Saturday, January 17, 2015

Decoding The Da Vinci Code

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 22, 2005

Why all this brouhaha over a book, you might well ask—and a novel, a work of fiction, at that? Certainly, there would seem to be more important issues—social issues, theological issues, what have you—for us to be considering here this morning. I will admit that was my reaction when I read a news story not too long ago, with the title, “Church Official Condemns Da Vinci Code”—about an official of the Roman Catholic Church (from Cardinal Ratzinger’s old office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I believe) issuing an official statement criticizing Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “You think the church would have more important things to think about.” And they do-- many. But now, here we are, spending our own time, here in church, considering this very same book. So, judge not, lest we be judged, I suppose; if we can talk about The Da Vinci Code, then so can they…
So, what is there to say, then, about this mega-best-seller, which has sold something like 17 million copies in just over two years; which is still at #4 on the New York Times Bestsellers List, where it has been now for 113 weeks. Not bad for Dan Brown, a guy who once taught English at a private school in New Hampshire; dabbled in writing novels on the side; wrote two that sold only modestly at best; another (Angels and Demons) which did somewhat better; then, finally, perfected his skill to blockbuster proportions with The Da Vinci Code, his fourth book.
Now, The Da Vinci Code has also spawned a parallel anti-Da Vinci Code industry, with dozens of other books, examining it, rebutting it, criticizing it, damning it as heresy, as bad history, putting it forth as a sort of deutero-canonical version of Christianity, a religion unto itself, as it were. To name just a few of these: there’s “Breaking the Da Vinci Code”, “Cracking the Da Vinci Code”, “Exposing the Da Vinci Code”, “The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction?” (not to be confused with) “Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code”. There are also “De-Coding Da Vinci”, “The Da Vinci Hoax”, and “Secrets of the Da Vinci Code”—and probably a good dozen others (if I had clicked on “Page 2” on! Everyone who has read it, in seems, has an opinion—and almost everyone has come up with a book about it—or, at least (for those of us more modest, or less ambitious, or perhaps less talented), a sermon. So, here’s my two cents (if not $ 24.95, which is the suggested retail price—times 8 million copies—do the math: that’s big time!).
First of all, I liked the book, even though it’s not in a genre (suspense fiction) that I read a lot of. It keeps moving, very quickly, with these nice short chapters that make you want to read “just one more”; sort of like eating potato chips. I don’t think it’s great literature (it’s probably a lot more interesting and more fun than most “great literature”, but it is excellent story-telling (or, maybe, “yarn-spinning”). It’s decent fiction, but it’s sure not scholarly history. Even though, at the very start of the book, Dan Brown states “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,” that’s not necessarily so. Just because Dan Brown makes this statement, that doesn’t make it true. Just because he says a lot of things (even some things that many of us might hope for or suppose or things that resonate with what we might believe), that doesn’t make them, necessarily, historically true.
The fact of the matter seems to be that Dan Brown has played pretty hard and fast with numerous aspects of the historical record here, and that his claim of 100% historical veracity would not hold up before a jury of historians. If he hadn’t made that statement about “all…artwork, architecture, documents,” etc. being accurate, we could just say (as many have) “It’s a novel, for God’s sake! What’s the big deal?” But Mr. Brown seems to have left his work open for the dissector’s scalpel by making such a sweeping statement in defense of his methodology. For it is a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” that we affirm in our Unitarian Universalist principles. Something isn’t “true” just because we say it is, or just because we might want it to be. Rather, if someone says something is “true”, then it is just our nature to want to look it over, and decide for ourselves.
