When I first heard about The Da Vinci Code a few years ago, I figured nobody would believe author Dan Brown's ridiculous claims—including the allegation that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had a child. After all, I thought, it's just a novel. Pure fiction.
I was wrong.
The book has gone on to sell over 40 million copies, and is now poised to release as a major motion picture on May 19. And many people do believe the story; a recent poll showed that 17 percent of Canadians and 13 percent of Americans think its claims are true.
So, how should Christians respond to all of this, especially as the movie brings the Code to the fore of the cultural conversation?
We could opt to skip the movie, and if the Holy Spirit so directs you, that's a viable response.
We could boycott it with loud protests, but I think that would only drive ticket sales even higher. Another option is a "quasi protest" by going to another movie on opening weekend, trying to offset Da Vinci's box office—but I doubt this strategy will work well.
My personal advice: Go to the movie, but not with other believers. Go with unbelievers/seekers; the ensuing conversation could eventually lead them to faith in Christ. Christians, if they are strategic, will be in prime position to answer seekers' questions.
But that brings up my greatest concern: Are Christians prepared to answer questions about who Jesus is? Are we prepared to make the case for the reliability of the New Testament?
My desire for wanting Christians to "know the Code" is for more than merely evangelistic reasons. It's also a great opportunity to sharpen our own faith by deepening our biblical and historical understanding.
I'll even go so far as to say that Dan Brown and his novel—and now the movie—have done the church a great favor.
Open door for apologetics
In any discussion of apologetics, 1 Peter 3:15 is often quoted, where we are to "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." This verse is usually quoted with the emphasis on the ones receiving our "answer"—unbelievers. But I want to focus on the first part, about being prepared.
In 2004, Peter Jones and I coauthored Cracking Da Vinci's Code (Victor Books). After a live interview to discuss it on CNN, we ran into a national news anchor in the hallway who asked, "I do not mean to be indelicate or crass, but did Jesus have sex with Mary Magdalene?"
No evangelism class ever taught me that a discussion of Jesus' alleged sex life might be my "intro" to an unbeliever! I would have preferred something "tame" like, "What are the four spiritual laws?" But that's not what this anchorperson asked—and that's not likely what any of us will be asked by seekers when it comes to the Code.
This question—and others that might be asked—illustrates what I mean by Dan Brown's gift to the church: We now have a compelling reason to be prepared.
How will we prepare? We can't simply reply with, "Because the Bible says so." We cannot summarily dismiss the Code as something "of the devil," as I heard one believer do recently. We need more persuasive answers than that.
Learning how to decode Da Vinci
The key issues regarding the Code don't concern art history or details of the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. (For the record, Da Vinci had no "code"; art historians are as frustrated with Dan Brown's misstatements as are Catholic and evangelical theologians.) The key issues are historical and theological in nature.
The Da Vinci Code claims that Jesus was not perceived as being divine until the 4th century, that his divinity was an "invention" by the Council of Nicea in 325, done for purely political reasons—and passing by only "a close vote." In fact, the vote was lopsided, probably 218-2. Nor was it a "declaration." It was an "affirmation" of a truth for which Christians had been willing to die for 300 years.
And then there is the Code's claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. But there is not one shred of credible evidence that Jesus was married—not in the New Testament, not in the writings of the early church fathers, and not in the Gnostic Writings, with which Dan Brown is so enthralled.
Yet, the "marriage claim" will launch many believers into an examination of the Nag Hammadi texts, specifically the Gospel of Philip, which does not say, "Jesus kissed Marry often on the lips" as Dan Brown claims. It actually says "Jesus kissed Mary on the … "—and at that point the manuscript is torn. Was it "forehead"? Was it "cheek"? "Hand"? Looking at the text more closely, a Greek word meaning "fellowship" is used in the context, which has no sexualized "content" at all. In other words, the infamous kiss was a greeting, not unlike that which is used in the Middle East today.
What is this Gospel of Philip? Who wrote it? The "Philip" of the New Testament? No. Then who? And why is it not a part of our New Testament? The answers to these questions, and plenty of others, have been covered by many authors (see some of them here), but the answers are not my focus. My focus is the "process." Once again, we see that Dan Brown has blessed the church by agitating her into careful study.
There are likely thousands of Christians about to study the Gospel of Philip—along with the other Nag Hammadi discoveries—for the first time. The Gospel of Thomas will likely be discussed, as will the never-seen, never-discovered, elusive "Q" source. And what will be the result? If carefully examined, they will come to a much deeper appreciation of the authority and reliability of the New Testament.
Christians who previously took the 27 books of the New Testament for granted are about to learn how those books came together. The movie will state that Constantine, through the Council of Nicea, commissioned and financed a "new" Bible in the 4th century. Believers will be forced to examine Dan Brown's claim that Constantine made a "quick switch" of sorts, taking out the "original" Gospels, replacing them with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all done for purely political purposes.
Is this true? Of course not. The famous Council of Nicea never dealt with the issue of what should be in the New Testament.
The intrigue doesn't stop with textual analysis. Dan Brown claims that the church led a smear campaign against women—specifically defaming Mary Magdalene. True? No. But to come to that conclusion, you'll have to examine the confusion created by Gregory the Great in the 6th century, when he associated Mary Magdalene of Luke 8 with the unnamed sinful woman or prostitute of Luke 7. In the process, you'll discover the exalted role that Mary Magdalene held in the Bible—as the first witness of the Resurrection.
Readers and moviegoers will be shocked at Dan Brown's assertion that the church killed 5 million women during the Middle Ages—for being witches. Careful study will reveal it was not 5 million, but more like 50,000. Then they will discover that it was less the church than it was the government—and that approximately 20 percent of those killed were not women, but men. And they will learn that the church condemned the killings. But what is the value of this process? Not the facts themselves, but rather the confidence that will come from the process of becoming better informed about the history of the church—with its glory, and yes, with its sins and failures.
When Dan Brown states that the church demonized sex, they will know this not to be the case (with the exception of some unfortunate, and sub-Scriptural, writings by some of the early church fathers). Instead, Christians can reflect on the beauty of sexual expression found in the "one flesh" statements of Genesis, the loving imagery of the Song of Solomon, and the "undefiled" nature of the marriage bed in Hebrews.
In the end, it may be that what Dan Brown has revealed is not that we are not so much "short" on faith, as we are weak in church history. We don't really know "our story." But a novel and movie may help us all become better students.
Brown is helping to motivate the church to learn its story. And if it learns its story, it will be able to defend itself against not only The Da Vinci Code, but other attacks on Christianity.
Thank you, Dan Brown, for what you have done. You have helped us connect with ourselves—our church!
Dr. Jim Garlow, coauthor of the bestselling Cracking Da Vinci's Code (Victor Books, 2004) and The Da Vinci CodeBreaker (Bethany House, 2006), is senior pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego. He has also prepared a downloadable Bible study called "Preparing for Da Vinci," available at his website.
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