Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code

I finally saw The Da Vinci Code last Wednesday. I have to say it’s a pretty ordinary film. The suspense and excitement of the novel simply doesn’t translate well to film – or at least to this film.

As to the controversy that some find in the film’s treatment of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I have to say it’s all somewhat of a ‘storm in a tea cup.’ The Da Vinci Code is so obviously a work of fiction – and an extremely far-fetched one at that.

But what of the film's portrayal of the Catholic Church? Well, as a member of the GLBT community I can only say one thing to those upset by the film’s negative portrayal of certain aspects of Catholicism: Welcome to my world!

For decades, gay and lesbian people have been portrayed stereotypically and negatively by Hollywood. Check out the documentary The Celluloid Closet to see what I mean.

Thankfully, things are turning around – largely because GLBT people have been more open about who they are and how they really live their lives. Such openness is ensuring that false stereotypes are slowly but surely being dispelled. Maybe those who are jumping up and down about the negative portrayal of Catholics should quit playing the victim and learn from the example of gay folks!

Then again, I’m very aware that there is more than one way of being Catholic, and it should not be surprising that those ways that have betrayed Catholicism's rich diversity and denied it's ongoing development by the embracement of doctrinal fundamentalism and life-denying legalism, are often (and indeed, should be) subject to critical evaluation.

I don't believe Dan Brown (the author of The Da Vinci Code) or Ron Howard (the director of the film version of the novel) are interested in such critical evaluation. And to think they are is to take The Da Vinci Code far too seriously. That's not to say that this particular creative endeavor is above critical analysis, it's just that a lot of the criticism of the film by religious folks seems to be both misdirected and overblown.

One of the most insightful (and on target) critiques of Brown's book, and by extension, Howard's film, was offered recently by Sr. Christine Schenk (left) in the May 12 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. Schenk is the director of FutureChurch, a national coalition of parish-centered Catholics working for full participation of all Catholics in the life of the church.

Schenk begins her commentary by stressing that “Dan Brown’s popular fictional bestseller has actually done a disservice to the historical Mary of Magdala and other women leaders in the early church.” Elaborating on this point, Schenk observes that “while the book paints a compelling portrait of the underlying unity of male and female, it ultimately subverts women’s leadership by focusing on the fiction of Mary of Magdala’s marital status rather than the fact of her leadership as the primary witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unfortunately this reinforces gender bias that women are only important in relationship to the men in their lives.”

Later in her article, Schenk explores the findings of epigraphical scholar Ute Eisen, as documented in Eisen’s book Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, and concludes that “[the] evidence indicates that there were single women and married women whose husbands were not officeholders who were given the title of ‘priest,’ as priesthood was understood at the time.”

Schenk then turns her attention to Mary Magdalene, noting that “many mistakenly associate the penitent woman sinner with Mary of Magdala, making her a prostitute even though there is no historical or biblical basis for the claim.”

“Neither is there any basis,” says Schenk, “for Mr. Brown’s Da Vinci tale that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus. This idea is based on a 12th-century myth. The contention that ancient writers didn’t mention Jesus’ marriage and offspring for fear of Jewish persecution doesn’t really hold up because John’s Gospel and much of the apocryphal literature were written after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, when there would have been nothing to fear from Jewish authorities. If Mary of Magdala was Jesus’ wife and the mother of his child, it is improbable that such texts would have omitted such important facts, especially since both portray her in considerable detail as the primary witness to the resurrection and a female leader who, in many ways, understood Jesus’ mission better than the male disciples.”

Elsewhere, Schenk notes that “atypically, Mary of Magdala was named according to the town she was from, not by her relationship to a man. Biblical scholars believe this indicates she was a wealthy woman of independent means who, with Joanna and Susanna, helped underwrite Jesus’ Galilean mission.”

Schenk also reminds us that “all four Gospels show [Mary of Magdala] leading the group of women who accompanied Jesus through his crucifixion and witnessed his death, burial and resurrection. Biblical scholars see this as strong proof for the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. Had they been fabricated, women would never have been named as witnesses in a culture that did not accept their legal testimony.

Schenk concludes her piece with a stinging yet totally appropriate rebuke of the Catholic Church’s official stance on the issue of women and leadership: “Jesus’ inclusion of women in his itinerant Galilean discipleship and their prominent role as witnesses to the Resurrection provides compelling explanation for women’s experience of themselves as called and chosen to proclaim the Gospel and exercise leadership alongside their brothers in the early church. Unfortunately, our church has yet to catch up to the vision of Jesus, who loved, empowered and accepted the ministry of women but was probably not married to one.”

“Rather than speculate on whether Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus,” says Schenk, “it would be better to imitate her generosity and courage in accompanying a condemned political prisoner through a torturous death and her faith in proclaiming the Resurrection, God’s own affirmation of all the values for which Jesus suffered and died.”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy

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