The Da Vinci Code Controversy/How Lack of Discussion Endangers Us All

History tells us who, what, and when.  Science tells us how.  Religion tells us why.  The Big Question of our childhoods, the question too often unanswered.  But now and then, a book or movie comes along that reawakens our old Why.  We make an author or a director very rich while making clergy envious and angry at the competition.

Many churches have alienated members by squandering a miracle moment and calling for a boycott of the movie based on The Da Vinci Code.  Instead, like some congregations, they need to remember that publicity is an opportunity to welcome, encourage, and frame the discussion.  

Dan Brown’s blockbuster is a novel, but as in the Bible, fiction can tell more truth than fact-bound reporting.  Tired of textbook histories measured out by public schools and old guard TV networks, with their obsession to avoid offending, we pine for signs of passion.  Names and dates become deadening.  We long for meaning behind the data, suspecting that all the talk and multiple-choice tests are a devil’s dance.  If that’s all there is, my dear, then let’s keep dancing.  But we keep hoping for more.

In the past 50 years, we’ve seen a miraculous teaching moment squandered at least three times, and some churches still haven’t learned.

Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ reached us in English in 1960.  It imagines a very human, struggling Jesus, and readers, recognizing themselves, saw truth in that.  Kazantzakis portrayed his Jesus with love and respect, and readers took him the same way.

Movie goers, however, tend toward a less measured response and less nuanced opinion, and these faults arise from both sides of the screen.  Behind it, the creative army that distills hundreds of pages into a two-hour film must strip away much of the interior monolog, subtleties of exposition, and whole characters and events.  A book happens, as it were, inside the head; a movie, outside.  Literature is about what’s under the surface; movies are mostly surface.

In front of the screen, the audience often has little or no prior knowledge of the book that may have inspired, say, Martin Scorsese, and may have little interest in rumination and nuance.  They come to be entertained, and the director tries to make the entertainment as realistic as, or more exciting than, the lives of the viewers.

The cinematic realism of The Last Temptation of Christ profoundly threatened some and moved others to renew their religious faith.  The threatened could not abide a Jesus with feelings and urges that were just too much like their own.  Unable to accept the movie as a thoughtful writer’s invention, some of them even resorted to violence.  In my town, a pastor who called himself a Christian rammed his church bus into the front of the theater, which, of course, increased ticket sales considerably.

In 1993, The Celestine Prophecy appeared, first self-published, and the following year, mass marketed by Warner Books.  The novel stirred religious feelings in thousands, and made James Redfield a wealthy man.  Knowing he had struck a hunger, he wrote several sequels.  

Some readers felt so moved that they took the “prophesies” very seriously and loosely coalesced into a kind of cult, much as some readers of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land did back in the ‘60s.  Neither novel is specifically based on Christian faith, but both filled a faith vacuum for a while, much like spiritual junk food.  Seeing neither a direct threat to dogma nor an opportunity to offer more solid fare for the soul to these eager readers, most churches took no notice.  Too bad.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code joined the discussion in 2003.  His novel came out as Christianity’s history was making headlines in the popular press, thanks to recent years’ popular editions of ancient texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammedi Library, and popularized presentations of these and other discoveries.  Brown’s  fortuitous timing helped him sell millions and make him a quasi-literary rock star.  

Inquiring minds wanted to know whether the Bible told historical truth and what Jesus was really like.  The ferment in this field grew great enough that National Geographic could profitably sponsor a TV special on The Gospel of Judas, an obscure codex from the Second Century that presented an especially esoteric point of view of Jesus and the disciple we were taught to revile.

Once again, many pulpits, especially in Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist Protestant churches, have simply thundered condemnation.  More opportunity lost. 

Opus Dei, a Catholic order, set an example for all Christendom by welcoming the controversy and opening their doors.  Instead of hardening their hearts at being painted in a sensational novel as an embodiment of evil, Opus Dei invited discourse and handed out literature.  As a result, they’re having trouble keeping up with applications.

Would that all Christian clergy might act as gracefully.  

The main body of the Catholic Church, still needing decades to recover from coverups of sexual predation by too many priests and bishops, maintains its myopia, unable to see that the Middle Ages are over.  Parishioners can read now, and will take prohibition as denial of information, which whets their appetite to look elsewhere for answers.

Conservative Protestant churches suffer a similar shortsightedness, with the same result.  The United Methodist Church, supposedly more liberal, often displaying the motto, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” should have been leading discussions of The Da Vinci Code nonstop, deconstructing the book’s myths, both historical and invented, and growing many fold, but it doesn’t appear to have had any denominational plan to do so.

