Decoding The Da Vinci Code: Causa Merdae Flabellum Incursandae
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 29, 2006 at 06:49:02 PM EST
Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates (author info)

Last Supper
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God help me, The Da Vinci Code movie wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The book by Dan Brown was a moderately fun thriller, but I had heard so many negative reviews, I went to the screening with my Tripe Belch sense of dread.

I had been talking with my friend Denise Griebler, a minister with the United Church of Christ (UCC) about The Da Vinci Code, and how it combines longstanding debates about Christian theology (based in part on the Gnostic Gospels) with conspiracy theories old and new. The UCC is the media-savvy Protestant denomination that has been producing television advertisements about welcoming people from all walks of life to their church. All the major networks have refused to run them. These are the same TV networks that helicopter in film crews to cover marginal self-appointed Christian Right demagogues while ignoring statements by mainstream church leaders such as Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA.

That got me to thinking about how we can use the massive publicity around The Da Vinci Code movie, and the early attendance rush to the theaters, to talk with our neighbors, friends, and others about the real struggles within Christianity. We need to decode The Da Vinci Code. Codes are fun. We should always be ready to seize an opportunity ubi merda flabellum incursat. There are several themes we can decode, and in doing so separate the facts in The Da Vinci Code from the fiction. I started doing this on the "Uprising" radio show hosted by Sonali Kolhatkar at KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. There were a number of callers to this talk show, and we had a lively conversation. What follows are just sketches of ideas for starting conversations.

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As many others have pointed out, Jesus of Nazareth was not followed around be someone with a tape recorder--not even a stenographer lugging around parchment and ink. The Bible is based on an oral tradition converted into text after the fact. The Bible was pieced together from a collection of materials, and some written texts were excluded. We can discuss the process of assembling the Bible. What was included? What was excluded? Why? How does Biblical literalism function with a text that was assembled by a committee?

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There was a struggle among the early followers of Jesus over the role of women. This grain of truth in the Da Vinci Code can be used to ask about how Peter and Paul introduced hierarchy and patriarchy into the Jesus movement. Try exploring the very real writings on the sacred feminine especially in Gnosticism. Look for articles and books by Rosemary Radford Reuther, or for a really challenging set of texts: Mary Daly. Peter J. Gomes is the author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. Gomes, a minister at Harvard, reminds us to read the Bible with an awareness that some passages represent contemporary prejudices and systems of oppression introduced into the text by the human authors.

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The Gnostic Gospels are some of the texts excluded (and denounced as heresy) by those that assembled the Bible. Elaine Pagels explains the Gnostic Gospels and sets the table for a great dinner conversation about what was really going on at the Last Supper. If Mary Magdalene wasn't in the picture--why not?

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The recitation of creeds has been used as litmus tests to "out" heretics in Christianity. Creeds play different roles in different churches. For example: "The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of faith" according to the website at Denise Griebler's church in Illinois. Is there only one exact way to practice Christianity? Who says? Do people who pray to God pray to the same God? Do humans get to decide what prayers are heard?

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Some members of the Catholic group Opus Dei serve as the enforcers of the most dogmatic, repressive, and authoritarian aspects of the Catholic Church. OK, the group probably never hired an masochistic albino hit man to track down and murder those who get in their way. But as author Penny Lernoux and others have pointed out, Opus Dei played a role in crushing Liberation Theology and siding with wealthy elites and right-wing dictators against poor peoples movements in Central and South America. Here on Talk2Action Frank Cocozzelli provides details about Opus Dei in "The Catholic Right: A Series:Parts Two & Three."

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The current Pope is intelligent and witty--but very reactionary and patriarchal--as Cardinal Ratzinger he encouraged the most right-wing elements within the church hierarchy and laity. We can criticize the Catholic Church for sexism and homophobia and authoritarian impulses. See the first part of Frank Cocozzelli's series on "The Catholic Right."

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I enjoy conspiracy theories as entertainment: the X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm currently reading a novel about a contemporary investigation of historical events woven around conspiracy theories, lost statues, hidden passages in a castle, the Catholic Church. The novel by Elizabeth Peters is Borrower of the Night, and before the novel begins, Peters lays out what parts of the novel are based on historic facts, and which are not. Dan Brown wrote a similar statement in the beginning of The Da Vinci Code, but he fudged the facts. Much of The Da Vinci Code is borrowed from longstanding conspiracy theories about the Freemasons and their interaction with the secret Illuminati group. Promoting conspiracy theories as fact is playing with fire. Why are conspiracy theories so popular right now?

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The Priory of Sion as the protectors of the Holy Grail are the good guys in the film. As such, the group does not exist. It appears to have been invented recently, and the hucksters even created faked papers they stashed in a library so they could be "found." For more details, see this, and this, and this. Was it appropriate for Dan Brown to imply that the Priory of Sion actually exists?

