The Da Vinci Code

I just finished reading The Da Vinci Code (hereafter TDVC–or maybe I’ll write it out for SEO purposes). It was more or less, given all the fuss, what I’d expected. I thought I’d share some thoughts and reflections. Be warned–I will probably reveal things about the plot that you may not want to know if you are keeping a vow of Da Vinci virginity or something.

First, it’s a fun read. The plot is more or less a movie script–chopped up into small scenes, and everything described seemingly just for the director of photography. In some cases I even had the strange feeling that when I see the movie this weekend (or whenever), I’ll have predicted most of the zooms and fades that will be a part of the cinematography. I guess that’s supposed to make The Da Vinci Code bad literature. I don’t really have any love for the lit snobs, but Shakespeare aside, it was sort of annoying. It felt syncopated, and like I was being coddled or overfed. You just can’t have 100 climaxes in one novel; there needs to be more foreplay. But all that is to say, I think it will be a great movie. The plot itself is certainly fast-paced, and the mysteries are for the most part not inane. Some of the clues were easy to figure out beforehand, but others weren’t. Anyway–a fun read. And quick. Moreover it appealed to the cryptologist in me–I used to study and write ciphers and codes when I was a child, and spend hours reading about their historical uses and such.

Second, it’s easy to see why Christians would protest the book. After all, one thing we know about Christians is that they will protest anything that looks like it could undermine their already-fast-eroding image in popular culture. The fact that this is the subject of The Da Vinci Code just makes people pay less attention. The book’s basically saying, “Christianity acts to silence things it doesn’t like”, so whatever the factual state of the content which drives that polemic vehicle, people will feel it is corroborated by Christians acting to silence it. In “responding”, Christians will unwittingly substantiate the very claims they want to debunk. This is both unfortunate and unfair. I say it is unfair because the situation is set up in such a way so that any “response” will seem hollow from the outset. I say it is unfortunate because, again, things are set up to disincline people on either side from looking beyond the red-herringed, surface issues. What matters at this stage is not, as you might think, whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and all the rest. What matters is that such a suggestion will rile Christians up so that any interlocutor will sense a great amount of defensiveness, and feel justified in affirming the book’s central tenet. What is that central tenet? To illustrate, I’ll quote a longish section (from the end of Chapter 82, in a conversation between the main characters):

“There’s an enormous difference between hypothetically discussing an alternate history of Christ, and…” He paused.

“And what?”

“And presenting to the world thousands of ancient documents as scientific evidence that the New Testament is false testimony.”

“But you told me the New Testament is based on fabrications.”

Langdon smiled. “Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith–acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to help our minds process the unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.”

“So you are in favor of the Sangreal documents staying buried forever?”

“I’m a historian. I’m opposed to the destruction of documents, and I would love to see religious scholars have more information to ponder the exceptional life of Jesus Christ.”

“You’re arguing both sides of my question.”

“Am I? The Bible represents a fundamental guidepost for millions of people on the planet, in much the same way the Koran, Torah, and Pali Canon offer guidance to people of other religions. If you and I could dig up documentation that contradicted the holy stories of Islamic belief, Judaic belief, Buddhist belief, pagan belief, should we do that? Should we wave a flag and tell the Buddhists that we have proof the Buddha did not come from a lotus blossom? Or that Jesus was not born of a literal virgin birth.”

“My point exactly,” Langdon said. “Religious allegory has become a part of the fabric of reality. And living in that reality helps millions of people cope and be better people.”

“But it appears their reality is false.”

Langdon chuckled. “No more false than that of a mathematical cryptographer who believes in the imaginary number ‘i‘ because it helps her break codes.”

Sophie frowned. “That’s not fair.”

There are many, many things to unpack in this segment. We might begin by pointing out that Sophie’s retort at the end is right on–it is unfair for Langdon to assume the non-reality of i. The non-reality of mathematical entities is by no means a settled (or majority) philosophical opinion. The larger issue is of course The Da Vinci Code‘s implicit claim that there are really two “realities” that we exist in. One is the reality of objective truth, where “scientific evidence” belongs. The other is the reality of “fundamental guideposts”, of “religious allegory” that “helps millions of people cope and be better people.” Here Brown reduces to a strident echo of the vox populi of our age, and he fails to adequately respond to Sophie’s insistence that “their reality is false.”