As always, the teaching moment is fast passing.  What a tragedy.  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all theological cousins, all worshipping the same god, all teaching peace and compassion, are being eroded by a doctrinaire fundamentalism that threatens us all.  

Israel, founded as a modern Promised Land, sees fit to kill whole families of Christians, Muslims, and even fellow Jews with American weapons in the name of taking and protecting territory, thus making more enemies.  Radicalized Muslims, having fewer resources, become terrorists with equal certitude that they are right.  Fringe group Christians cause tragedy at Jonestown, Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Oklahoma City.  Talibans all.

All from lack of timely discussion, lack of education, lack of seeing humanity in fellow humans, lack of curiosity.  All these lacks lead to fundamentalism’s self-imposed isolation and the worldwide descent into tribal warfare.

We could have talked.  We could have made friends.  But too many of our religious leaders violate their faiths and simply condemn, leading their flocks into theological stockades.

God help us.

Copyright ©2006 James L. Evans

How Real Was the Resurrection, Really?

Dear reader: This is subject to further editing, perhaps after your feedback.

 

I’m starting to write this on the Roman Easter Sunday. I’ve been thinking about this whole Lent thing, with its happy ending, which we love. But if we’re grownups, do we need all the Easter hoopla? I love the music, but still…

Christians, whether scholars and otherwise, will probably rise to attack me for apostasy, but really: Do we actually revere or even worship Jesus because he rose from the dead? If that literally happened, however briefly, I must confess that OK, it’s amazing, but it doesn’t change my faith.

Christians may rush in to say the physical Resurrection validates Christianity, that this religion is hollow and meaningless if Jesus didn’t rise again. But does it? Is it? I’m starting to see the week of Palm Sunday through Good Friday as a mind blowing series of events that works just fine to build a religion on. Leave Jesus on the cross, as the Catholics do, and end the story there. Remember what he taught, what he did, and what he risked and ultimately sacrificed.  Wow, what an example. Very few of us follow him that far, but there he is, the prize for our eyes, leaving us with a “new” commandment: to love each other.

But maybe we need the happy ending. Some say that’s the premise of Christianity, and the whole religion falls apart without it. Maybe they fall apart without it. Maybe they also need the later-tacked-on ending of the Jonah adventure, because they can’t see the point of the story without the reassurance of Jonah’s physical “resurrection.” And they need to see and feel that Jesus is dead only temporarily.

We’re talking about a classic model story here. The Hero, hailed as mighty, famous for legendary deeds, and for helping the people who need it most, goes through a time of extreme difficulty and nearly dies or appears to die. But wait, there’s more! Hero returns, along with happily-ever-after, thanks to deus ex machina, or just Deus. As it’s retold and rewritten, the story accumulates vivid detail, right down to secret conversations. And we love it. The child in us needs a happy ending, or we might be afraid to get up in the morning.

We hate the opposite of a happy ending, such as when a much-loved relative, pet, or friend dies. We children of all ages don’t just grieve; we’re often horrified, because death is so…final. But death is a fact of life, and death seems to be the fact of life least taught and most poorly learned. There’s no magical happy ending, unless we who are left make it happen by living on, carrying their spirit in strength and faith, thus honoring the memory of the deceased.

Well, here’s the horrible, cruel death of Jesus. Niggling details aside, we can most likely accept the life and execution of a man named Yeshua bar Yusef as fact. He was evidently a charismatic spiritual genius. But let’s remember that just as with news today, the story of Jesus was passed orally at first, with some added details that we throw in to enliven any story, and then, later, was written down by several people, working pretty much independently. The written versions were never published or photocopied, of course. Through many decades of hand copying and re-copying, each rewriter would have adjusted and invented details sincerely meant to enhance the story. This was standard practice. Some epistles in the New Testament weren’t even written by the name in the title. Standard practice again.

So today, we have an astounding story, originally by four witnesses, of a man who died after beating, stabbing, and torture on one of the cruelest, slowest, and most demeaning execution methods ever invented. Then, the story tells us, he was able to walk away the next day and travel, chat, and even enjoy a meal before disappearing for good. It’s a thrilling, inspiring story. Not only that, but today, the world power known as the Roman Empire is gone. But Jesus, not Caesar, lives on in us. I love that.

About those post-mortem days. We’re used to trusting writers not to fabricate events but to report them dispassionately, exactly as they occurred, as if we were reading a report from Reuters. Not so with Bible stuff. Here, we can trust only that the writer is telling what he (usually he, rarely she) thinks is a very important story. And usually, it is important, even for us, all these centuries later.

