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The Da Vinci Code:
A Modern Religious Romance

Dan Brownís novel The Da Vinci Code really does have an unparalleled significance for American religion. It has captured the imagination of the public like nothing else in recent memory. Millions of copies after the fact, and now with a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, its impact is undeniable.

But what does the novel mean? And why its fascination? I have mixed feelings about The Da Vinci Code. At the literal level, this novel isnít saying that much. Thereís nothing really challenging about turning our civilization and our personal lives around. Thereís nothing about simple living and nonviolence. And yet I, like millions of others, found this a gripping and exciting tale. What do people see in this book -- and why should we care?

The people who have been putting the The Da Vinci Code in categories such as "mystery" or even as "alternative history" have it all wrong. It is a religious romance. In a religious romance, the protagonists are not looking for romantic partners, they are looking for God (or ultimate meaning, or enlightenment, or whatever). A conventional romance may actually be a distraction. The ancient religious romances and the Grail stories have quite a bit in common. But there are modern religious romances as well, for example The Celestine Prophecy, The Little Prince, and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey; some have plausibly argued that there is Christian symbolism in the movie The Matrix.

In all of these, the characters are ripped out of the ordinary context of their lives and thrust into something completely different -- something transcendent, something ultimate, something more important even than finding the Perfect Partner. They arenít completely innocent in this endeavor; the revelation doesnít completely strike from the blue; they are, after all, searching. But what they find takes them completely beyond their expectations or what they could have expected. Of these, the movie version of 2001 is the most striking, because it leaves it completely ambiguous as to what, exactly, Dave encounters. Even Dave himself doesnít know -- exactly duplicating the bewilderment of the mystics who encounter something they canít describe.

Like the Grail stories which the fictional Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu hope to decode, Landgon and Neveu are themselves on a quest for God. What throws everyone off the track is that on the face of it The Da Vinci Code is attacking religion. It presents Christianity as, if anything, a force for evil, trying to cover up the implications of its own true origins.

But organized religion and spirituality are not the same thing. Many of the great mystics (of many different religions) found themselves in opposition to the established religion because they could not fit what they had experienced into the existing categories; to do so seemed to deny what they felt they had made contact with. The Da Vinci Code is actually a modern defense of the possibility of experiencing the transcendent. The reality of Jesus, as experienced by Robert and Sophie, is a mystery which invades our lives, totally turns our reality upside down, nearly kills us, and then returns us to the land of the living. That is the experience of The Da Vinci Code.

The most controversial features of The Da Vinci Code center on the literal content, and assuming that Dan Brown actually means to say something about Opus Dei, Mary Magdalane, and so forth. Well, maybe he does. But the literal history of Christianity according to The Da Vinci Code is not where the fascination with the book lies.

Jesus According to The DaVinci Code

"We've got to get back to the library, and fast!"

The traditional theological ideas about Jesusí status is that he was God incarnate, the second person of the trinity: fully human and fully divine. He was born of a virgin and himself celibate. But according to The Da Vinci Code, Jesus was married, had sexual relations, and had children. This says very little about what the religion of Jesus was. It says nothing about simple living or nonviolence. Thereís not much about loving your enemies or giving everything to the poor. So in some ways, The Da Vinci Code is breathtakingly conventional. Here is a guy who gets married and has kids.

Of course "this guy" is Jesus, and this creates so many questions that its effect is obviously to turn Christian theology on its head. If Jesus is still part of the trinity, God incarnate as well as fully human, then what is he doing having sexual relations? God having sex is probably more of a paradox than God on the cross. And what woman is going to be the fulfilling and fulfilled partner with Jesus in a life-long relationship -- and what is she going to think when he announces his plans to go to Jerusalem and get himself crucified, leaving her and the kids behind? And if Jesus has children, what exactly is their status? Would they be free of the taint of "original sin"? Would they "inherit" original sin from their merely human mother, or would they "inherit" freedom from original sin from their fully-divine-and-fully-human father? These are just a few questions to think about.