There really is a deep philosophical tension here. Why is it at all appropriate to sidestep questions of truth in favor of a pseudo-reality that somehow “helps people”. Why would we think there is any guarantee that pseudo-realities can “help” people? It seems that in our most primitive of experiences (walking, eating, and so forth), departing from that more “objective reality”–the one where science operates–comes with deadly consequences. Everyone knows there are a million examples, but I’ll give one: it does me no good to declare that, although Drano, scientifically speaking, is not food, in my “spiritual reality” or whatever, I can partake of it for sustenance. Now, it is one thing to talk about partaking of Drano. If, on the other hand, I really engage in the activity, I will soon learn that my self-constructed “spiritual reality” is no match for that other reality. It seems that The Da Vinci Code agrees so far (“The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.”)

So let’s ask another awkward question: How could it be beneficial to believe in anything that we don’t consider to be a part of that “objective” reality? How could it be beneficial to me to believe that Drano is sustenance if I simultaneously know that Drano is not really sustenance? The imagined response is that the Drano example is nonsensical, whereas if we’re talking about Jesus, the answer is obvious: Jesus inspires people. He was the proto-feminist, he was a liberator, etc. But this dodges the issue, for the issue is why it would be beneficial to continue to speak of things like Jesus’ divinity, his virgin birth, his miracles, and his resurrection, if such things did not happen. The only way out appears to be to say that these things are all symbolic–they remind us and point out to us the things that actually are real in the non-religious sense of “real”, e.g., his proto-feminism, his love of outcasts, and so forth. But does this not seem like some sort of Da Vinci Code itself? Some sort of serpentine path of clues that leads right back–to where we started. My point is this–if you believe certain things about Jesus and not others, you will ultimately only be inspired by the things you believe about him–not the ones you don’t.

And yet there is a bit of positive insight in the passage we just read as well–people do try to “get at” God, or the “unprocessible” via metaphor. Metaphor is extremely valuable in this sense. And of course, as The Da Vinci Code suggests, to believe literally in these metaphors is to commit a fallacy. But it is not a fallacy to believe literally in the thing the metaphor is attempting to “get at”. Moreover, it goes without saying that Dan Brown pulls a bit of a fast one in that it is presupposed that language of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection are metaphorical. While it is inappropriate to take a metaphor literally, it is not inappropriate to take a literal statement literally. “Jesus Christ is Lord of the Earth” is thus a statement whose metaphoricity, and therefore the appropriateness of its being taken literally, depend on the epistemology of the one uttering the statement. In fact, metaphor always operates this way–so it is curious to see The Da Vinci Code proposing the metaphor as existing somehow objectively. What should be proposed as existing (or not existing) objectively are facts which substantiate the literal form of the statement. If there are none such, those who believe the proposition can be stated literally will eventually find themselves in the proverbial Drano-drinking situation. So it is at this stage that it begins to matter whether Christ resurrected or not.

Anyway, all this is supposed to highlight: The Da Vinci Code seems to propose that it is OK to “believe” things that, strictly speaking, we know to be false (in the “real” reality), as long as we just talk about believing them, or believe them in some vague non-propositional way, or engage in some other as-yet-undiscovered propositional attitude like “believe-as-metaphor” towards claims like “Jesus is divine” or “the Buddha came from a lotus blossom”. The instant we transfer those claims to normal propositional attitudes like “believe-to-be-true”, however, we have transgressed. Why? Because, according to The Da Vinci Code, they are not really true (in the story, remember, there are “thousands of ancient documents” which prove such claims to be false). But there is no good reason given for why anyone should think it is OK to believe things we know to be false, other than that it helps us become better people. Why better people, rather than worse people? It’s unclear, when it’s exactly the thing that needs to be the clearest–something is practical only insofar as it is seen to be useful for a certain, pre-defined end. In this case The Da Vinci Code is supposing that “false religious belief” is practical, but the only end in sight is this one of “becoming better people”. Since such an end requires definition and elucidation, but none is forthcoming in the book, we are left at a dead end.

Ironically (but perhaps sensibly, given what I’ve said), the story’s main characters do not seem to spend a lot of time pondering whether they should adopt some false religious beliefs to better themselves. No–they are enlightened because they have the knowledge that these beliefs are actually false, and so feel no pull towards engaging in belief of them, metaphorically or otherwise. Robert and Sophie spend their time deliberating what to do about “all those poor people who actually really believe these things”, and settle on this strategy of protecting their schizophrenic reality. You definitely get the feeling that they are looking down from the heights of enlightenment and power because they actually know the truth. They’ve chosen to keep that truth hidden, for the psychological safety of the world, but the last thing they’d do is engage in beliefs that contradict that truth.

