I know, the title of this post may sound like I am prepping you for a challenging game of Scrabble, but bear with me… According to Dictionary.com, “obfuscate” means:
To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand: “A great effort was made… to obscure or obfuscate the truth” (Robert Conquest).
To render indistinct or dim; darken: The fog obfuscated the shore.
Although not a word I use in everyday conversation or even my normal writing vocabulary, “obfuscate” is the word that has come to mind most frequently as I have read Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” watched the cinematic version directed by Ron Howard (on opening night no less here in Lubbock,) and read the excellent analysis “Breaking The DaVinci Code: Answers To The Questions Everyone’s Asking” by Darrell Bock. I read “Angels & Demons” by Brown a couple of years ago, but just read “The Da Vinci Code” about three months ago in anticipation of the upcoming movie. I have also read books in the last few years like “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas” by Elaine Pagels (a work I do NOT recommend, incidentally) and try to regularly read the Bible itself each week– so that gives you a bit of background on my primary reading and movie/TV watching that has been coloring my thinking on the issues I am about to discuss. I’ve also taken in several excellent History Channel specials related to The Knights Templar (which I blogged about in January) and rented via Netflix a TV special titled “ABC News Presents: Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci, 2004.” (Yes, Dan Brown really does say in the interview that he believes the primary thesis of his book “The Da Vinci Code” is the truth.)
So, with that long introduction, I want to share a few observations, reflections, and critiques of both Brown’s book, his historical perspectives conveyed through his controversial book and movie, and the overall hoopla about the issues raised by these works and discussions about them.
HISTORICAL FICTION VERSUS REVISIONIST HISTORY
There is a difference between books that are considered “historical fiction” and those which should more properly be understood as “revisionist history.” I put the works of James Michener in the first category, including books of his I love like “Caravans, “ “Covenant,” and “Alaska.” I have not read them, but my wife loves the Diana Gabaldon series about Ireland, that I guess begins with “Outlander.” These books are HISTORICAL FICTION because they are set in a historically accurate timeperiod, but the authors take creative liberty to invent characters and interactions which might have been representative (at least in the case of Michener, which I have read) for the times in which the events are set– but no attempt is overtly made to rewrite the history of the period, change accepted facts about established people of the age, etc. Novels like this are really fun to read as well as educational, and although the authors likely get some facts wrong in their attempt to write a compelling novel set in the past (in which they did not personally live) it is important to note they are NOT writing in an attempt to REVISE HISTORY or challenge readers’ common understandings of the events of the past.
In contrast to works of historical fiction, other novels can be accurately understood as works of REVISIONIST HISTORY. Let me be clear that I am a big fan of listening to the diverse voices of history, as well as the diverse voices of our present day. I agree with one of Dan Brown’s ideas, that much of history is written by “the winners,” and so it is important and even vital that we read and listen to other voices as well– often the voices of those who did not “win” historically, as far as writing the history books. One book that fits into this category, which I actually think is great to stimulate student thinking relating to the conquest and settlement of the Americas, is the book “Encounter” by Jane Yolen. I like that book– it is NOT the traditional “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” perspective of the “discovery” of the Americas– and I think many do properly consider it “revisionist,” but I think it points out valid history and allows silenced voices (namely those of exterminated native Caribbean islanders, like the Taíno people who lived on Hispanola) to speak out to us from the past. I do not have a problem with works like this– in fact I think they are superb and great instructional resources. But I DO have a problem with HISTORICALLY REVISIONIST WORKS that intentionally seek to obfuscate truth, both historical and theological, and succeed mainly in misrepresenting historical facts and confusing audiences with an array of juxtaposed ideas that are alternatively historically accurate, historically debatable, or blatantly false.
It is this latter category of REVISIONIST HISTORY that I think Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code” and the movie based on his book fits best.
That being said, let me say I really enjoyed reading the book “The Da Vinci Code.” It was action-packed, had a lot of interesting references to real history, and basically was an exciting ride– it reminded me of Tom Clancy novels I read in the late 1980s and early 1990s that at times I could hardly put down. I initially did not think it was that big of a deal that Brown had asserted (pretty wildly) that Jesus Christ was married and had children– even though there is much of history we don’t know and is up for debate, I think the fact that Jesus was single IS very well established. As a reformed Christian myself, understanding that Jesus was wholly divine and simultaneously wholly human– I also reflected that it wouldn’t really matter theologically if Jesus had been married and had children. That would not in any way diminish his divinity, since our reformed, Biblical understanding of Christ is that he was 100% man and 100% God. As more began to be written and said about “The Da Vinci Code” movie, and I listened to our pastor preach an excellent sermon series on the topic, I started to realize there was more here than I thought and likely quite a bit that needed to be carefully analyzed.
