With more than 40 million books sold worldwide and an already-expanding readership boosted by a recent paperback release, author Dan Brown's well-publicized plagiarism trial and a pending movie launch, "The Da Vinci Code" has grown to cultural icon status. And if book sales and hype are telling signs of big-screen anticipation, Brown loyalists will likely show up in full force when the story opens in movie form May 19.
But don't expect Glenn Jerrell or Jo-Ann Brant to rush to the theater. They'll get there, eventually. Jerrell, an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor, and Brant, a Goshen College professor of Bible, religion and philosophy, say they will likely see the movie for the same reason they read the book: People kept asking them about it.
"How much of it is true?" Brant's students have asked her. Not much, she tells them.
Jerrell said he read the book a year ago to see where all the questions were coming from. "It's an exciting read. It's fast moving," he said. "But there's a danger if you believe it as fact."
Jerrell and Brant are far from alone in their stance against the theories set forth by Brown, many of which question the foundation of Christianity. The book has spawned a mini-industry of Da Vinci decoders, people and organizations who dispute the book's claims and line up to debunk it.
Books refuting Brown's novel have collectively sold millions of copies, according to a Web site created by Sony Pictures dubbed "The Da Vinci Dialogue." Sony anticipated its movie adaptation would only intensify the Da Vinci debate and launched the site as a sort of pre-emptive strike against critics. The site is advertised as a public-square and claims none of its posted essays were paid for, including those from Christian scholars, pastors and educators.
Churches everywhere have addressed the book in sermons and seminars, the site also states. First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elkhart is having discussions about the story every week this month. Members and visitors who went to Granger Community Church on Easter saw the first of five services centered around "Unlocking The Da Vinci Code."
River Oaks Community Church in Goshen had a one-night seminar Wednesday "to help viewers discern theological and historical 'facts' of the movie from theoretical and nonhistorical fiction," according to a release from the church.
Advertised as a novel, "The Da Vinci Code" is cloaked in an air of authenticity. Brown prefaces the book with a page titled "Fact" assuring the reader the artwork, architecture, documents, organization and secret rituals depicted in his novel all exist. At his recent plagiarism trial, Brown testified the book was based on extensive historical research.
But what is fact and what is fiction is left for the interpretation of the reader, Brown insists on his personal Web site. At the same time, he said he "obviously disagrees" with scholars who try to "disprove" his book. Brown also insists the book is not anti-Christian (it's "not anti-anything," he adds). Is Dan Brown a Christian? "Yes," he answers, but then quickly explains what it means to be Christian is up for interpretation and doesn't offer his own definition.
At the heart of "The Da Vinci Code" is the theory that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, fathered children and that a vast conspiracy has existed to keep the continuation of the bloodline secret. "The strictest Christian thinkers" tend to believe any truth to this theory undermines Christ's divinity, Brown said, but he disagrees.
Jerrell describes parts of Brown's story as an "assault upon Christianity and upon the historicity of Christianity." His alma mater, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is sponsoring www.thetruthaboutdavinci.com to address key questions raised by the book, including: Is Jesus God? Is the Bible true? Are lost books of the Bible real? Was Jesus married?
"The immediate answers to those questions are straightforward, no 'bells and whistles' points," remarks Dr. Peter Lillback, the seminary's president. "It was our aim that a visitor can land on any page of the site and find enough information -- without having to dig any further -- to have 'doubt about the doubt' that has been created by 'The Da Vinci Code.'"
Judith Davis, professor of Emerita French and Humanities at Goshen College, is also a member of FutureChurch, a sect of Catholicism that wants reform within the Vatican and more involvement by women in church leadership. A conspiracy to suppress women and keep men in control of the church is another key theory of "The Da Vinci Code." Still, Davis describes the book as "pure fiction." The belief that Mary married Jesus and was much more involved in his ministry than described in the Bible "is an ancient fiction that has been around for centuries," Davis said. "It's a favorite of French restorvationists who want to restore the monarchy."
Brant said another problem she has with Brown's story is his reference to scholars not recognized by academia.
"He's appealing to authorities who recognize themselves as authorities," Brant said.
A key to the novel is the existence of a secret society called Priory of Sion and Dossiers Secrets, documents said to list members of the society. Many scholars believe the documents were written by the man who said he found them, Brant said.
Despite their disagreement with the book's theories, head pastors Dr. Mark Beeson (Granger Community) and Anne Cubbage (First Congregational) both say next week's movie release has provided a wonderful opportunity for churches to clear up misconceptions. If Beeson met Brown, "I'd shake his hand and say, 'Dude, well written, way to go,'" Beeson said. His church has seized the opportunity Brown has given them with a five-part series that includes a full-scale marketing campaign and the display of museum-quality Da Vinci replications in the "auditorium" where services are conducted.
Christians needn't fear the impact of "The Da Vinci Code," Beeson said. They need to educate themselves against it. Church members have approached him with doubts raised by what they read in the novel, he said. "But have you read the Bible? ... Do you put the same weight in Dan Brown's book as you do the Bible?" he replies.
God's shoulder's are big enough to handle "The Da Vinci Code," Beeson said.
"The truth is the truth," he said. "If the truth can't stand up to a lie -- then shame on the church."
Contact Jason Schaap at firstname.lastname@example.org.