Thus the book sends an odd message, which if I were to paraphrase it, would be like this: “Seek the truth with all your heart, and when you’ve gotten it, congratulate yourself on being more enlightened than the rest. Go to great lengths not to disturb others with your enlightenment, because the brutes aren’t ready; they might be destroyed. Now contemplate the sacred feminine.” Or something similar. So there is a very devious talking out of both sides of the mouth going on. On one side we have the age-old draw of Gnosticism–come closer, and I will ravage your soul with secret knowledge that will transform you into something greater! It’s no less Gnosticism for the fact that, in The Da Vinci Code, it could be construed as atheistic. And on the other side we have a very un-thought-out religious pluralism, where religious beliefs live in some sort of “personal reality” that, when all is said and done, don’t affect anyone’s lives at all. (“Jesus is divine” just ends up meaning “Jesus was a feminist” or something). In this story, the Gnostic heroes end up being the guardians of the rest of humanity, and their secrecy is reinforced

It seems to me that, once all these issues are on the table, the door is opened to discuss the factual nature of The Da Vinci Code‘s claims about Christianity, specifically. As it turns out, most of the more juicy ones are quite historically off, or uncorroborated, or pure speculation spun into a good mystery (but taken by many as true). I won’t go into any of these specifically here. But I will mention that we at Teleios have recently partnered with Alpha in the UK to deliver a video seminar of theirs on The Da Vinci Code, where they do go into some detail. I’d recommend taking a look at it–but only after having read all the foregoing. As I said before, jumping right into defensive debates about the facts can only reinforce that message of the book which says that Christians do have something to fear. To get to the course, just go to Incidentally, I’ve got a Reddit going trying to promote it–if you find the framework/video valuable, please go to this page and vote for it!

The second part of what I want to say has to do with what I would call The Da Vinci Code‘s misconstruing, not now the facts of Christianity, but rather the meaning, or message, or point of it. Here are some key implications from the book:

  • The nature of Christianity is such that it is constantly engaged in covering things up, hiding them
  • Christianity opposes free thinking
  • Christianity subjugates women
  • Christianity glorifies masculinity and silences femininity
  • The Church, not Jesus, is the source of our understandings of him
  • The Church opposed paganism, not because she (curiously, the Church is often thought of as female, something which doesn’t make sense on The Da Vinci Code‘s reading of it) thought it was false, but because it was afraid paganism would reveal the Church’s true roots
  • Christianity is anti-sexual, and tries to suppress our natural and good longings for sex

…and so on. These are the things that really frustrated me, because it showed a very deep and personal (on the part of Dan Brown) misunderstanding of Christianity and the Church. Let me put it very bluntly: to the extent that those statements describe an actual religion or an actual group of people, that religion and/or that group of people are not Christianity or the Church!. The fact that so many people obviously resonate with The Da Vinci Code‘s vision of Christianity shows that these claims have been too often corroborated in people’s experience. That is where our shame (as Christians) should be–not that we have hidden or covered up anything (because we haven’t–not like the The Da Vinci Code says, anyway), but rather that actions or words of ours have been interpreted as substantiating (or, worse, really did substantiate) those claims.

What I want to do is uphold both Christ’s resurrection and Christianity’s reverence for both the male and female roles and purposes and all the rest. There is no need to invent a Christ who married Mary Magdalene to convince me that Christianity promotes equality for women. But the tone of the book is that such is indeed the way of things. Another example: there is a sharp line drawn, in The Da Vinci Code, between a “healthy” sexuality, and Christian practice. While of course I would disagree with many people’s views on what is a “healthy” sexuality, I want to deny that Christianity has anything to do with repressing sexual desire in general, or treating it as unholy, or punishing people for certain thoughts, and so on.

I guess in sum it is just sad that The Da Vinci Code‘s accusations have found such a ready reception. It means that they are obviously not baseless, in terms of how Christianity is seen and what some Christians have done in the world. But they are baseless in terms of who Jesus Christ was, and how it was intended that Christians live their lives, even and especially on an orthodox view of Christ, including his divinity and resurrection and all that. It is the pages of the Christian scriptures, not the Gnostic ones, that hold the keys to true freedom, liberation, and happiness–indeed the very kind of freedom, liberation, and happiness that people want! (Not some made-up “church” kind. Actual, real happiness).

