National Lutheran News

Theologians weigh in on Da Vinci Code

Lutheran scholars have real questions about Dan Brown’s twisting of the facts

As Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, was coming to theaters nationwide, LCMS Lutheran theologian and historian Paul Maier came to the Twin Cities to give his views on the writer and his story.

Speaking to a full house of 800 people at Woodbury Lutheran Church on May 24, Maier, who teaches history at Western Michigan Uni-versity, said Brown’s story misadvertises itself — the book jacket says the writer’s tale is “pure genius.” It’s hardly that, Maier said. “Errors stud [the book’s] pages. Why, then did it explode in sales?”

Maier’s answer: Contro-versy. People always re-spond to that, he said. But he excoriated the author’s claim that his material is basically factual. In media interviews, Brown has said, “Were I to rewrite the novel as history, I wouldn’t change a word.”

Maier ticked off a long list of factual errors, including these:

* Early Christians thought Jesus was merely a man, but the Council of Nicaea turned him into a god, though only by a close vote. (The “close vote” was 314-2).

* The early church picked four Gospels for the New Testament from a list of 80 (actually, there were only about 20 in existence).

* Leonardo Da Vinci painted Mary Magdalene into his Last Supper painting, not the Apostle John (but then why is John missing from the painting?).

* Ritual sex took place in the Jerusalem Temple. (The evidence is missing.)
Maier said of Brown’s fictionalizing of history, “When fiction becomes ‘fact,’ truth suffers.” He said a survey of Canadian readers found that 33% of them thought the book was totally factual.

The church historian blamed the publishing industry for bringing to print anything that will make money, regardless of the contents. “It seems to have sold its soul to the corporate bottom line and no longer seems to care about the truth,” he said.

Paradoxically, Maier said, the “Da Vinci phenomenon” can be a good opportunity for Christian witness, since now people are talking about Jesus, the Bible and the church as never before.

Maier has co-authored The Da Vinci Code — Fact or Fiction (Tyndale, 2004).

A number of ELCA theologians have also weighed in on “the Da Vinci phenomenon.”

“I found the book frustrating to read,” said Luther Seminary New Testament professor Matthew Skinner. “Almost all of the historical claims the book made were just wrong. [Brown] could have done better research and not sacrificed the story.”

Skinner said any suggestion that Mary Magdalene is the “Holy Grail,” as the novel argues, has long been discredited. However, there is no hard, positive evidence either way to argue that Jesus was married or not, he said.

Another Luther Seminary professor, Sarah Henrich, said there is no evidence in early church documents to support the novel’s contention that Jesus was married — to Mary Magdalene or anyone else.

“However,” she added, “one could argue that there was repression by the church.” She added, “But I can’t imagine the church agreeing that strongly on anything.”

Martha Stortz, on the faculty at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, fo-cused on Brown’s fictional treatment of the humanity of Jesus, the portrayal of women and power.

“I think [Brown taps] a deep suspicion of power and the powerful, a tendency to read everything in terms of power and a penchant for conspiracy theories.”

Stortz said of the novel’s success, “It suggest who we are in this country. We love mysteries. We are a suspicious lot, and we imagine that the world is hiding things from us.”

Retired Lutheran communicator and movie maker, Robert E.A. Lee, encouraged people to read the book and see the movie. “What fear is in that? If we realize that faith is not history or science based on fact, but on a mysterious gift of spiritual blessing, it may even strengthen one’s belief.”