Monday, May 15, 2006

Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy

The Da Vinci Code will be released in US cinemas on May 19. The film stars Tom Hanks as a Harvard scholar who teams up with a French cryptologist (played by Audrey Tautou) to solve a murder mystery entwined in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and a supposed alternative history of Christianity. A central premise of the story is that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, and that a clandestine society has for centuries protected the identity of their descendants from agents of the Catholic Church.

Some Christians, among them Catholics, are denouncing the film (and the book by Dan Brown upon which it is based). The Vatican, for instance, has launched a public relations offensive against the film – which includes the producing of a rebuttal documentary entitled The Da Vinci Code – A Masterful Deception.

Fearing a work of fiction

As far as I can ascertain, there are three main (and related) reasons why some Christians are upset by The Da Vinci Code. The first is that it’s a popular work of fiction about Jesus.
And why is this such a big deal? Well, folks like the Rev. Paul Jarvis, associate pastor at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, Minnesota, fear that the fictitious, alternative history of Christianity presented in The Da Vinci Code, will be mistaken for fact and thus led astray those unschooled in orthodoxy.

What’s needed, according to Jarvis, is a “more educated Christian community.” Within the Catholic sphere, he suggests “Catholicism 101, 201 and 301 classes for adults in every parish or cluster of parishes.” Of course, the assumption is that the orthodox version of events is the real (i.e., accurate) Christian history, something which is highly debatable. Jarvis’ remedy also could be read to imply that all people need to do so as to have faith is to rote learn facts and figures about Church history and doctrine.

Yet as John Haught notes in What Is Religion?, “Religion is not in the same category of understanding as, for example, knowledge of the multiplication tables. It hardly possesses that kind of clarity and distinctness. People do not become religious simply by performing automatic operations in logic. Religion instead is closer to interpersonal kinds of experience and knowledge” that open people to the reality of the sacred. Marcus Borg has defined whatever it is that opens the human heart to God as spirituality.

Contrary, to what some may think, people aren’t drawn to, or sustained in authentic spirituality by promises of formulated answers unrelated to the questions they’re actually living. Nor are people drawn to, or sustained in authentic spirituality by rigid religious doctrine that keeps them spiritually stunted. Rather, people are called into relationship with God by transforming experiences of God in their lives – experiences that open their hearts to the sacred and herald journeys of ever-expanding consciousness and compassion.

Such experiences often occur beyond the parameters of orthodoxy (as with the case of GLBT persons experiencing God in the loving and committed relationships they’ve built, despite the Church’s condemnation and insistence instead on lifelong celibacy as the only true way to be in right relationship with God). These transforming and liberating experiencing certainly cannot be controlled or monopolized by orthodoxy. Indeed, they often threaten orthodoxy as they have the potential to expose and shatter its false gods of exclusivity and rigidity.

I’m not saying there’s no place for orthodoxy. What I am saying is that the understanding of God that orthodoxy presents should always be open to being reshaped and rearticulated by the experience of God in the lives and relationships of people. Organized religion's lack of openness to the presence of God in people's lives is far more damaging to spiritual development than is a work of fiction like The Da Vinci Code.

The question of Jesus’ sexuality

A second reason why some people are worked up about The Da Vinci Code is that they don’t like the way that this particular work of fiction portrays the historical Jesus. It seems that this portrayal – one that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity to the extent that he expressed his love for another sexually – threatens some Christians’ faith.

Personally, my faith is not dependent on the sex life of Jesus, but on my experience of the transforming presence and power of the risen Christ. Such an (ongoing) experience is not dependent on an understanding of Jesus that must be made to conform to the expectations and demands of those fearful and distrustful of sex. And throughout history, such people have always been with us. Indeed, I think I was probably one of them myself at one time.

An underlying assumption held by many who are disparaging of The Da Vinci Code, is that any type of sex would have been unworthy of the living, breathing Jesus. What does this say about human sexuality?

Those who are railing against The Da Vinci Code argue that the film must be avoided because it’s inaccurate in terms of Jesus’ sex life. They say that we know for a fact that Jesus was never married, never sexually active. To which I respond, “Do we?” The reality is we simply don’t know if Jesus was ever married or was ever involved sexually with another (male or female). The gospels are not biographical documents. They’re the faith testimonies of people writing to certain audiences and doing so with distinct agendas. They, like all of scripture, are limited and biased.