Now, let me bring things to a close and restate my thoughts more succinctly: First, the way The Da Vinci Code phrases its claims is somewhat sneaky, in that some ways of responding to it could actually inadvertently substantiate those claims. So in talking about it, some groundwork must be laid. Second, whether or not it is OK to be a Christian actually depends on some facts about the world (like whether or not Christ rose from the dead)–not just on whether I can, in some reality distortion field, make metaphorical claims that sound like Christian tenets. Luckily, The Da Vinci Code doesn’t dig up anything that need cause those central issues to be doubted (though it should be said, of course, that if one held certain non-central issues as central, one might find them eroding). Third, we (Christians) need to do something to re-educate the world about our views on the list above, to show that, really, they have no basis in the life or teachings of the one we supposedly follow.

Well, I’m looking forward to seeing the movie this weekend or soon, and watching the reactions. As always, I will hold my breath more out of fear that the “Christian” response will be inappropriate or stupid, or not nuanced enough to see the questions that are really beneath the surface, and not the ones on top. But that’s just the way it is! Meanwhile, the general spiritual backdrop of our time continues to shift further away from the Christianity of modernism. While that shift will continue to be attended by pockets of popular (but unsubstantiated) speculation, like The Da Vinci Code, it is in my mind a good thing, overall. One has only to visit certain churches in the US to know that, even if there was no cover-up, something, somewhere down the line from Christ, has been lost. Maybe it would be better for us to engage in the search for that Holy Grail than to worry about how Dan Brown is defining his.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan has been making things out of code as long as he can remember. Jonathan is the architect and project lead for Appium, the popular open source automation framework. He is also the founding Principal of Cloud Grey, a consulting firm devoted to helping clients leverage the power of Appium successfully. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over 15 years, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver, he’s an avid musician, and also writes on the philosophy of technology.

5 replies on “The Da Vinci Code”

Very enjoyable review, Jonathan!

It seems to me that refuting a grand theory, a meta-theory, the sort of theory about Christianity that Dan Brown’s protagonists believe, is hard to refute unless you go after the specific data that they claim generates their insight. What he has skilfully done is to make up data, misrepresent true data, claim that the data is historical – whether this claim is part of the fiction or not is not clear – and narrate the story in such an enjoyable fashion that the (totally unsupported) meta-theory that he espouses appears solidly founded.

And the meta-theory encounters total receptivity, particularly in the context of the suspected political conspiracies of the Evangelical Right and the Catholic Church’s covering up of various abuse patterns.

The theory then becomes difficult to critique, as you’ve pointed out.

Yes, very enjoyable, and, as usual, also very insightful. (I haven’t read the book, but still…) Back to the 20-minute-read blogs.

A good summary, Pavi. I just noticed that part of the Catholic Church is moving to ban The Da Vinci Code. Wow–can you think of a stronger way to give satisfaction to conspiracy theorists? (Apart from uncovering any real evidence of a conspiracy?)

Very insightful comments, Jonathan. I check your website every now and then, I like being challenged by your writings.

I read the book, and agree with you about it being a good, quick read. I couldn’t put it down, despite my periodic stong disagreement with many of the ideas Brown so glibly puts forth as ‘fact’. Like you also, I’m cringing in expectation of Christianity’s typical shoot-itself-in-the-foot reactions.

Great thoughts Jonathan. I had a similar reaction when I read it and the prequel. I’m not as mad about what most Christians are mad about (though there are historical inaccuracies that need to be corrected), but I’m more disturbed by the arrogance and gross misunderstandings of what Christianity really is and what paganism really is.

There seems to be an air of “those who are really intelligent understand the truth that you little people can’t understand, but keep your delusions anyway,” as well as, “we all know Christianity is REALLY about and it happens to be about what I as an enlightened secularist am about.” It’s not just that Dan Brown stands outside the Christian community and says he really gets what it’s about (that would be pugnacious enough), but it appears that he stands outside ALL religious communities and says he understands them all from the outside! When you look at it that way, it’s exceedingly arrogant, much like the Enlightenment project of which he seems to be promoting.

But I totally agree with you what a tragedy it is that anyone could think that Christianity represses women and sexuality in general. The fact that he has found such an audience proves how poorly we as Christians are doing. It should be so obvious to everyone that humanity flourishes in the church like no other place in the world, but it is not obvious, and that is to our shame.

So when I focus on those aspects of the books, I get frustrated with both Dan Brown and our Christian communities. But when I let those things go, I remember what a fun book it is and that Brown knows how to write fiction in a drug like format. No one claims it’s good literature, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any book that is better at its genre: an exhilarating page turner. I just wish that books like this inspired Christians to write captivating page-turners instead of organizing boycotts.

By the way, the reviews on the movie are all bad so far. It would be an amazing feat if the movie were in fact bad considering its cast and director.

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