Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Da Vinci Code Debunked - Part II

Pastor Gary Delashmutt is no fan of Dan Brown's mega-bestselling book, but he does have one positive thing to say about it: It has created an opportunity for more people to learn who Jesus really was. In the follow-up to his sermon last week, Delashmutt takes up this question as well as the question of whether Jesus was married.

If The Da Vinci Code is to be believed, Jesus was a great, but very mortal, man. Not only was he not divine, he was not widely regarded as divine until the Council of Nicea declared him so in a "close vote."

Not so, counters Pastor Delashmutt. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. His humanity could be seen by the fact that he experienced physical birth and death, and had human limits such as hunger, thirst, and fatigue. He was also vulnerable to pain and suffering.

But he was divine, too. The Bible refers to Jesus as "mighty God," "everlasting Father," and "Prince of Peace." There is also the reference to "The Word" becoming "flesh" and "dwelling among us." Paul in the Colossians talks about the fullness of the deity living in bodily form. Clearly, these passages communicate the deity of Christ. Maybe that's why the real vote at the Council of Nicea wasn't close at all: 316-2.

The pastor charges that The Da Vinci Code gives us a re-tooled Jesus, who comes across as a "Gnostic teacher, a prophet, who offers a certain kind of salvation through self-realization." This ties in with New Age concepts whereby you find divinity within yourself. The Gnostics wanted you to look within yourself and find a "light" that makes you divine.

The pastor cited a passage from the book of Thomas (which is not a true gospel since it contains no narrative). "When you come to know yourselves then you will become known. And you will realize that it is you who are sons of the living God." As an aside, Pastor Delashmutt stressed that whoever this Thomas was, he lived in the 2nd century A.D. and thus was not the apostle Thomas.

The Gnostic Jesus is unlike the Biblical Jesus, who fulfills the Old Testament prediction of a savior who offers forgiveness for moral guilt through his death. In sum, to save the human race, Jesus had to be human; for his salvation to reach the entire human race throughout all time, he had to be divine.

What about the book's claim that he was married to Mary Magdalene? What do the gospels say about her? They certainly don't defame her in any way. She traveled with Jesus along with other women and helped finance his ministry. She stayed to the end of his crucifixion. She went to his tomb; found it empty. She was the first person to communicate with the resurrected Jesus. Quite an honor for a woman at a time when women couldn't even give testimony in court.

There's a stunning passage in the aforementioned book of Thomas about Jesus saying that Mary M. would have to be turned into a male in order to become human. Not exactly a liberated view of women. It even contradicts the stress placed on the "sacred feminine" in The Da Vinci Code.

As for a marriage, there's no record of Jesus being married to Mary M. or any other woman. The fragmentary book of Phillip makes incomplete references to Mary M. being Jesus's companion and kissing him. So any claim of marriage is quite weak. But Pastor Delashmutt says it wouldn't have been inherently sinful for Jesus to have been married. Just the same, Jesus had good reasons for not taking a wife. For one thing, it would have been tough on his wife, given his death at only 33 or so. Also, if he had biological children, that would have run counter to his plan to create a new family of humanity that would allow anyone to become a child of God through faith in him as lord and savior.

God does work through bloodlines sometimes, as he did with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and their descendants. It was this bloodline that culminated in Jesus. But Jesus had a different mission. He came as the Messiah who would enable all people to be adopted into God's family. The Hebrew people of this time apparently believed they were sure to enter God's kingdom because of their descent from Abraham. But believing you are special because of your bloodline opens the door for prejudice against other people from different bloodlines. Bloodlines have nothing to do with Jesus. Those who trust and accept him are born of the spirit and become children of God regardless of their bloodline. If Jesus had had children, this fact might have been muddled.

As a concluding statement, I would have to say that there was nothing really surprising in either of Pastor Delashmutt's sermons. He doesn't buy the view about Jesus and Mary M. put forth in The Da Vinci Code, and states his objections quite clearly. To his credit, however, he isn't livid over Brown's book. He has no interest in censoring the book or boycotting the film. Perhaps he believes, as I do, that if the Biblical Jesus is the true Jesus, then nothing can be done to dethrone him. Best-selling authors, New Age gurus, doubting agnostics, cynical atheists, and disbelievers of every stripe can all have their say. In the end, Jesus will be what he has always been.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Da Vinci Code Debunked - Part I

Gary Delashmutt, a senior pastor at Xenos Christian Fellowship, has a bone (actually several bones) to pick with best-selling author Dan Brown over his novel The Da Vinci Code. In his June 4 sermon, Delashmutt presented a series of arguments as to why the four gospels in the Bible have every right to be there, while the 20-27 rejected "gospels" are justifiably omitted. Before presenting his arguments, the pastor stressed that underlying Brown's captivating narrative is an "agenda' that can be summarized as follows: We have been lied to about who Jesus was and what kind of relationship he had with Mary Magdalene. Powerful people -- most notably Emperor Constantine -- suppressed gospels that emphasized Jesus's humanity and elevated those that portrayed him as a divine being.