But to tell the story effectively, no good writer is going to leave the bare bones alone: He’s going to enhance the story to make it more accessible, meaningful, easier to understand, and exciting to his readers. Remember, he’s writing by hand, not running off copies, so if anything needs tweaking, he can easily do it on the fly. Besides, who’s to know? The original characters are often dead, and there’s no copyright law to worry about.

So today, we have a shelf full of Jesus stories in various forms and styles. Early church fathers weeded them out with very respectable skill and left us with four. Others, such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Bartholomew, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Judas, and several more, didn’t make the cut.

Naturally, the four Jesus stories in today’s Christian Bible don’t agree on all the details. Did Jesus deliver his most famous sermon on a so-called mountain, or on a plain? And how many “beatitudes” were in that sermon, anyway? Who cares? We must learn to relax, step back from literal thinking, and hunt for the deep message. It’s in there, finally appearing explicitly in the story of the Last Supper: Love one another. That’s the bottom line, a three-word summary of the Golden Rule. The Abrahamic Prime Directive. Love each other. Two word version? Be kind. Any religion with any legs comes down to this.

And all four of these stories tell, with varying details, of a resurrection. The Resurrection, if you please. Capital R. Obviously a big deal. But I have trouble with this part of the story being literally true. The Bible has plenty of stuff that’s not literally true, such as two creation myths — yes, myths; that word doesn’t necessarily imply falsehood — two creation myths that don’t agree. But they’re both profoundly true in the way only fiction can tell Truth. Consider Winnie the Pooh. Fiction, but in its way, one of the truest stories ever. Some scholars tell us that the story of Samson was actually a fictional work in the first place. OK, it works to thrill and lift the spirits as well as any other superhero story does.

So let’s get to it: How true is the Resurrection? I’d say, very true. Absolutely true. But maybe not literal fact. No, much better than that. Let me set this up.

We make God real. That makes me think of The Velveteen Rabbit, another book about Truth, but moving on. We make God real, by loving God. Let’s stipulate that God has no gender, no body, no physical existence at all except in us. To quote from The Color Purple, a religious book in the very best way (unlike the movie), we don’t go to church to find God, we go to church to share the God we brought in with us. Amen? Amen. God is our spirit, the spirit that works in us, if we let it. Each of us carries a share of God, and when we combine them, they become more than the sum of each of our spirits. GOD in all caps.

But when Jesus was executed, the disciples lost their spirit and felt utterly lost. Like many of us, they had resisted seeing all the signs of looming disaster during those final days. They were so unprepared. Doesn’t that sound like us? So when Jesus died, they did, too, in spirit. The Twelve Apostles, the ones closest to their Prophet, simply shut down, their spirits broken.

Typically, the only disciples with the strength to deal with such a situation were women. Death was no stranger to them. Women lost husbands in war, children to disease, babies in childbirth and infancy, and had to deal with it up close and personal. While Jesus’s life leaked out of him, we’re told that the friends who stayed near the cross were women. So guess who got up the next day to go to the cemetery and do what needed to be done. And. They. Had. A. Stroke. Of. Genius.

Here’s where the story may have picked up the biggest package of physical details to tell a spiritual story, and I love the way it works.

The announcement, “He is not here!” could have been true in two ways: The body was indeed missing, or these women were the first with the presence of mind to put it all together. By now, you can guess I’m going with option two. The radical realization of these women, supposedly three of them (a heavily symbolic number), was to recognize that they were looking for Jesus in the wrong place! That he was alive! And in them! And their job was to spread the Good News.

They told the other disciples, who had been sitting numb, dumb, and defeated, what they had figured out, way ahead of the rest of them, that Jesus was as alive as if he were standing there, with the nail holes and spear wound and telling them all to get on with it.

Once this Great Truth sank in, the disciples roused and shared this new reality with each other: He is alive, among us; he is alive, in us. Suddenly, they had a new way of looking at life and the world. The whole world, and life, looked different. They began to see Jesus even in strangers on the road, as we do today, if we look.

I began these thoughts in a very skeptical frame of mind. Imagine my surprise at coming out here, on the Eastern Orthodox Good Friday, that the Resurrection is a fact, but not in the magical thinking way we see on the page.  And although I’ve learned I’m not the first to notice this, imagine my surprise at stumbling over a startling possibility about the beginning of Christianity: that thanks to a few smart women, a new religion was born. I like the bookends here: Jesus was born to a young woman named Mary, and another Mary may have announced his rebirth in us. He has risen. He has risen, indeed. Happy Easter.

Amen.

 

Copyright 2019 James L. Evans