So, where does Dan Brown stray from the historical record? First of all, the overriding premise of The Da Vinci Code is that, through the centuries, the Church has suppressed the truth that Jesus was, in fact, married to Mary Magdalene; that together, they had children; that such truths are explicated in ancient, but recently re-discovered gospels; that the divinity of Jesus is something voted on by a 4th Century Church Council, and not something found in scripture; and that a Secret Brotherhood knew of these secrets and endeavored, through years of persecution, and oppression, and even murder, to keep them alive so that the real “truth” about Jesus would not finally be snuffed out. One of the members of this secret brotherhood was Leonardo Da Vinci, and that his painting of the Last Supper (a fragment of which is reproduced on this morning’s order of service) clearly shows a red-headed feminine figure (that would be Mary Magdalene) seated at the right hand of Jesus on that momentous evening n the Upper Room.
Well, I’m certainly not Sister Wendy when it comes to art appreciation, but it sure looks to me like that’s a woman there in that picture—a rather attractive red head, too. But, then again, a lot of Leonardo’s male figures, frankly, look kind of feminine (just as a lot of his female figures look kind of, well, masculine.) That’s just the way he painted them, which may tell us more about Leonardo and his own orientation than it does about the founding of the early Christian Church. Many art scholars have said that, no—it’s not Mary there, it’s the disciple, John; Leonardo’s own notes say so. I suppose male or female is in the eyes of the beholder, then—and in the beholder’s own perspective as to whether women were (or were not) an integral part of the early Christian church. There seems little doubt that they were—that women figured prominently in the early Jesus movement, and that Jesus himself was radically inclusive when it came to accepting women in his circle of friends. Whether or not that is reflected in Da Vinci’s painting, there is a historical case that can be made that Jesus was a sort of proto-feminist and that so much of the unmistakable misogyny of Christianity comes only from later patriarchal additions. Even St. Paul (no feminist, he, certainly) states in no uncertain terms, in his letter to the Galatians, that in Christ Jesus “there is neither male nor female”. Women were an important part of the Early Church, and if Dan Brown’s book reminds us of that, then I say, blessings be upon it! May it sell another million copies!
But what about Mary Magdalene? Here, Brown gets a little more controversial, and the historical ground upon which he walks gets quite a bit shakier. Brown asserts (or, rather, the characters in his book do) that Jesus and Mary Magdelene were married, and these are also not new ideas. (Not commonly accepted ideas, certainly; not even particularly well known ideas; but they’ve been around for scores of years nonetheless.)
First of all, was Jesus married? Brown asserts that it would have been unusual for a young man of Jesus’s day not to have been married—so that we must assume, then, that he was. But aside from this assumption, the only evidence that is offered are passages from “later gospels” asserting the special and intimate relationship that existed between Jesus and Mary. “That is why he loved her more than us,” one of the apostles is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Philip. “Did he not kiss her on the mouth many times?” another asks.
Certainly, there are non-canonical books (some of the so-called “Lost Books of the Bible”) which do ascribe a central place to Mary Magdalene in the early Christian movement (though none of them, strikingly, ever out and out say that Jesus and Mary were married; close—yes; married—no). Many of these books were only discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 1950s (that is a fascinating story in and of itself, and maybe I’ll put Nag Hammadi on my list of sermon possibilities for some day in the future). These books seem to indicate that there was a wide divergence of opinion on many things in the early Christian church, in the centuries before the “official” lines of the four mainstream gospels were affirmed as the once-and-for-all canon of the Christian faith. One of the leading schools in those early days of Christianity were the Gnostics—represented by Mary (and by Thomas, whose gospel was also re-discovered at Nag Hammadi). The “other side” (the side which came to dominate within the established Church) was represented by John. It’s important to note, too, that the written gospel accounts attributed to all of these figures actually date from a good century or more after their deaths. Mary, Thomas, John, and so on became, in fact,symbols—representations—of a particular school of thought within early Christianity. In a nutshell, the Gnostics of Mary and Thomas believed that the truth (or gnosis) of salvation was open to all Christian believers (though they differed widely among themselves, even, on how one came to imbibe this knowledge). John’s school taught, on the other hand, that salvation came only through the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, as atonement for the sins of the world.
