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