Much of Pastor Delashmutt's sermon centered on the reasons why the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (MMLJ) are superior to the 20-27 rejected "gospels" that Brown seems to believe are quite credible. He cited the following:

- MMLJ are the only first-century accounts of Jesus's life. The others were written anywhere from 150 A.D. to the Middle Ages.

- MMLJ are "eyewitness" accounts of what Jesus was doing and what was happening around him. There are precise details about events, locations, and people's emotional responses that could only be provided by someone who was actually there. (Example: the number of fish caught in a net.) The other so-called gospels have no narrative element and can be quite fanciful. One talks about Jesus as a child causing supernatural destruction to people around him for the most minor of offenses.

- MMLJ are history "in the raw." They disclose things that could be considered embarrassing to the writer. For example: The Biblical gospels reveal that the first people to see Jesus after his resurrection were women. Not any of the apostles. Women were not highly regarded at this time, so this disclosure is rather humilitating for the gospel writers.

- The gospel writers received no advantage for what they wrote. On the contrary, they suffered persecution and even death. If they knew what they were writing was false, why would they die for it? People don't typically sacrifice their lives for something they know to be false.

- Even if the authors of MMLJ did have an agenda, that wouldn't necessarily mean their accounts were false. Their agenda might be inspired by the truth and power of what they had witnessed.

- MMLJ have been accepted as authoritative since the earliest days of the church. Their accounts have been accurately preserved and copied many times. There are relatively few copies of the rejected "gospels," and some are fragmentary.

Pastor Delashmutt will conclude his observations on The Da Vinci Code next week.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Da Vinci Code on Film

I saw the movie version of The Da Vinci Code yesterday, and came away with mixed feelings -- mostly positive. Because Brown did not describe the characters in deep detail, the movie helped give some flesh and blood to them. With the exception of Tom Hanks in the role of Robert Langdon, the characters came across as quite plausible. Paul Bettany's Silas was especially strong in my opinion, capturing the sadness, brutality, and fanaticism of the albino monk. I also liked Audrey Tautou as Sophie. She is quite attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous, which would have been a distraction. Ian McKellen gave a polished performance as Teabing, although he doesn't fit the book's description of that character, who was plump with bushy red hair.

Tom Hanks, of course is a good actor, and he didn't completely fail with Langdon, but he seems too much of an "everyman" to fit the mold of a Harvard professor. He doesn't convey the air of intellectuality that would seem to go with that role. When I first heard that The Da Vinci Code was going to be made into a film, I thought that Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential) would be a good choice for Langdon. Were he not too old (close to 60), Peter Weller (RoboCop, The Naked Lunch) would also be a good choice for Langdon, not least of all because he is an actual professor of art history at Syracuse University.

Until the end, the movie follows the book fairly closely. Even some of the dialogue comes directly from the book. There is condensing -- an inevitable step when a 450-page book is turned into a two-plus hour movie. For example, there is only one cryptex in the film, as opposed to two in the book. A number of minor characters, such as Langdon's editor and the librarian at King's College, are dropped. There are also fewer flashback sequences in the film. The biggest digression from the book comes near the end of the film, when the action shifts to Rosslyn Chapel and Sophie discovers the true nature of her family.

As my daughter and I left the theater, we noticed one or two people protesting the movie. To be sure, the content of The Da Vinci Code is controversial. The notion that Jesus was a mortal man who had a wife and child strikes at the traditional view of Jesus as the one and only son of God who was as eternal as the message that He preached. But it is a novel; a work of literature that has elements of truth in it, but that ultimately has to be placed on the shelf with other works of fiction. Brown starts with facts taken from history and then distorts, exaggerates, and twists them in order to create an intriguing, semi-plausible story that has the added dimension of bold impudence. And I believe it is this bold impudence -- along with the never-ending popularity of conspiracy theories -- that accounts for the success of Brown's book. Because whether we admit it or not, we have a fascination and very often an admiration for the rule-breaker. For the kid who sticks his tongue out at the teacher, for the student who publishes an underground newspaper, for the rebel who defies the orders of his king. We may not like the rule-breaker; may oppose the cause he champions. But still we give him our attention, if only because he makes life more interesting. And it seems that the more powerful the authority, the more established it is, the more attention we give to those people who oppose that authority. And there are few authorities anywhere more powerful than the Catholic Church or more pervasive than the Bible, both of which portray Jesus quite differently than Langdon and Teabing. Perhaps that's why Mr. Brown has made millions and has achieved a level of fame that has forced him to put up a fence around his home to assure his privacy.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Da Vinci Code Implausibilities

The Da Vinci Code is an interesting, amusing book that is prompting a great deal of discussion about the origins of Christianity and the life of Jesus. Brown does relatively little to develop his characters and his use of language is not the best. He is, however, quite clever with his plot development. There is a question or unresolved issue at the end of nearly every chapter that goads the reader into going deeper into the story. Interwoven with the plot is the mystique that goes with codes, secret societies, and forbidden rituals. It all makes for a good read. Just the same, there are illogical or unexplained occurrences in the book that make the story seem highly implausible at best, perhaps even bordering on nonsensical. Consider the following:

- The Priory of Sion supposedly values the "Sacred Feminine," yet over the centuries, there have been few female grand masters of this group. At one point, Langdon mentions there have been four female grand masters -- an incredibly small number given the nearly 1,000-year history of that organization.