When the Gnostic gospels talk about Jesus “loving” Mary more than (say) John, they might just be indicating that they believed that Gnosticism was closer to the actual beliefs of Jesus than John’s ideas were. Or, when they talk about Jesus “kissing” Mary, they might just be indicating that he was imbuing her with the truth, or gnosis of eternal life, and not indicating any hanky-panky or whatever between them. Remember, these are all highly symbolical books; and sometimes, a kiss isn’t just a kiss.
So, in spite of what Professor Teabring says in The Da Vinci Code, there is no “secret” or “hidden” or “repressed” biblical record that says, with 100% confidence, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. But if The Da Vinci Code opens our eyes to the different Christianities that existed in the Early Church—as alternatives, perhaps, to the masculinized, militarized, triumphant Christianity of Constantine and his successors which came to dominate Western civilization—if it reminds us that Jesus was the Good Shepherd, and not a Holy Rotweiler—that the Christian tradition is a flowing river or a mysterious dance. and not a monolith or a juggernaut-- then it does a real service, it seems to me. Just as importantly, if The Da Vinci Code helps in the rehabilitation of Mary of Magdalene from “repentant sinner” to the “apostle to the apostles” that she may well have been, then I also say “blessings be upon it”! May it sell another million copies! Brown is also right, I think, it inferring that Mary has been the victim of an extended “smear campaign” within the Church, reaching back to at least the year 600, which has tried to denigrate her role, and through her the role of women in the life of the Church, down to the present.
Perhaps we in our own time are witnessing a great turning in which almost two thousand years of misrepresentation will be reversed. The Da Vinci Code, whatever its imperfections as history, may well serve the cause of this Great Turning. Does Dan Brown “prove” that Jesus was married? Hardly. There are holes in his case large enough to march a Roman legion through: As a firstborn son, Jesus may well have been a nazarite—dedicated to God at an early age; put aside from infancy as an offering to God, to remain throughout his life holy, pure, and celibate. Indeed, the gospel accounts of his presentation in the Temple seem to indicate that Mary (his mother) and Joseph brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to according to the Law of Moses: “every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” Or it could be, as some have claimed, that Jesus was allied with (or was at least influenced by) the Essene movement within Judaism, whose members were celibate males who lived apart from society and its norms, awaiting the coming of the Reign of God.
There is no historical reason to assume that, simply because most males of his age were married, that Jesus was, as well (any more than we can make that assumption about a young male in our own day and age).
But even more important to us than whether Mary was the spouse of Jesus is the incontrovertible gospel truth that she was, indeed, his comrade, his close compatriot on the journey of faith. Indeed, scripture tells us, she was the first to whom he appears after his Resurrection, and it was her announcement of that Good News which inspired the male apostles (who had not, as Mary and some of the other women had, remained by his side as he lay dying on the Cross, or stayed out in the cold of night as his body lay in the tomb). May the model of Mary Magdalene inspire again within Christianity in our own day a renewal of hope and spirit which clearly reflects the love and humility of Christ. If The Da Vinci Code helps to accomplish that, then it helps in doing an important work, indeed.
Let us render unto fiction the things which are fiction, and unto history the matters of history. For as The Da Vinci Code shows, these things are not the same. But let us, too, render unto faith the things of faith. For many Christians, the “merely human” Jesus which The Da Vinci Code posits is not enough for facing the tempests and tribulations of this earthly life. For many Christians, the unmistakable truth is that the royal kingship which Jesus bequeathed was not based upon his own personal genes and chromosomes. It was not a matter of his blood line, but of our own creation, each one of us, as his brothers and his sisters, each one of us as children—sons and daughters—of a God whose most magnificent name is Love. For many Christians, only a Jesus who is “fully human and fully divine” will be enough: enough to inspire us to let God’s light shine in the darkness of these times; enough to remind us that this human road we walk can, indeed, lead us, in the fullness of time, into the very presence of God. 

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