MUCH OF THIS HISTORY IS INTRIGUING AND IMPORTANT
As you probably understand if you have been reading my blog for very long, I LOVE history. I love to learn about history, study history, teach about history, and be in history– which is incidentally what I think we are doing here in the edublogosphere, to a large extent. I personally find much of the history mentioned and used by Dan Brown in both “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” to be intriguing, as well as important to understand. The Knights Templar were a real group. So were and are the Free Masons. The crusades took place, as well as the inquisition. The Catholic church, known at the time as THE Christian Church or The Church of Rome, really did sell indulgences to (among other things) fund the construction of the Basilica of Saint Peter. A breakaway group of early Christians, known as “the Gnostics,” really did exist and wrote a bunch of different things, some of which were discovered at Nag Hammâdi in 1945. And the Catholic Church throughout history has repeatedly struggled to CONTROL knowledge, to craft the “truth” which was perceived by the ignorant masses, and limit the access which “common people” had to the very Word of God, the Bible itself. For some historical support of these opinions, I invite you review the record concerning the Church’s treatment of Galileo as well as Martin Luther.
So a great deal of the history involved in the stories Dan Brown writes are very interesting– even intriguing, and also exceptionally important. And I haven’t even mentioned the most important historical issue of all, which pertains to faith and personal as well as corporate belief. Who was Jesus Christ? (For my favorite quotation by C.S. Lewis on who Jesus was and was not, refer to this post from my December Sunday School series on the theology of C.S. Lewis.) The question of who Jesus was and is has been and continues to be an extremely important question of practical as well as theoretical significance.
Understanding then, that much of this history is not only interesting to study but also very important to understand– I will make the claim that Dan Brown (through his “historically revisionist” works) potentially does much more to hinder those attempting to understand history and seek Truth (note I did use a “big T” there) than he does to help them. And I think this is not an accident. Because his agenda does not appear to be one of an archeologist of Truth, but rather a purveyor of moral relativism and the postmodern worldview. (I incidentally reject both those perspectives, but if you’ve read this far, you may already know that.)
BROWN AND PAGELS ADVOCATE FOR A THIRD PATH
One of the most important things Darrell Bock points out in his book “Breaking the Da Vinci Code” is that early Gnosticism and what become orthodox Christianity were mutually exclusive. This means that they represented diametrically opposed worldviews which could not co-exist with each other, at least if one holds a rational worldview that includes acceptance of the philosophic law of non-contradiction. This means that if proposition A is false, then it cannot be simultaneously true. Generally this is regarded as a fundamental precept, tenet, and assumption of Western philosophy. (It also provides the most succinct rejection proof of moral relativism, but I won’t digress on that here.)
So if we accept reason and the principle of philosophic non-contradiction, what problem could we have with Dan Brown’s worldview as well as that advanced by Elaine Pagels, also a bestselling author and a Princeton scholar recognized for her research and work on the Gnostic gospels? Well, let’s begin with the idea that neither of them is advancing a historically accurate picture of early Christianity. Both Pagels as well as Brown, I think it can be safely argued, seek to advance “a third path” of understanding Christian history as well as contemporary theology that can be properly characterized as relativist and postmodern. This view is summarized well in the closing scene of “The Da Vinci Code” movie, where the character Robert Langdon encourages the character Sophie to essentially believe whatever she wants, and encourage others to believe whatever they want, because in his view Truth is all a matter of perception. I beg to disagree. And I want to point out that this was NOT a historically Gnostic view. Both the Gnostics and the Christian followers of Jesus whose views become “orthodox” believed in “big T” Truth, not the “little t” relativistic truth of Brown and Pagels. They did have diametrically opposing views of how people could come to understand and live in that Truth however– but they both believed in it. In his book “Breaking the Da Vinci Code,” Darrell Bock quotes the following from Frederica Mathewes-Green on pages 92-93:
Now you begin to see what the early Christians found heretical. Gnosticism rejected the body and saw it as a prison for the soul; Christianity insisted that God infuses all creation and that even the human body can be a vessel of holiness, a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” Gnosticism rejected the Hebrew Scriptures and portrayed the God of the Jews as an evil spirit; Christianity looked on Judaism as a mother. Gnosticism was elitist, Christianity was egalitarian, preferring “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” Finally, Gnosticism was just too complicated. Christianity maintained the simple invitation of the One who said, “Let the little children come unto me.” Full-blown science-fiction Gnosticism died under its own weight.
