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The Da Vinci Code: What it means — And what it doesn't

By Lady Liberty
web posted May 22, 2006

I like to read, and I'm always on the look-out for good books. When I heard so much about The Da Vinci Code, I obviously just had to take a look for myself. It's testament to just how good it is that I wasn't disappointed when I finally did get the chance to read it.

Although I have my favorite genres (science fiction and horror, lest any of you wonder), I also read quite a variety of other kinds of things which includes both short and long forms of fiction, non-fiction, and commentary. I don't typically find myself confused by any of these things. For example, when I read one of Stephen King's horror novels, I'm usually pretty sure that my car isn't going to attack me when I go out to the garage, or if I happen to read a statement from one politician or another, I rarely assume it's anything but an exercise in creative writing.

The Da Vinci CodeI had no problems understanding The Da Vinci Code, either. The author made it clear that there were some realities included in his novel, things like the fact that people really did used to search for the Holy Grail, there is a religious group that's fairly tight-lipped about itself called Opus Dei, and the Pope does keep some secrets from the general population. These things only made the novel more plausible and hence more enjoyable for those of us who like to immerse ourselves in a story. It didn't make the novel true.

Author Dan Brown didn't really do anything unique when he used realities to shore up the storyline of his book. Stephen King often writes of very ordinary things that go haywire in extraordinary ways, but simply taking note that a car is of a specific model, or that a certain town in Maine really exists doesn't mean that that kind of car will suddenly become possessed or that a killer clown is on the loose in New England! Yet people accept King's work as fiction, but apparently feel that Brown's work is not.

Well, let me rephrase that just a bit. While people do think Brown's work is fiction, they fear that other people will think it's real history and they're threatened by the very possibility. To that end, there was a real stink raised over the popularity of the book. A variety of books were published in "response" to The Da Vinci Code, most of them claiming to "debunk" the book. Of course, by claiming the book needed debunking at all just lent further credibility to what is still just a work of fiction! But that didn't seem to matter to those who were worried.

Now, with the release of the movie based on the book, the same debate has reached a fever pitch. The real world version of Opus Dei is re-releasing a book entitled The Way to coincide with the movie and which it hopes will provide some facts for the curious. Here are some of those facts: Some members really are celibate and do live in collective residences, and there really is such a thing as a cilice — a spiked metal belt strapped tight around the thigh, just as described in the book. Acknowledging these facts is probably doing more harm than good to the group's reputation, but that's neither here nor there. Here's something that does matter:

The Way's take on books reads: "Don't buy them without advice from a Catholic who has real knowledge and discernment. It's so easy to buy something useless or harmful." Now I personally didn't ask advice from a Catholic before reading "The Da Vinci Code" (nor did I check in with a medium before I bought King's "Pet Semetary"). Yet somehow, despite not having "expert" advice or insider knowledge, I was still able to discern the difference between "fact" and "fiction." But actively discouraging people from reading anything that might not be entirely true — at least not without some expert counsel — is a real problem where fiction is concerned, and certainly poses the looming threat of sanctioned censorship as well.

Opus Dei isn't the only group that appears worried that some people might consider The Da Vinci Code a matter of history rather than of entertainment. Many Christians have joined some Catholics in protesting the book and the movie. D. James Kennedy planned a TV special; one of those who is involved in the presentation is history professor Paul Maier.

Maier says, "As a professor of ancient history, I can't stand known, accepted facts from the past lied about," he said. "If my students did something like that, I'd flunk them." If his students did make up attendant facts for a history assignment, they'd deserve to be flunked. But if his history students used parts and pieces of what they'd learned in his class to write a work of fiction for a creative writing class, should they still flunk history? (Here's a hint: If your answer here is "yes," you've just effectively censored virtually every piece of fiction ever written.)

One Christian author — Josh McDowell — is also worried. He's offering up a podcast that includes "tools for believers" so that they can tell the difference between fact and fiction in The Da Vinci Code. But it's within his very protests that we find the real reason some are so worried that a work of fiction will be a problem for their religion. McDowell says that he "...believes that probably 95 percent of those in the Body of Christ could never give an intelligent answer why they truly believe the Bible is the Word of God, true, or historically accurate or reliable, or why Jesus Christ is the Son of God or how the resurrection happened. So when something like The Da Vinci Code book and then movie comes along and Christians don't know the 'whys' of their faith, it undermines them."

Because so many Christian leaders apparently believe that so many Christians are so ignorant, they'd like to see The Da Vinci Code shelved. Since that's not going to be happening any time soon, they'd like it if the movie at least began with some sort of disclaimer that says it's a work of fiction. Director Ron Howard has pointed out — and rightfully so — that spy thrillers don't get disclaimers. He also says the movie is neither history nor theology. That some believe some Christians are gullible enough to take it as such is not Dan Brown's — nor Ron Howard's or star Tom Hanks' — problem

What does tweak Hanks, though, are calls for a boycott. Though he says he knew the film would generate some controversy among a certain segment of the population, it's his position that, ""If you are going to take any sort of movie at face value, particularly a huge-budget motion picture like this, you'd be making a very big mistake." Hanks is, of course, right. And while I don't think that those people who don't want to see a movie should be forced to do so, I also can't agree that fearing somebody might think a book or a film might be true is any reason to demand its censorship in any way.

In fact, what those opposing The Da Vinci Code might want to look at is whether or not their fears mirror Josh McDowell's: Most Christians are too ignorant of their own faith to know the difference between fact and fiction. Even if that's true (and I sincerely hope that it isn't), it seems to me any subsequent call for action should involve dispelling ignorance rather than compelling censorship! But it's rapidly becoming more and more apparent that the former is so much more difficult than the latter that the latter will just have to do.

We've dealt with this kind of threat from religious zealots before. CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) isn't thrilled with the "anti-Arab sentiment" generated by the recently released film, "United 93." And remember the Harry Potter protests? (I said it once before, and I'll say it again here: Those who think Harry Potter has anything to do with real witchcraft have no knowledge of witchcraft in either an historical sense or in its real-world incarnation known as Wicca, and even less knowledge of the Harry Potter books and movies. But that doesn't negate the fact that there are those who would just as soon pull the Potter books from the bookshelves and burn the DVD's.)

The scale and the volume of protest for The Da Vinci Code is greater and louder than we've seen before, and thus more of a threat to creative expression. After all, even if the expression was offensive (as The Da Vinci Code admittedly is for some) or patently untrue (as are those Holocaust denial web sites, for example), it's still protected by the First Amendment. So, too, is the freedom of religion — even if it's one you are being roundly accused of knowing next to nothing about.

Personally, if I were a religious Muslim, or Christian, or anything else, I wouldn't find these movies offensive. I'd find those who accused me of being too stupid, ignorant, or fanatic to know the difference between reality and "just a movie" to be the truly offensive thing! As it is, I certainly confess at the very least to finding the notion of censorship abhorrent. Maybe if we could just stop these protesters from speaking out, I'd feel all better and we could talk about something else that's less upsetting to me.

One final note: For those who are stupid, ignorant, or fanatic enough to think I actually meant that last line as anything but sarcasm to make a point, well, I think we can now consider the point proved.

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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