The Da Vinci Code:
A Modern Religious Romance
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
May 24, 2006