Pagels does not endorse this aspect of Gnosticism. But the Gnostics would not endorse her version either. They did not think of these elaborate schemes as mythopoeic (which is how Neo-Gnostics describe them), but as factual. Your salvation depended on getting it right, and Gnostics argued with each other much as theologians do today. Some claimed that the body was so evil you had to give up sex; others said the body was so illusory that it didn’t matter what you did with it. A well-meaning postmodernist who murmured “You’re both right” would be reviled for not grasping what’s at stake.
When I wrote my post “Modern Day Gnosticism” back in December 2005 after listening to a podcast of Elaine Pagels’ lecture at the University of Nebraska in the fall, I did not understand this very important point. I correctly wrote then that Pagel’s view is heresy from the orthodox and also reformed Christian perspectives– but I mistakenly characterized her as advancing a Gnostic agenda under a new banner. With new clothes. Neither Pagels or Brown are really Gnostics, they appear to be relativists: postmoderns who deny the existence of a single, transcendent Truth in the universe, and reject the idea of a single path to that Truth. (Who is Jesus.)
This post is longer than most I write, but I have been thinking (and even taking notes) about these topics for many weeks. These are important ideas. I will conclude with the thought that occurred to me after I saw “The Da Vinci Code” in the movie theater here in Lubbock, Texas on opening night: In this movie, Ron Howard makes Oliver Stone look like “a pretender” when it comes to historical revisionism. (I am thinking of Stone’s film “JFK” in this context.) Confusing. A Historical obfuscator. Dan Brown has obviously made a LOT of money for himself and others in writing these books, and I again will say that I enjoyed reading them. But I do not think he has necessarily advanced the cause of Truth: Rather, I think he has intentionally advanced the cause of relativistic “truth” along with scholars like Pagels.
Hopefully many people watching “The Da Vinci Code” will not accept its historical view as fact, or accept its underlying premise of historical truth as relative perception. Of course people have different perceptions of an event, but that does not alter the fact that Truth exists. Objectively. Were the Gnostics a real group that lived in the centuries following the death of Jesus? Of course. But did their writings suggest a relativistic and postmodern view of Truth and reality should be embraced by all, as Hollywood and Ron Howard apparently seek actively to do through this film and other works with a similar theme? Hardly.
Don’t fall into the trap of referring to the early Gnostic works as “Gnostic Gospels.” That is a misnomer, and a name which confers more authority than the authors’ works deserve. Call those works “the gnostic heresies,” because that is what they were and still are.
The Truth is out there. And contrary to Gnostic teaching, its source is not hidden. The place to find it? In the most published book in human history: The Bible. As well as your own daily prayers to God, and your relationships with other believers. 🙂
For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.
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Interesting post. I wanted to pick up on: “Hopefully many people watching “The Da Vinci Code” will not accept its historical view as fact, or accept its underlying premise of historical truth as relative perception. Of course people have different perceptions of an event, but that does not alter the fact that Truth exists.”
Inside the historical profession there has always been a huge suspicion about films (or fiction) being the basis for historical knowledge (ie knowledge about historical events, rather than the books/films being cultural artefacts of their time, which they always are). However, the debates which erupt when films do engage with existing historical events or periods are extremely useful (even to use the example of JFK, there was a great deal of debate about the film’s accuracy in terms of events or intents). Perhaps the value of The Da Vinci Code either film or novel is that is has provoked more debate around theology, history and related issues in mainstream media than any other event for a long time. Following from that, it’s responses to the films by academics, journalists, bloggers (not to suggest those categories are in any way exclusive!) which inform the debate, so the fact that you’re writing about The Da Vinci Code in relation to your beliefs in itself illuminates the value of the film. It starts the conversations. (And with the blogosphere and other spaces expanding so rapidly, the number of participants who can meaningfully engage in that conversation outside of the mainstream media is large and growing).