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The movie the Da Vinci Code gives us a golden opportunity, so let's talk about some of these issues. Our cup runneth over--even if there is no chalice in the Last Supper painting by Da Vinci. There is a struggle over faith, religion, and God going on in our society right now. The NCC's Bob Edgar puts it this way:

I think there are two Christian Churches. I think one Christian Church was fascinated with the Old Testament Messiah, who was going to come and lead a mighty army. They see that Old Testament Messiah through the eyes of the Armageddon theology. You hear them talking a lot about the second coming. I think there's another Christian Church who was surprised that God sent the Messiah in a humble birth and a person who was a conscientious objector talking about peace and cared about the poor. And this other Church think the second coming already happened. We call it Easter. God is in fact inviting us to help change the world in which we live. <small>read more</small>
Ruby Sales of Spirit House also puts matters in a clear perspective in her essay Empire v. Liberation Christianity:
The Empire religion espoused by George Bush and his white Christian conservative allies is headed by a God who appears to be white supremacist, patriarchal, and upper class, one who stood on the side of enslavement and the genocide of native peoples throughout the globe, including the Americas.

This is the message of conservative right wing Christians. They misuse scripture to justify their beliefs, and they hide their intentions behind self-centered and pious God talk that undergirds and propels exclusion and domination--whether it's about the inferiority of women, black people, or lesbians and gays.

Liberation Christianity begins with the assertion that God is on the side of the oppressed rather than the side of the Empire. This is the good news of the radical Jew Jesus who challenged the Roman Empire.
Right wing Protestant evangelicals and Catholics have raised a rucus about the movie The Da Vinci Code. We can join the fray. What are some other questions we can ask in public based on what we see in the book and movie? And after this, we can look around and see if anything is Left Behind.


We are not bemused.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue May 30, 2006 at 12:55:15 PM EST
Some conspiracy theorists who debate this issue tend to abutus exemplar Libri...
(excuse the probably faulty grammar, I'm a bit rusty)



by EmilyWynn8 on Wed May 31, 2006 at 04:11:10 PM EST

I had to consult a Latin teacher.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Wed May 31, 2006 at 09:13:17 PM EST
Don't know Latin, but could get a couple of the words.

What about the binary?

Undoubtedly Opus Dei is rooted in pro-fascism, and decidedly right-wing today.

The scandalous part is that Plantard, the Priory of Sion fraudster, was also pro-fascist.

I still don't like the fake theology, but it was interesting to consider the possibilities that the Nag Hamadi makes possible.

by JoshNarins on Sat Jun 10, 2006 at 10:11:38 PM EST

HeyheyheyheyheyHEY!!!!!!!!!!!! Say WHAT????????

by anomalous4 on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 12:58:40 PM EST

I absolutely loathed the DaVinci part because of its anti-Catholicism (that plays right into the hands of the chrisitian right) but also its specious art history.  I was cringing every time there was some ridiculous explaination of 'negative space' and the way the images were shifted around....not to mention there is no explanation as to why the figure in the painting isn't Mary Magdalene...

It's John (who wrote the book of Revelations).  How do we know this?  Well, if you look at a number of other art works produces around the same time, John is usually feminine-looking.  He was the youngest apostle, and this was their way, at that time, of portraying a male youth (there are many examples.)  Think about it in terms of the 1960s, when there was much sentiment about how one couldn't tell girls from boys because of their long hair...

As for why there is no it really all that important if DaVinci is painting a particular moment during the Last Supper?  Or could the lack of chalice also have something to do with the fact that the painting was rushed, was done with materials that have flaked off, been improperly restored, or that to put a chalice in the picture would have distorted the mathematical balance Leonardo was trying to achieve? Or was he flouting convention--as he did with placing Judas on the same side of the table as Jesus (at this time, in other Last Supper pics, Judas was always on the opposite of Jesus--and dark-complected.)

If you don't understand the imagery, you're losing half the story...

One of the main reasons why the DaVinci Code is so sellable is that most people know absolutely nothing about art history and love to catholic-bash. Catholic-bashing was a favoirte sport of a number of the Founding Fathers (esp. the ones from Massachusetts) and anti-catholic sentiment was prevalent even into the 20th century.   A disdain for artistic expression of religious themes was also part and parcel of the religiousity of the Founding Fathers. So, if you have a populace that is ignorant of the history of religious imagery (perhaps has never seen most of it) and is ignorant of the fine sport of catholic-bashing in their own country, it's easy to buffalo them into believing just about any wide-eyed, new agey speculation.

by Tish Grier on Sat Jul 08, 2006 at 02:02:12 PM EST

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