The Da Vinci Code comes down on the side of a fully human Jesus. So far, so good. But not only did Jesus marry Mary Magdalene, they had kids, and Mary Magdalene and the kids wound up in southern France. This aspect of The Da Vinci Code has been already commented on extensively. The best short treatment is by Robert Price (a member of the "Jesus Seminar"). The best long treatment (though I donít agree with all the details) is James Taborís recent book The Jesus Dynasty, which deals with the historical family of Jesus in some depth.  Tabor has added his own comments on the film The Da Vinci Code, incidentally, in which he comments that criticisms of the book on historical grounds have been taken to heart in the film version.  Tabor and Price both have the basics down pat. I will simply summarize the major points.

To cut to the chase, that Jesus was married is in itself quite plausible. Itís not a certainty by any means, but the case can be argued. Where The Da Vinci Code really goes astray, though, is the part where Jesusí relatives wind up in Southern France. Southern France? Excuse me? I donít think so. The family of Jesus, it turns out, does have a real place in history; they continued Jesusí work for decades and centuries. But they continued this work in and around Palestine, not in Southern France.

The arguments for and against Jesusí marriage can be quickly summarized. There are gospels, both heretical and orthodox, which describe the close association of Mary with Jesus. In the Gospel of Thomas 114 the disciples of Jesus are jealous of Maryís status. In the Gospel of Mary, Peter says that Jesus told Mary things which he didnít discuss with the other disciples. The Gospel of Philip says that Jesus frequently kissed Mary. Even in the canonical gospels Mary is the first witness of Jesusí resurrection. Normal Jewish males would have been expected to marry; there is no sexual ascetic ideal in orthodox Judaism. Peter was evidently married (Matthew 8:14), and Jesusí brother Judas was married and had grandchildren. The story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), in its original form, might have been the story of Jesusí own wedding.

Against his marriage is Jesusí commitment to spreading the message and his itinerant life. "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). How can we fit marriage into this picture? Marriage was often about property, and Jesus probably did not own property and probably gave it away for his cause if he did. In ancient times, heterosexual sex usually meant babies, and thus sexual relations for anyone aspiring to be responsible for their actions implied some sort of family life. Jesus as a young idealist wanting to spread the message far and wide would probably have not entered into a married family life unless he had been able to provide for his partner and their children. There are also the gospel references to hating oneís family (e. g., Luke 14:26) based evidently on the tension between family loyalties and the loyalty to Godís kingdom. Church tradition has it, also, that Jesus was not married, and this tradition must have come from somewhere. Some non-orthodox Jewish groups of the time did have a sexual ascetic ideal, such as the Essenes, who did not marry.

When all is said and done, though, the weak point in the The Da Vinci Code type of theories is not that Jesus could not have married Mary Magdalene or had children, but the idea that Mary and their children then flee to France. They might as well have fled to India or Timbuktu. Large numbers of Jesusí family ó surely the first line of defense for a woman in Mary Magdaleneís position ó are in the very area where she and Jesus have lived most of their lives.

The Jewish Christian Ebionites counted members of Jesusí family among their own number; for them, the fact that Jesusí relatives were on their side was (and still is) a significant argument in favor of the truth of their own views. But this family stayed near Palestine for several centuries. Remember, Jesusí being merely human would not have been a scandal for the Ebionites. For them, Jesus was a fully human prophet, the natural son of Joseph and Mary. So Jesusí marriage and family, if real, would have been straightforwardly accepted. In this respect, the Ebionites and The Da Vinci Code are in agreement.

In fact, the successors of Jesus in the Jewish Christian church are precisely Jesusí relatives -- itís clear that a dynasty has been founded. James, his brother, succeeds him, and after James comes Simon. Simon is either Jesusí cousin or, as James Tabor plausibly suggests in The Jesus Dynasty, Jesusí half-brother. (In Taborís theory, Mary the wife of Clopas and mother of Simon may have also, earlier, been the wife of Joseph and the mother of Jesus, who remarried on the death of Joseph.) 

In any event, if Jesus did have children, they would have been "in line" to succeed him. That we do not hear anything further about these children suggests either that (1) Jesus had no children or (2) Jesus had children, but they were females and only males could succeed him, or (3) his children died before reaching adulthood.