While I must confess I don’t share your religious views, in reading perspectives on the Da Vinci Code, I’d say I’ve engaged with more theology in the last month than I had in the past five years. Surely, there’s considerable value in that (and find Truth or truthes is thus something films and other media can provoke but not unproblematically inform by themselves; that’s what discussions and debates are for, across various media forms …).
I agree with you Tama, that there is inherent value and benefit to conversations we have about these issues. I certainly did read and learn a lot more about the JFK assassination as a result of Oliver Stone’s film, and so his provoking “take” on that historical event and era was definitely educational for me. As I said, however, and you quoted– my hope is that more people will have conversations about the topics raised by “The Da Vinci Code” book and movie. That certainly is part of the reason I’ve posted my ideas here, along with clarifying my own thoughts– and I appreciate you taking time to respond. One thing I did not harp on too much in the post, but I think is important– is the fact that there are many viable complaints against the Catholic Church implicit in historical events that Brown brings up, and I don’t think these should be ignored. It’s good to take these out, turn them over, converse about them, and then see where we are as a result. As I’ve written before, I’m convinced conversations have more potential to change us and result in authentic learning than just reading, listening, or watching.
I think historians and history teachers should be addressing the content of the DaVinci Code as well as Christians. The aim of this effort should be to raise the awareness that Dan Brown’s movie and book presented many things as fact that are not to make the plot of his book work. (There is a page in the front of the book that presents things as fact, and declares that they are fact. These things set up the “conspiracy” where there is none to make the plot of the book work.)
If the movie was a revisionist-attack on history and Christianity, instead of a work of fiction, then it was an attack on known history along with Jesus, the church, and the Bible. The movie did question the deity of Jesus. People have not understood who Jesus was (and is) since he was born. Knowing who Jesus is or not and believing in Him has eternal consequences. The fear is that this movie will turn people away from knowing Jesus because it questions his deity. Dan Brown’s plot also maintains that the church is a fraud along with ideas about the church that feminists would like. People who determine who Jesus is based on a movie are probably not seeking him, so the movie may not be that big a stumbling block to them. These people aren’t worrying about who Jesus is and probably don’t want to become part of the body of Christ (the church). Church is a good place to find out who Jesus is and maintaining that the Church is a fraud could hinder some people from finding out. Off the top of my head, the only problem with saying Jesus was married and fathered children is that this is not found in the Bible. I guess this is could be an attack on the Bible. Another part of the plot is that books where left out of the Bible. The books considered as being part of the Bible were determined long before the time presented by Brown. The Catholic Church did add books to their Bible, but they didn’t remove any. According to my reading, the book Dan Brown indicates was left out of the Bible was a Gnostic text written under a pseudonym. Gnostic texts are similar to New Age texts and were never part of the Bible. The Gnostic text indicated by Brown was also written at least 200 years after the New Testament books.
So from the above thoughts, the movie could cause people to question Jesus, the church, and the Bible. Stuff has been written like this before and it will be again. Some people, due to this movie, may want to separate fact from fiction and learn more about Jesus, the church, and the Bible. God uses everything for good, despite bad influences. (Satin thought that the death of Christ was a victory for him, but God used it as the propitiation for our sins, a free gift offering us salvation if we choose to accept it.) Dan Brown’s book and movie does add to the misinformation in the general ideas and knowledge that people have about theology and history. The good that comes out of the book and movie will occur when people separate fact from fiction.
(As a side note, why do many people feel that the facts in the DaVinci could be true? This is because in the past the Catholic Church did do many non-Christian things and even killed many Christians. (See: “Fox’s Book of Martyrs” http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/home.html ) The Catholic Church also operated like a government. This is not what true Christianity and the Church is about. True Christianity is that a belief in Jesus alone will result in salvation and this is found in the Church. The Catholic Church believes that Jesus plus the church plus the Pope plus works will result in salvation. I call this a “Jesus plus” theology. It is the “plus” parts of many theologies that claim to be Christian which produce non-Christian actions and viable complaints. I feel that any “plus” parts added to Christianity are a fraud.” These “plus” parts of the Catholic Church may be what lead people to believe the plot of the DaVinci Code might be viable.)