The Da Vinci Code: A Cultural and Religious Phenomenon

Martha Ellen Stortz

Plane travel has its pleasures. After soldiering through airport security and the anxieties of take-off, I like nothing better than curling up with some good fiction. Miles above the earth and miles away from e-mail, phone, or computer, I lose myself in the world upon the page. At such times, I gulp novels like a deep-sea diver coming up for air. My latest adventures in fiction include two of Dan Brown’s novels, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003) and its predecessor, Angels & Demons (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

I almost didn’t: The Da Vinci Code has an almost cult following, prompting cries of delight on one hand and disdain on the other. Readers are taken in by the novel’s pacing and imagination. “I was afraid I’d miss something if I stopped reading,” said one devotee. She feared the action would go on without her. “I couldn’t put it down,” confessed an investment banker, who added that he’d lost a weekend to reading the book.

Meanwhile, scholars of religion and art scoff at the book’s research—or lack thereof. Secretly, I suspect, they are stunned—and a little envious—that a book treating religion could be so popular. After all, religion is supposed to be passe. Everyone wants to be “spiritual” instead. I pledge allegiance to both camps. I devoured the book greedily: it was an intellectual romp through cities and churches and controversies I knew well. Besides, I love a good mystery, and both books qualify on that count. But I also winced at a few fictional liberties I feared people would take as fact, like the assertion that Mary Magdalene was the same Mary identified as the sister of Lazarus. And I am simply tired of arguments that uncritically celebrate a heretical tradition over the more “orthodox” presentation.

But I want to stand back a moment and ask a question that is slightly different from those I’ve seen so hotly debated on websites and news magazines, largely questions about what the books tell us about Jesus, the Masons, Da Vinci, Bernini, Opus Dei, etc. Rather the question I want to worry about is what The Da Vinci Code and its popularity tell us about ourselves in terms of our cultural longing and religious yearning at this beginning of a new millennium.

Cultural longing…

A good friend, in addition to being a practicing Catholic and member of a religious community, ranks as an accomplished biblical scholar and an occasional mystery writer. I was anxious to hear her critical assessment. Judging a book that gives the Roman Catholic church such a hard time, she was remarkably sanguine: “I thought it was a great read—I just longed for more character development. And that it all just didn’t have to happen in a mere twenty-four hours! It made me dizzy.” She’s on to something; in fact, she’s on to several things. Her observations are astute, and I want to unpack them and add a few of my own because I think the book unmasks some ingrained cultural longings.

Twentieth century author James Joyce put well the euphoric effect of speed: “Rapid motion through space elates one.” Indeed, a lot of readers I spoke with were buzzing, high on the combination of plot and pacing. Both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons feature short chapters which roll out at a fast clip. The author foreshadows the plot to come in pithy, action-packed sentences: “He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life.” The night in question comes a mere twelve hours—and a hefty five hundred pages!—later. In both novels Brown creates the verbal equivalent of an action movie’s special effects. Character develops as the principals act and react to the events unraveling around them. There’s conversation to be sure, and it’s clipped and credible, but without much introspection. Everything is happening too quickly, and the characters themselves spend a lot of time catching their breath.

The hero of both novels is Harvard symbologist and art historian Robert Langdon. He’s the last gasp of the Boomers, older than his female protagonists, policewoman and code-breaker Sophie Neveu in The Da Vinci Code and Vittoria Vettra in Angels & Demons. I was happy to run into Langdon again. He’s an appealing figure, less decisive, more reflective, even more intuitive than his female counterparts, who seem more aggressive and confident than he by contrast. Langdon is happy to hang in the background in terms of action, though he never relinquishes the role of having the superior intellect in either novel. All in all, Langdon presents a winsome, postmodern knight in shining armor to these gutsy women. Both novels feature a scene in which he saves the fair damsel, but not by brute force. Sheer physical violence, and the ability to manipulate fear and trust feature as weapons of the enemy, which in both novels are secret brotherhoods of ancient origin with vague modern-day connections to the Masons. Langdon conquers evil with wit, intuition, and an uncanny ability to crack visual codes.