- Teabing claims that the unmasculine-looking figure to Jesus's right in Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" is not the apostle John but Mary Magdalene. If so, then there are only 11 apostles in the painting. One -- presumably John -- has been inexplicably omitted.

- The position of Teabing and Langdon seems to be that Jesus was an extraordinary man -- but a man nonetheless. Not God nor any other kind of supernatural being. But if that's true, how could Mary Magdalene become sacred or divine by marrying him? An odd thing about the book is that Jesus seems to be demoted to mortal while Mary M. is promoted to the ranks of the divine. But how could her marriage to an extraordinary but still mortal man raise her to the level of sacredness?

- Whatever they were, Jesus and Mary M. were monotheists, who believed and trusted in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. They were not pagans and would never have taken part in any pagan rituals. Why then, would a group that reveres Mary M. to the point of praying at her grave engage in a ritual (Hieros Gamos) that she would have abhorred?

- If as Langdon claims, the Catholic Church is virulently anti-Mary Magdalene, why did it elevate her to the ranks of its saints? And as for the claim that the Church is anti-female, that seems a very strange accusation to make against a church that reveres the Virgin Mary as much or nearly as much as Jesus Christ.

None of these things should necessarily stop anyone from reading the book and enjoying it. But anyone who hopes to find religious truth within its pages or new insight into who Jesus and Mary M. really were is treading on very thin ice indeed.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Desperate Bishop

Aside from Silas, the only other Opus Dei member of significance in The Da Vinci Code is Bishop Aringarossa, who heads that organization. He is not portrayed unfavorably at all. In a flashback, we learn that he showed kindness to Silas and gave him a home after the mistreated albino was able to escape from prison during an earthquake. He actually gave Silas his name, drawing on the experience of the Biblical Silas who also survived an earthquake.

The Bishop is a stressed and desperate man throughout most of the story. At first, it seems that he is worried over the potential harm that will come to the Catholic Church if the Priory of Sion reveals the true meaning of the Holy Grail to the rest of the world. Later, however, we discover that there is another source for his worry. Notwithstanding his fears, Bishop Aringarossa is a man who wants to avoid violence and killing. Realizing this, the "Teacher" prevents the Bishop from communicating with Silas, while the monk is on his mission of killing. Toward the end of the book, the Bishop realizes he and Silas have been duped by the "Teacher," and he makes a frantic effort to stop Silas from killing anyone else.

As I say, the Bishop is essentially a positive character. He is a man who stands for something and who has principles that will not change to accommodate the latest popular whim. He even stands firm against his superiors in the Vatican, who he feels are moving in the wrong direction. I don't know if Bishop Aringarossa is truly representative of clergy who are members of Opus Dei, but I certainly wouldn't think poorly of Opus Dei because of him.

As I mentioned earlier, Silas is not a positive character. But I don't get the feeling that he is a true representative of the Opus Dei rank-and-file membership. As far as I can tell, this guy is a fanatic even by Opus Dei's standards.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Silas Reconsidered

The controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code stems in part from the portrayal of Opus Dei, especially Silas, an albino monk, who kills several people over the course of the book. Silas is a fanatic, to be sure. He beats himself with a knotted rope and wears a spiked belt (called a cilice) on his upper leg, keeping it on much longer than the expected 2 hours a day. But Brown is not unsympathetic to him. Silas was terribly abused as a child and lived a spartan existence until being thrown into a jail on the French-Spanish border, where he suffered additional cruelty.

Silas is totally committed to the Catholic Church, so much so that he is willing to kill to protect it. It is he who guns down the curator of the Louvre, setting the story in motion. Actually he and the head of Opus Dei, Bishop Aringarossa, are being manipulated by the "Teacher," who is the true villain of the story. Silas believes he has to kill in order to recover the Holy Grail and protect the Catholic Church. He is not a serial killer. Not even a particularly willing one. He is driven by fanaticism and desperation to kill. A thousand years ago, he would have been in the vanguard of the First Crusade and probably every other crusade that followed.

Is Silas an admirable character? Not especially. He doesn't consider the long-term consequences of his deeds nor does he consider the motives that might be behind the man who is ordering him to kill others. But he is not totally disreputable either. He is loyal, dedicated, and probably courageous. Someone who will do his duty whatever the consequences may be.

One thing that Brown is unclear about is how Silas got to be such a great shot with a pistol. In addition to shooting Sauniere, the curator of the Louvre, he also kills three other members of the secret group to which Sauniere belongs. Later, toward the end of the story, he shoots two or more English police officers who are pursuing him. He does this while sprawled on the pavement, having collided with another police officer. And it's this police officer's gun that he uses to shoot his pursuers. In another words, he's using an unfamiliar weapon. A hand-held firearm is not an easy thing to master, yet Silas seems to be an expert, even though there is nothing in his background (as described by Brown) to suggest how he acquired this expertise.

In my next blog, I'll consider the Bishop. By the way, the movie version of The Da Vinci Code opened in Columbus today, and it will be at least a week before I have time to view it.