Thursday, June 1, 2006
The story is fiction and I’ll leave it at that...
This week I cannot resist putting in my two cents’ about The Da Vinci Code. Whether or not it is great literature or whether Tom Hanks’ performance in the movie is Academy Award material I will leave to others to judge. All I wish to do is make a comment or two expressing my opinions about some of the religious questions involved.
First of all, I have no sympathy with those who would urge Christian people not to see the movie. The novel’s author Dan Brown and the film’s producer Ron Howard have both stated that the story is fiction, and I will leave it at that. But there are some who find a sense of “truthiness” (to use Stephen Colbert’s word) in the film. The idea is that if something “feels true,” regardless of what the silly old facts may be, then it probably is.
I would like to remark that there have been at least two amazingly successful quasi-religious publishing efforts, albeit from opposite ends of the spectrum, in recent years, namely The Da Vinci Code and Left Behind. One involves the Roman Catholic Church and the other is intensely Protestant. But they have this in common: both imply that there is secret truth available for the enlightened, that is that the real Christian belief is a secret that is only divulged to the privileged reader!
My friend John Buchanan, editor of the Christian Century magazine has made this connection, and it set me to thinking. Because even though I am not religiously inclined either to The Da Vinci Code or the Left Behind novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, I am quite familiar with the idea of secret knowledge and the kind of spiritual superiority that kind of thinking can encourage.
Both projects have been quite popular. The Da Vinci Code has sold 43 million copies, Left Behind, some 60 million. How many more will see the movie? But the common idea between the two is that there are “secrets” that the established church wishes to suppress or ignore, and in this very secular age of ours, it is amazing that such a thought still conjures up the sexy smell of novelty, so that people rush out to see what it is that they have not been told.
The idea of a spiritually superior Christian belief that was available only to the privileged few goes all the way back to the second century after Christ when a group of people called the Gnostics appeared on the scene. Gnostic comes from the Greek word for knowledge. They had knowledge that ordinary believers lacked, and they would tell you, but only if you joined their sect. Needless to say, theirs was the only road to heaven, so you needed to be a Gnostic if you had any hope of finding eternal life.
Now, as far as I can tell there is this difference between The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind novels. Everyone connected officially with The Da Vinci Code says that their tale is only fiction, but the writers of the Left Behind novels will say that the basic theology of how Christ’s second coming will happen is absolute truth. Only the characters and personal stories about what happens as these events unfold are made up.
Millions of people believe the theology that underlies Left Behind, although I know of no mainstream denomination that has ever made it part of their official constitution. Still, it is preached by thousands of pastors and taught in many study Bibles. Many people, I expect, would be surprised to learn that it is not the official doctrine of their church. So that is a difference between The Da Vinci Code and Left Behind. Devotees of Left Behind take their ideas much more seriously. In fact, prominent leaders in American life — Congressmen, officials of the president’s cabinet, etc. are convinced followers of the theology that motivates Left Behind. So, again it is odd that it has not been much-debated in the governing bodies of the churches.
What is going on? In each case, the “truth” is discovered by gathering up bits and pieces from various parts of the Bible and world history, that when fit together by the scheme of interpretation brought to it by the enlightened author or teacher, suddenly everything makes sense — and one realizes that Jesus really did marry Mary Magdalene and have children by her (as The Da Vinci Code suggests) or that Jesus is coming back in the next year or two and that the true Christians will be raptured off the scene before, say, the world’s oil supply runs out (as the Left Behind novels infer).
If they are right, that the Catholic Church has suppressed a terrible secret and is murderously corrupt (Da Vinci) or that Jesus is coming back to earth right soon (Left Behind), then certain things may follow — such as that one needs not obey the pope or other Catholic teaching, or as some politicians who read Left Behind evidently believe, worry about the environment, or world peace, or the soaring national debt.
In contrast to all this, the stories told by traditional Christianity are out there for everybody to see. Unlike the ancient Gnostics, the orthodox Christians preached their gospel openly and engaged in public debate about its veracity. To hide the story would have betrayed the church’s evangelistic purpose of being a light to the world.
Of course, because it is there every Sunday for all the world to see, the message of traditional Christianity may seem a little prosaic and down-at-the-heels. But like St. Augustine the ancient bishop of Hippo in Africa contended, Christianity ought to be for the ordinary believer, not just the spiritually select who have access to hidden wisdom or secret knowledge. And the basic message Bible ought to be understandable by the average person — its meaning not dependent upon the explanation of some spiritual magician who brings forth truths that are hidden to those who do not have the glitz and glamour of their mystic insight and interpretative ability.
People have always been more curious about what the Bible does not say than about what it does. I can certainly understand that — there are a few questions I would like to have answered myself. But what I do understand from the Bible keeps me busy right now, and as Ben Franklin once said in his extreme old age, the information about those other things would soon be available with a lot less trouble, as he soon expected to come face to face with his Maker.
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