It is this final trait that bears further scrutiny: Langdon’s training in religious symbology. At this dawning of a new millennium, Brown has caught an important resonance with centuries past. Once again, the image reigns supreme, and yet we lack a finely-honed faculty to assess the visual images that assault our eyes. Literature claims the field of literary criticism, which explores the criteria for what qualifies as a “classic” as opposed to a period piece; what counts as a great poem, not merely a mediocre one. But we possess no analogous field of criticism for the many images that stream out of our computers, televisions, and movie screens. Langdon’s expertise represents a longing for such wisdom. Our hero’s ready recall of classical and medieval art and the range of meanings embedded therein is no coincidence. These were periods in Western history when the ability to read was restricted to the privileged few. While only the wealthy could read, everyone could see, and they learned through images in art, architecture, and statuary. Indeed, the lessons of power and obedience, of awe and wonder, were visually promulgated, constructed in edifices of stone and mortar, sketched onto walls, sculpted in plaster and iron. Langdon knows how to read these—and Brown taps a deep longing to be as wise as he is, to possess the knowledge he has.

A love of speed and special effects both verbal and visual, a conviction that character most authentically emerges in action, a desire to maintain gender difference while mixing traditionally gendered traits, and a longing for visual sophistication and wisdom: author Dan Brown taps all these cultural longings in his novels. His novels stand as a sharp mirror of the times and the people who devour them, reflecting back to them their needs and desires. But what of the religious dimensions Brown presents?

Religious yearnings…

The religious aspects of Brown’s novels have drawn the most attention. The Da Vinci Code proceeds on the hypothesis that Jesus turns out to have married Mary Magdalene, whose identity is collapsed into Mary the sister of Lazarus. After the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene withdrew to Spain, where she bore their child, Sarah, and found shelter with a Jewish sect. An underground brotherhood, the Priory of Zion, guards the secret of her tomb. In an effort to crack a secret Da Vinci guarded, Langdon and his consort, French policewoman Sophie Neveu, delve into the Gnostic gospels, legends of the Holy Grail, tales of the Knights Templar, and the paintings of Leonardo himself. It’s a wonderful romp, but the author frequently trespasses the lines between fact and fiction easily and without signal to the reader.

The plot of Angels & Demons takes place in Rome on the eve of a papal conclave. The old pope has died in circumstances that prove to be mysterious; his personal assistant and a senior member of the college of cardinals are in the midst of elaborate arrangements to elect a new head of the church—and an ancient brotherhood, the Illuminati, reveals that it has hidden a canister of anti-matter with untold powers of destruction somewhere in the Vatican City scheduled to explode or implode—no one is quite certain how the destruction will unfold—within twenty-four hours. The artist in question in this novel is Bernini, sixteenth century sculptor for the papacy, but more interesting is the portrait Brown draws of the papacy itself. He does not ignore corruption and lust for power that mark the worst of the leaders in Roman Catholicism—or in any major world religion. But Brown refuses to believe that power always corrupts. He leaves readers with two popes who use it well, judiciously, and for the sake of others, one caught between the calling to be celibate and a longing to be a father and another who finds a creative balance between truth and secrecy, between power and servanthood.

I find it significant that both books surface the longing for a spirituality that embraces not just sexuality, but a kind of marital spirituality. After all, Jesus does not simply have an affair with Mary Magdalene; he marries her, and Brown suggests that Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is really a portrait of their wedding feast. In various ways, both novels showcase relationships between men and women that must endure hardship, distance, and duties to greater goods and higher causes. These relationships last because a gracious fidelity sustains them. As real-life churches debate homosexuality, the blessing of same-sex unions, and clerical sexual abuse, Brown speaks positively of a calling that most Christians would long to see discussed with wit, wisdom, and seriousness: marriage. The churches should be at least as concerned about this calling as Brown is. I suspect that part of his popularity reflects a deep yearning for a sustained theological treatment of marriage.

Many have found Brown’s suggestion that Jesus was married to be offensive, and I wonder if this outrage does not mask another religious yearning. We long for a Jesus who shares our humanity. We confess this in our creeds; we read it in our scriptures, but somehow the Jesus worshiped in our churches is the Christ of faith, removed from the Jesus of history. The picture of Jesus that emerges in Brown’s novels is startlingly human, as are the leaders of the churches that follow him. Jesus and several of the religious leaders have bodies; they have conflicting desires; they have missions to fulfill, missions that wrench them away from the comforts of family.