Before the year 62, there would have been no particular need for Mary Magdalene to flee. There was persecution, true, but it was relatively mild in the early years of the church. James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and John all survived this first relatively mild wave of persecution. If those who actually "ruled" the church escaped persecution, it shouldnít have been difficult for Mary to do so as well. By the year 62, when there was real danger ó James was killed ó Mary would have been much older. If she was still alive (people didnít live as long then as they do now), she would have been perhaps 60 or 70. A long journey to a far distant foreign land would have been perilous even for the most liberated, young, and healthy woman of the first century. More practical would have been a shorter journey to, say, the other side of the Jordan ó to the region of Pella ó with other members of the church. It is this journey to secure areas nearby which many Jewish Christians actually made in the wake of these events.

It is the very strength of the involvement of Jesusí family in subsequent Jewish Christianity which is fatal to The Da Vinci Code type theories. The first line of defense for Mary Magdalene would have been her own relatives and the relatives of those who supported her husbandís cause. To go to France would have been to flee away from her own family, which would have been especially paradoxical if she had children by Jesus. If we are looking for descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, we are more likely to find them in present-day Syria, Jordan, or Iraq, than in Western Europe.

The Real Significance

As history, and considered at a literal level, The Da Vinci Code falls apart. The real significance of The Da Vinci Code is neither in its half-baked historical ideas, nor in its pedestrian ethics. Its real significance is that it signals that as a culture and as individuals we are ready for some religious romance.

A conventional romance does not depend for its fascination on whether the characters would actually get along. As we watched the much older Tom Hanks movie, Sleepless in Seattle, no one really cares whether the main characters will really be compatible, or what will happen after they settle down. Itís a movie, for crying out loud. While the characters are supposed to be worrying about whether theyíre really meant for each other, we arenít -- we just see the dynamics of the romance wondering whether the lovers, whom we know by "movie convention" really are intended for each other, will ever find each other. It is the process of getting together that draws us, not the prospect of watching 48 sequels to Sleepless in Seattle where the further details of their wedded bliss are dwelt upon in loving detail.

The same thing applies to The Da Vinci Code. It is not that people really do think that the descendants of Jesus are living somewhere in France and are expecting a major religion founded on the real Jesus to emerge from that location. We simply posit that this is, for the sake of argument, the real Jesus, and we are interested in the dynamics of this being revealed. We see Langdonís eagerness to unravel the symbols; we see Sophieís confrontation with the reality of her relationship with her grandfather. It is the experience of this revelation, which takes them beyond anything they have ever experienced in their lives, and which falls outside of all their categories of understanding, for which we yearn.

Jesus is so attractive and fascinating, while the church is so negative. For millions today, this is a commonplace which would scarcely cause a raised eyebrow. For The Da Vinci Code, that is not a comment on the Catholic Church, but simply on the fact that Jesus cannot be held in categories or creeds. It should be obvious why people are buying this book. Just as in a conventional romance we get to vicariously experience the real thing, so with a religious romance. They want to touch Jesus, but are alienated by the church. So the book is not just promoting secularism, much as its conservative critics would like to believe that. If it wanted to promote secularism, it would make the church appear comical, poke fun at its stupidity, and make it appear silly to even care about Jesus.

But the "bad guys" are neither funny nor stupid. If anything, they are every bit as cunning as the protagonists, which is what makes it such a good read. The "bad guys" are the personification not of incompetence, but of evil. When you encounter the "bad guys," you are encountering the divinely transcendent understood negatively -- something which warns you that you are entering the dimension of the totally unknown, warning you to turn back before itís too late. Stay in your conventional world, your world of ordinary things, your world of doctrines and policies, careers and expectations, words and meanings.

The Da Vinci Code is a "religious romance" in the classic sense of the term. Robert and Sophie are not looking for each other, though a conventional romance is not impossible. They are looking for God -- they are looking for Jesus. 

There are millions of people out there who find Jesus fascinating and are looking for something completely new, something totally outside the creeds of the modern church, something that will totally change their lives. Who speaks for them? Who even speaks to them? Doesnít the mere fact that such a book could even appear and make such an impression say something about the relative lack of religious dialogue in this country? Canít we somehow start? If they will read a hocus-pocus fictional history like The Da Vinci Code, might they not be enticed to listen to the truth?

Keith Akers
May 24, 2006