Understanding Jesus’ divinity

Critics of The Da Vinci Code insist that the film denies Jesus’ divinity. Yet does a fully human understanding of Jesus (one that allows, for instance, the possibility of sexual relations with another) deny his “divine” nature? How do we understand the divinity of Jesus? Is our understanding of this crucial part of our Christian faith set in stone, or can it develop and expand?

In his book The Kingdom Within (Paulist Press, 1990), John Sanford says that the divinity of Jesus (like our own inner core of divinity) must be understood in terms of consciousness and wholeness as opposed to infallibility and perfection. Sanford and others suggest that the historical Jesus was divine because of the depth of his consciousness with regard his understanding and living of right relationship with himself, others, and the sacred force that infuses all creation.

Sanford notes that throughout his life and ministry, Jesus called others to likewise cultivate this depth of consciousness – to recognize and claim, in other words, the sacred within themselves, thus opening themselves to the sacred’s transforming love and channeling this love to others.

Like Sanford, John White in his article “Jesus, Evolution, and the Future of Humanity” (Grof, S., (Ed.), Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988) reflects on the divinity of Jesus and concludes that “Jesus was a historical person, a human becoming; but Christ, the Christos, is an eternal transpersonal condition of being to which we must all someday come.”

White goes on to say that “Jesus did not say that this higher state of consciousness realized in him was his alone for all time. Nor did he call us to worship him. Rather, he called us to follow him . . . He called us to share in the new condition, to enter a new world, to be one in the supramental Christ consciousness which alone can dispel the darkness of our minds and renew our lives . . . Jesus taught and demonstrated cosmic consciousness, the Christic state of mind, the peace that surpasses understanding, the direct experience of divinity dwelling in us and all things, now and forever, creating us, preserving us, urging us to ever more inclusive states of being.”

Is Jesus' example and invitation diminished or annuled by the thought of him being sexual with another? I'm not suggesting that Jesus had to be sexual in order to be a fully conscious and compassionate human being, but neither do I think that a loving sexual relationship with another would preclude such fullness. For many, it's a wonderful pathway to greater consciousness and compassion. Are we to deny Jesus such a potential pathway? And if so, why?

The Da Vinci Code and women

I’ve read Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, upon which the film is based, and found it to be an entertaining though disposable read. I’ve also read a lot of commentaries on the book, with one of the most insightful being written by Christine Schenk and entitled, “What The Da Vinci Code Owes to Women.”

Schenk suggests that Brown's immensely successful novel has “struck a chord in popular culture because people are more knowledgeable about the leadership roles held by women in early Christianity, roles eventually suppressed by male church leaders.” In short, people sense that the institutional Church (i.e. the keeper of orthodoxy) has got something to hide.

“For the past 50 years,” Schenk notes, “a critical mass of feminist historians, biblical scholars and archaeologists, both male and female, have been studying ancient texts and excavation sites. Thanks to their painstaking work, we now have proof that Jesus included women in his closest discipleship, that women probably underwrote his Galilean mission, and that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church identical to those held by men. Inscriptions and images found on papyri, tombstones, frescos and mosaics in Rome, Sicily, Jerusalem, Northern Africa, Egypt, Belgium, Jordan and Spain show early Christian women serving their communities as apostles, prophets, teachers of theology, priests, stewards, deacons and bishops.

“These early women officeholders were eventually suppressed by a philosophical system that viewed them as defective males and by a culture that accepted female leadership at home but not in public. When Constantine used Christianity to consolidate the crumbling Roman Empire, worship moved away from house churches where women’s leadership was accepted, to public venues, often Roman law courts, where women’s leadership violated cultural norms of honor and shame. A woman leader speaking publicly was viewed as outside her husband’s control and therefore dishonorable. That early male church leaders suppressed women’s leadership is a known fact . . .”

Schenk concludes her article by acknowledging that “eminent scholars are unanimous that there is no real biblical or historical evidence to support [Dan Brown’s claim that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus and bore his child, beginning a royal bloodline that continues to this day]. . . But popular culture easily overlooks this, perhaps seeing it for what it is: a literary carrier for the far larger truth that the new ‘holy grail’ is the mutuality of love meant to exist between women and men – perhaps the first and best gift given by the God who loves us all.”

The full text of Schenk’s article can be found

NEXT: Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code

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