My puzzlement is that Brown uses the Gnostic gospels to reach to this kinder, gentler, more human Jesus. And I’d warn readers against a quick, uncritical embrace of the Gnostic Christ. In general, the Gnostic gospels present Christ as so other-worldly he seems to float two feet off the ground, avoiding confrontation with the body, the earth, even the female. One gospel presents Christ laughing in the heavens above the cross, as the Romans crucify someone else in his place. Another has Christ telling Mary Magdalene in secret that she will “become male” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And throughout the Gnostic gospels all Christ manages is “walking and talking,” a prototype for “The West Wing’s” chatty principals. He doesn’t heal; he doesn’t do miracles; he’s never hungry. In short, the Gnostic Christ avoids bodies, because bodies don’t count. All the Gnostic Christ does is talk, imparting secret information to a privileged few. He doesn’t necessarily always make sense, because he’s deliberately trying to withhold information from those who are not smart enough to hear it. It’s an elite, abstract, secretive, body-denying Christ whom we encounter in the Gnostic gospels. In contrast to bustling, multi-talented Jesus of the canonical gospels, the Gnostic gospels are boring.

I’m not sure how Brown reconciles his quest for the humanity of Jesus with the Gnostic Christ. However, I do know that part of Brown’s popularity has to do with the fact that the Jesus he presents experienced the human struggles, tensions, and desires that we do. So do the people who follow him. The audience Brown’s books have created yearn for the human Jesus. By extension, they yearn for leaders who are human and who can lead without having to hide their humanity. All this makes me think it’s time for a hard look at the canonical stories of Jesus, where Jesus weeps, dines, feels thirsty. With their healings and exorcisms and miraculous feedings, the canonical gospels are stories of life in the body, bodies broken and made whole, bodies suffering and redeemed. We are still a people that longs for wonder, and we want that wonder packaged in the bodily forms that we know so well.

It might be worth unmasking the real Gnostic in the novels: Robert Langdon himself. He seems to possess a secret knowledge that leads to enlightenment. He manages to keep thinking lucidly in situations of severe physical deprivation. We find him repeatedly without air, without food, without adequate sleep—even at one point without gravity. There are no sex scenes in either novel: Langdon seems to be able to resist even this key feature of embodiment. If these two novels are any measure, Langdon will keep appearing like a Gnostic emanation from the Apocryphon of John paired with a powerful female consort. Jesus may be all too human in Brown’s novels, but Robert Langdon is not!

There’s even the Gnostic ambiguity in regard to women, pace Elaine Pagels. Despite the alleged Gnostic recognition of the “equality of the sexes,” which Pagels argues passionately but unconvincingly in my reading of the texts, the secret brotherhood featured in The Da Vinci Code chose men as its Grand Masters for centuries, denying women the highest leadership role.

Finally, I think both novels tap a deep suspicion of power and the powerful, a tendency to read everything in terms of power, and a penchant for conspiracy theories. We are truly the heirs of Lord Acton, who programmed an entire culture to believe that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We’ve extended Acton’s axiom to claim that everyone who has power must by definition be corrupt. We communicate this rabid suspicion of power and authority to our youth. Leadership is the last thing they want to exercise. And we will wind up old, wizened, and not much wiser pondering mediocrity and incompetence in the leadership we see around us. Our suspicion of power and authority creates a vacuum that is very much like the canister of anti-matter in Angels & Demons—and with equally destructive potential.

In both novels, the abuse of power in the hands of religious and anti-religious leaders borders on the satanic. I hope these portraits do not overwhelm the quiet power and authority of two popes who are not corrupt but let justice mentor their authority. These two lone figures see the world in terms of how they can help it, and they use power as a vehicle for service. To be sure, they are minor figures in the narrative, almost lost in Brown’s breathless pacing. Nonetheless, they deserve notice. More than notice, I suggest we follow their example. In the troubled years ahead, we will need bold leaders, who know how to use power with equity, grace, and wisdom.