and piqued the interest of popular culture. Many see in the book a critique of classical Christianity. Although the book’s popularity is beginning to wane, Brown’s recent movie agreement with Sony and Director, Ron Howard promises to add fuel to the debate when the film comes out next year.
The Da Vinci Code begins as Robert Langdon is awakened in his Paris hotel room and escorted to the scene of the grisly death of the curator of the Louvre. For the next 450 pages the reader takes a whirlwind ride across Paris and through history to unravel the mysterious messages left in the wake of the murder. Page by page the mystery of a worldwide conspiracy is uncovered as the main character finds himself in the middle of the search for the Holy Grail. According to the plot, the Holy Grail is not the cup Christ used at the Last Supper but a symbol of Mary Magdalene. Brown argues that Jesus married her, and in the wake of His crucifixion a pregnant Mary Magdalene and other followers fled Palestine, settling in France and founding the Merovingian line of kings.
In the meantime, Brown contends, the male followers of Christ who were never really happy with Mary’s place among them sanitized Jesus’ religious ideas and won many converts throughout the Roman world. Although many knew and maintained the true teachings of Christ (that God was both masculine and feminine), the Church, as it came to exist, suppressed these alternate versions. The Church won its ultimate victory by aligning with Constantine and in the fourth century declared Jesus to be fully divine. To cover their steps, they manipulated the canon of the New Testament by accepting only four of the myriads of gospels written about Jesus.
Personally, I have never been one to take fictional works too seriously. I always assumed that most readers understood that a work of fiction was set in an imaginary world. Perhaps you share my amazement that so many people have taken the narrative structure of this work to provide serious questions about Christianity. I simply cannot understand why anyone would take such a conspiracy theory seriously. A brief online perusal of a few chat rooms and blogs answered this question for me. As I read through the comments, I began to understand something about our culture.
From our secular culture’s perspective, the issue of whether the conspiracy theory is true is irrelevant. In a post-modern world the issue is whether it is meaningful to the individual. But as a historian and a Christian, the only meaningful history is an accurate history. The same was true for the earliest Christians.
Even though there was a great deal of theological variety in the early church, its leaders fought vigorously against those whom it felt were distorting the message of salvation. They understood the issue to be a matter of eternal significance. The Church from its earliest days held to a common agreement in theology regarding God, Jesus, and the Church’s role in the world. This common agreement was called the rule of faith and was expressed through the terms they used: orthodoxy, meaning “straight teaching” and heresy, meaning “other.” Although the image of diversity painted by Brown is somewhat accurate, the idea that heretical ideas were widely accepted by the Church is not. Heretical teaching contained essential differences from the doctrine generally accepted by the early church.
Many of the ideas found in Brown’s novel are supposedly taken from a collection of documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. These texts belonged to a group of people known as Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis meaning “knowledge.” Gnostics believed that salvation could be attained only through understanding one’s innate spirituality.
Yet, even within these heretical texts, nothing points toward Brown’s concept of actual worship of a sacred feminine, whether sexually conceived or not. In addition, most Gnostics were radically ascetic and would have looked down upon the physical nature of any act of worship that included the sexual activities at which Brown hinted in his work.
The teaching found in the Nag Hammadi documents was clearly viewed by the early Church as outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The Gnostic community itself felt this tension and sought to demonstrate the superiority of their teachings by referring to Mary Magdalene and others like her. Far from lending credence to Brown’s theory, however, the writings never indicate the presence of a sexual relationship between Christ and Mary but point to a quest for the recognition of a Gnostic tradition—one that had already been rejected by the Church as heretical. Like Dan Brown, the Gnostics sought to rewrite history in order to bolster their own position in society.
Brown’s attempt to throw out Scripture by arguing it was the result of a fourth century power play is patently absurd. Scholars of the Christian Canon have demonstrated clearly that a list of authoritative books of the New Testament was developed quite early—due in part to the false teachings of heretics like Marcion and Montanus. The leaders of the early Church wisely applied the principles of apostolicity, orthodoxy, use, and geographical spread in order to confirm the books they included in the Canon and to reject false writings of heretics.
The actual history of the church stands in contrast to the “history” of the modern period that, in its desire to be inclusive, only muddies the waters in order to pose a revised history. This faux “history” is full of conspiracy and power struggles that were largely absent from the development of Christianity.
Church history is our history and we must draw more heavily upon it. The Spirit at work within us is the same Spirit who invigorated the earliest proponents and defenders of the gospel message. Once again the Church is faced with a battle, not with Dan Brown but with a worldview that sees works of fiction as viable alternatives to truth. If Brown is right in his assertion that history belongs to the victors, then this is a battle we can ill afford to lose.
Dr. Kevin Hester teaches history and Bible at Free Will Baptist Bible College. An alumnus of the college, he earned his master’s at Covenant Theological Seminary and his doctorate at Saint Louis University. This article is based on a paper he read at the Fall 2004 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission for Theological Integrity of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.